Close Calls: A "Bad Day" on the Fireground – Part 2

As reported last month, a fire department in Texas had a “bad day” at a house fire, with two firefighters suffering burns. Because the officers and members took a critical look at what happened – what they did, how they did it and what they could have done better – they improved their operations and are sharing their story.

Our sincere thanks to Hutto Fire Rescue Chief Scott Kerwood and the firefighters and officers involved in this incident from Hutto, Taylor, Wilco EMS, Weir, Georgetown and Round Rock for their cooperation in sharing their close call.

The following recommendations were forwarded throughout Hutto Fire Rescue. Some can be implemented at the station level immediately while others require new policies and or changes in current policies.

1. Were Hutto Fire Rescue standard operating procedures (SOPs) being followed?

No. Not all of the Hutto Engine 1 crew members and Hutto Engine 2 crew members were equipped with portable radios. While Hutto Fire Rescue has several SOPs that apply to fireground operations, three procedures in particular that were not followed addressed the safety and survival of members.

These three, Emergency Scene Safety, Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) and Firefighter Self Survival, address the responsibility of any firefighter operating inside a working structure fire. In particular, each procedure addresses the equipment that must be carried by members as they operate in a structure fire, which includes a portable radio. Each riding position on each apparatus has a portable radio assigned to that seat. This allows an individual to have a radio for all operations. While some of the members of the two crews had picked up a radio before they began their operation, not all did so. In part, this was due to some members not having placed their equipment on the apparatus immediately when they reported to their shift.

 

Recommendation

As part of the daily equipment check, each rider must ensure that their riding seat radio is checked out and ready to go. This will ensure that on any incident they will have direct communication with command. All personnel must have their personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes a portable radio, at the assigned riding position at the start of the shift.

2. Did command fail to recognize the hazards that led to the injuries?

No. Immediately when command was notified of the acetylene cylinder in the garage, the interior crews were ordered to evacuate. At the same time, command observed the conditions of the fire deteriorating by exhibiting darker, greener and more forceful smoke exiting the building, which also led to the order to exit the building.

Three specific SOPs address command and the decisions that must be made anytime firefighters are put into harm’s way. These three procedures, Fireground Risk Management, Rules of Engagement and Situational Awareness Management, require command to constantly assess the environment to identify changing conditions.

 

Recommendation

All command personnel must continue to initiate proper size-up procedures and follow current SOPs. Additionally, they must continue to train to these procedures. It is evident by this incident that firefighters operate the way they train.

3. Did Hutto Fire Rescue PPE fail?

No. The PPE did the job it is designed to do; it limited the severity of the injuries. Upon investigation of the PPE of both firefighters, there was no visible damage to the coat or pants. As for the hood, there was discoloration in the area of the injuries. All coats and pants are specified to meet the current edition of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Firefighting. However, hoods, gloves and boots are not typically “spec’d out.” They are purchased from NFPA-compliant garments listed in a catalog. While the two hoods used by these members both met the requirements of NFPA 1971, they were different thicknesses and offered different levels of protection.

 

Recommendation

Just being NFPA compliant does not guarantee equality. Standardization should occur on all PPE. While this is done for coats and pants, Hutto Fire Rescue must also standardize hoods and gloves and develop specific requirements for them.

4. Did Hutto Fire Rescue personnel follow their training?

Yes and no. As part of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) 2011 Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week, members went through several survival classes. However, not everyone on Engine 1 and Engine 2 the day of this fire had completed all of this training. The make-up of these crew members did not attend all of these classes. Therefore, while these procedures had been reinforced in the training, not everyone had participated.

 

Recommendation

All members must complete all required training. While the make-up of Hutto Fire Rescue staffing is unusual (full time, part time and volunteer) and the general experience level is high, all members must be trained to the same standards. Those standards are the Hutto Fire Rescue SOPs.

 

The following comments from Chief Goldfeder are based on discussions with Hutto Fire Rescue and others:

This month’s case is an excellent one because it is “your” house fire – meaning you and your department, in almost every community. No matter where you are a firefighter, you have the potential to respond to this fire. This is your fire. Are you ready?

Hutto Fire Rescue did an excellent job in going back, with a “fine-tooth comb,” to find out “what went right, what went wrong and what do we need to do differently.” Clearly, Chief Kerwood saw that as his clear professional and moral obligation to his members, their families and, naturally, his community. Unfortunately, that is not always the case in events like this. Believe it or not, there have been – and are – departments that have had seriously injured firefighters, as well as line-of-duty deaths, that have not taken the steps that Hutto has in order to minimize this from occurring again. Some departments just write it off as “part of the job.” While things turning ugly on the fireground may well be “part of the job” at times, ignoring a chance to learn from the event is not.

No doubt, it is not easy to determine what went right and especially what might have gone wrong. But that is a sign of leadership. Good bosses understand it is their responsibility to lead members through some tough decisions, discussions and possible changes.

A good review for any of our fire departments is to compare this close call and Hutto Fire Rescue’s response (how it operated that day and how it evaluated its operations) to how our organizations operate. For example:

1. Does your fire department have written SOPs and standard operating guidelines (SOGs)?

SOPs generally are tight directives that almost always must be done; SOGs are guidelines requiring officers to make decisions based on conditions and resources with much more general direction.

2. Does your department operate based on your SOPs/SOGs or are they just pieces of paper that hardly match the way you operate?

SOPs and SOGs are a department’s “playbook.” Imagine players in professional sports “blowing off” a game plan and doing what they want to do instead? How do you think the coaches would react? How do some fire officers act?

Try this as a simple model for the development of SOPs and SOGs:

a. Determine the need for an SOP or SOG.

b. Determine whether it should be an SOP or SOG.

c. Determine whether one already exists based on state or national standards and, if so, modify it for your local needs. Many departments’ SOPs and SOGs are yours for the copying online. Additionally, Firefighterclosecalls.com and Firehouse.com have SOP and SOG sections.

d. Write the draft.

e. Determine who will review it (firefighters, officers, attorneys, commissioners, board of directors, neighboring chiefs, etc.).

f. Publish the document within the department and provide training as follows:

Classroom (instructional)

Practical (hands on)

Testing verification (testing written and practical to ensure members “get it”)

g. Publish and post as final.

h. Expect the members to operate the way the SOP or SOG directs.

i. Expect officers to supervise and enforce it.

j. Conduct a regular review to determine whether any SOP/SOG must be changed or updated.

3. Has your department clearly defined (in an SOP or SOG) what is expected by those who establish as well as assume command?

What is command’s role and responsibility? What does the chief of department expect those in command to do – and not do? Are those in command trained, qualified and certified to be in command? These are tough questions, but it is better to ask them now than to have someone else ask them later.

4. What is your department’s plan to spec, purchase, maintain, inspect and replace PPE?

Do firefighters understand what their PPE can do and what it cannot do as far as protecting them? Do members understand their responsibility in taking care of the PPE issued to them? Want to purchase top-of-the-line gear, but the price is too high? Reach out to neighboring departments, agree on a spec and then rebid the gear. You will often find significant savings when ordering as a group.

5. What are your department’s training plans and requirements? Does your training match the response area? For example, if 99% of your fires involve single-family dwellings, then the SOPs and related training should be in complete sync.

Consider who your department’s training standards (both initial and continuing) are for:

Probies

Firefighters

Driver/engineers

Officers

EMS personnel

Hazmat and other services

A good rule of thumb that more and more fire departments are using is that if you are not certified, you should not be doing it.

Hutto Fire Rescue had a “bad day,” but there is no question it could have been worse. However, because the officers and members took a critical look at what they did and how they did it, they have improved their operations and helped the rest of us as well. n

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