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The 3 Keys to Fireground Safety - Preparation, Communication and Training

Units respond to the reported structure fire...hang on a second, I'm not ready! How many of us have had this exact thought?

I would venture to say that at one point or another each of us has not been completely prepared for the next run. Often we make mistakes that can affect us on our next call. From not having your portable radio to poor communications when operating on the fireground there are many mistakes that commonly occur from coast to coast. Identifying the mistakes will make our fireground safer while reducing the chances of having a close call.

Let's take a small sample of these mistakes and examine how they affect your fire scene. It's time to use your size-up skills - it's time to size-up your common practices to prevent the mistakes from causing problems with your responses.

Preparation

We could spend a whole article on just this subject, but let's break it down into the equipment that is directly controlled by you, that being your personal protective equipment (PPE). Whether you are staffing the station or preparing for the next call out it is the responsibility of all of us to be ready for the next run. The way that you store your turnout coat and pants can directly affect your mindset toward the next run. Missing a hood or gloves could put you on the fast train to rehab staging and not being a functional part of an interior attack crew.

It seems like unprepared PPE will affect us all at one point in our career. Time on the job doesn't affect preparing for the next run. After every call or shift we should strive to make our PPE ready for the next run. This is a practice that we should develop as young firefighters. Placing equipment in the same pockets each and every time when returning from the last run is a great way of being prepared. If you are faced with a stressful situation you will always remember where your equipment is because you place it in the same pockets every time.

In preparing for the next run you always need to check your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), portable radio and flashlights. This seems like a simple thing that should automatically get done, but many times it just doesn't. Have you ever walked into the fire station just in time to hear the bells going off for a working fire? This isn't a big deal if you have taken the time to store and prepare your gear after the last run. Is your SCBA cylinder topped off with air and ready? Where is the portable radio? Does my flashlight need charging? These things need attention after every run whether they are used or not.

If you have a system or routine in place, these mistakes can be reduced if not eliminated totally. Follow these three steps for your PPE:

  • Step 1: Remove your turnout gear in the same order each and every time.
  • Step 2: Always hang your radio in the same spot every time it leaves your body. Check the battery life and make sure it's on the proper channel.
  • Step 3: The SCBA air level should be checked at minimum at every shift change or once a day.

By having a routine in place to prepare for the next run you will be watching out for your equipment and the person relieving you.

Knowing the ins and outs of your apparatus is key. How long is each pre-connect and where can you find the proper adapters if you need to extend a 1 3/4-inch line from a 2 1/2-inch line? How long can you operate before a water supply is established and will the ground ladders from the engine be enough to access that setback where crews are operating?

Communications

Whether we are talking about the view from the frontseat or the backseat, a good size-up is an important role on anyone's fire scene. A thorough size-up begins when the alarm sounds until you back your rig into the station after the emergency.

Fire scenes are dynamic in nature and must be continually monitored or sized up. The failure to complete this can lead to tragedy. No matter where you are riding on the rig, approaching an emergency with a team attitude is the best way to avoid this common mistake. Using all members' eyes will give the commander a better awareness of the surroundings on the scene. Calling out hazards is a practice used by many firefighters to make everyone on the company aware of a danger; "Folks we have power lines on side A-B" or "Ladder is placed on the C-D corner for crews on the second floor."

A team approach to size-up needs to be organized and structured. We use a command procedure for a reason - the officer is in charge! With this being said, any good commander on the fire scene will use their people to keep an overall view of the scene. "Interior crew to command, we are experiencing high heat and zero visibility," can be one report. This is great communication and one must never assume that someone on the exterior sees the same interior conditions, because they may not.

The same goes for the outside officer relaying information back the interior crews. "Command to interior, conditions seem to be getting worse from the outside, have you found the seat of the fire?" These things are made possible with good communications between crew members and over the radio to command.

Training

Pre-plans and walk-throughs are crucial when it comes to preparation for the next run. How many times have you been into a building for a fire alarm or medical run, only to miss hazards for the call when you are crawling down the smoke filled hall? Look at the doors, windows and overall layout of the structure and that could help you when Mrs. Smith is trapped at 3 a.m.

On the exterior, where can you position an aerial ladder with minimal hazards? How is the municipal water supply, if you have it? If not, where do you set up the tenders and drop tanks?

Freelancing is a common occurrence on today's fireground. Working as a unit in an orderly and systematic function is all of our jobs while operating on the fire scene. As companies arrive, everyone should be assigned a task to complete or your department needs a standard operating procedure (SOP) to lay out the groundwork for every type of response. From the first-due engine to the 12th-due water tender, everyone should be assigned a function, even if that function is to stay in a staging area until called.

A word of caution when assigning crews to a staging area. Idol hands make for a hard sell to the firefighters. Most firefighters are driven people who want to be in on the action, so if you are assigning them to a staging area, don't expect them to just sit there for any length of time. Give them a task: putting up scene lights, preparing the staging area for rehab, or throwing ladders for a secondary means of egress are all good ideas to keep them in service while contributing to the safety of everyone.

This is a problem that can be prevented with some preparation from your company officer. The officer should have a talk with their crews before the bell sounds to tell crew members what is expected from each one of them. Some departments go so far as to assign riding positions to needed tasks.

An example would be to make the rear seat the hook man or something similar. This should allow the crew to know their roles in the first few minutes of the operation; beyond that roles can and will be changed within the dynamic fireground. The best practice for any crew in these situations is to borrow a line from the movie Top Gun, "You never leave your wingman." With your officer in charge, you, being the wingman, are to remain by their side throughout the entire operation.

These things mixed with good communication from the officer to the crew can lead to an organized, smooth-flowing fire scene.

In Review

This is a small sample of common mistakes with some simple solutions. One thing remains constant; with all mistakes that we make, they can be cured with three things - training, communication and preparation. This seems so simple in nature, but is commonly looked over by us all.

The fire service has taken some hits these days, from staff being cut in career department to the overwhelming need for more volunteers, so we need to review and possibly change the way in which we operate.

Keeping positive attitudes toward our common goal of protecting life and property while dealing with this will keep us all focused on safety and make sure that we all go home!

RYAN PENNINGTON, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic for the Charleston, WV, Fire Department. He is currently assigned to Station 8 and a member of the West Virginia Task Force 1 USAR team. He has over 17 years of combined fire, rescue and EMS experience. Ryan is currently a West Virginia State Instructor 2, Hazmat Technician, and Certified Fire Officer 2. Ryan has been guest on several Firehouse.com podcasts including:Training & Tactics Talk: Searching in the Modern Environment and  Engine Company Operations in Today's Buildings. View all of Ryan's articles and podcasts here. You can reach Ryan by e-mail at: Ryan33@suddenlink.net.

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