A team of hotel services staff negotiates a simulated fire situation involving reduced visibility.
It's no secret that the economy is in a slump. I am sure this is not a surprise to any fire department in the United States. Furthermore, I predict that any positive changes in the economy that may come almost certainly will be felt slowly by those of us on the front line of community services.
As firefighters, we pride ourselves in providing public service without complaint and will continue to find a way to save property and lives regardless of what resources we have. Inadvertently, we will again prove, albeit with great sacrifice and compromise, that calls will still be answered and fires will still be put out — that we can do our job with less. So what now? Shall we complain and quit? Stop promptly responding to calls? Of course not. Firefighters by nature of their character and their drive to win at all costs will always give 100%, so the challenge is to find a way to do so safely.
The Beaufort, SC, Fire Department is not unlike the thousands of fire departments facing tough financial times. As part of our strategic planning, we took a hard look at our community and the services we provide, along with all plausible emergency scenarios. Taking our staffing and response assets into consideration, we considered how to provide services that maximize our ability to save lives and property while minimizing our risks. The buildings and processes that gave us concern we identified as our target hazards.
A target hazard is defined as a location or plausible scenario in which a fire department could quickly become overwhelmed and for which additional resources, now scarce, would be needed. Our options were to approach such an incident with a "surround-and-drown" operational plan that included writing the building off and accepting that casualties may result or find a way to do what firefighters do — win. The result of this planning and analysis was the creation of our target hazard program.
An effective fire safety program addresses both the buildings and their occupants. For example, a building can have all the fire extinguishers required by code, but if the occupants are not trained to use them properly, the fire prevention picture is incomplete. As part of our program, in addition to conducting fire inspections on a tailored schedule to ensure code compliance, we offer an educational/training aspect.
The first step is researching a particular classification of target hazard (hotels, big-box stores, etc.) to identify managers. Letters are sent out by certified mail inviting them and their staffs to participate in the target hazard program. To encourage participation, the fire department offers dated certificates (to encourage annual re-training) reading "The staff of (name of business) has successfully completed emergency training from the Beaufort Fire Department" that can be displayed for customers to see. Businesses with which the fire department already has close working relationships recruit other businesses. Letters are also sent to the risk-management departments of national chains so they are aware that such training is being offered for their local franchises.
The program is structured on the three tiers of a comprehensive fire safety training program — to first train the staff to prevent fires from occurring in the first place; then how to properly react and respond to suppress or contain a fire should one occur, thereby making it more manageable when firefighters arrive; and finally how to get themselves and patrons out safely should a fire grow beyond their ability to suppress or contain it.
The program is presented in the fire station's training room. Appetizers are provided so that time for the managers to "talk shop" and network is available; this was a suggestion made by the managers themselves as an incentive to participate. Each student is provided a copy of Chapter Four of the International Fire Code that deals with emergency planning, along with copies of any documents from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) relevant to particular businesses. Before the first lesson starts, a brief overview of our fire department, our services and our capabilities is given.
Then the first lesson — preventing fires from starting. The students are given an hour-long presentation on major fires in similar businesses so they get an understanding of where codes come from and why compliance is so important. For example, the staffs of local hotels learned about the deadly MGM Grand and Winecoff hotel fires, how codes came into play and hotel staff reactions to the fires. This is an essential step prior to teaching basic fire codes and prevention so that those in the class can fully understand through real-world consequences the importance of compliance, the effectiveness of prevention, and the need for preparedness and training. Photos of code violations found during inspections in their businesses are shown to offer a dramatic demonstration of how a similar disaster could occur in their buildings and what needs to be done to make necessary corrections.
After the classroom presentation on codes, the students are taken through the most important part of the training — practical exercises. As firefighters, we learn our trade and develop our ability to stay calm and handle emergencies through hands-on training as we develop the confidence and skills required to bring incidents to a successful conclusion. Should a fire or other emergency occur on one of their properties, the environment they are trying to control, survive and escape is the very same we are rushing into; thus, we train them just as we train ourselves. The next lesson is how to properly react and respond to a fire in its incipient stage. Emphasis is placed on activating the fire alarm and starting the evacuation before trying to handle a fire of any size (lessons from MGM Grand and Winecoff). Using a propane training prop, each student has the opportunity to develop confidence and skills in using a fire extinguisher to suppress a live fire.
The third lesson involves training students to survive and save themselves and their patrons. Using the department's safety education house, visibility is significantly reduced by using training/theatrical smoke and all alarms and any other distracting noises are activated. Two students recruited from the middle school's drama club wait inside with an infant CPR mannequin, ready to play the part of panicked and disorientated patrons in need of help. Staff and managers enter the dense smoke in teams of two or three and must, as a team, negotiate their way from one end of the safety house to the other while controlling the panicked patrons and locating the missing infant.
For the students, this program has been a hit. They fully appreciate the practical exercises that bring to their attention how the anxiety, confusion and stress of a real fire or emergency would fully challenge their ability to handle it, as well as what their personal limits may be and the confidence to operate within the boundaries of their strengths, weaknesses and limitations. It has also generated honest discussions between managers and staff on the importance of fire drills, preventive activities and any unrealistic emergency plans that must be changed.
For the fire department, it has also been a success, although the level of success has yet to be challenged by any emergency response to one of these locations. We are, however, confident the first-arriving fire units would be met with a situation more safe and manageable and with a trained staff that are allies and resources, not a hindrance.
As a fire service, we need to continue to advocate for, and fight for, the restoration of resources that let us do our job safely and efficiently. In the meantime, we still have the responsibility to those we serve to provide the best service we can. Look at your community — can you provide the expected services? If the answer is no, then perhaps a target hazard program is what you need.
DANIEL BYRNE is a firefighter/paramedic for the Burton, SC, Fire District. He holds associate's and bachelor's degrees in fire science. A 22-year veteran of the emergency services, Byrne is a National Fire Academy alumnus and a volunteer paramedic with Beaufort County EMS. A U.S. Marine veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm War, he is a technical sergeant with the Georgia Air National Guard, serving in the Fire Protection Division airport crash crew. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.