On Thursday, July 24, 2008, a three-alarm fire destroyed a portion of a commercial building in historic downtown Spokane. The three-story structure, known as the Joel Building, was a compilation of five buildings joined together, all with a single flat roof constructed of layers of wood board...
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Incident management — Type III Incident Management Teams are traditionally used in the Pacific Northwest for frequent wildland fires and pre-planned events. Since 9/11, Spokane's team has aggressively trained and adapted its system to an All-Risk philosophy, which was extremely helpful in this incident. The team's participation in this incident was critical, especially in the support functions. The Logistics Section facilitated the rehabilitation, feeding and temporary sheltering of the nearly 100 firefighters and staff that were on scene as well as on-site fueling and repair of apparatus, which was critical to the success of the incident's objectives.
Realizing that this incident was evolving and causing a significant safety hazard to the public and firefighters, it was critical to have alternatives established that were in compliance with command's intent. The Planning Section prepared a Plan B and a Plan C using the team situation unit leader's GIS capability and predicting tools.
- Coordinating personnel — Another critical objective of the Planning Section was to devise a plan to replace all of the initial on-scene firefighters with incoming firefighters during the initial few hours of the incident. This was successfully completed using Spokane Battalion Chief Bob Hanna as a resource unit leader and using the department's staffing program "TeleStaff" on site with a connection through a mobile data computer. Simply replacing an entire shift during an incident without sacrificing progress and safety is almost an incident within an incident and should be treated as a separate objective.
- Operations Section chief — The use of an Operations Section chief on an incident without branches in moderate-scale incidents is normally discouraged, but in this case it was extremely beneficial. After the incident commander set the incident's objectives and overall leader's intent (with the team's input), it allowed the Operations Section chief to develop tactics and resources to accomplish the objectives. As the incident commander, it allows you to step back and remain strategic. In this case, the Spokane Fire Department had a serious injury (Poole was transported from the scene and later hospitalized with a severe chest injury requiring hospitalization due to a fall in the initial attack on the fire; see sidebar above) during the incident, which required a significant amount of time and effort to coordinate the transportation and notification of family. Division Chief Rich Kness accompanied and remained with Poole in the emergency department as departmental procedure. Although Poole's condition was being passed along to the members on scene through the liaison, the injury and resulting close call weighed heavily on everyone's mind.
- Liaison — Another contributing factor to the incident's complexity was the amount of water runoff created from the firefight that was threatening a historic hotel and several downtown businesses. The geographic location of the fire was 50 to 100 feet above the threatened buildings and created the need to use a liaison to the city's public works director, which resulted in the placing of sewer vacuum vehicles at downhill locations from the fire to mitigate the threat of water damage to the buildings below. The liaison officer interacted with several other agencies, including Public Health, Spokane Clean Air Authority and Streets Department.
- Time — Obviously, time escaped many of the personnel on scene. It is easy to become focused on the fire and not to consider the amount of time that has transpired. In this case, it would have been extremely beneficial to have 10-minute reminders from dispatch to help keep the incident commander, Operations Section chief and division supervisor's situational awareness heightened toward the time factor.
Public information — The Type III Team's Information Unit was staffed with a qualified public information officer from the Washington State Patrol (a Type III member); City of Spokane (the mayor's staff) and a member from the Spokane Valley Fire Department (Type III member). While the incident commander approved the messages being delivered by the unit, strengthening the group by three allowed better customer service to the media, which in essence is the public.
In the case of the fire, there was an incredible amount of concern regarding the toxicity of the smoke and the injured firefighter. The Information Unit was also integral in setting up meetings with the incident commander and all three building owners as well as briefing the mayor and her command staff.
- Basic firefighting — Firefighting is inherently a dangerous occupation. In this incident, aggressive firefighting, good tactics and supervision by chief officers saved two-thirds of the historic building and prevented a catastrophic collapse. A collapse would have threatened adjacent commercial buildings as well as an elevated railway critical to commerce along the Eastern Seaboard.
"No building in Spokane is worth the life of any of our firefighters and as incident commander I was very forward and direct with reinforcing the Spokane Fire Department's Risk Management Plan," Schaeffer said. In a complex incident, risk management should be revisited every time a strategy is changed and/or a significant benchmark is hit.