Firefighter Missing! Or Is He?

Keeping track of firefighters has never been easy. All kinds of folks claim to have great systems that solve the problem. I recently spoke to an individual who claimed that he had the invention; all he needed was "a boatload of cash" to get it going. That...


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Keeping track of firefighters has never been easy. All kinds of folks claim to have great systems that solve the problem. I recently spoke to an individual who claimed that he had the invention; all he needed was "a boatload of cash" to get it going. That scares me. It makes me worry about financial accountability – why it should cost a fire department "a boatload of cash" to track the troops? Some say, "so what, it could save a firefighter’s life," and while that makes sense, tracking our people and saving their lives should not require us to float a bond issue.

In this close call, the firefighters of Bartow, FL, had their hands full with a working building fire. During this fire, they lost track of some of their firefighters. Unusual? Not at all. It happens a lot because tracking firefighters is not easy. It requires significant training, discipline and cultural adjustments, by all of us. Go to most any working incident and ask yourself, "Do we know where all of our firefighters are and what their assignments are, right now?"

Our thanks to Bartow Fire Chief Jay Robinson for his support in allowing these details to be shared. We also thank Deputy Chief Robert W. Pitman Jr., Lieutenant Mark Olinger and Firefighter Justin Jones, whose situation that day not only has helped him learn, but will also help others learn as well.

The Bartow Fire Department is a combination agency with 21 career personnel and, at the time of the fire, 10 volunteers. They operate three six-firefighter shifts, each consisting of a lieutenant and five other personnel. The department has three staff officers: two deputy chiefs (a training officer and a fire marshal) and the fire chief. Line personnel get a "Kelly day" once every three weeks and one person can take leave each shift. This puts minimum staffing at four per shift. The department covers 90 square miles out of one station with two engines, a ladder, a tanker, a heavy rescue and a brush truck. The city has a permanent population of 18,000 and a daytime population of 30,000, as it is the county seat of Polk County in central Florida.

This account is by Deputy Chief Robert W. Pitman Jr., the incident commander:

On June 6, 2005, at 6:59 A.M., our fire department received a call for a smoke odor in one of our old downtown buildings. We are dispatched by the City of Bartow Police Department. We were in the midst of shift change. The off-going shift was at minimum staffing of four, as was the oncoming shift. That means there were eight shift personnel and myself at the station. As the training chief, I work 7 A.M. to 4 P.M. daily. At the time of this fire, four of our volunteer firefighters also responded. We do not have automatic aid.

The fire building was a two-story, site-built, ordinary-construction building circa 1920. Knowing it was a commercial block and two stories, five people went on our ladder truck first out and one person took an engine second out as water supply. When Ladder 1 arrived on scene at 7:02, the officer-in-charge reported heavy smoke coming from the roof. He asked for the balance of firefighters at the station to respond. I took my staff vehicle and the other two firefighters took an additional engine.

I arrived and assumed command at 7:04. My size-up was a two-story, ordinary construction, attached building on Bravo side, with heavy smoke from the roof. I was the incident commander (IC). I had one firefighter setting up the ladder and one firefighter on each engine securing water supply. I had three firefighters on the initial hose/entry team and two firefighters as the rapid intervention team (RIT).

I immediately called for a mutual aid ladder truck and engine from our county’s fire department. They were on scene around 7:25. At that time, a battalion chief from their department was assigned as division three (D3) and given two crews to work from the rear (Charlie) side of the building.

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