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At this point, we were seen by the division commander in D3. We were told by the D3 commander to evacuate. The firefighter with the mutual aid crew went down the stairs and came back up. He said it was not the exit and we needed to find another way out. We then broke the large window in the rear of the building and evacuated down the ladder that had been very well positioned at the back window. At almost the same time as we broke the window, I began hearing multiple radio calls sending RIT into the building to look for Firefighter Jones (this was me). I had dropped my radio while exiting onto the ladder. I began telling the D3 chief that I was Firefighter Jones and I was OK! The search could be stopped.
As we exited the window, we could see the building lighting up over our heads. I felt somewhat safe while we were trying to exit because we could not see the danger over our heads, nor was the heat unbearable. While coming down the ladder, it became obvious to me that there was a large volume of fire and imminent danger over us while we were in the building. I made it out.
These comments are based on Chief Goldfederâ€™s observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this close call:
While the Bartow Fire Department members had their hands full for a variety of reasons, tracking their personnel was a challenge, as it is for all of us. Tracking firefighters is not easy. I have always felt that the best accountability system is a good company officer who is well trained, disciplined and understands the responsibility to take care of his or her firefighters. Itâ€™s the "direct" supervision that seems to work best, along with passports, tags or whatever else works for your department. That, combined with some simple and inexpensive technology, would be a good thing.
While the issue of "accountability" or "tracking" our troops is an issue, staffing (especially initial or "first-alarm" staffing), once again plays a major role. While some people may believe "the fewer firefighters on the scene, the easier it is to track them," that may not always be the case. For example, if five companies arrive at a scene of a structural fire, with at least four personnel (one officer, one driver/engineer and two firefighters) on each apparatus, the officer of that unit becomes the first level of responsibility to track those firefighters. There is an officer within sight of those firefighters, which provides supervision. The IC tracks (and communicates with) the company officers and the assignment of their companies, assuring the tasks are being completed with adequate staffing.
But, on the other hand, if fewer firefighters arrive at that same structural fire than are realistically needed, as determined through pre-plans and alarm assignments, the same tasks still must be accomplished. Without enough firefighters, the tasks do not get done â€“ or, due to short staffing, we try to get them done inappropriately, which can equate to unsafely. And one very critical task that doesnâ€™t get done is the company officer supervising the firefighters.
If there is no company officer, who supervises the firefighters? If there is one, but there are so many tasks to be done and not enough firefighters, odds are the officer (or the firefighter) will end up doing several tasks â€“ and the ability to supervise then becomes next to impossible. Thatâ€™s one factor of what we saw in the above case study. Quite frankly, as well trained as the Bartow firefighters are, they can only do so much with the number of firefighters arriving on a first alarm. Extra firefighters were in quarters that morning only due to the shift change. Normally, they are going in without enough firefighters to effectively and safely perform all the tasks. The outcome is predictable.
What can departments that have staffing issues do? There are numerous solutions, some short term and some long term. One is an aggressive, well organized and planned automatic mutual aid program. Initially, on the first alarm, the Bartow Fire Department has enough firefighters to perform the services of one company. As much as they have clearly worked hard to get more (and did have a total response of 21 firefighters by 8:30), thatâ€™s just the way it is. Sadly, it is common throughout the United States. However, an automatic mutual aid program, with all participants training and sharing standard operating procedures (SOPs), can help solve part of this problem.