A Lesson Reinforced: Nothing Is "Routine" About Firefighting The Dover Township Volunteer Fire Department in York County, PA, covers 44 square miles with a population of around 25,000. It is a suburban/rural, mainly residential community with several light commercial occupancies. The...
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- Always wear all of your protective equipment and wear it correctly. Seem simple? It's not. So many times we "get comfortable" and don't wear all of our equipment, don't use our helmet straps, hold off on using the mask and expose our skin.
- Know how to use all your equipment. Do all of your members know how to use everything they may have to use? What equipment do we mean? Whatever is on any piece of apparatus that any member may ride on. If you ride on the apparatus-you should be an expert on every tool on that rig. Seem simple? Test them and see.
- Always maintain crew integrity. By notifying their captain that they were going to put the fire out before joining him on the stairs, they allowed the rest of our crew to immediately realize the problem and begin rescue efforts. This takes discipline. From the probie to the boss, crew integrity and the outside folks knowing where that crew is and what task(s) they are assigned is vital. Next time you have a run, see if you can find any firefighters who are not with the rest of their crew.
- Keep your cool and don't panic. From DeLauter: "This has been preached to us ever since I started in the fire service 25 years ago. I must say, it was very hard to do in this situation. After becoming pinned, I had to literally tell myself to calm down and assess the situation. But my training finally kicked in and I began going over what I had to do (control my breathing, activate my PASS device, communicate my location, try and find a way out, etc.). During training drills in our department, we regularly practice Mayday situations, although most times it is responding to a reported firefighter down. This training definitely helped me in this situation and I have a new respect for these trainings."
- Seem simple? Being trapped never is. But it can be simpler if you are trained in getting out alive and drilling on related "firefighter trapped" programs.
- A rapid intervention team must be established early. On this call, no rapid intervention team was established. Had a rapid intervention team been in place, these firefighters believe, their crew would have gotten out sooner than they did. Units were on scene less than 20 minutes when the collapse occurred. The rapid intervention team must be dispatched as part of the first-alarm assignment. In our county, many times a no rapid intervention team is dispatched until a unit on scene reports a "working fire." Simple solution: Chief, establish a plan that automatically has a qualified and trained rapid intervention team due on the first alarm. That may not always be the closest fire department, although perhaps it should be. Once the rapid intervention team arrives, hold it on scene until nothing on that scene would require their services, which includes during overhaul.
- Communications were a problem. Command and operations were being run by the pump operator of the first-in engine until their chief took operations. That operator had enough on his plate trying to make sure adequate water was available for the incident. He should not have had to worry about running command. Also, at least one interior crew did not have a radio in the structure. Simple solutions? Yes:
- If the dispatcher does not have a command officer responding within a certain period from the initial call (such as 60 seconds - career department, volunteer department, it doesn't matter), set a procedure to dispatch another department's chief(s) and/or command officer(s). It's 2007; no fire department can safely and effectively run an incident without a qualified, trained and seasoned command officer responding, arriving, coordinating - and commanding.
- No interior crew should ever be allowed to operate without at least the officer of that crew having a radio. No radio? Don't go in.
- Radio channel monitoring. Fire departments spend high dollar amounts on radio systems. And with all the fancy options available today, none of it is of any value if you cannot be heard, especially if no one is listening. In this case, the pump operator cannot be in command. The task is too complex and requires 100% attention to commanding. As a part of that, monitoring and hearing every possible transmission is vital since firefighters in trouble may only have a quick chance to call their Mayday. Command must clearly monitor the fireground channel. Safety officers/sectors must monitor the fireground channel - and we have strongly felt for many years that a dispatcher must be assigned to the fireground channel and monitor it as well. A well-trained and qualified fire dispatcher can be and is the "right hand" to the incident commander. Firefighters' chances of survival have been greatly improved by fire dispatchers monitoring fireground channels.
- Don't have enough resources to accomplish the above? It's time to develop a plan to establish those resources as a priority. No incident commander? No radios? Not enough resources? At some point, we must understand that we simply cannot do this job without the basic resources. Sometimes, as firefighters and fire officers, we keep saying yes, even when we are under-equipped and under-funded. Sometimes, we must say no and explain what we can - and cannot - do with the available resources. It has nothing to do with dedication, bravery or heroism; .no one is questioning that. It has to do with common sense and the support we need to do the job.
- In this community, the departments are staffed by responding (from home, work, etc.) volunteer firefighters. This fire occurred during the day, in the middle of the week. Availability of personnel was very limited. In periods of well-known limited manpower, fire chiefs must put systems in place that automatically (on the first alarm) dispatch additional resources to ensure that plenty of staffing is available to perform all the tasks, as well as reserve personnel on the scene, staging, in addition to the rapid intervention team in case something goes wrong.
As noted by the Dover Township firefighters, "Prior to our arrival, there were no more than six to eight firefighters on the scene, including the equipment operators. In a situation such as this, where manpower is desperately needed, firefighters should not have to wait to be dispatched until the first arriving unit determines it is a working fire."
We certainly agree. And while many areas are starting to use more aggressive first-alarm assignments for verbal reported fires, it is critical that the fire department and all the firefighters involved in automatic aid "box alarm" type systems be able to function as one "team." So often, fire departments have automatic or just regular mutual aid, but that is the first time the various departments have actually operated together. That is extremely dangerous. It is the equivalent of members of a sports team never practicing together, but then expecting to play well together and win. The difference is that the sports team simply loses. When we don't train to operate together, we can lose the team.
WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at