"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!" OK, Now What?

Before we go to this month?s Close Call case study, I want to throw a few thoughts on the table regarding firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Several readers recently e-mailed, ?Does it seem like there are more and more of them?? Yes, to me it does...


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We had more than one company, before their release some seven hours later, take the time to stop and ask how my firefighter was, as well as to express one common point ? they will never again take a rapid intervention team drill or assignment for granted. There is no greater assignment than to be responsible for your fellow firefighter?s well-being. We hope you never have to experience a similar situation, but if you do, we hope you are prepared.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder?s observations and communication with the writer and other personnel who operated at this scene:

In this particular case, things went well. We have all been at fires where things went well. Actually, almost every run you go on, things go well ? or they seem to. On the other hand, a fire department can have things ?appear? to go well 100 times and then on run number 101, things don?t go well.

Things truly go well when we intend for them to by planning ahead. In this case, this fire department had taken training very seriously well before that run came, so when ?their? run number 101 came up, they were prepared.

Being ready is really just a matter of how badly we want to be ready and prepared. Some fire departments continue to do things that ?you know? will become a problem ? ?it?s just a matter of time? ? and that?s when run number 101 is dispatched. The results can be ugly.

Some specific actions this fire department took are worthy of discussion:

  • Does your response match the tasks required? ?A still alarm (a full structural response) was called out the door (of the firehouse) by the responding captain ? This timely still-alarm request proved invaluable later.?

    In some communities, that captain would have been ridiculed or even faced disciplinary action. The old backwards attitudes of ?calling for more help only after we arrive? time and time again results in property loss and worse, injured firefighters. An applicable, heavy, ?worst-case-scenario? response can make a big difference.

    Some will argue that putting ?all that equipment on the road before you even need it? creates a hazard. To that we say, drive carefully, even respond with no lights or sirens, but at least get the resources on the road. If you arrive and the incident is small, return the other companies. However, if you arrive and have enough resources to start the essential tasks, you will be glad they arrived when they did.

  • There is a lot of discussion these days regarding good, effective and simple fireground radio communications. In this case, giving the trapped member and the rapid intervention team exclusive use of the channel makes good sense. A trapped member?s one transmission may be his or her last one. On the other hand, multiple radio channels on a fireground can lead to the lack of communications.

    Generally, radios must be simple, easy to use, and allow firefighters and the dispatcher to hear one another. Some fire departments use different channels at one specific fire for different tasks. For example, the interior search crew may be on channel ?A? and the roof crew may be on channel ?B.? While that keeps channels ?clean? and limits traffic, it also greatly reduces the chances of us hearing each other and severely clouds the ability to get a clear, overall picture by all members on the fireground. If the interior crew has a problem or sees a potential problem and advises ?command? of that ? and if all members in and near that building are on the same channel ? they all hear that message.

    Generally, all members at a specific scene should use strict radio discipline, but be able to stay on one operating channel. Of course, that also lets the incident commander listen to one channel as opposed to numerous channels ? although in this case, an officer with a ?scan? radio made a difference (at the command post, perhaps a radio should be set up to ?scan all? just in case). When a member is in trouble, he or she should have a clear radio channel, as was done very well in this fire. However, use caution before ordering those new radios that scan multiple channels and groups at a flip of a switch. All we want to do is to communicate simply, easily and clearly. If a radio is too complicated or can ?easily? be switched, we could have a problem.

    What is the answer on what will work best on your fireground? Drills and training. Make sure your radio system functions exactly the way you need it to before the fire ? and, if possible, well before you even purchase it. Take the radios into the ?toughest? areas to see what will and won?t work. A great time to do that is during building pre-plans and inspections.

    Another question is, ?Can your dispatcher hear your portable radios?? Why is that important? As several case studies have documented, the dispatcher can be that extra set of ears hearing a member in trouble. Use caution about switching to fireground channels that the dispatcher cannot monitor. Use even more caution if you have a communications center that doesn?t WANT to hear those channels ? but that?s a subject for another column. Bottom line: Do what is best for firefighter safety and survival.

  • Was building construction a factor in this fire? Of course it was, so it only makes even the critical need for regular training by all members.

  • A Mayday can occur at any time, anywhere on the fireground, so enough resources must be on the way to handle potential and predictable problems. At any incident, ask yourself, ?If something goes wrong right now, would we have enough trained firefighters and resources on the fireground to deal with it ? and the original emergency we were dispatched for?? If not, it?s time to plan before run number 101 is dispatched.

  • Clearly, there are plenty of thoughts these days on rapid intervention teams. Doing everything we can well before the fire to avoid needing a rapid intervention team is a goal that we should strive toward. However, that isn?t realistic, as things may still go wrong on the fireground. So what is the next step? Insure that your members (or other departments that respond with you) are qualified and trained to handle rapid intervention team duties, that you have plenty of them on the scene, and that they function with the clear understanding that the search, rescue and successful removal of a downed firefighter is a highly skilled task requiring highly skilled and trained firefighters.