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It would be expected that a fire officer who experienced such a traumatizing event would seek seclusion from the media and probing questions. Wessel, however, remains open about it and eager to share his own and KFD’s views about firefighting philosophy and strategy. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has released a report on its investigation into the incident. Due to the circumstances of this incident, investigators concluded that fire departments should:
- Ensure that an adequate number of staff members are available to immediately respond to emergency incidents. (Goldfeder – Fire departments can usually “predict” the staffing be it career or volunteer. Now is the time to determine what your staffing is, based upon time of day, response, etc. Is your staffing predictably low? What is your plan to rectify it? Immediate solutions include an aggressive automatic mutual aid and related training program.)
- Ensure that the incident commander (IC) conducts an initial size-up of the incident before initiating firefighting efforts, and continually evaluates the risk versus gain during operations at an incident. (Goldfeder – As in any activity, a plan is critical to a successful outcome. Any fire department can clearly evaluate the risks in its community by looking at response, staffing, equipment and the actual fire flows required to deal with the fire – before the fire – and develop staffing plans and response guidelines to overcome the potential situation.)
- Ensure firefighters are trained in the tactics of defensive search. (Goldfeder – In many areas, the assumption is that all responding members are trained, but many may not be familiar with search tactics. Now is a good time to focus on that training for all members.)
- Ensure that fire command always maintains close accountability for all personnel at the fire scene. (Goldfeder – Accountability is not an easy task, but it is essential. By working in groups with competent company officers using a simple and easy to use accountability system-the risk can be minimized.)
- Ensure that fireground communication is present through both the use of portable radios and face-to-face communication. (Goldfeder – How effective is your radio communication system? Will it work under the worst conditions? Test your system now to insure reliability and plan aggressively before switching to any “new” radio systems.)
- Ensure that a trained rapid intervention team is established and in position immediately upon arrival. (Goldfeder – Who is your rapid intervention team? How many rapid intervention team firefighters are available? Have they had rapid intervention team training? Not every engine or truck company is a rapid intervention team. Training makes the difference.)
- Ensure that firefighters wear and use personal alert safety system (PASS) devices when involved in interior firefighting and hazardous duties. (Goldfeder – PASS alarms can make a difference – but only if they are used, and when they are not ignored! The PASS alarm has become the “car alarm” of the fire service – no one is paying attention! Typically, members exit a building and “drop their packs,” leaving them to sound the alarms. The result is the “ignored chirping” on the fireground. Members must disable self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) when leaving the IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) areas so that there are no false activations – and officers must enforce that practice. Then, once the “culture” is changed – when we hear a PASS alarm – it will mean a fireground emergency.)
“There wasn’t anything in the report that myself and my department didn’t realize an hour after we lost our firefighters,” Wessel said. “Whether they be career, combination or volunteer, there are a lot of departments our size and smaller out there, so a lot of my observations are based on departments of that size. We’ve had a lot of questions, like how did it happen? Why did it happen? And what did you do?
“The thing I’ve found from doing the presentations I have about this incident is that a lot of departments are saying, we’re the same as you and trying to operate the same way. The same thing could happen to us. Right from the beginning, after the incident, my firefighters had to pick themselves up, and they did. Then we realized we had to change. We asked ourselves, how do we make things safer?”