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The old "we don't have a lot of fires" syndrome is running rampant, giving firefighters a false sense of security and letting politicians balance their budgets on our backs. Firefighting requires certain immediate tasks, and those tasks require trained and led firefighters. It is just that simple.
Fire departments need to make sure that their "response procedures" match the communities and the risks that they serve. So often, I visit a community and the members will show their apparatus, their buildings and all the changes they've made to reflect the changing community. But then, when we talk about response, nothing has changed in decades. All of the volunteer firefighters are still responding from home when the alarm is sounded.
If your volunteer department protects a very rural and slow-run area, it's understandable for the 100 or so runs a year that everyone jumps in their cars and responds to the firehouse. However, if you are protecting a suburban or even urban area with volunteer firefighters, the days of the "first-alarm assignment" coming from home or work - with that inherent delay of three to five minutes or more - should be over.
Fire companies do wonderful with all the new equipment, the beautiful firehouses and all the other items that appear to reflect a "changing" volunteer department, but if it takes your department just as long to get a piece of apparatus on the road as it did 10 or 20 years ago, your department isn't meeting the needs of the community - and all your efforts are wasted. Unfortunately, some volunteer fire departments have forgotten what they are there for. Volunteer duty crews not only solve the response problem, but also address the issues of training, equal involvement of all members, and a host of other issues affecting service and morale among volunteer departments. The fire company described above seems to be doing it right by using a mix of in-house "duty crew" volunteer firefighters, responding volunteer firefighters and career firefighter/paramedics.
From just reading the above account, some of the tactical issues effecting this job are quite obvious.
- The crew stretched a hoseline. Seem like a big deal? You'd be surprised at how many departments don't have the first-due engine stretch a line. Call it lazy or whatever, if you have smoke showing, stretch a line. Even if you don't have anything showing, there may be occasions when you want to order a line anyway. Why not? It can always be put back or even broken down.
- The captain did a walk-around. Good decision. If conditions and the size of the building allow it, a command or even a company officer should do a walk-around. It can take just a minute and can much more clearly paint a picture of what you are dealing with. Issues such as access, search, rescue, ladder placement, line placement and related tactical decisions can be more properly and accurately made by having a walk-around performed, allowing the "big picture" to be seen.
- The captain's attempt to do a search and rescue. In the simplest form, the captain should have at least waited for his crew to conduct the search, with the charged line if possible. Since a truck company was not on the scene as quickly as the engine, the options were limited. The issue of "risk versus benefit" weighs in heavily here:
- Is there a victim? Two separate reports said there was and that was confirmed.
- Where is the victim? The location was defined by two separate civilians.
- Will the risk of "running in without a crew and a hoseline" pay off in benefits? In this case it did not. The victim was rescued by two other firefighters on side C, raising a 24-foot ladder and then adding a 14-foot roof ladder above that to effect the rescue, using the balcony rails to secure the 14-footer. True life-saving efforts on the part of the two firefighters that did make a difference.
Perhaps in the captain's first attempt, the "risk" may have been justified based on the initial conditions and reports; however, in his second attempt the risk was not justified. The captain received second-degree burns and the actions converted him from a fire captain to a fire victim, leaving the crew without their boss. There is no need to apologize for not using a charged line; in some cases that may not be an option initially. But consider the "team concept" of searching as well as looking at the big picture of "where is the fire and where will it be going?"