The First Responder - Still On The Spot

Over the past ten years the fire service has been involved with too many catastrophic events which have caused large numbers of civilian and fire service personnel fatalities. Man caused some of these events, but Mother Nature caused many more. The question must be posed-what has been done to prepare the first responder to protect themselves at these types of events?

I think it is safe to say, ?you don?t mess with Mother Nature?. While we can?t always predict what events will be spawned by natural phenomena?s there is usually adequate cues to enable us to be prepared. For example, every year the West Coast fire service is affected by the combination of high winds and dry conditions, which produce colossal fires impacting the wildland, interface. The south and Midwest have to mitigate the aftermath of tornadoes and flooding. This history is invaluable for the rest of us. We can certainly turn to these folks for gaining insight in the utilization of the incident command system especially in the areas of unified command, logistics, and planning for large events. But what can really assist us all is for the exchange of information affecting the first arriving units.

How to assess the resources versus the problem. How does climate affect the same area at different times and conditions? When does the first unit stop to treat the wounded versus continuing on to complete the initial evaluation-size-up? How can a chief assess the total picture quickly? I remember taking a course at the National Fire Academy: ?Command and Control of Natural and Man Made Disasters.? During the presentation we were shown a process developed in Florida. Immediately after the event all units reported in to command either by phone or radio and reported conditions in their immediate area. These reports allowed command to map the affected area and dispatch resources effectively.

I used this ?windshield survey? a few years later when my area of the city got hit by a microburst. All power went out for a 10 square mile area. For an urban area this is pretty intense. I immediately contacted the units assigned to me and was able through their reports to give the boss a definitive picture of the impacted zone. I did brief the unit leaders on safety, prioritizing service demands, and provided a fall back system for communications. The troops did a tremendous job that night performing many deeds of valor, which unfortunately went unnoticed officially. This type of information sharing had a direct impact on my abilities to protect my people, my only priority.

The threat of terrorist attacks has heightened our resolve to continue to provide service to our clients while we are at an increased level of danger. The first arriving units however, need to be given information to allow for prudent intervention to the extent whereby members of the fire service community do not get killed needlessly. Take for example a major fire (1 or more floors of 20000 square feet) in a high rise building, which is occupied at the time of the fire. If your department delivers 3 person crews how much can you accomplish realistically? If you commit to fire suppression then you are depending completely on the building?s systems remaining intact to support your operations. If there are injured how many can you assist? Remember it takes approximately 2-3 firefighters per non-ambulatory victim.

So what can you do?

The most important need for the responding incident commander is for valid information. The sooner this information is received the more chance of a safe and successful intervention exists. No, I didn?t say successful operation. I did this because the problem and damage may be so great that the process of rescue will not be successful. Without the impetus of rescues all operations can slow down until additional resources support them. But the first arriving units will have done their job. They will prevent other units from going into the face of an ambush. Too many fire fighters are killed because the first arriving units committed to a fight that couldn?t be won. The Incident Commanders are forced to support this deteriorating situation. Remember terrorists kill their victims by attacking the building and its systems.

We can only intervene to the extent that the building remains intact and that we have adequate resources to be effective. I do not want to imply that we stand on the sidewalk and watch. Have a specific mission in mind. Limit the amount of personnel and ensure their accountability. They need to identify the problem and its scope rather than act like lemmings and just go in to save lives and fight fires. This ambush catches too many fire fighters too many times. And if terrorism is involved remember they kill their victims by attacking the building not the people directly. The sign over many firehouse kitchens has become true ?WE DON?T GO TO WORK-WE GO TO WAR?. To this end the first arriving units must make good decisions when to intervene based on what the building is telling them and on their knowledge of what resources are coming to support their actions. Stay Safe.