Close Calls: With Nothing Showing Initially... Part 2

This is the second of two columns about a close call experienced by members of the Mantua Township Fire District (MTFD) in New Jersey on Feb. 7, 2012 (part one was in the January issue). Part one featured an account by Chief Brian Hauss, who suffered...


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Chiefs arriving before the apparatus are able to size-up the fire (What do we have? What do we want to do? What resources do we have or will need?) and determine strategy before companies arrive. On occasion, chiefs arrive on scene before companies do and are forced to perform a rescue. The fact that we have the potential to save a life is a great opportunity. The challenge is that it may have to be attempted with no other resources yet on the scene. Making sure that the chief’s SCBA, bunker gear, water can (with a strap for hands-free carry), tools, radio, handlight, etc., are ready is critical for that once-in-a-career situation. Chief Hauss was prepared for this worst-case scenario.

The MTFD has an aggressive first-alarm assignment that includes companies from other area departments helping perform the needed tasks quickly and as simultaneously as possible. Departments that refuse to consider the high value/low cost of automatic mutual aid (box alarms) for first-alarm reported structural fires from their neighboring companies are not doing what is best for their members or the public. More and more departments are being forced to consider alternative means of service and do it with “what’s best for the public” as the focus. Do it on your own before some citizen, elected official, reporter, consultant, attorney or firefighter’s family member asks you why you did not.

It is clear that Chief Hauss personally experienced the importance of his bunker gear’s ability to protect him. He also makes it clear that if not worn properly, your PPE is useless. “No exposed skin ever” is the right attitude and good advice from Chief Hauss. Training new members and senior members on the use, wearing, inspection and care of their bunker gear is vital. What comes between you and the fire conditions? Your bunker gear and related PPE.

This fire is yet is another example of how, once command gets established, a scene is organized and under control. While command was not established as quickly as it could or should have been, understanding the importance of establishing command – in this case, by the fire marshal – mattered. Certainly, the engineer might have established command because he was the only firefighter on the exterior at the time, but he was also performing needed tasks. Due to not having an established and practiced policy, the engineer never assumed the responsibility, which was a challenge for staging of incoming apparatus and need and use of resources. In discussions with the chief, although the engineer was venting and performing critically related tasks, assuming command and providing incoming apparatus and EMS personnel with appropriate instructions would have been very helpful.

Command and control are critical to the success of any working incident. While the firefighters may put their “hearts and souls” into doing their best, there must be a “head coach” calling the shots. If your department has the potential of having no command officers responding, now is the time to determine your plan. Arriving on the scene is not the time to figure it out. Some departments use automatic mutual aid chiefs from neighboring towns as a mini Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT) to turn out on first alarms.

Some departments now run signup schedules or use text-based systems to determine who is available, who is responding, etc. Commercial programs used by thousands of firefighters and EMS responders such as www.IamResponding.com and www.NowForce.com let communication centers and other responding or on-duty firefighters know immediately what their staffing will be on the run. If it is adequate, based on the potential tasks that will need to be performed, great. But if it is not, you can immediately strike additional alarms or requests for needed units without waiting to see who shows up. Knowing who is available to turn out on a run should no longer be a guessing game. (For details, see “Fireground Staffing...Yes! But What About Command Staffing?” Firehouse®, February and March 2009.)

Clearly, there is a good relationship between the Mantua Township fire and police departments. In many areas, police units arrive on the scene before responding fire companies and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. In bad situations, police cars block access, police officers make entry and sometimes become victims themselves. Certainly, their attempt to save a life prior to the fire companies arriving is commendable, but when police officers become victims themselves, it doubles the rescue issues for the firefighters. Mantua Chief of Police Rodney Sawyer understands that and has directed his personnel on understanding this extreme high-risk/low-frequency situation.