Chief Concerns: It's "All Hands on Deck" When a Disaster Strikes

The semi-regular occurrences of extreme weather have strained municipal resources to nearly a breaking point. No local government service has been burdened greater than the fire service. Not only do fire departments help the citizenry prepare, we maintain peak staffing during the event, mitigate the effects of the storm, rescue stranded people, transport dialysis patients for treatments, deliver food and bottled water, remove trees, clear streets, turn off utilities in flooded basements, check on the elderly, deal with the inevitable loss of electric – the list goes on and on.

Did I mention we also continue our core functions such as fighting fire and providing emergency medical care?

Juxtaposed with the increasing occurrences of extreme weather events has been a slashing of fire department budgets and staffing. The fire service is expected to handle these “once-in-100-year” storms every two years with fewer and fewer first responders. While fire chiefs, for the most part, do not have the control over their department’s level of funding that they desire and they certainly have no control over the weather, they do have complete control over how they deploy their assets. No other resource is more important than the human resources fire chiefs have at their disposal.

 

Reserves at the ready

The Baltimore City, MD, Fire Department (BCFD) has come to use fire inspectors and other members from the Fire Marshal’s Office to buttress its suppression forces during extreme weather. All of the BCFD’s fire inspectors are former firefighters and/or paramedics. While they do not regularly fight fires (nor are they expected to), they do maintain their EMS certification and their driver’s license to drive emergency apparatus. During these storms, fire inspectors perform myriad essential non-emergency or low-emergency duties that help keep fire suppression units available for the highest-priority emergency calls.

In years past, when a member was promoted into the Fire Marshal’s Office, fire inspectors turned in their turnout gear and said “farewell” to responding to emergency calls, working nights and weekends and coming to work when city government offices were closed due to bad weather. These assumptions have been replaced along with the fire inspector’s turnout gear.

Now, fire inspectors keep their turnout gear in their car, have been issued a “storm kit” and expect to be called in when bad weather has been forecasted. Fire inspectors have become the reserve force, pressed into service, when needed to perform almost any service as needed. Many ask, “What can fire inspector’s do during a storm?” “What’s the point?” “They have no hoselines, no ladders, no four-wheel-drive vehicles?” To answer these questions, we need only examine three extreme weather events in Baltimore where fire inspectors were used.

 

“Snowmageddon”

In February 2010, the Mid-Atlantic region was slammed with a blizzard of epic proportions. The “snowmageddon” was a Category 3 nor’easter that dumped 30 to 40 inches of snow on Baltimore City and many other jurisdictions. It was essentially three blizzards that hit within a 12-day period. The city was crippled, streets were inextricably blocked and everything was “Arctically” frozen.

There was so much snow and nowhere to put it! The city did not have enough snowplows nor enough snowplow drivers. As a lifelong resident of Baltimore City, it was the first time I can recall “Phase 3” of the city’s snow-emergency plan being declared, which effectively banned all but emergency vehicles from roads and forbid people on the street.

Fire inspectors were called in to set up a “call center” in the Fire Marshal’s Office to accept calls from out-of-state dump truck drivers and companies to contract with Baltimore City to remove snow. There were thousands of calls within the 48-hour period. Fire inspectors took the calls, imparted information to the inquiring drivers and collected information from them. The information was used to hire the drivers (mostly from southern states) to travel to Baltimore and dig us out. We were surprised how quickly the calls came in after the call-center number was released to the national media; one must remember that this storm hit at the height of the “great recession” and there were many unemployed dump truck drivers in the South.

Fire inspectors also helped staff the Incident Management Team (IMT) that was set up to manage the incident. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) served the BCFD well in handling the incident and managing resources. Fire inspectors rode along with National Guard troops, who were called into the city with their Hummers and four-wheel-drive trucks, to guide them through the unfamiliar streets of Baltimore transporting doctors and nurses to work and dialysis patients to treatment. Fire inspectors were available for service during the entire event.

 

The “derecho” storm

“Derecho” comes from a Spanish word meaning “direct” or “straight ahead” because that is how the storm system generally travels. Derechos are widespread storms that travel in multiple bands of strong winds over hundreds of miles. Winds from derecho storms can be as strong as 60 mph. In June 2012, a derecho, struck the Mid-Atlantic, downing several hundred trees and power lines and causing almost a million Marylanders to lose power for several days.

During the derecho, fire inspectors responded to several hundred calls about power lines down and flooded basements. Once power lines were down, they maintained a safety zone around the wires until the utility company responded to render them dead. Sometimes, the inspectors were forced to wait up to three hours on scene. In the past, these calls would have monopolized a suppression company’s time, rendering the members unavailable for a serious emergency. It does not take an engine or a truck company staffed with four first responders to stand by maintaining a safety zone until the power company arrives.

In the case of flooded basements, inspectors would respond “non-emergency” to the location, size-up the scene and usually shut down the utilities to render the dwelling safe. Once again, this doesn’t require an engine company. However, if inspectors needed an engine company, they were just a fire communications call away. Inspectors acted as the “eyes and ears” of the fire department to investigate a bevy of calls for service.

Fire inspectors with carbon monoxide (CO) monitors can take calls for possible CO poisoning. Fire Inspectors carry first-aid kits that make them available for medic standbys until advanced life support (ALS) units arrive. The recurring theme in all of their responses is that any call that doesn’t require special equipment and/or four or more personnel can be handled by a fire inspector.

In the wake of the June derecho storm, fire inspectors voiced their need for storm kits. After reaching a consensus on what should be in the storm kit, requisitions went in and kits were assembled. The kits are nothing elaborate – in fact, they are a bit basic: an LED flashlight, a rain poncho, safety flares, a roll of “fire line” plastic tape and a street atlas of Baltimore City.

A derecho with the force of the June 2012 storm occurs once every five to seven years, but storms with half the power of the most recent derecho pass through every summer. Fire departments can no longer operate as if these severe storms are aberrations. Departments must anticipate that one or more extreme weather events a year will hit their jurisdiction and plan accordingly.

 

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy did not affect Baltimore City the way it devastated other areas such as New York and New Jersey, but it did have an impact and fire inspectors were called to help. Baltimore Business Journal reported that Hurricane Sandy left 200,000 households without power in the Greater Baltimore area and more than 200 downed trees in Baltimore City alone; it left two dead and the region’s businesses, city government offices and schools closed.

This time, fire inspectors helped in the preparation for the storm. They helped place reserve apparatus in service and pre-positioned the reserve apparatus throughout the city. The inspectors drove apparatus to fire supply, stocked the apparatus with all of the needed equipment, drove it to pre-assigned destinations and passed on the apparatus to suppression forces.

Once the storm commenced, the inspectors took their now usual role of manning the IMT and running downed power lines, flooded basements and medic standbys. In a 24-hour period, a dozen inspectors responded to more than 100 calls. That is over 100 times an apparatus would have left station with four members and would have been unavailable for service for up to an hour each time.

 

Conclusion

Extreme weather is occurring with more frequency and fire department budgets are getting smaller, so fire chiefs must be flexible in defining the roles within the fire department. Unless prohibited by contractual labor agreements, fire chiefs around the country should blur (and many are blurring) the lines between fire suppression and staff functions.

In times of need, think of the sworn personnel in the fire marshal’s office, fire academy and logistics sections as the reserve force of your department. n

Loading