Monday, January 25, 2010:
Today’s lecture started off with a free-wheeling discussion about some of the major considerations for conducting a search inside a large building. Up until now, our search and rescue evolutions had been confined to small buildings – the burn building, the Hennepin Tech trailer, and the Sherburne Avenue four-plex. Sherburne had been complex because of the small rooms, heavy compartmentation, and the thick smoke. Today’s search would be conducted in another donated structure: a 2-story commercial warehouse/office building at the Rock-Tenn corporation in Saint Paul.
Rock-Tenn is a cardboard recycling industrial complex that also produces paper and card stock products. I’ve been inside the production plant at a 2-alarm fire there in early 2008, and was amazed that ANYONE could find their way out of that structure! Catwalks, ladders, machinery, giant rolls of paper, and little offices tucked in little nooks and crannies seemingly wherever there was room between piping, elevators and hoists, forklifts, and boxes of both raw and finished products. It was a nightmare! The building WE were going to use today was far less complex, but still capable of posing some significant search challenges. Hugging the wall and doing a “right-hand” or “left-hand” search in the drill tower or burn building was one thing; sweeping across a large cafeteria or warehouse floor was quite another. How do you conduct a thorough search of a large area while still ensuring you can find your way back outside and all the while maintaining your orientation within the building and in relation to the rest of your crew? Well, that was the focus of today’s training.
The class and the instructors addressed some of the main concerns we had about large area searches, including: air management, radio traffic, maintaining orientation and crew integrity, lack of water supplies/long hose lays to the interior, apparatus staging, safety and accountability for firefighters, command organization, and firefighter judgment. This last item included self-awareness, monitoring your own mental and physical status, and realizing that in a smoke-filled room, you have incredibly limited perspective of what’s going on in the REST of the building. It was a sobering discussion after our experience at the Sherburne Avenue building last week, where an air management incident resulted in a true emergency where someone could have been seriously hurt.
We conducted an After Action Review of the Sherburne exercise today as well, and discussed air management; the importance of crew communications and maintaining physical/visual/audio contact with other members of a search team; the need for clear, concise, communications (we suffered from a lot of radio congestion on Friday); and the typical chaos that results on a fireground when 12-16 firefighters and multiple hose lines arrive at the scene of a fire and attempt to get through the front door and to the seat of the fire all at the same time. The resulting mess (technically known as a “cluster”) usually sorts itself out quickly, but not always. So, we critiqued the Sherburne Smokehouse evolutions to review what “went right” and what “we could do better on in the future”…..we’d need to apply some of the lessons learned to today’s larger, far more complex search situations.
We also received a visit by the “B-Shift” Deputy Chief today, Chief Mark Mueller. We operate 3 firefighting shifts here in St. Paul: A, B, and C-Shifts. The Deputy Chief is the senior fire officer on duty for each 24 hour shift. The Assistant Chief, Fire Chief, and division heads are on 40-hour schedules, and on call 24/7 for major incidents – both on and off the fireground.
Chief Mueller talked about the safety enhancements that have been made to the firefighting profession during his 30 year career. He also highlighted the fact that we lose over 100 firefighters a year nationally to fatal accidents and on duty medical emergencies. In spite of the advancements, it’s a dangerous job. The Chief also spoke about the need for specialized and higher education and becoming a student of the position you aspire to hold for promotions. Finally, he talked about the firefighter schedule, and that it is not as healthy or attractive as it would first appear. There is a tremendous amount of stress on the individual and the family because of our long hours and busy workloads. I’m glad he pointed out that the schedule is tough on the spouses and the families, because I know first hand that “families also serve.”
We received a few additional tools today: wooden door wedges, sprinkler wedges, and door straps. The sprinkler wedges are for stopping the water flow from an activated sprinkler head, and the wedges and straps are for keeping a door open during searches. The wedge can be used under the door or on the hinge side to wedge the door open; the strap (a small rectangle of canvas with two elastic “ears” sewed on the side. One ear goes over each doorknob on a door, with the canvas over the door latch. The tension in the elastic ears holds the latch “in” and prevents the door from locking behind you in a search).
And finally, the afternoon session arrived, so we packed up the reserve engines and Police vans and headed to 127 Raymond Avenue to the donated Rock Tenn building. We split into teams and practiced our large area search techniques. In addition to maintaining contact with a wall and sweeping a tool towards the center of the room, we added a hose line and a rope “tag line” to the mix, using the hose and rope to extend our search across large warehouse areas. We managed to find several victims, including Fire Training Officer “Hawk” Hawkins, who was posing as both a victim and an evaluator of our procedures.
I must admit that when they finally told us to pull our masks off (we were searching with blacked out face masks), I was surprised to see how “big” the room was we were searching in. Where I thought we were coming through a wide hallway about 8 feet wide actually turned out to be about a 30’ x 20’ room. I guess that’s the result of my narrow perspective and still “hugging the wall!”
The second search seemed to go much better. Four of us were on a team searching the same 30’ x 20’ room using a hose line. We managed to work together pretty well, and pulled the hose down the right-hand wall to the corner, then ACROSS the room using the entire length of the hose, with our team spread out a few feet apart. We found Hawk, although I think I jabbed him with the pike pole I was using to maintain my contact with the wall.
On the third search, I was with several classmates in the upstairs office area, searching empty offices (no furniture) for “hose dummy victims.” We found one, and the team safely brought the “victim” down the stairs and out the front door.
Key lessons learned (for me) today:
· It’s important to remain calm and relaxed as much as possible in order to conserve breathing air. Checking your remaining air level and communicating your status to the team leader is critical. Ideally, the team enters and leaves together, and if you’re the one sucking down air like it’s an endless supply, your crewmates will have to stop searching and get out of the building with you when your low air alarm sounds. I have really worked at getting into good aerobic shape, so I had no problem with air USAGE…but the constant monitoring was a great exercise of personal awareness.
· Air usage can dramatically JUMP when you locate a victim and are extricating them from the building. Just because they were “hose dummies” today did NOT mean that the adrenaline flow wasn’t going full tilt after finding and rescuing a victim. To us, they were all “real” fire victims, and (of course) they always lived because of our prompt, heroic actions!
· Shouting to teammates in a large room with an air mask on only muffled the voice and prevented accurately hearing what was being said. Using the radio was a far better option, as the audio seemed to come across louder. Our department was blessed to have a radio for every firefighter now, thanks to a Federal Homeland Security Grant.
· Searching with a tool (in my case, a 6 foot pike pole) can dramatically extend your “reach” in a search. It also comes in handy in case you have to get out of the building in an emergency. Firefighters are taught “NEVER to get off the truck without a tool.” An ax, pike pole, or Halligan Bar can make a hole pretty rapidly in many interior walls and doors, or can help vent a window in an emergency. Hand tools: don’t do a search without one! It can be a pain trying to lug all the necessary equipment into a fire (hose line, hand tool, rope bag, etc), but I consider this to be a critical safety factor for any firefighter working inside a structure.
So, our first experience at large area searches went well today, and we were already looking forward to a return trip to Rock-Tenn for some controlled burns and further searches later in the week. I felt really satisfied – I was gaining confidence in my gear, my physical conditioning, and the teamwork of my classmates. We were “shaping up” nicely, I thought, and all eager to start applying our new-found skills and confidence “for real” out in the streets of Saint Paul.