Drills Help Firefighters Know What to Do at 'The Big One'

BALTIMORE – When the stuff is hitting the fan, and the proverbial big one is happening, it’s not the time be meeting the owner or superintendent of the building. That should have been done long before any incidents occur.

That was one of the take away points from a presentation by Rob Brown, a Fire Department of New York lieutenant of Ladder 120 at Firehouse Expo on Thursday.

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Brown, who comes from a long line of firefighters, was on hand to teach a class called M.O.A.D. (Mother of All Drills).

“You need to reach out to key stakeholders long before any incident occurs,” said Brown. “A relationship of trust need to be established before anything happens.”

Society today is expecting firefighters to be on top of their came and be “100 percent effective, 100 percent of the time,” Brown said.

And the only way that can happen is if fire departments train and conduct multi-agency drills with clear objectives, after action review and development of standard operating guidelines based on real world training, Brown said.

“People call us in when they are having one of the worst incidents in their lives and they expect us to have answers, to come in and take care of it and leave, then maybe wave to them in a parade,” Brown said.

When developing training programs for any department Brown said firefighters and officers should focus on doing better with the “low frequency, high risk events.”

For instance, Brown said one of the reasons fewer people died in the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this year is because of multi-agency drills. During those exercises, responders learned what to do if a catastrophe happened.

“They had a lot of EMS personnel staged at the finish line, and because of that, they were able to save a lot of lives,” Brown said.

The only way to know how to react to a large scale emergency is to have drilled on the scenario beforehand and know the people who are going to be most likely to be helpful during that emergency, Brown said.

That means, getting out in the community and learning who is responsible for what at high risk properties, Brown said, adding that the chief engineer at a plant might be your best friend if a fire or emergency happens at that particular facility.

“They’re the ones who are going to make you look good,” Brown said, adding that taxpayers are the ultimate bosses of firefighters. “And they want us to do our jobs and not make the taxes go up any higher.”

Brown suggested that whenever a fire department decides to take on a high risk, low frequency event, or threat upon which to drill, it should be careful to outline achievable goals and objectives.

For instance, FDNY was planning to have a drill on a bomb threat on the Statue of Liberty, Brown said, noting it is on an island which presents unique access challenges.

“They wanted to do a full-scale bomb threat, but I said ‘maybe we should concentrate on getting a couple of firefighters out there first,’” Brown said.

Brown made a baseball analogy when describing how a good drill should work. “You want to make sure everyone is out there making singles and hitting the ball and winning the game that way,” Brown said. “You don’t want everyone out there trying to hit home runs all the time.”

Good firefighters know when “something doesn’t look right” and know what to do about it without a lot of fanfare, he said.

“You might be out there taking care of something before it becomes a much bigger issue,” he said. And that’s the benefit of organized drills, he said.

“I think we should spend a couple of billion dollars and have an assessment of every department in the country, paid and volunteers, to have some baseline data on the level of training and emergency preparedness," Brown said. 

“We don’t want any more tragedies like we had in West, Texas,” Brown said. “How many firefighters might have been saved if West recognized the threat they had in their community and developed a plan on what to do if the thing caught fire? We don't want any West, Texas events happening in your department, or any other department ever again."