Firefighter Missing! Or Is He?

July 1, 2006

Keeping track of firefighters has never been easy. All kinds of folks claim to have great systems that solve the problem. I recently spoke to an individual who claimed that he had the invention; all he needed was "a boatload of cash" to get it going. That scares me. It makes me worry about financial accountability – why it should cost a fire department "a boatload of cash" to track the troops? Some say, "so what, it could save a firefighter’s life," and while that makes sense, tracking our people and saving their lives should not require us to float a bond issue.

In this close call, the firefighters of Bartow, FL, had their hands full with a working building fire. During this fire, they lost track of some of their firefighters. Unusual? Not at all. It happens a lot because tracking firefighters is not easy. It requires significant training, discipline and cultural adjustments, by all of us. Go to most any working incident and ask yourself, "Do we know where all of our firefighters are and what their assignments are, right now?"

Our thanks to Bartow Fire Chief Jay Robinson for his support in allowing these details to be shared. We also thank Deputy Chief Robert W. Pitman Jr., Lieutenant Mark Olinger and Firefighter Justin Jones, whose situation that day not only has helped him learn, but will also help others learn as well.

The Bartow Fire Department is a combination agency with 21 career personnel and, at the time of the fire, 10 volunteers. They operate three six-firefighter shifts, each consisting of a lieutenant and five other personnel. The department has three staff officers: two deputy chiefs (a training officer and a fire marshal) and the fire chief. Line personnel get a "Kelly day" once every three weeks and one person can take leave each shift. This puts minimum staffing at four per shift. The department covers 90 square miles out of one station with two engines, a ladder, a tanker, a heavy rescue and a brush truck. The city has a permanent population of 18,000 and a daytime population of 30,000, as it is the county seat of Polk County in central Florida.

This account is by Deputy Chief Robert W. Pitman Jr., the incident commander:

On June 6, 2005, at 6:59 A.M., our fire department received a call for a smoke odor in one of our old downtown buildings. We are dispatched by the City of Bartow Police Department. We were in the midst of shift change. The off-going shift was at minimum staffing of four, as was the oncoming shift. That means there were eight shift personnel and myself at the station. As the training chief, I work 7 A.M. to 4 P.M. daily. At the time of this fire, four of our volunteer firefighters also responded. We do not have automatic aid.

The fire building was a two-story, site-built, ordinary-construction building circa 1920. Knowing it was a commercial block and two stories, five people went on our ladder truck first out and one person took an engine second out as water supply. When Ladder 1 arrived on scene at 7:02, the officer-in-charge reported heavy smoke coming from the roof. He asked for the balance of firefighters at the station to respond. I took my staff vehicle and the other two firefighters took an additional engine.

I arrived and assumed command at 7:04. My size-up was a two-story, ordinary construction, attached building on Bravo side, with heavy smoke from the roof. I was the incident commander (IC). I had one firefighter setting up the ladder and one firefighter on each engine securing water supply. I had three firefighters on the initial hose/entry team and two firefighters as the rapid intervention team (RIT).

I immediately called for a mutual aid ladder truck and engine from our county’s fire department. They were on scene around 7:25. At that time, a battalion chief from their department was assigned as division three (D3) and given two crews to work from the rear (Charlie) side of the building.

The entry team took a 2½-inch hoseline and went inside and upstairs through the front of the building. Stairs were near the back. Hose was stretched up uncharged. Upon getting into the fire building from the upstairs landing, the attack crew met heavy smoke, some heat and fire. From outside, once they started flowing water, I saw an instant steam conversion. They remained upstairs and continued to do good work.

By 7:40, smoke conditions were changing, and not for the better. Unknown to me, the three-person crew had left one person downstairs and sent two upstairs. The upstairs two were not able to pull enough ceiling to stay ahead of the fire. The smoke changed from a lazy white and steam condition to heavy brown, high-volume, high-pressure smoke within about two minutes between 7:39 and 7:41. I ordered an evacuation of the building at this time.

Just before the evacuation was ordered, one of the mutual aid crews had entered the building through the front door to take the place of our initial attack team. Our member at the bottom of the stairs took it upon himself to join that team. When they met up with our team upstairs, our team did not recognize our firefighter and he did not clearly let them know what he had done. Our crew exited just before the evacuation order was given.

After the evacuation order, I knew that only two of my initial three firefighters came out. I called D3 and asked for a personnel accountability report (PAR). He said he had all of his department’s firefighters accounted for. We now began a fireground and radio search for our missing firefighter. This went on for a couple of minutes with reports of him being accounted for, then of him not being accounted for.

We began to initiate RIT rescue procedures when two mutual aid firefighters and our firefighter appeared at a back window to the surprise of everyone. They escaped in the nick of time down a well-positioned ladder truck in D3.

Quite honestly, this was the among the scariest times of my life. Trying to figure out what I was going to tell this firefighter’s family was a prevailing thought as I stood looking at that building. I was sending crews into a building that I had just ordered other crews out of.

Several things happened that we are now working through in our area:

Communications did not sound the evacuation tones over the radio. We have written and repaired countywide policies to make sure that does not happen again.

The lost crew thought they were in an exposure, but were actually in the fire building. This was due to a double-door configuration in a common hallway area. They did not think they needed to evacuate. Policies are now in place, countywide, so that everyone uses the same evacuation signal and that signal means everyone leaves and reports back outside.

Our firefighter freelanced and teamed up with another crew without permission. This was discussed with him at length.

We are understaffed. While we know this, our city is not willing or able to spend the money to hire more people at this time. We continue to ask for them, but have so far met with no success.

One thing I personally took from this as the incident commander was a renewed interest in making sure everyone learns from these types of incidents. This must be used to tell others what went wrong and how they can avoid the same traps. All of the departments in our area work excellently together at all types of calls. We should have had common operational guidelines in place a long time ago. If nothing else, this close call has opened the door to put some of those interoperation guidelines in place.

This account is by Lieutenant Mark Olinger, the first-arriving fire officer:

I was riding as the shift lieutenant the morning of the call. I technically would have been off duty one minute later. My shift and two members of the oncoming shift (six people total) prepared to respond to the call. Four firefighters and I went on the ladder truck and one firefighter followed in an engine for hydrant standby.

I arrived on the scene to find heavy smoke mixed with dense fog coming from the roof of the building. I called for the balance of the firefighters who were still at the station. This consisted of the oncoming lieutenant, a firefighter and Deputy Chief Pitman, whose comments are above. The deputy chief arrived on scene and assumed command and I became the team leader for hose/entry team 1.

Command advised to advance a 2½-inch hoseline through the front of the building, find and attack the fire. One other firefighter and I entered the building through the front door and advanced the hose (uncharged) to the back of the building interior and up the stairway to the second floor. A third firefighter, Firefighter Justin Jones, was left at the front door.

Once upstairs, we encountered a set of double doors with heavy smoke and fire inside the second-floor business. I called the engine and had the line charged as we opened the door to the offices. We attempted to extinguish the fire. We played the 2½-inch line into the fire occupancy and blackened down all of the fire within our immediate reach. I then called command and asked for another crew or some kind of help to continue pushing hose. My partner went downstairs to try and pull up some hose. Apparently, this firefighter spoke to Firefighter Jones, and Jones moved from the front door, inside the building, to the area of the stairwell.

Around this same time, as my partner rejoined me upstairs, my audi-alarm activated on my airpack. We notified command and prepared to exit down the stairwell. As we were exiting, we met a crew of three firefighters at the bottom of the stairs. Unbeknownst to me, Firefighter Jones had joined that team of his own accord. In the heat and gravity of the moment, we did not recognize him. We gave them a quick briefing on the upstairs conditions and then we exited the building.

At this same time, command had been watching changing fire conditions and ordered a building evacuation. As we exited, I briefed the IC on the conditions we had left. We had a brief discussion about Firefighter Jones and I advised the IC that he never went upstairs with us. We then went to rehab.

I do not remember a lot about the rest of the time Firefighter Jones was being looked for. We were in rehab at the time. I remember the IC asking for a PAR and one of our other firefighters answering. The IC said he was not looking for that firefighter (Jones) and the search continued.

This account is by Firefighter Justin Jones:

At the time of this call, I had eight months on the job. My shift was not scheduled to start for another minute yet – not that it mattered, I wanted to go on the run – but I was sent on the call and rode on Ladder 1. Upon arrival, I pulled the five-inch hose off the back of the ladder to hook the ladder into the hydrant. I tried to flush the hydrant, but it would not open completely.

At this time, I was told to get ready to go into the building with the entry crew. I do not remember who gave me this order, just that it was given. I joined up with Lieutenant Olinger and another firefighter. I broke the glass out of the front door and cleared the entry. Lieutenant Olinger and the other firefighter entered the building with a 2½-inch hoseline and headed toward the rear of the building. Several minutes later, the firefighter returned down the stairs to the entry point where he met me. He told me to come to the base of the stairs inside the building and push hose up the stairs for them.

I stayed at the base of the stairs feeding hose for a while, and then I noticed that another team of two firefighters had entered the building. They identified themselves as a mutual aid crew and stayed at the bottom of the stairs with me until our initial crew began running low on air and needed to exit. As our crew came downstairs, they briefed all of us at the bottom on the conditions upstairs. I told the firefighter that I would be going upstairs with the mutual aid crew to help them out. This never got passed on to Lieutenant Olinger and it was not understood by the other firefighter. He may not have recognized me in the heat of the moment.

I then went upstairs with the crew and we encountered heavy smoke and heat. Very soon after this, the evacuation tones sounded. I heard the evacuation tone and told the mutual aid crew that we needed to exit. They said we were in the exposure building and that we were OK. I was able to hear command doing a radio search for a missing Bartow firefighter. I did not think they were talking about me, as I had told the outgoing firefighter that I was going upstairs. That said, I tried to call the IC and tell him my position in the building. The radio transmission was never clearly understood by the IC. He called back one or two times, trying to confirm the transmission, but could never clearly understand what was said.

At this point, we were seen by the division commander in D3. We were told by the D3 commander to evacuate. The firefighter with the mutual aid crew went down the stairs and came back up. He said it was not the exit and we needed to find another way out. We then broke the large window in the rear of the building and evacuated down the ladder that had been very well positioned at the back window. At almost the same time as we broke the window, I began hearing multiple radio calls sending RIT into the building to look for Firefighter Jones (this was me). I had dropped my radio while exiting onto the ladder. I began telling the D3 chief that I was Firefighter Jones and I was OK! The search could be stopped.

As we exited the window, we could see the building lighting up over our heads. I felt somewhat safe while we were trying to exit because we could not see the danger over our heads, nor was the heat unbearable. While coming down the ladder, it became obvious to me that there was a large volume of fire and imminent danger over us while we were in the building. I made it out.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this close call:

While the Bartow Fire Department members had their hands full for a variety of reasons, tracking their personnel was a challenge, as it is for all of us. Tracking firefighters is not easy. I have always felt that the best accountability system is a good company officer who is well trained, disciplined and understands the responsibility to take care of his or her firefighters. It’s the "direct" supervision that seems to work best, along with passports, tags or whatever else works for your department. That, combined with some simple and inexpensive technology, would be a good thing.

While the issue of "accountability" or "tracking" our troops is an issue, staffing (especially initial or "first-alarm" staffing), once again plays a major role. While some people may believe "the fewer firefighters on the scene, the easier it is to track them," that may not always be the case. For example, if five companies arrive at a scene of a structural fire, with at least four personnel (one officer, one driver/engineer and two firefighters) on each apparatus, the officer of that unit becomes the first level of responsibility to track those firefighters. There is an officer within sight of those firefighters, which provides supervision. The IC tracks (and communicates with) the company officers and the assignment of their companies, assuring the tasks are being completed with adequate staffing.

But, on the other hand, if fewer firefighters arrive at that same structural fire than are realistically needed, as determined through pre-plans and alarm assignments, the same tasks still must be accomplished. Without enough firefighters, the tasks do not get done – or, due to short staffing, we try to get them done inappropriately, which can equate to unsafely. And one very critical task that doesn’t get done is the company officer supervising the firefighters.

If there is no company officer, who supervises the firefighters? If there is one, but there are so many tasks to be done and not enough firefighters, odds are the officer (or the firefighter) will end up doing several tasks – and the ability to supervise then becomes next to impossible. That’s one factor of what we saw in the above case study. Quite frankly, as well trained as the Bartow firefighters are, they can only do so much with the number of firefighters arriving on a first alarm. Extra firefighters were in quarters that morning only due to the shift change. Normally, they are going in without enough firefighters to effectively and safely perform all the tasks. The outcome is predictable.

What can departments that have staffing issues do? There are numerous solutions, some short term and some long term. One is an aggressive, well organized and planned automatic mutual aid program. Initially, on the first alarm, the Bartow Fire Department has enough firefighters to perform the services of one company. As much as they have clearly worked hard to get more (and did have a total response of 21 firefighters by 8:30), that’s just the way it is. Sadly, it is common throughout the United States. However, an automatic mutual aid program, with all participants training and sharing standard operating procedures (SOPs), can help solve part of this problem.

Other solutions include an automatic recall of career personnel on all first-alarm structural fires (which the Bartow Fire Department does, smartly, for any structure-related call, including automatic alarms), volunteer recruitment or the hiring of more career firefighters. Additionally, if local support – including funding – is just not there, it is the responsibility of the fire chief to make it clear to the governing body what that fire department can do initially and what simply cannot be done safely without the arrival of more help.

This building and the exposures created unique circumstances. The exposure was originally a movie theater with four different ceilings and the fire was inside those areas. A third building on the block was saved as enough firefighters eventually arrived on the scene to open it up. From a tactical standpoint, numerous positive actions on the part of the firefighters enabled them to save some important "downtown" buildings. While that is important, the safety and accountability of firefighters at any fire scene is the higher priority.

While training continues to be the number-one solution to almost all the close calls we write and read about, learning from past close calls runs a close second. Use this month’s close call to compare your department with others and be honest about how you track your firefighters at all incidents. If your system works well, that’s great. But odds are most of us know there is a need to improve training and discipline in regard to accountability.

This close call provides a great "excuse" to honestly review, discuss, test and rework your current system. "Tracking the troops" requires a lot of work up front, before the tones go off, to ensure that the arriving number equals the going-home number.

William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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