Planning Ahead For “Predictable” Close Calls

March 1, 2004
If you have followed this column for any length of time, or even if you haven’t but you have been a firefighter for more than a few years, you have been able to figure out that most fire service tragic events have also happened “previously.” Of course, not the actual event, but something very similar occurred to another fire department, and then it happened to “us.” It’s the events that have “already occurred” that we can use to minimize the chances of that happening to us.

An example is a tragic fire that occurred years ago on the West Coast, where a firefighter was trapped in a garage fire after the door came down. That firefighter suffered serious burns. A few years later, several firefighters were operating at a very similar working fire, in the garage. The door came down and trapped them.

History repeats itself in our business, just like in society. Unfortunately, little information was provided from the first incident to “get the word out” to help prevent it from happening again. As firefighters, we seem to be great at passing on some information (especially juicy gossip), so then why is it so hard for us to “get the word out” and absorbed so we can learn about past incidents that can affect our survival? It’s probably human nature. Of course, the purpose of this column is to help “get that word out” – absorbed.

One only has to look at firefighter line-of-duty-death reports to see many common denominators. Here is a sampling that we can use as a “check list” to see where a fire department stands, before the run comes in. These below considerations continue to be found in most structural firefighting close call or line-of-duty-death reports. Considerations such as:

  • Firefighters providing the incident commander with timely interior size-up reports.

  • Incident commanders ensuring that adequate staffing is enroute or on the scene to provide enough personnel for all assigned tasks. Mutual aid and automatic mutual aid should be considered a part of this as required. Planning ahead can ensure that adequate numbers of staff are available to immediately respond to emergency incidents. Considerations should include time of day, route of travel and station locations.

  • Incident commanders ensuring that structures are evaluated (initially and continuously) for collapse potential prior to assigning firefighters interior.

  • Firefighters investigating and opening concealed spaces to determine whether the fire is in these areas (also use of thermal imaging cameras).

  • Conducting the pre-emergency planning that is critical for mercantile and business occupancies. Essentially, pre-plan every non-single-family dwelling structure in your district.

  • Ensuring that a qualified rapid intervention team is established, in position and properly staffed.

  • Recognizing that a thermal imaging camera should now be considered a standard part of the interior size up operation to aid in locating fires or victims. A thermal imager assigned to every interior tasked crews? Why not? It’s 2004, gang. The technology is here, now.

  • Making sure that all firefighters receive regular and relevant training with clear documentation.

  • Officers ensuring that self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and all firefighting equipment is properly inspected, used and maintained, with documentation to ensure they will function properly when needed.

  • Incident commanders always maintaining close accountability, command and control for all personnel operating on the fireground. Odds are you can’t do that yourself, so insure enough command personnel are responding or on scene.

  • Ensuring that department standard operating procedures/guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) are followed and that regular refresher training is provided. Keep in mind, if you have SOPs, operate by them. If you have them and don’t operate by them, why have them? Determine which ones work, then use them and enforce them. Dump the ones that don’t work and replace them with easy-to-understand policies.

  • Ensuring that team continuity is maintained. All personnel must stay with their assigned crews and officer. Officers, you are the supervisor, so supervise.

  • Having a lifeline in place to guide firefighters to an escape.

  • Instructing and training firefighters on operational radio use as well as initiating emergency traffic (Mayday-Mayday) when they become lost, disoriented or trapped.

  • Making sure that a backup hoseline is manned and in position to protect exit routes. A backup hoseline backs up the initial line to insure safety.

  • The incident commander continuously evaluating weather conditions (i.e., high winds) during fire operations, especially at high-rise fires.

  • Making sure that the communications center receipt and processing of alarms is completed in a timely manner and that your radio system, and dispatch personnel are able to maintain the support needed during a working incident.

It all sounds familiar. Sure, there is a lot more, but if we keep an eye on just those items, we can make a significant impact.

One particular area we want to focus on this month is our relations with our neighboring fire departments. In some areas, mutual aid or mutual responses (automatic aid) is the way fire departments operate. Regardless of borders or boundaries, the leadership has figured out what is best for their firefighters and for civilians. Fire departments maintaining their autonomy and local flavor is great, but working together as “one response unit” made up of multiple agencies on the first alarm can only result in a safer, more effective, better staffed, better equipped and faster arriving service. This is not a new concept by any means, although in some areas it seems foreign.

In many areas, a fire in Town A may get an engine from Town A, but also a chief from Town B and an additional engine and truck from Town C, all depending on where the run is, who is closest, what equipment is needed and what is best for those we serve. How do they do it? By working together, planning ahead, and looking past the little issues involving false pride and related jurisdictional bickering.

Unfortunately, in other areas, the fire departments haven’t quite figured out what may be best for those they serve. They live with false pride and inter-jurisdictional bickering in spite of what may be best for firefighter safety and survival. By now, you have probably read about the career fire department that responded to a house fire, found it a couple of hundred yards outside of its jurisdiction and chose to not attack the fire. After all, “it was not ‘our’ fire” was the logic of the officer in charge. Many of us can all learn from this – and hopefully absorb it.

I’ve figured that it’s simple: firefighters respond to a fire, we get there and no matter whose “territory” it is in, we put it out with due care and deal with the political “stuff” later. And I still feel that way.

There are some extreme examples of out-of-jurisdiction responses. Some friends of mine from Palm Beach County, FL, were driving to central Florida to attend the funeral for a firefighter who lost his life in the line of duty. The Palm Beach crew was in the area and spotted a working house fire – and arrived first. The firefighters immediately went to work and made a difference. Did anyone get upset at them? Certainly not; in fact, they were praised. Of course, that is an extreme example. Let’s take a look at this more recent – but totally different – example in a northern state.

It appears that the Town X career fire department responded to a fire call, but the arriving crew and officer found that the building on fire actually was a few hundred yards outside of their jurisdiction, in Town Z, which is protected by a volunteer fire department.

They clearly had a working fire. The Town X firefighters immediately confirmed that everyone was out of the house, which was a fact, and then they stood by, since the Town Z fire department would be arriving any second, or so they thought. If you follow any of the Internet forums, firefighters from all over chastised the initial-arriving fire department for not attacking the fire. After all, that’s what “we” do.

Why didn’t they fight that fire? Sometimes, it’s not that simple, especially when “we” weren’t there. (Remember that song “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”?)

A few significant factors existed for the initial-arriving firefighters from Town X. The location was out of their area, they had limited staffing, they still had to cover their community, and there were some political tensions between the two communities – as well as Town X having a career fire department and Town Z being served by volunteers. Are many of the problems that occurred possibly predictable?

One factor worth strongly considering is where was the responsible fire department, the Town Z fire department? Why was the Town X officer put in that position? Town Z did eventually respond and arrived at that scene – with one firefighter on the apparatus. The homeowner was upset that the Town Z fire department got there, checked for life, then awaited the fire department having jurisdiction and did nothing to help. Shouldn’t the homeowner’s anger be directed at the Town Z fire department that was responsible for his fire to provide service?

Some of you are thinking, “but they were volunteers, they did the best they could.” That’s a lame excuse that too many volunteers or those who have volunteer fire departments use. If you have a firehouse and apparatus, you need to staff them (or insure rapid staffing) so that equipment and personnel get to an emergency quickly – as if your own family needed help. You have to guarantee the equipment and staffing will get out.

Ever see a department that has a beautiful firehouse and outstanding apparatus, but it takes them more than just a few minutes to get on the road? That’s my point. How many times do you hear tones going off over and over and over for that same run, with no one getting out. Many volunteer fire departments have solved these response concerns with in-house duty crews. Simple, easy, low to no cost. On the other hand, at least some volunteer fire departments’ new multimillion-dollar firehouses have Jacuzzis and big screen TVs. It’s a matter of priorities.

So often, we give the public the “feeling” that we are ready to roll – but we simply aren’t. That homeowner in Town Z ought to be annoyed at the Town X fire department for not attempting to stop that fire, since its crew was on the scene – but he ought to be furious at his own Town Z fire department for its failure to provide service. Volunteer fire departments, on-call fire departments, career fire departments or whatever – if you are going to be a fire department, be a fire department and don’t just dress up and look that way. The public is entitled to your fast, staffed and qualified turnout when they need you most.

Culture also can affect how we provide service – both good and bad. Just like those of you reading this, the Town X fire officer was upset about this incident, but he was caught in some local politics, cultures and attitudes. He wanted to attack that fire, but something told him not to; some past “stuff” told him not to. He had to make a decision in a culture, the Town X culture, of not wanting to go out of their way to service anyone but their own taxpayers. Unfortunately, he was thinking that he would be “hung out to dry” if he tied up all his equipment and staffing on a run that wasn’t involving human life. All avoidable with planning and planned relations with nearby fire departments.

So what can be done to avoid this kind of situation? First, it may take quite a bit of salesmanship to the elected officials in order to “break through” the past cultures – and it may not happen overnight. If that can be done, though, and elected officials as well as senior level fire officials are willing to listen to the many benefits, consider some of these potential responses to the problems as indicated in the case study above:

  • Problem: They were on the scene, outside of their territory and chose not to fight the fire? Waiting for the other fire department? Solution: Plan ahead, work out mutual aid agreements, drill, train and practice so you don’t have to wait. It now becomes a non-issue.

  • Problem: Still have to cover your community? Solution: Mutual aid or recalls can back-fill a station while on-duty crews are tied up at an incident, no matter where it is – but that only works when we want it to and when we plan for it well ahead of time.

  • Problem: Equality with mutual aid. Mutual aid means “we can generally help you and you can generally help us with common services.” Solution: Unfortunately, many towns rely on “that other town” to bail them out on runs. The town that is not able to provide equal or qualified/trained service must do some aggressive recruitment to insure adequate and fair staffing for its community as well as to provide fair, well-trained and qualified mutual aid. If it is an all-volunteer fire department and all avenues have been explored or exhausted, it may be time to consider some permanent staffing. It’s all about what is best for our communities and the firefighters.

When planning ahead for predictable close calls, we have to look with an open mind while keeping in mind what is best, for when that emergency comes in:

  • A fire department responding with four or five people total to a reported house fire?
  • A fire department not responding to a fire because no members have shown up yet?
  • One fire department not calling the closest other fire department because “we just don’t get along”?
  • Another fire department not calling that department because they aren’t volunteer (or career, etc)?
  • And another fire department that just won’t call for mutual aid, even though the incident is well beyond its capabilities?

Any of this sound familiar? These are serious and predictable factors that increase the chance of a close call or worse. Sometimes, local pride “smokes up,” minimizing our ability to clearly see how to provide the correct amount of well-trained and qualified resources on the scene of a fire, quickly. After all, if we have adequate staffing, timely response, and firefighters who are well trained and properly led on the fireground, no matter where “they” come from, we can minimize the opportunity of a close call or worse.

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. Ever hear that before? Sure you have. We are quick to call one another “brother” or “sister,” but then we sometimes refuse to work together for the good of each other and the public. If a fire department has great staffing, is well trained and well resourced, and can go through the above checklists with positive responses, then it’s predictable that the odds are in your favor to get everyone home alive. On the other hand, if the above questions make you nervous, now is a great time to get the ball rolling in resolving these related issues to increase the safe return of your firefighters whether the run is in your town, or not. There is plenty of past history for us to absorb, so we don’t repeat the bad stuff – again.

Note: Readers are asked to share their accounts of incidents in which firefighters found themselves in dangerous or life-threatening situations, with the intention of sharing the information and learning from one another to reduce injuries and deaths. These accounts, in the firefighters’ own words, can help others avoid similar “close calls.” We thank those firefighters who are willing to share their stories. We invite readers to share their experiences. We will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies.

We thank Contributing Editor William Goldfeder for compiling these reports. You may send your reports to him at [email protected].

William Goldfeder, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief fire officer since 1982 and has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, recently completing his sixth year as a 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.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!