While line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) are thankfully not as frequent as automatic alarms, vehicle accidents, and room-and-content fires, dispatch centers must learn to deal with these low-frequency, high-impact events. And with more than 6,000 public safety answering points (PSAPs) nationwide, there exists a significant difference in readiness. Larger facilities that are arms of the fire department are often governed directly by a set of long-established uniform procedures. Other centers, however, may be independent or law enforcement-directed operations, with relatively small staffs and a lack of coherent policies. In rural communities, these facilities also frequently function as a source for media contact, especially when the agencies served do not have a defined public information officer (PIO) position. Regardless of the situation, this article will serve as both a review of best practices for those having codified programs, and as a template for those that do not.
It is important to remember that the communications division is alerted to firefighter fatalities from a variety of sources. This may involve a fire or rescue incident that the center is handling, but it could also come from a secondary event. For example, deaths while responding, especially in the volunteer sector, represent another hazard. Here an LODD could be the result of the crash of a private vehicle. Telecommunicators might or might not immediately connect this event with an ongoing alarm and, in fact, the accident could be managed by a completely different facility, making the crash completely unknown to them. Loss of members also occurs days and even weeks after a call from cardiac arrest or injuries/exposures sustained at the scene. Each presents a different challenge.
In those cases where an LODD occurs during an ongoing incident, dispatch staff must immediately confirm this fact with the incident commander (IC). This will likely trigger a list of required notifications, including fire department officials, municipal officials, coroners/medical examiners and law enforcement/investigatory agencies, at the very least. Care must be taken to safeguard the privacy of the member or members involved, through the use of more secure means of communications, such as cell phones, mobile data terminals and encrypted channels.
Notification of the next-of-kin is obviously extremely important, and should be done with the utmost of care. Many departments opt for performing this task in person, rather than over the telephone, and dispatch a chief officer and chaplain to the residence in question. This task is likely out of the scope of what will be required of most communications centers but, again, nothing should ever be ruled out. At minimum, telecommunicators may be required to locate the resources required for the notification.
Consideration must be given to handling media inquiries, which will begin almost immediately. Whether gathered through the monitoring of frequencies or presence on scene, clues to the loss of a member or members will trigger this process. Plans should be in place to field these calls and to properly refer them. If any information is to be released by the PSAP, it must be agreed upon and verified by the agency involved, and the same script must be used by all telecommunicators answering the phone. During major events, these calls will come from not only local outlets but also from national and even international members of the press. Because many fire departments do not have a nonemergency number listed, it is quite possible that many requests will be routed directly to dispatch. If this is the case, it is helpful to assign a PIO directly to the communications center in order to streamline the process.
Regardless of the model used, it is critical to ensure that those who truly need to know are informed in advance of any public release of information. These private notifications must be made—and verified—prior to the commencement of any formal announcement. And, with the prevalence of social media in today’s world, the informal release of information must also be included in this scope. There have unfortunately been documented cases where the families of first responders learned of their loved one’s passing through a personal online post from a dispatcher.
Familiar relationships also bring us to another point: the potential for a member of the dispatch staff to be related to the fallen firefighter. This is not without precedent, and given the historical tradition of fire service families and modern social interaction between public safety employees, it deserves consideration. If the telecommunicator is on duty, then he or she must be removed from duty immediately, relief secured, and assistance provided. This takes many forms, including counseling, transportation and securing children from school. Debriefing and similar social services should also be afforded to all shift members as part of a post-traumatic stress management plan. If off duty, then the dispatcher will likely be informed through the fire department process. However, because these notifications are sometimes limited to the husband/wife/father/mother of the deceased, actions may still be required should the relationship be more distantly removed.
An additional special case exists where the first responder is also a member of the dispatch center staff. In many communities, telecommunicators serve as volunteer firefighters, and in others, career firefighters are hired as part-time dispatchers. Where the government hierarchy supporting dispatch and the fire department are different, two entirely different sets of in-house notifications will be required.
Mass notification to the affected department or departments can also come under the purview of dispatch. Perhaps the best-known method is the traditional sounding of the signal 5-5-5-5 over the FDNY’s telegraph system. The “four fives,” as it has come to be known, signifies the LODD of a member. More often than not, these announcements are made elsewhere by radio on an area-wide frequency, and contain the firefighters name, rank, company and location of the call. It is not unusual for this to be followed with another message with additional information, such as length of service and funeral arrangements, when known. These broadcasts may be made by the dispatch center itself or by agencies having base station or watch desk capabilities within their departments.
A “last call” message is frequently transmitted as part of memorial ceremonies. This is often accompanied by the paging of the mourning company or department, and phrasing concerning the fallen member responding to their last alarm. The formatting of such messages is largely based upon local customs and tastes, with the content and the time of broadcast decided upon well in advance.
It must be remembered that a good deal of attention will be devoted to maintaining operations during these difficult times. Beginning with the fatal event, dispatch will be required to assign companies, either as rapid-intervention teams or to bolster on-scene resources. Personnel directly involved may also need to stand-down, requiring replacement resources. Companies and/or departments may be placed out of service immediately and remain in a limited capacity for days thereafter, requiring alternate coverage plans or automatic mutual aid.
While not emergent in nature, plans should be made for coordinating communications for agencies attending funeral services. People often come from significant distances and require directions and information on staging. Regional mutual-aid channels as well as dedicated telephone numbers should be made available for this purpose.
Although unpleasant to contemplate, LODDs can occur in agencies both large and small. For this reason, communications centers must create policies and procedures in advance of these tragedies in order to deal with their repercussions. While this preparation will not save a life, it will serve to properly honor a life lost, and provide support for those who remain.