The Dallas reports: Leadership lessons from an LODD

The reports on the fire that claimed Firefighter Stanley Wilson's life show that incident commanders must be trained and prepared to lead

Very dramatic headlines raced across news and social media sites when two reports were released on the death of Dallas Firefighter Stanley Wilson. Firefighter Wilson died May 20, 2013, in a condominium complex.

The Texas State Fire Marshal released a report that found the Dallas Fire Department's incident commander failed to conduct an adequate and continuous risk assessment. The report further states the incident commander failed to supervise personnel adequately and make the right decisions on the appropriate strategy and tactics of fire suppression and primary search operations.

After reading the report, I expect that many of us could say: "That could've been me." If you have been an incident commander for very long, you have had an incident where actions started out right but then cascaded down the wrong path.

It is critical for the incident commander to be able to recognize when actions begin to go wrong and call timeout. Calling timeout is not easy and requires courage, commitment and leadership from the incident commander, but will save the lives of firefighters.

Chain reaction
Imagine standing up dominoes in a row with each domino representing a critical fireground factor. If one of the fireground factors gets out of whack and falls, the entire row of dominoes will come crashing down. If one of the dominoes is removed from the row, the crashing stops — that's the timeout.

If you consider that each time a domino crashes there is a potential for a firefighter to be catastrophically injured or killed, you begin to understand the need to call for a timeout in some circumstances.

The reports from Dallas are best used to make change within the fire service, not to be critical of the individual who was in command. In that light, the questions are:

  • Have we provided adequate training for our incident commanders?
  • Do we provide continuous, measurable and realistic training for our incident commanders?
  • Do we provide adequate staffing to assist the incident commander at the scene of an incident?
  • Is the incident within the capability and experience of the incident commander and fireground resources.

First command

By Fire Chief John VonBruaene, Penn Fire, South Bend, Ind.

I was a young firefighter just three years on the job. Like all young punk firefighters, I thought I knew everything. After all, I was the driver on the squad company for two whole years.

The squad was a rescue pumper that made all fires and was the most active unit in the city. Of course, being on the squad is really no big deal because they made all new firefighters ride the squad for experience.

One day, my officer was on vacation and the station captain asked if I thought I could ride the officer seat that day. Hell yes, I can ride the seat. After all, I am a young punk know-it-all firefighter.

I instantly became the officer in charge of the squad. Wow.

At around 11 a.m., Engine 2 was dispatched to a trash fire in the alley. Upon arrival they found that the trash fire was a large stack of pallets resting against a single story commercial structure. They called for a full commercial response because the fire was rapidly threatening the structure.

Being 'the man'
It's my turn to be "the man." We were the first unit to arrive at the front of the structure. Fire was already rolling out of the top of a large overhead dock door. We had a hydrant right next to us so I told the driver to hook up.

The next order was to my jump seat firefighter, who, by the way, had only two years on the job.

"Pull the 1½-inch pre-connect and take it to the overhead door." I pulled the second 1½-inch pre-connect and also made my way to the overhead door. The hoses were charged and we were ready to kick ass.

Envision this: Two young punk stupid firefighters each with a charged 1½-inch line standing with our backs to the building. One on the left side of the door and one on the right side and fire blowing out of the top of the overhead. Sounds like John Wayne time in a Hollywood fire movie.

I shouted to my partner that we were going to "move in." As soon as we turned to move in the entire roof of the structure collapsed. The roof came down so hard that it caused a rush of air to blow us out of the door and on our butts about 10 feet away. We escaped with some minor first-degree burns and a lot of embarrassment.

My lack of knowledge of building construction and fire behavior, as well as my know-it-all attitude almost got myself as well as a brother firefighter killed that day. I didn't know what I didn't know.

We were very lucky that day. That is the day that changed my attitude and began my endless commitment to fire service training. There is no way in hell that I should have been placed on the seat of that apparatus.

This was 37 years ago and it sickens me that today this kind of stuff still occurs.

Ineffective command
The lessons learned over the years is that most of the time fire department crews are doing effective work at the task and tactical level. Then why, you might ask, do some incidents just go really bad?

Often it's because someone who's in charge of an emergency can't effectively do his job, won't do his job, or he is simply a weak incident commander. In other words, it is a failure of command.

Establishing a strong command presence requires that the person in command will take charge, be proactive, use effective techniques and be responsible for the command and control of all operations.

Further, the commander must communicate over the radio and establish the command post in a position of prominence that is visible to most operational units. Most importantly, he must ask questions of deployed operational units, confirm location and assignments of on-scene units and give direct orders so the units know who is in charge. 

Changing conditions
In most cases, fire department standard operating procedures and guidelines are written for the first decisions to be made based upon the initial size up. It is after that initial size up and deployment of tactical resources where situational awareness is lost about what is happening on the exterior of the structure.

The interior crews can't see if smoke conditions (pressure, density and color) have changed. The interior crew can't see if the fire is spreading to adjacent areas either horizontally or vertically. Firefighters will put themselves in harm's way if there is not a strong command presence on the scene paying attention to the facts as they currently present.

The incident commander must keep his attention remains on the situation and not be distracted by frivolous radio traffic. In almost every report on a line of duty death, the failure of the communication process is identified as one of those dominoes.

The ability of a fireground commander to multi-task is a myth. The human brain cannot process more than three sets of facts without losing something in the process.

Situational awareness
That loss could be a contributing factor to a tragic loss of situational awareness and possibly death or injury to a firefighter. The incident commander's job is to protect them from themselves and from the unreported efforts of other operational crews. Communications management is a command function.

There are two schools of thought relating to the training of incident commanders. The first relates to the training needed for new or inexperienced incident commanders. The second relates to the training needed for experienced incident commanders.

Richard B. Gasaway in his studies of situational awareness matters states: "The ability to develop and maintain situational awareness is a far more complex process than most people realize. I've had many responders say to me that as long as they are 'paying attention' or 'keeping their head on a swivel' or 'looking up, down and all around,' they will have strong situational awareness.

"I truly wish it were that simple," he said. "If it were, flawed situational awareness would not be one of the leading contributors to first responder near-miss and casualty events. Because, all we'd have to do to fix the problem is … pay better attention … keep our heads on a swivel … and look up, down and all around."

Musical chairs
In the volunteer fire service who the incident commander is can be somewhat like a game of musical chairs. Depending on local SOPs, the person sitting in the officer seat on the first arriving vehicle may be designated by the SOP as the one to start the command process.

The SOP does not take into account training, experience or capability. I have seen firefighters who think they are qualified to be in command of an event that was over their training, experience and capability.

They were lucky that day that no one was injured or killed because the dominoes did not start falling. Fire departments must take steps to ensure that those who take the role of the incident commander are capable of managing multiple units and personnel before a catastrophic event occurs.

My story
In 1979, I was the incident commander of a structure fire involving a tavern that was closed for business. The building was about 4,000 square feet and heavily involved upon arrival. I ordered an offensive fire attack.

I believed I was making the right choice at the time.

Seven firefighters made their way into the fire building. And as the pump operator commented to himself that it looked like they got it knocked, the mansard roof came crashing down on nine firefighters. Rescue became the immediate priority.

No lives were lost, but severe injuries were the result of that roofing material falling on my brother firefighters.

I was the incident commander and the one and only one responsible. I accepted that responsibility at that time and still do today. I also committed to myself that I needed to know more about being the incident commander, as my experience and training level prior to this fire left something to be desired.

The end result after this fire:

  • Nine firefighters were transported to the hospital where they spent the night in the hospital.
  • Four firefighters had surgery to stabilize broken bones.
  • Two firefighters had steel rods placed in their bodies because of the damage to the broken bones.

The pain and suffering these firefighters endured was not necessary if I had made a different decision. Today, I realize the decisions I made that night were not appropriate for the amount of fire in a building with no life hazards and for the resources available to mount a successful interior fire suppression operation.

The report from Dallas Fire Department must be used to make it better for current and future incident commanders. Simulations must be created to ensure the decision-making process used to train the incident commanders is actually teaching the student to recognize the facts, evaluate the risk, make an appropriate decision based upon that risk and then enforce that decision.

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