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Proactivity is better than reactivity for firefighter safety on the fireground

New technology, like PASS devices, in-mask SCBA TICs and communications must be implemented proactively though incident command


Consistently using the incident command system – appropriately scaled for the size and magnitude of the emergency event – is the only proactive tool available for fire officers and firefighters to avoid firefighter deaths and injuries. In this article, I’m going to prove it to you.

Firefighter safety must always be a priority for every fire chief and every member. Over the past three decades, fire departments across the U.S. and Canada have taken positive steps in the name of improving firefighter safety on the emergency scene. These steps have included:

  • New technologies – Portable radios are more durable and have more capabilities than ever before. Radio communications have become integrated into the SCBA facepiece. Attachable PASS devices were invented and have now been integrated into SCBA.

    Thermal imaging camera technology continues to make those devices more user-friendly; the increasing use of TICs has helped firefighters in finding fires more quickly – allowing quicker control and avoiding dangerous situations. TICs have also greatly improved the firefighter’s ability to locate civilian victims or endangered firefighters.
  • Better protective clothing and equipment – Structural firefighting protective turnout gear manufacturers have made incredible improvements in the past three decades. Turnout gear today is more light-weight, more durable and provides a far greater level of protection from both thermal and mechanical hazards faced by firefighters. It also continues to get better at releasing internal heat from the firefighter, thereby reducing heat stress.

    The SCBA in use today hardly resembles the first SCBA that appeared in the 1970s. Computerized control consoles provide key real-time data for air consumption at the user’s glove-tip. Lightweight composite air cylinders and harness assemblies have reduced overall weight and improved user wearability.
  • Implementation of modern standard operating procedures – Arguably the greatest SOG advancement has been that for response to a firefighter mayday situation. Along with SOGs, many fire departments have aggressively pursued firefighter mayday training and procured specialized equipment for their rapid intervention crews.
  • Improved training – Better and more technologically advanced structural firefighting burn structures and flashover simulators are aiding in better training for the hazards encountered in firefighting. Online fire education and training continues to mature, giving more firefighters training opportunities that are affordable and accessible.
The only means for the IC to proactively protect firefighters and officers on the emergency scene is to always know where they are, what they're doing and who's leading them – and that takes using ICS. (Photo/Joe Thomas of Greenbox Photography)
The only means for the IC to proactively protect firefighters and officers on the emergency scene is to always know where they are, what they're doing and who's leading them – and that takes using ICS. (Photo/Joe Thomas of Greenbox Photography)

But (and there’s always a but), the one thing that all the above have in common is that they are reactive. Their value only comes into play when a firefighter has already gotten “into a jam.”

A firefighter becomes disoriented and lost in a structure: the PASS device activates the radio call for mayday signals and the RIC is activated. Turnout gear and SCBA help sustain and protect the firefighter until he or she can be located. Training helps the firefighter keep his or her wits about them until successful location. All these steps are reactive.

Too many fire departments are using active PAS that require the incident commander and individual firefighters to act to make the system work. Whether it involves dropping a cow tag or passport at the command post or having a barcode scanned at the command post, such systems require a disruption from the normal flow of activity. And those manual systems – when properly used – only address one of the critical accountability questions: who’s on the emergency scene? They don’t indicate where Firefighter Jones is on the emergency scene at any given time.

Proactivity is better firefighter safety

The only proactive tool and behavior needed on the fireground is the proper use of ICS by all personnel on the scene.  Everyone – from the firefighter to the chief – must know and understand their responsibilities for their assigned ICS position.  Everyone should clearly understand what their job is and who their boss is on the fireground.

The IC must conduct an initial risk assessment to determine the appropriate mode of operation – defensive, offensive or marginal – and reassess every 10 minutes while operations are ongoing.

The IC must develop, communicate and implement an incident action plan with all their subordinates, i.e., tactical leaders. Those tactical leaders, division and group supervisors and crew leaders, must clearly understand their assigned objective, the resources assigned to them, and their radio call sign (e.g., Division 1, Vent Group, Engine 7 Crew).

The IC must establish a PAS to accurately track the location of all assigned resources on the fireground.  If Firefighter Jones gets in a jam, the IC should know who Jones was working for and where Jones should have been working. Effective and efficient deployment of the RIC and other resources to assist Jones are dependent on quickly the last known location for FF Jones can be identified.

ICs must be unyielding in their control of incident communications. They must position themselves so that they have a work environment where they can hear all incoming radio traffic and their subordinates can hear their outgoing radio transmissions.

The IC’s assigned tactical leaders must be equally unyielding in their enforcement of crew integrity (i.e., nobody works solo and the officers always knows where their people are and what they’re doing).

Know where firefighters are and what they’re doing

A key issue that’s been identified as a causative factor in firefighter LODDs in structural fires is firefighter disorientation.

In 2003, Captain Willie Mora of the San Antonio Fire Department reviewed 23 firefighter fireground LODDs occurring over a 16-year period (1997-2001). He was able to categorize those traumatic firefighter fatalities as having occurred in open structures and enclosed structures.

Mora defined open structures as smaller structures with an adequate number of windows and doors (within a short distance) to allow for prompt ventilation and emergency evacuation. He defined enclosed structures as large buildings with inadequate windows or doors to allow prompt ventilation and emergency evacuation.

Mora’s research determined that 23 percent of the LODDs occurred when a fast and aggressive interior attack was made on an open structure. When fast, aggressive interior attacks occurred in enclosed structures, the LODD rate rose to 77 percent. Many occurred in marginal or rapidly changing conditions in which the firefighter should not have been in the building.

In all these tragedies, the only living human beings in the structures were firefighters. Firefighters were killed trying to save buildings. Most were rebuilt.

We still see too many firefighter fatality post-incident reports (completed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) where one of the leading recommendations (NIOSH doesn’t assign fault) is: an incident command system should be used.

The only means for the IC to proactively protect firefighters and officers on the emergency scene is to always know where they are, what they’re doing and who’s leading them – and that takes using ICS.

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