Rapid Response: LAFD officer likely saved lives by noticing ‘scene sickness’

Seeing the signs and signals of environmental change is like recognizing the signs and symptoms of a stroke or heart attack


What happened

Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) firefighters responded to a reported building fire in the Little Tokyo section of downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, May 16, at approximately 6:30 p.m.

Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters work the scene of a structure fire that injured multiple firefighters, according to a fire department spokesman, Saturday, May 16, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters work the scene of a structure fire that injured multiple firefighters, according to a fire department spokesman, Saturday, May 16, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The first-arriving firefighters found a large one-story commercial building with smoke showing.

As the crew from Engine Company 9 made the push inside and onto the roof, the officer ordered an evacuation, and conditions quickly deteriorated.

As firefighters attempted to reach safe positions, there was a sudden eruption of smoke and fire, generally consistent with a smoke explosion or flashover. LAFD Captain Erik Scott described the explosion as “… very high, very wide, rumbling the entire area….” Further investigation will tell the true origins of the explosion.

The fire was adjacent to or in a building with the tenant Smoke Tokes Warehouse Distributors, a supplier for businesses that make butane honey oil. Firefighters found small butane canisters inside and outside the building.

Multiple LAFD firefighters were injured while trying to escape the blast, and multiple fire apparatus were damaged, too.

Why it’s significant

LAFD Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas reported that a mayday was called over the radio, with multiple firefighters exiting the roof with their “turnout coats on fire.”

Eleven firefighters were transported to the Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center with varying degrees of injuries. As of this writing, four firefighters were in the intensive care burn unit, with two on ventilators for swelling in the airways, and the others suffered various burns from minor to very serious, most to the upper body.

Fortunately, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the 11 firefighters would survive, and Dr. Marc Eckstein, the LAFD medical director, confirmed that all firefighters were in stable condition.

Key takeaways

The incident is still under investigation, but we can identify a few early takeaways from this event:

  • The first-in company officer noticed something was wrong and ordered an evacuation. That action likely saved firefighters lives. Understanding the signs and signals of environmental change is like the need to notice signs and symptoms of a stroke or heart attack. If you don’t act on the conditions, the situation is only going to get worse. Always expect the unexpected.
  • Rapid intervention teams (RITs) are an integral part of any incident commander’s toolbox. Part of surviving the unexpected is being prepared to respond to the unexpected in a coordinated fashion. Answering chaos with chaotic response is almost never effective nor successful.
  • Everybody on the job needs to practice calling, answering and responding to the phrase none of us want to hear: “MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!” It’s hard enough to manage the expectations, adrenalin and emotion of ONE firefighter down, but 11? ICs always need to focus on big picture management but need to be prepared to ensure there is laser-focus on the mayday.
  • Many departments use a checklist approach to keep the IC on track. Whether you’re using an electronic mobile data solution, a dry-erase board or a paper command chart, having and practicing the mayday procedure is a MUST-DO for all fire departments.

Let’s delve into this final point in greater detail.

Practicing mayday events

I have always been a fan of the paper and dry-erase charts. The back of our command chart has a 22-box mayday checklist and simple guidance that provides the instantaneous scripted language to give the IC that laser-focus needed to get the job done. (See below for images of our Command and Mayday Charts.)

Clearly, successfully managing a mayday is not just about charts and checkboxes. The organizational culture needs to not only embrace the RIT and mayday process, but also support a culture of awareness. That PASS device sounding – how long does it take a division or group supervisor, or ANYONE for that matter, to respond to the sound with some urgency? Your culture should support all of the concepts of personnel accountability reports (PARs), and you should teach instant awareness of PASS devices, unusual radio language/sounds, or sign and symptoms of the scene “sickness.”

Ask these questions:

  • Does your organization have a formal mayday procedure?
  • Have you practiced both the firefighter survival skills necessary to rescue yourself/others AND the incident command functions of managing the mayday?
  • Does your fire department culture embrace the concepts of PAR checks, RIT, 2-in/2-out and mayday?

Sadly, I see many departments still twisting “saving our own” programs as weaknesses rather than strengths.

What’s next: Review, learn and refresh

Amidst the overwhelming era of COVID-19, this LAFD experience and three other mayday-type situations I’ve monitored in the past week are reminders that the life-threatening dangers of firefighting continue to occur daily. We should always be using incidents like the LAFD mayday as an opportunity to review, learn and refresh our commitments to firefighter safety and survival.

Many departments use a checklist approach to keep the IC on track. Whether you’re using an electronic mobile data solution, a dry-erase board or a paper command chart, having and practicing the mayday procedure is a MUST-DO for all fire departments.
Many departments use a checklist approach to keep the IC on track. Whether you’re using an electronic mobile data solution, a dry-erase board or a paper command chart, having and practicing the mayday procedure is a MUST-DO for all fire departments.

 

The back of the Highlands County, Florida, command chart has a 22-box mayday checklist and simple guidance that provides the instantaneous scripted language to give the IC that laser-focus needed to get the job done.
The back of the Highlands County, Florida, command chart has a 22-box mayday checklist and simple guidance that provides the instantaneous scripted language to give the IC that laser-focus needed to get the job done.

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