Worcester firefighters now hold after-action reviews on scene

The new strategy gives firefighters a more immediate look at their efforts and is part of the city's plan to improve safety


George Barnes
Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.

WORCESTER, Mass. — Before they rolled up and put away their hoses at a fire on Outlook Drive Feb. 18, Worcester firefighters and command staff gathered outside the building to have a private discussion.

The meeting was an opportunity for the firefighters to share what they did, how they did it and what they were thinking in responding to the blaze in the multiunit building at 57-63 Outlook Drive.

Under new protocol, firefighters listen to comments by a chief after they fought a 2-alarm fire at 63 Overlook Drive in Worcester. The on-scene discussions seek to give firefighters a more immediate look at their efforts after a fire. (Photo/Christine Peterson, Telegram & Gazette)
Under new protocol, firefighters listen to comments by a chief after they fought a 2-alarm fire at 63 Overlook Drive in Worcester. The on-scene discussions seek to give firefighters a more immediate look at their efforts after a fire. (Photo/Christine Peterson, Telegram & Gazette)

"Typically after any kind of incident like these fires we've been going to, the crews and the chiefs are going to get together at some point and talk about what we did," Deputy Fire Chief Martin Dyer said. "What did you see, what did you do, did this placement work, did this tactic work, where did you run into trouble. Everyone kind of gets a quick little understanding of what everyone saw when they came in, what it was they did and if there are any improvements that can be made with that."

Similar discussions are taking place at every major fire the department is called to. The discussions took place in the past but often later in the shift after firefighters returned to their stations. The new strategy allows for an immediate look at the fire effort. The meeting is held before the hose lines are returned to trucks and before they return to their stations. It is part of an ongoing effort by the Worcester Fire Department to improve its procedures with an eye toward what they will do at future fires. The discussions are private and are not videotaped to ensure firefighters are comfortable talking about what they did.

"We've always done after-action reports and things like that and we've learned with each fire," Fire Chief Michael Lavoie said. "This is to do it while it is fresh in our minds. When we can look and see the placement of the apparatus, the placement of the hose lines, the placement of the ladders, where the holes were cut for ventilation and what windows were vented.

Lavoie said all that has an effect on firefighting efforts.

"We can use it and learn how to do things better from each and every fire," he said.

Dyer said they are looking for firefighters to look at what they did, how they handled it and what was important. Lavoie said one of the things he learned from fighting multiple fires was the extreme danger of enclosed back porches. During a fire, the porches hold in pressure and when the door is opened an explosion could occur. In one case, the breaching of the door resulted in the firefighters being blown down the stairs by a release of pressure, but it did not relieve all the pressure. When a window was broken by a stick being used on a ladder, it caused an explosion that sent a fireball through the second floor.

With the recent line-of-duty death of fire Lt. Jason Menard at a fire at 7 Stockholm St., the city is conducting a review of the department's procedures and what will be needed to improve firefighter safety. A consultant is being hired to conduct the review, which will be a look at the department's operations, training and deployment practices. The city has lost nine firefighters at fires in the past 20 years. The review is intended to consider what can be changed for the better. It is expected to take six to eight months to complete.

In the meantime, safety improvements are already being made. Lavoie said the department will be replacing its current breathing apparatus with new equipment, which is safer, easier to use and has expanded capabilities. It provides firefighters with better visibility through their masks and built-in Bluetooth capabilities to allow for clearer communications. Much of what was previously built into the mask other than the breathing connection and mask is now designed into the backpack used to carry the air tank.

The equipment does not come cheap. It will cost $1 million, but it was quickly approved by City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., who is reconfiguring the city budget to pay for it.

The immediate after-action meetings and the changes that will be recommended by the consultant study will not create a template for perfect firefighting. They will allow for improvement or a better understanding of what worked well, but Lavoie said each fire is different. A fire Monday at a home at 41 Westminster St. proved difficult to contain because of the way the building was constructed and remodeled.

"It progressed so fast that everyone on the fire ground had to change their strategy like that," he said, snapping his fingers.

Dyer said the building was wide open. When the fire was reported, Lavoie looked out of his window at the Grove Street fire station and did not see much smoke. He turned and told someone it looked like it would be a minor fire. In less than a minute, a district chief reported smoke visible from Lincoln Square.

"I went back to the window and I could see flames going up the back of the building," he said.

Lavoie said weather conditions were in their favor considering how steep the hill was around the house. It was muddy in the backyard but no ice to deal with.

As firefighters work to improve their tactics, Dyer said they are also depending on residents to use common sense in getting out of the buildings as quickly as possible. He said there have been several fires over the past several weeks but residents have been warned by smoke detectors and got out safely. He said if residents see a fire, they should dial 911 and get out of the building. The department is also planning a campaign recommending homeowners get 10-year sealed battery smoke detectors that would eliminate the need to replace batteries, but also eliminate homeowners removing batteries to keep the detectors from going off.

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©2020 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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