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Looking at the ‘big picture’

Regardless of who finds themselves in the role of Incident Commander at the fire scene, the rules don’t change

Unfortunately, we’ve seen several line of duty deaths already this year. Each of us needs to take some time and refocus our efforts to do whatever we can to increase firefighter safety. For my part, this month’s column is a continuation of my series on the IAFC’s “Rules of Engagement Project,” with the focus this time around on the efforts of the Project Team created for Incident Commanders.

In many communities, the initial Incident Commander may be the chief of department, the first arriving officer, or even the most senior firefighter on the apparatus. Regardless of who finds themselves in the role, the rules don’t change. If your department allows the senior firefighter to assume command, then PLEASE make sure they review these items as well; they aren’t for the chief’s eyes only!

There are 14 items in total in “The Incident Commanders’ Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Safety,” and I’ll be breaking them up into chunks over the course of the next few columns.

1) Rapidly Conduct, or Obtain, a 360-Degree Size Up of the Incident:
This seems fairly straightforward, but often doesn’t happen, particularly when the initial Incident Command is under the first arriving engine or truck. The Incident Commander needs to be looking at the “big picture.” Often as company officers, we tend to think in terms of tasks and tactics with regard to the apparatus we are on.

The ONLY way to achieve a true understanding (at least initially) of what you have in front of you is to “see” it and see all of it. Depending on your district, this might include buildings that are so large you’ll be retired by the time you walk all the way around. You’ll notice, however, that the rule says you can obtain the 360-degree view.

Often on approach, you can pick up at least two sides of a structure, a quick view of the third and then, if the building is too big, send someone around to the fourth side to be your eyes for you. At the beginning of the event, you simply can’t create the “big picture” in your head if you haven’t seen the building.

It’s also worth mentioning that for many of our buildings, the day of the fire is not the day you’ll want to see the building for the first time. Low Frequency High Hazard buildings need to be seen by chiefs, officers and firefighters ahead of time.

I drive my wife crazy all the time when we’re at a store or local business, and I start to look around at the building in terms of its construction and life safety issues. “You’re thinking about fighting a fire in this building again aren’t you?” And then the eyes roll. I’ve even been caught in our church pew more than once paying more attention to vertical ventilation than the sermon.

Know your district, know the buildings. You’ll still need to do the 360, but it will make a lot more sense when you know what the building is supposed to look like, inside and out!

2) Determine the Occupant Survival Profile:
I’ve said it before: Our purpose is “Our Life, Their Life-Their Stuff, Our Stuff.” We’ll destroy our equipment to save their junk -- after all, their tax dollars bought the equipment in the first place. But we won’t simply throw firefighters on the flames until the fire goes out.

A continual and ongoing risk assessment for both the property and civilian lives must occur at the firefighter, officer and command level. Search and rescue is high risk almost by definition, but putting firefighters in that level of high risk for unsavable bodies is unacceptable.

At the firefighter/officer task level, it is often difficult to see the big picture. Often Command must be the “reasonable” person in the equation. Understanding building construction and fire development is imperative for this one. You need to recognize that it’s going to take your team two or three minutes to reach the victim. Focus on what the fire is going to look like then, not what it looks like now.

3) Conduct an Initial Risk Assessment and Implement a SAFE ACTION PLAN:
Again, Command needs to think in the “big picture.” After your arrival, you need to create and communicate that big picture to the entire team. Only by “seeing” the building, conducting a risk assessment (again, Our Lives, Their Lives – Their Stuff, Our Stuff) can you begin to place a plan together, a plan based on safety.

Bear in mind that you can’t create a real plan and keep it a secret. You need to communicate to inbound units what it is they’re going to be doing — it’s the only way everyone will know if they’re making progress.

This is also the place where SOPs and training come into play. If your arriving units know the basic tasks they are going to carry out every time upon arrival, then you as the IC have a little time to do the assessment and create a plan. If, however, you need to explain everything in depth, then you may find it tough to focus on the big picture.

Learn how to make your department a safer place in Tom LaBelle’s FireRescue1 column, ‘The Butcher’s Bill.’ LaBelle provides tips, advice and opinions that balance accomplishing strategic objectives with making sure every firefighter goes home.
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