By Jerry Knapp
The vast majority (85 percent) of fire protection is provided in our country by small to medium-sized fire departments. These may be career, combination, or volunteer. Many are suburban firefighters around large cities or distributed in communities throughout our states. The hard reality is this: Suburban firefighters will be first- or second-due to any type of incident in and around their district or in nearby communities with which they have mutual aid agreements.
In larger-city fire departments there are specialized teams to handle these calls. There may be rescue companies, each with a particular specialty. Squad companies may supplement rescue companies with specific tasks. There may be special collapse units, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) units, urban search and rescue (USAR) teams, and may be a fully staffed hazmat unit.
Recently, while doing a railroad emergency response exercise for a local department, one of the assistant chiefs claimed he would not go to a rail incident on a mutual-aid call because it was “too” dangerous. So a house fire, which we know from experience is the most dangerous call for us, is not “too” dangerous?
At another training session, again with a very well-versed and experienced fire officer, I heard him say, “I’m not interested in [x] call,” meaning “I’m not going to get myself prepared for this type of alarm.” I asked him if he would go when called, and he responded, “Yes, sure.” So because you may not like it or it may not be “your thing,” you will not train to be able to be part of the solution? Let’s say that turned out to be a lively discussion.
WHAT TO DO
1. Conduct a risk or hazard analysis. Scary words for a simple and fun task. Gather up about eight to 10 of your senior people and identify what types of calls you have gone on in the past 20 years. This sorts out and identifies likely threats—likely because you have actually experienced these calls in the past and likely will again. This also sorts out unlikely threats. Obviously, if you don’t have a railroad within 50 miles of your firehouse, you don’t have to prepare for a railroad emergency. The same with other calls or hazards that are not applicable to your area. You have just taken a large bite out of the problem. Remember how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
2. Write a mission statement. Don’t do this in a vacuum! Again, gather up a few experienced members and brainstorm some thoughts. The mission statement is a simple (one page or less) statement that states or defines what types of alarms you will respond to, be equipped and trained or prepared for. For example, your mission statement may be something like this: The Suburban Fire Department (SFD) will provide cost-effective fire protection and rescue services to the community of Suburbia. This will be accomplished by [spell out basic details.]
In the second part of the mission statement, go into detail regarding what specific types of calls you will train for, equip for, and respond to. Additionally, you may decide that the SFD will not respond to calls for swift water rescue because you are not trained or equipped for that response. You may also spell out what types of calls SFD will be the lead for and what calls you will be in a supporting role.
Although this sounds like a lot of useless paperwork to satisfy some bureaucrat in a state office, it actually defines your department and protects your members from going to a call for which they are unprepared (no training, no equipment) and trying to improvise and getting themselves hurt or killed. It also suggests funding requirements for training and equipment and helps to define your training plan.
It is clear that you cannot be an expert in all or even most of the scenarios I mentioned at the top of this column. But what you can do is conduct a training session, maybe once a year or so, to just keep what I call critical information in your back pocket for these infrequent calls. We don’t have to be experts and solve the entire incident, but as suburban firefighters, you often have to start the process correctly, know when to call for help, and meld that assistance into your command and control system. This generally means that incoming units need a good briefing as to what sort of incident you have, what you are doing, and what you need from them. The National Incident Management System 201 form is an excellent tool for this and will be covered in another column.
Until next time, stay safe and take a few minutes to evaluate what calls you think are possible in your area. Look specifically at the most likely calls, the most dangerous calls, and those that can have the most impact (death and destruction). This simple process will help keep your members safe.