By Eric G. Bachman
Fire department profiles are different in organization, staffing, and equipment. Every fire district, too, is different and serves areas typically classified as rural, suburban, and urban. The factors that influence fire department profiles are many and include common circumstances such as the economy and financial support. Another factor that shapes and influences their profiles, at least should include, is what the fire department protects. Often, considering the protected elements is a closed-minded assimilation to noting classical target hazards in a community. However, what a fire department protects goes far beyond the built environment; it should include a comprehensive understanding of what could go wrong in a community because emergencies do not only occur in buildings. If the fire department is not cognizant of the other potential response venues, systems, and conditions beforehand, it certainly will not be as prepared as it should be when an atypical incident occurs. The bottom line is: What is your fire department responsible for protecting?
“Responsibility” or its base word “responsible” according to Webster’s Dictionary means “liable to be called on to answer” and “liable to be called to account as the primary agent.” When applied to the fire service, it means “What protection obligations do you have in your community?” Fire services leaders often overlook and do not prepare for situations beyond a structure fire. When I query fire officers on what they protect, rarely do any mention elements beyond structures. The answers are similar and often include hospitals, schools, and industrial complexes.
Every fire department is vulnerable to some type of adverse event in addition to structure-related incidents (although, in some communities, the consequences may not be perceived as severe as what may be felt in other areas). However, that statement is relative to the individual community and its dependence or reliance to a certain element. Less-considered facets are not typically concentrated on and rarely are a part of a fire department’s preparedness program. And, most assuredly, when a fire department responds to an unanticipated event, the most likely outcome will be unfavorable.
Fire department preparedness programs should include gathering intelligence on elements such as transportation corridors, environmental constituents, critical infrastructure, and other circumstances that can affect the public and compromise responder safety. Each element deserves concentrated preparedness efforts for efficient and effective operations.
Anything and everything can be travelling on any road network; the types of vehicles you may encounter are as fluid as the types and frequency of vehicles traversing this road. The hazards of commodities being transported, both legal and illegal, are limited only to one’s imagination. The uncertainty of these facets limits the development of a preparedness contingency. However, there are numerous transportation system conditions that can directly affect operations and be identified preincident. For many road systems, especially limited access highways (photo 1), accessibility is restricted. As a result, consider alternative access points. Certain natural and man-made elements (photo 2) may prohibit access by secondary means. However, regardless of access, recognize this before an incident occurs.
(1) Limited access highways present accessibility challenges from secondary means. (Photos by author.)
(2) Sound barriers are a man-made access obstacle that may prohibit access from secondary means.
Road networks, especially highway systems, typically are not developed with water supply infrastructure (photo 3). So, develop contingencies to address delivery of sustained water supplies and note the distances for potential hose lays or alternative sources from secondary roads before an incident occurs. Also consider methods for water delivery on roadway systems.
(3) Few highway systems are afforded standpipes to support highway firefighting.
A third common factor related to transportation corridors is run-off. If a hazardous substance spills, where will it go? Natural and man-made conduits must be recognized and followed to outfalls. For certain situations, the first and most effective strategy may be to deploy resources to outfall locations to initiate spill control measures to prevent downstream contamination. Where do conduits such as a drainage ditches, culverts, and tributaries lead? Other off-site exposures must also be recognized to initiate protective actions for releases.
The term “environmental” is broad and encompasses venues that are too unique and impossible to list in one article. It includes public and private settings and is not solely considerate of hazardous material releases. Environmental sites can facilitate other situations such as wild-fires, search and rescue, personal injury incidents, and so on. These incidents will require special operations and resources that must be anticipated and prepared for beforehand.
Some will ask what intelligence can be gathered for a park or recreation area. As one fire officer stated, “It’s just woods!” General and specific information related to trails (photo 4), caves, terrain, topography, and other local recreation elements can be realized if you initiate concentrated efforts. Identifying these factors will provide valuable information as to what resources may be needed to effect tactics.
(4) Trail arrangement intelligence can be gathered beforehand to support environmental incident response.
Waterways, especially those with recreational uses, require preparedness efforts. As with any hazard, access is a key factor. Some navigable water sources may have specific—but limited—access points for launching boats. Others may be bordered by extreme terrain that prohibits all-terrain vehicle use and even personnel access. Deploying resources in a waterway can be difficult, but it must be considered beforehand.
Infrastructure is district-specific and requires careful consideration. Common infrastructure examples include water, sewage, and wastewater treatment systems; power utility sites (photo 5); and underground pipeline transmission systems. Infrastructure that dissects a community underground are often overlooked and summarized by the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Only after an incident occurs is when ramifications are realized. Contributing to this complacent demeanor is when the community serves only as a vehicle for the system. A pipeline may traverse a fire district, but the system may not serve the local community. Regardless of whom the pipeline serves, effective fire department response is essential.
(5) Electric transmission fields present challenges to emergency responders.
Water, sewage, and wastewater venues present great hazards. In many smaller communities, these venues are not staffed 24 hours a day. The potential for a response to this type of site, regardless of its size (photo 6) can compromise responder safety if its intricacies are not recognized before an incident.
(6) Small, unmanned water pumping stations can present hazardous material and technical rescue hazards.
For incidents at some infrastructure sites, the best offense a fire department can employ is to be defensive and, in some cases, not intervene. The hazards of electrical substation are dramatic, and pipeline valve sites (photo 7) present unique challenges. Taking a defensive or nonintervention posture at an incident at one of these sites may be the best option. The temptation to turn valves and levers cannot overshadow the potential for contributing to worsening the situation. And, although fire department actions may be limited, you can ascertain intelligence before an incident. One important thing to consider is ownership. Some elements you can obtain include answering some basic but frequently unknown questions as the following:
- Who is responsible for the site?
- How can the owner be contacted for emergency support and response?
- What resources can the owner bring to the table for an emergency?
- In what time frame can the owner bring these resources?
(7) Manipulating levers and wheel assemblies at a pipeline valve site incident can escalate the situation.
For some infrastructure additional specificity may be necessary. For pipelines, markers (photo 8) reveal right-of-ways and provide three critical information facts, which follow:
- Who owns the pipeline?
- What products are transported in the pipeline?
- What is the emergency contact information?
(8) Pipeline markers provide the owner, products transported, and emergency contact information.
At some sites, aerial markers are installed for aerial reconnaissance by pipeline company surveys. You must collect this information and include it in fire department preparedness mediums. Weather, external mechanical impact, or failure of the pipeline at the marker may cover or destroy these devices (photo 9).
(9) Pipeline marker for aerial reconnaissance.
At valve sites, the utility usually assigns its own identifier independent of a physical address. Contacting the utility during an emergency and providing it with the physical address may not be enough information for the company to recognize the location. Maintaining utility assigned identifiers (photo 10) is necessary to prompt a more efficient response. Certain situations may prohibit responders from getting close to a sign to determine its identifier. Fire conditions and vapor clouds will prevent close proximity access as well as any radiant heat that may destroy the marker.
(10) Valve site identifier may differ from the local physical address.
Special structures are another “responsibility” you should investigate. This can include an infinite number of sites, depending on the locale. Common examples include bridges, communication towers, water towers (photo 11), underground venues, and vessels. Each will present challenges that the fire department must anticipate and for which must develop contingencies for mitigation. These sites may not present a fire or chemical release hazard, but they may foster other extraordinary situations, especially when manipulated by the human factor. Confined spaces can quickly humble a fire department when it realizes it does not have the resources to affect a rescue. High-angle situations, too, will challenge technical resources.
(11) Water towers can present unique response challenges.
Identifying special structures is critical to understanding their fundamental operations, new technologies, and other site-specific challenges. Recently, in my county, as part of a renewable energy initiative, electric-generating wind turbines (photo 12) were installed. These impressive structures are nearly 400 feet tall. Emergency situations may be limited, but scenarios will be trying. Workers performing maintenance inside the main shaft or on the exterior or interior of the machine head could experience a medical emergency or otherwise require emergency assistance.
(12) New technologies can foster development of special structures that need to be prepared for.
Seek out other district specific elements not listed above; each will require concentrated efforts for anticipating likely scenarios and the ways a fire department will handle them.
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Eric G. Bachman, CFPS, is a 30-year fire service and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.