Features, Fireground Management, Leadership

Main Street Optics

Drone view of Main Street buildings
Drone view of Main Street buildings. Photo courtesy of the Elyria (OH) Police Department.

Part 3 of 3

Article and photos by Joe Pronesti

Main Street Optics Part 1 | Part 2

Successful firefighting operations at structures of legacy Type III construction require a commander who is adept at two main items: forecasting and sectoring off the fireground.

On social media pages I came across a meme with the picture of the great retired FDNY Chief Vincent Dunn with a quote supposedly from him stating: “It’s better to be lucky rather than smart, but if you’re smart you have a better chance of being lucky.” This quote sums up the Main Street incident commander (IC). As you study Main Street fire incidents, keep in mind the need for luck mixed with knowledge and leadership.

All Eyes Will Be On You

According to the National Fire Protection Association, from 2013-2017 there were an average of 354,400 residential fires per year. Many of these occurred with little more note than a press clipping or social media blurb with pictures. If close to a major metro area, you might see a television news 30-second report that, except for those with a vested interest such as the homeowner, instantly wanes from public attention. If you on the other hand burn down a city block of historic buildings in your community, everyone in town, especially the politicians, will be looking at the fire department and its leadership with a microscope. That was the impetus behind my FDIC International class, “Main Street Fires: Are You Ready?”

RELATED TRAINING

Keeping Track of Firefighters on the Fireground

Qualities of Effective Incident Commanders

Managing Big Fires 101: Divide and Conquer

APPARATUS POSITIONING: EARLY DECISIONS SAVE THE DAY

Optics Prior to the Alarm

Although you can’t get into every house in your response district or town, many commanders can and should get into the first-floor storefront and common upper floor hallways of your Main Street buildings. These occupancies can change rather quickly and you must do all you can to stay on top of the changes. Some points to consider for commanders as you prepare and review your legacy attached structures:

  • Occupancy and life hazard
  • Water supply and how to get water into the area
  • Ability to get additional command help to scene
  • Training
  • Use of modern technology

Occupancy and Life Hazard

In my town, for example, after 120 years or so you can pretty much bet that the building built for a haberdashery is not still be using in that capacity. Over the years, many storefronts change hands. Did you notice that the florist shop from the 1900s is now a dollar store loaded with plastics and synthetics? Getting out and really looking at these occupancies is the key. Having an excellent relationship with your local building department and Fire Prevention officials will also better prepare you.

The life hazards in the apartments/lofts above Type III and Type V taxpayers can vary. If you protect a college town, look for apartments and sleeping areas in every conceivable place. In a fire that occurred in the college town of Athens, Ohio, the small peaked of a burning building held an apartment as you can see in the picture. If you protect an area with high transient housing like my department does, be on the lookout for single-room occupancies.

Water Supply

The silent sentinel known as a fire hydrant can give fire commanders a false sense of security on Main Street. When most of our fires we command are handled with single hydrants on a single water main, the issues of water and the lack of preparation prior to your fire can cost time and energy the incident commander can’t afford to lose. Remember, legacy Main Street structures might have been the first buildings erected in your town, but underneath these streets are most likely water mains that were in place when demand and consumption were not as great. Sediment and age may be a factor in reducing your water supply resources. If you start plugging hydrants on the same main, you will be asking for trouble. Understand and develop contingencies for the need for water. Does your city, area, or county capable to set up a water shuttle? Many small communities and villages that have Main Streets also have rural areas that may not have hydrants and have in place water shuttles using tanker/tender apparatus. When a serious Main Street fire hits, a wise incident commander has a plan and a water supply officer in place to handle this awesome responsibility. Many a press conference has had a fire chief or official describe the lack of water when defending a burned-out city block. Have a water plan!

Command-Level Help

I recently reviewed a Main Street fire video in which the command chief was moving around to just about every position on the fireground. No command help was in the rear and this “lone commander” was basically making every call and trying to see the big picture. The fire was in the town square, and two structures, including a prominent family-owned business, were lost.

A good tip from Chief Anthony Avillo promotes the use of command-level officers in positions the incident commander can’t see. These include exposures, roofs, alleys, shafts, etc. How does a smaller department with limited staffing do this? It’s about planning. Have lunch with surrounding chiefs in your county. Do something to fosters relationships prior to your Main Street fire. In this way you can plug fellow commanders into important sector positions, thus increasing safety and efficiency.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. In my county, for instance, there are only two on-duty command officers that have their own vehicle and have the chief officer designation. Full disclosure, my department hasn’t entirely figured it out, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.

A word of caution on placing company officers into command positions such as sectors: remember that day in and day out a company-level boss is used to supervising two/three subordinates. When you place them in a rear alley off your Main Street and ask them to supervise three mutual aid engines and two trucks, you might be setting the company officer and your fireground up for failure. Company bosses are used to going for the goal (fire) in a sector spot. They may have to focus on the building as opposed to the fire blowing out four windows in the alley.

Multiple sets of eyes on the fire
Don’t forget to prepare for the ability to get mutual aid commanders on your Main Street fires. Photo courtesy of Terry Costigan.

Training

If you are reading this, you are already focused on training, so I just want to highlight two items as a shift commander or command boss you can control: getting your companies out into these buildings and having your aerial units set up and practice working in or on these buildings.

Do your members know how many lengths to reach the top floor above “Pronesti Florist”? A quick stretch using utility rope can prepare you and get your members into these buildings—killing two birds with one stone.

The next time you have a nice sunny afternoon or beautiful summer drill night, take your aerial out onto your Main Street. Better yet, have your operators and apparatus set up in the alleyways that commonly border the rear of many Main Streets.

Technology

Using the latest technology can be beneficial to a commander prior to the fire. Overhead satellite imagery can get you a bird’s eye view of your legacy commercial area. Consider the use of drones both prior and during the fire. I interviewed a chief from a Northwestern Ohio fire department who was able to use a county emergency management drone with thermal camera capability to find hot spots during his Main Street fire. Under non-fire conditions a drone can also help detect structural issues with your Main Street buildings. Make friends with those who have these high-tech units, as many emergency services are investing in drones.

Birds-eye view of a building captured using a drone
Drones can benefit a chief both prior and during a Main Street event. Here I used a drone to capture one of my Main Street buildings structural issues. Photo courtesy of the Elyria (OH) Police Department.

During the Fire Command Optics

Its 0300 on a cold January night in your town. You are roused from your bunk by the tones reporting smoke coming from the Smith Restaurant on the corner of Main and Ordinary Street. You have prepared for your Main Street event; now it’s showtime. What optics will you be seeing from your command post or officer seat?

Communications are always a priority at any fire. When was the last time you and your department trained on sector reports or adding additional command channels? Most small departments have never used or furnished the IC with an aide, but this is one event where you had better find one…the sooner, the better. If you haven’t planned for an aide, consider doing so now before the fire. Once the fire hits, find someone who can assist you in documenting, organizing, and listening to the radio.

This will be up for debate, but a Main Street IC must get themselves in a strategic spot as soon as possible away from the chaos that will be unfolding. I am an in-the-vehicle kind of IC. Before that turns you off as a reader, I want to make it clear that it does not matter where you go but find a spot where you can be in command and away from the commotion. Main Street fires require a thinking, strategic IC who can forecast and see the big picture. There is no way any boss can do this if he or she must interact with a citizen who comes up  asking if you want doughnuts and coffee for the crews or the exasperated owner of the wig shop three doors down from the fire wanting to go inside their business. Main Street fires bring out the crowds and distractions; find a secluded spot.

Apparatus placement must be considered for the entire block. Command may need to be more forceful and direct aerial placement more than on the routine house fire. Once you spot your aerials, you can pretty much forget about moving them. An IC must consider collapse zones and flanking positions immediately on arrival to a Main Street fire, regardless of what is or isn’t showing.

Main Street RIT

Like most of us, Alan “The Bull” Dugan of the Grandview (MO) Fire Department went to work on October 5, 2015. However, within the first few hours of his shift, his department was called to a fire in a two-story downtown building with as many as four civilians reported trapped. The building housed retail businesses on the first floor and seven residential apartments on the second floor. The “Bull” crew arrived and immediately began search operations. Police officers had already removed one trapped occupant, but more were reported inside. At 1003 hours, a ceiling collapsed on the second floor, trapping Dugan. He radioed a Mayday and he was successfully rescued. The rescue was recorded by a citizen, and the video went “viral,” showing his aerial apparatus operator climbing the ladder to rescue him. It was a successful outcome to a possible tragedy.

A well-thought-out  rapid intervention team (RIT) and understanding the differences between a “residential” and “Main Street” RIT may one day help you save a life. Additional crews will be needed for commercial RIT. It may be smart to have chief officers in charge of these teams set up on the A and C sides. Remember, you can’t ask a group of members to “run around the block to the alley and throw a ladder” to rescue a firefighter.

Teams should consider the establish of RIT-specific hoselines in the event fire suppression may be needed to save or rescue a member. This tactic was underscored to me when studying the line of duty death of two members in a Texas VFW hall.

Forecast

ICs must be able to forecast what will be happening in five, 10, or 20 minutes on the fireground. This really isn’t needed or practiced much at the everyday house fire. Most unsuccessful Main Street campaigns ending in a burned-out block of buildings can be contributed to a lack of forecasting or a commander emphasizing current conditions rather than looking to the future.

JOSEPH PRONESTI is a 29-year veteran of the Elyria (OH) Fire Department, where he is a shift commander. He is a graduate of the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Executive Officer program and a lead instructor at the Cuyahoga (OH) County Community College Fire Academy. He is a contributor to fire service publications and sites, including Fire Engineering and firefighternation.com.

CORRECTION (3/27/2020): An earlier version of this story referred to the National Fire Protection Agency, which is incorrect; it is the National Fire Protection Association, and has been amended.