By Eric G. Bachman
(Click HERE for Part 1.)
Understanding what the fire department is responsible for protecting is only one piece of the preparedness process. Fire officers must compare the challenges a venue presents against the fire department’s profile. This will reveal the preparedness level of an organization to mitigate situations as its responsibilities; in other words, to determine the department’s response ability.
Fire department profiles, while most often assimilated to fire apparatus, extend beyond obvious and tangible elements. Profiles encompass many elements, with the most common—next to apparatus—being organizational policy, staffing, and resourcefulness. The abilities of a fire department are deeper than what is in plain sight.
The fire department fleet is often its most recognized facet. Sometimes, superficial features are its trademark. Striping and apparatus color are often assimilated to an organization such as the well-known reflective striping on Fire Department of New York units. In my county, one company is known for its bright orange color apparatus and another for its canary yellow apparatus. Although the members of all of these organizations are proud of their equipment, response ability has nothing to do with those features; however, they are rather inclusive of three specific characteristics. One is accessibility. Most fire apparatus today are larger and heavier than their predecessors. Unfortunately, the road networks these machines traverse do not change, and larger apparatus dimensions can prohibit access into certain areas. If a unit cannot service the customers it was intended to protect, its response ability is reduced.
A second characteristic is versatility; this means adapting to a situation. Apparatus specifications typically are based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard on Automotive Fire Apparatus. Members tasked with apparatus design (for new or replacement vehicles) often base their layout scheme on this standard. But, it is important to remember that this standard lists minimum criteria. Apparatus design requires a careful balance, considerate to the challenges the fire department’s present responsibilities. One size does not fit all, and only meeting the standard may limit versatility.
Analysis of responsibilities will reveal specific needs and should influence apparatus design and its inventory. Realize that there is no perfect fire truck; all have specific capabilities and limitations. But one facet that is important to incorporate is having options. At an emergency, if you have no options, typically, things end badly. A versatility example is the hose compliment of an engine company. Adhering to the standard and not going out of the box can result in shortcomings. Limited hoseloads reduce the options for extraordinary situations. If minimal hose lengths are provided, and the responsibilities exceed its capability, quite literally you will not reach the goal. However, expandable hose compliments provide options for known and extraordinary situations (photo 1).
(1) Engine company hose bed that provides numerous lines and options for deployment for special situations. (Photos by author.)
Another response ability pertaining to apparatus and equipment is innovation. Necessity is the mother of invention, and in the fire service, many tools and tricks of the trade were developed by necessity and through trial and error. The fire service is known for its innovate candor. New ideas, methods, and tools are constantly being developed, refined, and taught. Unique or multiuse tools, special equipment, and kits sometimes are the catalyst for a successful evolution (photo 2) Fire service trade shows, catalogs and periodicals present innovative mediums that can be embraced for local application. Sometimes however, the best idea, tool, or method is homegrown and not one that can be bought from a cookie-cutter catalog.
(2) A hose pack (or hat, high-rise, or apartment pack, as some departments call it) is an innovative example for hoseline deployment.
A second response ability that needs to be evaluated is the capabilities and competencies of the members of the department. In some departments, personnel are required to maintain only basic minimal levels of training so “they can ride.” But, if the personnel training criteria does not meet or exceed the conditions or circumstances in which they will engage or with the tools and equipment they are entrusted to use, the only outcome to expect is unfavorable.
Like the standard that exists for fire apparatus, NFPA 1001, Firefighter Professional Qualifications, provides a base for firefighter competency and skill levels. However, remember that the requirements of this standard are also minimal. NFPA 1021, Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, establishes minimum job performance requirements that are fundamental for personnel that serve as a company or chief officer. However, fire officer development and continued education beyond the NFPA standard should be instituted that encompass local intricacies, challenges, and responsibilities. Once again, if the department recognizes that they will be responsible for mitigating certain situations, but it provides no training centric to the topic, then the only results to be expected are bad.
A third response ability relates to the policies of the organization. Whether called standard operating procedures (SOPs), standard operating guidelines (SOGs), or otherwise, in what way and how is the department to handle specific situations? Through comprehensive study of the department responsibilities, develop policies and procedures to guide responder management of the situation. This will improve the response ability. And, even if the department is unable to maintain mission-specific resources or obtain specialized training, at the very minimum, it should be provided guidance on what and what not do and who to call.
The contents of a SOP/SOG manual can be exhaustive, but if they are not reflective of what the department will or may handle, a lack of guidance will likely result in mismanagement and compromised safety. From generic guidance for initial response to structure fires to specific procedures for technical rescue situations, the painstaking process of writing it down and fostering implementation through personnel development is imperative. Policies and procedures range from administrative elements such as report writing to operational tasks such as use of specific mediums like a standpipe (photo 3). Having a responsibility, to engage means nothing if there is not a policy or procedure to prescribe the response ability to initiate it. Attempts to commence certain tasks without guidance will only lead to feeble, ineffective and unsafe actions (photo 4).
(3) Procedures on the use of facility standpipe systems are necessary to enhance response abilities.
Resourcefulness is the ability to devise ways to meet certain situations. Often times, this is an off-the-cuff reaction; sometimes it is successful, sometimes not. When applied to the fire service, resourcefulness is a preincident process of identifying what is needed to offset the responsibilities (incident potentials) and developing a methodology to obtain a specific resource in a timely and cost-effective manner. Response ability is not only about what the organization is capable of handling but also what resources can it procure, order, or obtain.
When an unusual responsibility, organizational shortfall, or deficiency is recognized, appropriate resources must be identified that can counteract the situation. Some situations can be mitigated through automatic or mutual-aid policy initiation from neighboring jurisdictions. Others may be limited, not readily available, or costly. Regardless, preparedness for the responsibility requires preincident coordination. Automatic and mutual-aid requests should be prescribed through written policies and agreements. The red tape associated with procuring other resources must be eliminated prior to an incident occurring. Appropriate procedures, contracts, financial agreements, and other consensual doctrines must be in place prior to an incident occurring.
Along with identifying resources, it is important to formulate a depth chart of primary and support resources. If the next closest resource is unavailable, then what? Primary resources are those typically used by public safety agencies such as pumpers, ladder trucks, mobile water tankers, and so on. The depth chart or list should include at least double the resources anticipated. For example, for a certain fire situation that requires the use of four mobile water tankers, at least eight should be listed to account for unavailability or breakdown. The same principle applies to support resources such as technical and subject-matter experts and supplies (such as lumber and fuel). Who are you going to call for extraordinary incidents, technical advice, or long-term incident support? These resource kinds and types should also be two, three, or four times deep to account for unavailability, extraordinary demand, or unreached contacts.
Another response ability facet is testing the equipment, personnel, resources, and process to make reinforce competencies, identify additional short-falls, evaluate policies and procedures, and refine the system for enhanced real-world operations. The degree to which things are tested is up to the entities involved. However, if the equipment is provided, personnel are trained, policies are in place, and resource lists are thorough, you won’t know how it will work as a system unless it is tested (photo 4).
(4) An exercise to evaluate water delivery.
Responsibility and response ability is a full circle process that is continuous because of the plethora of variables that can affect a situation. If a fire department does not know its responsibilities, the effectiveness of its response ability will be hampered, and responder safety will be compromised. Fire department profiles encompass more than the elements this article addressed. The elements and examples above do not scratch the surface of all jurisdictional responsibilities. A successful incident outcome requires a careful balance of preparedness and, sometimes, luck.
What behooves every fire department leader is effectively grasping the answer to two questions: “What are we expected to handle?” (responsibilities) and “What are we able to handle…?” (response ability). When the balance sheet reveals an inability to mitigate a situation, contingencies must be developed. It is not feasible for every fire department to physically maintain a resource for every conceivable scenario. But, every fire department should establish contingencies to overcome deficiencies by preidentifying resource needs and establishing efficient and effective resource procurement methods.
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.