Preparing for Low-Frequency/High-Risk Events in Small Departments

How many times have you been involved in a conversation with your crew around the kitchen table or sitting on the front bumper of one of your rigs and somebody comments, “That event could never happen here”? To some extent, this is true; a rural department may never face a high-rise fire and a large urban department may never have to deal with a working dairy barn or silo fire. However, situations that may seem to be a highly improbable response for your small career, combination, or volunteer department could become a reality, such as mass-casualty incidents like school or mass shootings; weather-related, complex, or multiple-vehicle extrications; technical rescues; fixed-facility or transportation-related hazardous materials incidents; and large fires in major target occupancies.

Having served in smaller volunteer and combination departments for the past 40 years as a career, part-time, call, and volunteer chief, company officer, and training officer, many times I responded to a situation that we perceived as “never happening here” and, as a result, did very little, if any, incident-specific training or prefire planning for the situation. Most of the time, we were able to work our way through the incident, often unprepared. The reason we found ourselves in that situation was quite simple: We had never visualized it happening here.

Developing a Successful Approach to High-Risk/Low-Frequency Events

With a combination of teamwork and luck, we successfully handled the emergency without a firefighter injury or death most of the time. Certainly, the lack of preparation increased the risk not only to the responders but also to the members of the public involved.

This article lays out a framework for developing a plan to handle these low-frequency/high-risk events as successfully and safely as possible, especially when operating within a smaller agency with limited training resources, personnel, equipment, and specialized apparatus. It will give you a framework to evaluate your risks and respond to the incident, even if you have never responded to that type of incident before.

Infrequent major weather events will be the most common type of low-frequency/high-risk events for most departments. Even in areas that rarely see major flooding, simply developing a contact list of boats and water rescue resources and keeping it available at the communications center or at the station will speed up the response of these specialized resources and make the incident commander’s job easier.

(1) Infrequent major weather events will be the most common type of low-frequency/high-risk events for most departments. Even in areas that rarely see major flooding, simply developing a contact list of boats and water rescue resources and keeping it available at the communications center or at the station will speed up the response of these specialized resources and make the incident commander’s job easier. (Photos courtesy of the Bossier Parish Fire District.)

Frequency and Risk

First, let’s take a look at the relationship of frequency and risk and how it impacts our operations. Generally speaking, when we look at frequency, we are talking about the volume of runs or even realistic training evolutions mimicking real-world conditions sufficient to maintain a level of skill to operate effectively and safely—or at least as safely as possible under the conditions posed by the incident.

It’s important to emphasize the word “realistic.” This requires that during the training evolutions, members operate in the personal protective equipment (PPE) and conditions posed by the incident (or as close as possible) and perform the same firefighting or rescue activities at the same speed that a real event would require. Smaller departments may find this realistic training component a significant challenge.

Risk can be defined as the level of potential harm or loss the incident poses. This harm can be a civilian or member injury or death, apparatus or equipment loss, or loss to the involved property or any exposed properties. It’s incumbent on the planning staff to determine the level of risk posed by the incidents being considered and evaluate whether the risk can be reduced to a manageable or acceptable level.

Reducing risk must start with a realistic evaluation of the needed resources for response to incidents either from within the department or through mutual-aid agencies. The availability of this equipment, apparatus, and training will either reduce or increase the risk associated with any operation. These include general firefighting resources for high-rise, industrial, vehicle, brush, and structural incidents; specialized resources for hazardous materials incidents; aircraft, marine, and railroad response operations; and technical rescue operations including water, ice, dive, trench, confined space, high-angle, industrial, cave, wilderness, and other similar situations.

Risk-Frequency Analysis

The first two incident classifications are events that generally pose a low risk of harm to the responders: low-frequency/low-risk and high-frequency/low-risk events. Both classifications generally pose very few safety risks to the responders and may, depending on the department, occur either not very often or quite frequently. These incidents are generally the simplest calls to handle, as they require a minimum of training, staffing, resources, and experience to handle safely and successfully. They may include public service calls such as lift assists and water shutoff calls and many types of “routine” or noncritical emergency medical services (EMS) calls, especially if the department uses a limited hot response policy or a similar system that will reduce the use of lights and sirens and the corresponding chance of an apparatus accident. They also may include some fire calls such as trash can fires or very small brush fires in simple fuels without significant weather or topographic challenges. In these types of incidents, the risks are easily identified; are generally limited; and can be mitigated with a combination of effective crew supervision, easy-to-follow procedures and policies, PPE use such as EMS gloves, and training that can be delivered easily and with a minimum of training props or resources.

The next two type of events involve a greater degree of risk. The first one will be incidents classified as high-frequency/high-risk events. In busier departments, this may include dumpster fires with structural exposures or structural involvement, passenger vehicle fires, and one- or two-room structure fires in common structures such as single-family homes and single-story commercial buildings. It could also include brush and interface fires involving more complex or fast-burning fuels in high-risk weather or geographic conditions.

Although these incidents can pose a significant risk of firefighter death or injury depending on the specific circumstances, in more active departments these incidents may occur in sufficient frequency to develop a fairly significant experience base within the members, which will reduce the risk. In addition, often the larger and busier urban departments can respond with significant staffing and specialized apparatus and equipment resources, which will mitigate some of the risks. In these departments, there is generally a considerable amount of fire academy-based preparation and training prior to being assigned to the field, giving new members a fair amount of “fire experience” before being assigned to a company.

Certainly, an important element in reducing the risk is the ability to deliver continuing training under realistic operating conditions. For a larger department with a strong cache of realistic training props, a dedicated training staff, and the ability to schedule on-duty crews to the training facility on a regular basis, this may not pose a significant issue. However, for a smaller combination or volunteer department without a training facility or a smaller facility with a limited number of props, a lack of dedicated training staff, and limited career or volunteer staffing that cannot easily schedule to train frequently, this may be a significant problem. The members simply may not be able to respond to enough real-world or training events to develop a deep enough experience base for the incident type to operate safely and effectively.

In smaller departments where these incidents are infrequent or, worse, may never have occurred, these events may fall into the low-frequency/high-risk classification—the subject of this article. In some volunteer and combination departments, even working vehicle and single-family structure fires may be infrequent events and fall into this classification. There are many low-volume departments in this country that may only handle one or two working structural incidents a year, making them very low-frequency incidents.

High-risk/low-frequency events often involve infrequent modes of transportation or shipping or rarely or never previously encountered vehicles. For example, a mid-size or smaller community may see one or two gasoline tankers a week drive through the community to refill the tanks at the community’s single convenience store. As this is generally a very safe mode of transportation, it could take years for a major incident to occur involving one of those tankers. Another example may involve a rescue associated with a recreational activity such as water activities or spelunking that generally results in very few injuries or emergency situations over a period of several years.

Planning for these events without the specialized resources and training often available to larger urban and regional fire departments is a challenge. The process can be broken down into the following steps.

Although significant Class B fires are a very uncommon response for most departments, some level of basic classroom and hands-on training will provide the members with the ability to, at a minimum, provide a basic level of flammable liquid fire suppression capabilities. Develop a contact list of departments and resources (including foam stockpiles) for more significant fires and make it readily available at the communications center.

(2) Although significant Class B fires are a very uncommon response for most departments, some level of basic classroom and hands-on training will provide the members with the ability to, at a minimum, provide a basic level of flammable liquid fire suppression capabilities. Develop a contact list of departments and resources (including foam stockpiles) for more significant fires and make it readily available at the communications center.

Step 1: Community High-Risk Incident Analysis and Recognition

Examine your community for incidents you may want to classify as low-frequency/high-risk or highly unlikely events. This requires the department’s leadership to transition from the known (the calls they currently run) to the unknown (the calls they never have run but could). For example, it can be a very daunting task for a small department that has never experienced a major truck accident, fire, or train derailment with a major hazardous materials release to envision the need for such a response.

In one of my volunteer districts, examples include a fire in a very large restaurant in a building of Type IV construction or our largest truck stop, a multivehicle crash on the interstate with multiple extrications and mass casualties, a hazardous materials incident, and a major pipeline incident. A technical rescue would also fall into this category, as we have no in-house technical rescue capabilities and have only limited mutual-aid technical resources.

Step 2: Identify Department and Mutual-Aid Capabilities

Take a long, hard look at what functions the department and mutual-aid agencies can perform and how well they can perform them. Accept the results of this analysis and do not make excuses for the department’s deficiencies. Looking at your department this way may make some of your officers and members uncomfortable and defensive, but it is necessary so that when that major improbable event occurs, your agency will be better prepared.

Evaluate your staffing. Look at the number of members in your agency as well as the number of them who actually respond to incidents. Evaluate the days and times that your response is less than ideal and how that can be supplemented with automatic mutual aid. Be honest and realistic about the training level of the members and their capabilities on the fireground. Look at your mutual-aid resources the same way.

Designing Training: Know Your Needs, Your Risks, and Your Firefighters

When deficiencies are noted, identify the possibility of expanding the department’s staffing, apparatus, and equipment resources to handle the high-risk/low-frequency events if the budget allows. This may include adding personnel or expanding benefits to retain existing volunteers. It can also include providing increased specialized training to current members in areas such as hazardous materials and technical rescue operations.

Determine the amount of needed funding to purchase apparatus and equipment and how to obtain that funding. This may include raising taxes, relying on projected growth in the community, or other governmental funding such as state or federal grant programs. Many of these purchases will require continual replacement or updating, so determine the level of continuing funding to sustain the expanded resources.

Also determine the future fleet and equipment plans of neighboring fire departments. This begins with interdepartmental and interagency communication and cooperation including the use of regional response planning and information sharing. Contact each agency to determine their resource availability, response limitations, available staffing for mutual-aid response, and specialized training and certification levels. It is the responsibility of those charged with planning for these incidents to determine if these resources and the associated staffing are reliable enough to be counted on as the primary response resource in an incident. Consider the distance from your community as well as the assembly and response time of each agency.

Step 3: Develop a Functioning Command Structure

It’s no secret that having a working and established incident command system (ICS) in place is critical to handling and managing the everyday incidents in your community. Although these everyday incidents likely will not require an expanded ICS, simply mentally exercising the system on every run, no matter how simple, will allow the members to become comfortable with its use. This comfort level will allow the members to flow more easily into an expanded ICS structure when needed at larger or more complex incidents. As any experienced officer can relate, at a major incident, the use of a well-planned and well-practiced expanded ICS will make the incident flow much smoother.

An 18-wheeler fire will pose significant challenges, since for many departments such fires occur quite infrequently. They are difficult to train for, primarily because of a lack of realistic props, so developing and maintaining skills regarding fire attack operations using high-flow, 2½-inch lines or single-inlet monitors will provide a basic level of skills that can translate into other significant fire operations including public assembly and commercial building fire operations.

(3) An 18-wheeler fire will pose significant challenges, since for many departments such fires occur quite infrequently. They are difficult to train for, primarily because of a lack of realistic props, so developing and maintaining skills regarding fire attack operations using high-flow, 2½-inch lines or single-inlet monitors will provide a basic level of skills that can translate into other significant fire operations including public assembly and commercial building fire operations.

This requires a commitment to train all officers on the structure and use of the ICS. This may include mandating ICS 300 and 400 level training as well frequent refresher training on the use of the system in a variety of simulated situations. This may sound simple in theory, but the time for this training and the associated exercises may be a strain on officers, especially in smaller departments. You may be able to reassign some of the officer’s current responsibilities to other members of the department or hire or recruit new nonfirefighting volunteer members to assume some of the administrative, documentation, and record-keeping responsibilities to free up an officer’s time for ICS training.

Having an ICS in place will allow the outside agencies with the technical knowledge and skills for the incident to integrate seamlessly into the command and operational structure. It will also set up a clear and well-defined set of roles and responsibilities for each member of the command team and will greatly reduce duplicated efforts on the part of incoming mutual-aid command staff.

It’s important to use the ICS for all department functions as a training exercise. For example, my combination district uses the full ICS with the accompanying paperwork (incident action plans) for nonfire events such as our annual Open House, Santa Day, and any type of station renovation or facility expansion project. This frequent exposure has made our members far more familiar and, as a result, far more comfortable with the system.

Step 4: Develop a Plan

It is impossible to prepare a separate plan for all possible events. An example of an incident that was highly unlikely yet occurred involved the fire department in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Members likely never envisioned a wide-body aircraft crashing within district boundaries, yet it did. However, there are some elements that most of these events will have in common, and the plan should cover most of them.

Basic elements of the plan may include the following:

  • Detailed initial size-up procedures to rapidly identify a high-risk/low-frequency event. This may include awareness-level procedures for departments with little formal hazardous materials training to isolate, deny entry, and notify at a hazardous materials incident. It may also include specific initial safety procedures and establishing operational perimeters such as hot and warm zones at technical rescue incidents.
  • An initial ICS structure and assigned responsibilities for the initial incoming officers and mutual-aid officers. This should also include easy-to-plug-in positions in the structure for outside agencies such as law enforcement, EMS, Homeland Security, local government representatives, company or shipper representatives, utilities, and other responding agencies.
  • An incident command post (ICP) location in the case of fixed facilities or rail lines.
  • An alternate ICP location, depending on wind direction.
  • Specific procedures for weather situations such as severe weather, tornadoes, and flash flooding, especially in areas where these events are infrequent. This may include station staffing and response procedures in volunteer and combination departments, safety procedures, and apparatus response procedures.
  • Staging procedures and designated staging areas for fire department apparatus, EMS resources, and personal vehicles.
  • Assigned roles for apparatus including what roads they will block or what neighborhoods they will be assigned to perform evacuations, including mutual-aid resources.
  • Designated residences that have occupants with mobility issues who will require fire department assistance in evacuating.
  • Basic information on the most common hazardous materials that may be involved in the incident from fixed facilities using hazardous materials, the railroad, or truck transport companies that commonly move materials through the district.
  • Departments to call for additional firefighting and water supply resources or specialized hazardous materials or technical rescue resources on both the initial alarm and on the initial mutual-aid requests. This may include departments that run very few, if any, brush fire calls and have very little or no brush fire resources (include mutual-aid brush resources for large brush events).
  • For departments that have a hydrant system, preidentified mutual-aid tanker/tender resources to be called in the event of a system failure or a large fire that taxes the water system. This may include developing a tanker/tender card system based on fire flow requirements for the larger buildings in the district.
  • PPE and self-contained breathing apparatus requirements.
  • Contact information for additional resources such as heavy equipment for damming, diking, or excavating and wreckers and small cranes for rigging and lifting operations at large vehicle crashes, technical rescues, and structural collapse operations.
  • Current contact information for school buses for evacuation.
  • Predesignated shelter locations such as schools, churches, and public buildings and current contact information.
  • Contact information for long-term resources such as food, refueling resources, lighting trailers, portable toilets, and personnel support resources.
  • Contact information for departments that may have large caches of disposables such as foam, absorbents, and materials for shoring in trench, collapse, and disaster incidents.

This is not a complete list, but it is a starting point for your agency to build a basic response plan for the most likely events in your district. Take the time to get input from all the officers in your organization; those closest to the street may have the best operational view.

Make this information readily available to all responding officers and include it in the apparatus, in the station, and at communications. Laminate it for use in the rain and snow. You can make it a checklist to follow it easily at an incident.

In my area, 18-wheeler and large vehicle accidents are common. However, for many departments, these types of incidents occur quite infrequently and may require tools, equipment, and skills beyond their level of expertise. Developing a database of neighboring fire departments with the expertise and equipment needed for these types of incidents will speed response. This database may also include resources for other highly technical rescue incidents including high-angle, trench, and confined space resources.

(4) In my area, 18-wheeler and large vehicle accidents are common. However, for many departments, these types of incidents occur quite infrequently and may require tools, equipment, and skills beyond their level of expertise. Developing a database of neighboring fire departments with the expertise and equipment needed for these types of incidents will speed response. This database may also include resources for other highly technical rescue incidents including high-angle, trench, and confined space resources.

Step 5: Exercise the Plan

Although it will be impossible to exercise the plan for all the “improbables” that your department may face, at least one or two of these events should be the topic of drills each year. Conduct small-scale drills with the initial departmental response and possibly the initial mutual-aid assignment as well as periodic large-scale drills using most or all of the responding mutual-aid agencies. Use both tabletop and field exercises and include all the elements of the emergency that you can reasonably predict. The major focus of the first several minutes should be the capability to establish an ICS to manage the incident while those specialized resources respond as well as requesting those resources rapidly.

Can You Hear Me Now?

In a fire, the initial responding agency may only have the staffing, training, experience, and equipment to cover exposures, evacuate surrounding buildings, or establish a big-flow water supply. For hazardous materials incidents or technical rescues, it may only be able to establish safe perimeters, conduct rapid evacuations, and perform other awareness-level tasks.

Make sure your plan is current and has been reviewed, preferably by people outside your agency. Then make sure that all agencies that are part of the response receive a copy of the plan prior to the drill with enough time to absorb the information. If possible, have a member of your command staff review in person the contents of the plan and be available to answer questions. Give a clear set of expectations to all involved parties so they know what is expected of them during the drill.

Allow plenty of time for the drill and expect problems, such as the possibility that a representative from a specific agency may not be able to attend or weather may prevent certain activities from occurring or agencies from providing the expected resources. Finally, make sure that there is an adequate review of what happened during the drill, that any needed changes to the plan happen soon after the drill, and that all agencies have a chance to comment on those changes.


ROBERT CALLAHAN has been in the fire service for almost 40 years. He is the fire prevention officer and a captain with Bossier Parish (LA) Fire District 1 and the training officer and a captain with Webster Parish (LA) Fire District 7. He is the current training chief and former assistant chief with Webster Parish (LA) Fire District 3. He is an adjunct instructor with the Louisiana State University Fire Training Institute, a contract instructor with the National Fire Academy, and a district representative for the Firefighters Cancer Support Network. He has instructed at conferences throughout Louisiana, including at the Louisiana Arson and Fire Prevention Association Conference, the LSU-FETI Officer Conference, the LSU-FETI Municipal School, the Louisiana Fire Chiefs Association Annual Conference, and the F.O.O.L.S. Brothers of the Boot events.

No posts to display