Avoid Fire Department-Induced Chaos

Firefighters operating on the roof at a fire scene.

(Photo provided by Roger Lunt)

 

By Roger Lunt

Each of us holds a responsibility to our fire service brothers and sisters to look out for the safety of our fellow firefighters. Consider what you are saying, whether accurate or in jest, when defining any of your responses with the word “chaos.”

Among the definitions Webster’s Dictionary provides for chaos is “complete disorder,” with the synonyms “confusion,” “jumble,” and “disarray.” If you are correctly using the word “chaos” to define your fire scene, then you are acknowledging that your fire scene is in bad shape. It is a confused and unorganized environment. Is this the accepted response standard for your department, or have you just defined a fire scene problem that you will fix?

The simple exercise of defining chaos should instill a zero tolerance for chaos in operations. Chaos on the fire scene can never be excused or accepted.

Throughout my 38-year career in the fire service, the initial firefighter response was predictable. However, the resources that followed were not as predictable. For the most part, the exact number, experience, rank, physical condition, and skills of the responders were not fully realized until arrival. Many times the response could not be firmly distributed according to the department being represented. This meant that you might not work with the group you responded with, and that the call sign of your rig may not be your label on the scene. To keep response efficiency and firefighter safety paramount, the arriving resources had to be assessed and used respective of the fire scene needs.

At these scenes, it could not be reliably anticipated that the arriving mutual aid firefighter, although fully donned in the most current, compliant personal protective equipment, had the necessary skills for the job. Another resource management challenge– it was not unusual to be unfamiliar with respective departmental restrictions of an arriving mutual aid firefighter. Yet, they all represented the fire service response. They were our most valued resource and had a right to expect a fire scene free of chaos.

The solutions to this problem are not difficult to find. In fact, the most difficult challenge in avoiding fire department-induced chaos is the changing of established habits, which manifest themselves in excuses like “We do not have enough fires,” “We have freelancers,” “We are too large or too small to change our ways,” or “We are just volunteers.” The following is a brief list of solutions that helped remove chaos from my departments’ fire scenes.

1. Everyone in the fire department must accept responsibility for the fire scene chaos. No excuses. No complaints.

2. Establish an incident command system. This system exists for the safety of the firefighter. The firefighter deserves nothing short of a functional management system. The first departmental representative on the scene is the initial incident commander (IC), and from that moment forward, the system develops.

3. Provide timely and thorough status reports. The wandering, distracted IC may result from the fact that you are not providing timely and thorough status reports. The IC may be wandering and seemingly distracted because of a concern for your safety. The only way to address this concern is for the IC to keep circling the scene to check on you. Training should develop good status report habits from all personnel.

4. “I think for those who don’t” is a poor IC philosophy. Get trained and develop a discipline to lead. Train your personnel, then direct and support them. If the IC does not have thinking fire scene personnel inside a burning structure, then the IC that permits those personnel in the burning structure should not be credited for responsible thinking.

5. Establish a fire department response goal list that is short, prioritized, and applicable to all responses. If this has not been formalized, how do you know that you are using department resources with the greatest efficiency and safety? A response system may be in such a hurry that rigs will exceed the speed limit and use flashing lights, loud sirens, and horns. Have a preresponse, prioritized response goal list that, through training, has been ingrained in the response system. Anything less is an invitation to chaos.

6. Review radio broadcasts. Encourage as well as accept constructive criticism and a pat on the back, when deserved. By removing chaos, you may prevent an injury or worse to the firefighter. By not using good communications, you are inviting chaos onto your scene. It is important to note that fire scene communications are determined by fire department policy. This policy should be based on the best practices of our fire service peers, and is the measure used to review radio broadcasts.

7. Train to share fire scene duties. If you do not want to be micromanaged or to be a micromanager, you must develop and maintain specific knowledge and skills. The knowledge and skill growth of a firefighter and the fire officer must encompass national, state, and local training resources. Avoiding micromanagement is the responsibility of the firefighter as well as a fire Officer.

8. Assign a department photographer and review photos and videos in training. These media are training resources that offer benefits well beyond the scrap book or fire department slide program. It is possible to photograph and record sounds of chaos. Also, it is possible to photograph and record the absence thereof.

9. Assign a fire scene safety officer or officers. If the fire department believes that the firefighters are more important than the burning structure, then safety officer duties will always be assigned. Be mindful and resistant of excuses that attempt to justify not establishing this position.

10. Establish department communication protocols and never accept “communications broke down” as the end of a conversation. Establish department radio protocols prior to the response. Provide accurate feedback, use the “Hey you, it’s me” speaking format, do not use 10-codes, and do not accept a double-click of the mic as a response. These steps will help you achieve significant advances toward a goal of effective, good communications.

11. Share your fire scene challenges with your personnel. Give someone the rear of the structure when you are stationed as the IC in the front lawn. Dissect the scene and divide the resources geographically or by function. Make sure the department officers and firefighters understand and are well trained in fire behavior, building construction, and sound, fundamental tactics. This will have them working on the same page toward the same goal in the same way. The basic jobs that must be done will be attended to and completed. Make sure everybody knows how the department handles a house fire, a car fire, etc. This means crew members won’t need somebody tell them at the scene or make it up themselves.

12. Label your fire scene personnel by the location or job for which they are responsible, and change the label as location or job responsibilities change.

Proper labeling will reduce the thought process required to identify, track, and communicate with the working divisions and groups. In other words, tracking the personnel and the work completed, or yet to be done will be much easier and more accurate. Warning: A firefighter must be trained for the specific job and location for which they have been labeled.

13. An officer must not justify negligent job performance with the following statement, “I get geared up with my firefighters because I’m a working fire chief” or “I was a firefighter longer than I have been a chief.” The IC and the firefighter have two distinctly different jobs. It is safe to feel that the overwhelming majority of the fire service believes that if any officer wants to perform the firefighter on scene duties, he or she should not have taken the promotion. Not getting dirty does not mean you are not a “working fire chief.” An IC operating at the nozzle position or on the pump panel indicates that at best he or she have compromised the position responsible for the management of a system that exists for the safety of the firefighters. When you do the firefighter’s job, do you permit one of them to do your job and run the scene as the IC? Doing the job of IC is still working. Let scene safety and efficiency be the measure of your work, not the amount of dirt on your face and hands.

As the IC, remind yourself that your trained firefighters need an organizational structure that provides direction and support more than they need you to physically slow them down by doing their work or trying to work beside them.

14. Have training objectives determine what you will learn, not the name of the training. Management of personnel is not building construction, fire behavior, fire streams, etc. It is just the management of personnel. These topics and many more make you a better officer and leader on the fire scene. However, if the class stays on topic, attending a fire scene management principles class will not have a training objective relating to how to read a building. Likewise, attending a class titled “The Risks of Ordinary vs. Heavy Timber Construction” will not give detailed attention to organizational principles. To be a good IC you must have training and experience in all areas: building construction, fire scene tactics, fire behavior, smoke behavior, management of personnel, etc. Be aware that some training may be labeled as addressing company or scene management but very little of it offers anything to help you communicate, track, lead, and support your firefighters.

15. Most fire scenes can be effectively managed without a clipboard or knowing what type of rig personnel responded on. Clipboards can distract the IC from a job that they are capable of performing without the prop. Whenever a clipboard is needed, the IC needs a staff to assist at the command post. For many departments, rigs serve two functions: transportation of personnel and physical resources, both of which respond to be plugged into the scene as determined by the IC. Most rigs on the scene serve as transportation of personnel.

16. Until you have enough people on the scene, you may want to have personnel wear multiple hats. Wearing multiple hats is not a desirable designation of duties, but it does support an effort to plan ahead and serves as an accurate means of determining if you have enough firefighters on the scene. I would only suggest that multiple responsibility hats be worn by developing groups within staging. Once a group is assigned, chaos may ensue if the group holds multiple responsibility hats.

17. Always establish Level I Staging. Firefighters are problem solvers. Fire scenes will always present problems. Fire scene personnel will always get tired, need assistance, and need equipment delivered. If you do not have staging properly staffed, you do not have firefighters ready to solve problems.

18. Train the staging officer to assess, and categorize staged personnel resources. The staging officer duties far exceed keeping firefighters corralled and counted. Assess any number of on scene rigs and you will find that most of them offer something different from the others, even though they seem to look the same. The same can be said for your most valued response resource. The staging officer must be trained to assess the capabilities and limitations of each firefighter in staging.

19. Always establish a rapid intervention team (RIT). If the firefighter is permitted to go into harm’s way, it is your duty to cover his or her back.

20. Changing an old habit does not mean you were wrong when the habit was formed. However, it may not be the best way to do things today. Learn from your experience and the combined experiences of the fire service. Mr. Murphy and his law and chaos would prefer if firefighters did not have the ability to learn. If you are learning from past experiences, you must be doing things differently than how they were done years ago.

21. Use training and the influence of your peers to assist you in identifying proper resource labeling, but label your response scene relative to your scene. I once had a “Lunch Box Division” on the fire scene. I doubt if you can find that label in the training books or videos. This was an exposure label on a scene where I could not establish my cardinal directions. However, the sign on the front of the business made this an easy label for all responders to identify.

22. Never compromise or distract the duties of the following positions: IC, incident safety officer, incident staging officer, and incident RIT officer. These positions are always the first to be compromised when scene staffing is short. A decision to compromise or distract these positions is not consistent with holding a primary focus on firefighter safety. Each position has a primary duty to the safety and support of our firefighters.

23. Train all personnel. Fire scene management training is not just for fire department officers. We work better as a team when we are unified in action and thought.

24. If chaos exists, it’s because you let it exist. A longstanding response scene problem may have old and simple solutions for removal. If chaos is to be fully removed from our fire scenes, we must be held accountable. Doing so will allow us to take determined steps to remedy the situation and remove this unwelcome guest from our firefighting operations.

Roger LuntRoger Lunt is a retired fire chief who spent 38 years in the fire service. He is the retired deputy director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute and is a field instructor with that organization. He has a bachelors degree in law enforcement administration and an associate degree in fire science technology. He is a founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As a member of FEMA Region V Disaster Mortuary Response Team [DMORT], he deployed to New York within 24 hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, and deployed as a member of the United States Health and Human Services DMORT Weapons of Mass Destruction Team to the after math of Hurricane Katrina. He is the author of the self-published book, “Avoiding Fire Department Induced Chaos.”

 

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