AWARENESS AND MONITORING OF STRUCTURAL CONDITIONS CRUCIAL TO SAFETY
BY JACK L. MONROE, COMMANDER,
BATTALION 1, “A” PLATOON, LOS ANGELES CITY (CA) FIRE DEPARTMENT
At 0319 hours on July 30, 1995, we were dispatched to 9th and San Pedro streets for a structure fire. On arrival, we found a 50- by 70-foot, two-story, wood-frame commercial occupancy fully involved with fire. Heavy-stream operations were ordered, and more personnel were requested.
The main bulk of the fire was quickly knocked down. As additional units arrived, they were directed to prepare handlines and open up the structure. On initial entry, Engine 1 discovered cracked supporting structural members and unsafe overall conditions. The incident commander ordered companies to stay out of the building. Additional messages reported the structural conditions to be “okay” on the other side of the building. Again, messages of unsafe structural conditions on the south side were reported. Companies working on the north side were to keep a close eye on things and were not to enter more than a couple of feet beyond the doorway. This message was directed to the units reporting safe conditions, mainly Task Force 4.
Division 1 arrived on scene, assumed command, and by 0338 hours had requested one additional task force and a paramedic rescue ambulance for rapid intervention. Battalion 7 was assigned to safety and recon. At 0340 hours, the building rapidly and totally collapsed. Almost immediately after the collapse, additional resources were requested, rescue operations began, and head counts were taken. Seven firefighters were trapped by the falling debris. All were rescued within three minutes, except one, who was rescued within 10 minutes of the collapse.
By the time the final firefighter was rescued, a medical group had been organized and treatment and transportation had begun. There were no complaints of injuries until after the rescue of the final firefighter. Thirteen firefighters were treated; 10 were transported. Eight were treated, released, and placed off-duty. One was returned to duty. One was hospitalized with a fracture to the left leg.
Following the rescue efforts, the companies involved in the collapse were directed to pick up; two additional light forces were assigned the overhaul duties. Critical incident stress debriefing was arranged, and the department`s safety officer was on scene. The department`s tractor company (used for brush fires) was requested to assist with overhaul. Following the release of the site by arson investigators, the tractor company and fresh companies completed overhaul.
A postincident analysis was conducted on September 19, 1995. Letters were obtained from all officers at the scene, as were Operation Control Division tapes of the incident, photographs, and videos. All materials–including drawings of the building–were reviewed and a summary of the incident operations prepared.
The incident commander should consider maintaining sufficient companies in reserve for unanticipated occurrences or needs. Additional resources may be appropriate for rapid intervention teams, additional assignments, and so on.
Company accountability and tracking (resource and situation status) proved extremely valuable at this incident in that it enabled us to quickly identify where each unit was when the collapse occurred. Company officers and division and group supervisors need to keep the IC apprised of changes in company assignments for accurate and up-to-date tracking.
ICs need to ensure that all companies operating at an incident are aware of unsafe conditions that may affect their operations or safety. Radio or face-to-face acknowledgment must be made with all companies. Similarly, company officers must communicate with the IC when unsafe conditions are identified.
Assigning sector supervisors would have improved communications with companies and the IC with respect to building conditions and relaying the message to stay out of the building. All messages pertaining to safety items and restricted areas of operation must be acknowledged by all companies working the incident.
It should be stressed that when forcibly entering and accessing vacant, boarded-up, or secured structures, multiple means of escape must be provided for firefighters should conditions dictate immediate withdrawal. Every opening provides a means of entry AND a means of egress.
When a catastrophic event (collapse, for example) occurs, officers should rapidly determine the status of their crew members and immediately communicate that to the IC. Head counts may have to be taken more than once to confirm the condition of all firefighters. Almost immediately after the collapse, Engine 17 reported to the IC that all of its members were accounted for. This led the other officers to do the same.
Unsafe conditions, once identified, must continue to be closely monitored for changes. This is a continuous process whenever operations are conducted in proximity of such conditions. If a potential for collapse is recognized, it takes more than merely staying outside the structure. A safe distance from the building must be identified and enforced.
When a firefighter rescue effort becomes necessary, it is important to place an officer (preferably a battalion chief) in charge to coordinate the operations. In a catastrophic event such as this collapse, spontaneous rescue efforts were effective in quickly removing or freeing most of the downed firefighters. A more complicated extrication was necessary for one member, which required a more organized and coordinated operation. Rapid intervention teams under the direction of a rescue group supervisor should be used.
Following the collapse, all firefighting efforts were initially abandoned and all attention was focused on rescuing firefighters. Consider that the firefighting needs to continue, or the fire may further endanger lives and damage property.
When preparing for the transition from heavy streams to handlines, it is important to first reevaluate the structural conditions for safe operations. As mentioned earlier, this should be a continuous process, with periodic updates to the IC and timely notifications when conditions change. n
Photo by Mike Meadows, CFPA.
Photo by Mike Meadows, CFPA.
Photo by Jeff Miller, CFPA.
Photo by Jeff Miller, CFPA.