BY KENNETH SCANDARIATO
The Norwich (CT) Fire Department (NFD) recently conducted its annual departmentwide Mayday training, which focused on the Mayday protocol, effecting a rescue with available resources, and identifying the additional demands on command in simultaneously managing the suppression and rescue efforts.
Studies have shown that firefighters who become trapped and disoriented represent the largest portion of structural fireground fatalities. The NFD has been aggressively preparing its personnel for these situations. Consistently, smoke, low visibility, lack of oxygen, structural instability, and an unpredictable fireground can instantly overwhelm even the most seasoned firefighter. Typically, because of short staffing, companies may overextend themselves to cover more ground in rescue operations, which can lead firefighters into trouble. In 2007 and 2008, the NFD had two Mayday situations with subsequent injuries. Since then, we have worked tirelessly to prepare our firefighters and command staff, adjust our protocol, and train our personnel to survive these situations.
Before the drill started, we briefed all participants regarding expected performance and adherence to the NFD’s standard operating guidelines (SOGs). The training/safety officer (TSO) directed the event within the drill area, assisted by a deputy fire marshal. First, they reviewed the building’s layout, the hazardous materials locations, and safety considerations. They also discussed the fundamental responsibilities of the remaining crew members during the suppression activity (i.e., accountability, critical listening, and reinforcing the mindset of maintaining suppression to protect the rescue effort). The preliminaries concluded with a question-and-answer period before the participants moved on to the drill site.
Over four shifts, the NFD engaged in firefighter assist and search team (FAST), emergency communications, and command training at an abandoned school. The facility was a vacant, two-story occupancy of ordinary construction (Type III). In subsequent drills, we modified the training aspects of the FAST evolution.
Firefighters attempted to communicate using multiple radio frequency assignments in various settings with different results. Each firefighter received a portable radio and a voice amplifier as part of his full personal protective equipment (PPE).
The firefighters were directed to a lower level of the vacant school with report of a fire and a person trapped in the lower level. The distance from the school’s main access to the area of origin was approximately 225 feet and one floor below grade level. The responding units consisted of three three-person engine companies and one three-person truck company. The crews performed the standard assignments (initial search, stretching the attack line, securing the water supply, stretching a backup line, and performing ventilation). A smoke machine simulated zero visibility in the area of origin. As the first engine company stretched the initial attack line, radio reports confirmed a smoke condition on the lower level, prompting the responding duty battalion chief to assume incident command.
The assumption of command automatically brought the Mohegan Tribal FAST with a three- to four-person crew, an NFD safety officer, the chief of the department, and supporting agencies (i.e., the police department, utilities, and two additional engines and one truck to cover the city fire headquarters). On discovery of a victim, the first engine company officer radioed his status, position, actions, and needs to command. At this point, the TSO simulated a ceiling collapse that pinned three firefighters in the area of the victim and the fire.
On assuming command, the IC was directed to begin tracking the position of crew assignments. The training involved the dispatch center as much as possible to simulate real-time response and resource assignments and resource deployment requests.
Once the TSO ordered the crew entrapment scenario, the trapped firefighters were expected to make a location, unit, name, assignment, resources (LUNAR) report to the IC. According to the SOGs, the IC was expected to acknowledge the Mayday, assign the FAST, request a standard additional alarm assignment to the scene, and employ and control the command and assigned tactical radio frequencies.
Within the first and second evolutions, the TSO instructed interior companies to switch to another tactical radio frequency and to continue suppression activities under the direction of an assigned operations section chief. However, when directed to change frequencies during an operation in a blind environment, the companies experienced a high degree of failure. Requiring crew members to switch operating tactical frequencies was counterproductive to maintaining a reasonable control of communications accountability. With our continued training, the midstream channel switch would prove more successful; but note that if firefighters are not trained for this contingency, command may lose the ability to communicate with interior firefighters.
Without additional help at the command post (CP), the IC’s span of control was exceeded, and the IC was subsequently overwhelmed. Portable radio transmissions were extremely difficult for the IC to comprehend because emergency communications from within the structure came from belowgrade and the tactical channels were on low power (narrow band). Consequently, the IC had to regularly request additional transmissions from the crews in trouble and assistance from dispatch. As a result, the IC naturally focused greater energy on attempting to comprehend the down firefighters’ transmissions and thus missed other incoming messages from other operating frequencies. Companies within the structure could hear all the transmissions from the Mayday crews inside of the structure but hesitated to engage in the communications for fear of stepping on the transmissions of the IC or the crews in trouble.
We tested various tactical frequency assignments. The FAST was assigned its own operating channel. Although this is advantageous for multiple FASTs working in concert or separately in different geographic areas, it necessitated additional trained help at the CP to monitor and communicate on those specific channels. It was assumed that firefighters in trouble would not be in the best position to switch frequencies; therefore, all other operating companies participated in various frequency assignment configurations. In each case, missed communications occurred between the interior crews and the IC or the FAST and the IC.
The stressors surrounding the IC during a routine incident are typically within maximum human thresholds. It was evident that, even with the most experienced people in positions of great responsibility, without continuous training in managing this type of incident, the IC will miss critical communications and fail to take timely decision-making opportunities.
These management issues are not one-sided; all fire force participants must be aware of the rigors of command. Without consistent firefighter training in managing the Mayday protocol, the personal discipline and confidence that training builds will be lacking, increasing exponentially the difficulty for command to achieve a successful rescue outcome.
The communications equipment that a fire department employs must be analyzed and programmed with the primary goal of managing a firefighter rescue. Because of the infrequency of a Mayday situation (thankfully), we tend to overlook the communications system’s weaknesses. You must review all aspects of the communications protocol, including the role, if any, that the communications center might play during critical communications situations. It is important to test these systems and the players involved thoroughly to ensure no time is wasted during an actual engagement. A good communications partner on the other side of the radio must be intuitive, able to manage the critical stress from the CP, and authorized through progressive protocols to act as a command aide behind the radio. You must reinforce the weakest link in the communications system to accommodate the exponential stressor load associated with the demands of an IC during a FAST deployment.
Multiple frequency communications at the CP are difficult to manage without additional command help during a Mayday operation. The goal of effective channel assignments is to provide uninterrupted communication from the interior to the CP—at least one tactical channel must be dedicated to the interior operating companies. When the FAST is engaged, the decision to assign an additional channel or to redirect interior companies to another should not be ordered without well-vetted protocol and thorough training.
At this training session, three narrow-band tactical channels and one duplex command channel were available throughout the evolutions. In all radio channel configurations employed, there was either a need to push the suppression forces to “emergency traffic only” and share the tactical channel with the FAST or to assign an additional channel for the incident. Consistently, when the interior crews were forced to another tactical channel, the IC failed to acquire a complete personnel accountability report. When the IC decided to use the existing command and tactical channels without additional help in the command post, the additional critical listening load resulted in the IC missing critical communications from the suppression and the rescue groups.
All personnel must be thoroughly trained in the tactile essentials of using and controlling radio equipment during an emergency. Doffing any part of the PPE to manage the radio equipment is typically the first option a firefighter will employ to effect redirected communications. You must discourage this mindset from the top down to ensure no other problems develop during an emergency operation. A blind, hostile environment is conducive to channel-switching failure. If this problem is compounded with firefighters under duress, the IC will quickly lose control of communications with the crews operating within a structure.
The position of the portable radio and the placement of the remote mic in relation to the body are crucial to the strength of the transmissions out to the CP. Firefighters may use alternate devices to carry the radio, but studies have repeatedly shown that the radio pocket on the jacket, which allows the highest antenna position and places the mic in close proximity to the voice amp, is the only option for the best outbound transmissions. If firefighter prerogatives are allowed to get in the way of proper equipment orientation, ultimately the IC will receive unreadable, low-audio transmissions.
COMMAND POST CONSIDERATIONS
Within your training, you must reinforce the need to call for additional help early in the incident. Staging early and often will help the FAST, the IC, and operations, where and when necessary. The IC must plan ahead to ensure that the fire attack receives adequate support and that adequate resources are available to back up personnel, apparatus, and command functions. Maintain a smaller span of control by creating a larger command team earlier in the event, especially if you arrive at a fire scene that instantly exceeds the capabilities of your responding forces.
Begin documenting the incident as early as possible—which companies are on scene, their specific locations within the fire building (which will validate your tactical plan), and the lead or contact people in your command organization of the incident. This information will reinforce the IC’s ability to manage the incident.
The time to react to insufficient planning or training is not when things abruptly become exponentially worse. An IC’s main function is to develop a fireground management system that ensures the protection of firefighters’ lives through command and control functions that can be incorporated into any type of incident. This is accomplished through training your people and yourself and planning for a firefighter rescue every time you assume command. Above all, maintain an accurate accountability of all crew positions within the structure.
We tend to do things habitually. One of the problems with a FAST deployment is it is not a usual occurrence. Good communications and accountability will reinforce the FAST operation. Within every fireground operation, the IC must have a plan for everything, including a firefighter rescue plan, every time.
KENNETH SCANDARIATO, EFO, CFEI, has been the chief and fire marshal of the Norwich (CT) Fire Department since 2005. He began his fire service career in 1978 as a firefighter with the North Providence (RI) Fire Department. Scandariato has a bachelor’s degree in public administration, is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and is nationally certified as a fire and explosion investigator.
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