BY RICHARD MARINUCCI
Virtually all of the problems discussed in this column over the past few years have not been related to the core responsibilities of the fire department—fixing problems on the emergency scene. Every call the fire department receives is a request to solve a problem. Some problems are minor, and some necessitate an incredible amount of resources. Regardless, the issue is a problem to someone, and the fire department is expected to find a solution.
All of the problems presented are eventually fixed. The fires go out, the injured are treated and transported, and the hazardous material is neutralized and cleaned up. So the question is not whether we can find a solution but whether we can find the best one in the shortest time. Obviously, the calls that are most frequent have the best chance of being resolved quickly and efficiently. Those that happen less often present more of a challenge. There will be a solution, but will it be to the level expected by your community and your organization?
|Photo courtesy of the Northville (MI) Township Fire Department.|
I have had the chance to conduct many interview panels for communities looking for help in selecting promotional candidates—from company officer to chief. Depending on the position and the job description, fireground command often is a consideration. Departments want individuals who can make good decisions on the emergency scene. One way to try to assess a candidate’s knowledge is to create a role-playing scenario that asks the candidate how best to “fix a problem” on the emergency scene. The variety of answers is huge. It is amazing that candidates for officer positions that require fireground experience are often unprepared to answer seemingly simple job-related questions. They are “fixing the problem” on the fly and, many times, are making up answers they think the interview panel is looking for.
You can practice problem solving on the fireground. As with almost everything we do, repetition is important so that critical thinking skills are refined, which will allow for better decision making when placed under the stress of an emergency situation. Computer simulation has helped in this area. There are many options, from elaborate command training centers to programs on personal computers. The good news is that is does not have to be expensive or complicated. Let’s look at the photo above.
Anyone can take a look at this and begin to formulate a strategy. Even if you don’t have the real deal with smoke and fire from actual incidents, you can take photos of the buildings in your community and simulate various fires in those structures. Through discussion and repetition, you can get relatively comfortable so you can make decisions when the conditions are far from ideal.
So now the problem: What are you going to do when you first arrive to find this 6,000-square-foot structure with the conditions presented above? When this type of problem is presented in a promotional process, most candidates go back to their basic fire attack strategy, which most often is RECEO—rescue, exposures, confinement, extinguish, and overhaul (with ventilation and salvage considerations). Others may take a simpler approach—rescue, confine, extinguish. Regardless, to solve the problem, you need to put some realistic actions in place based on the resources you have and are likely to have.
In spite of the implied strategies listed above, I would guess that the vast majority of first-arriving companies in many fire departments would initially stretch a line to the appropriate entry point. Do rescue considerations really come first? If there are witnesses, they probably will. In this case, there may be strong indications that the building is not occupied—time of day, lack of vehicles, information from the 911 call or neighbors, and so on. This information is not always 100-percent correct, but experience can help make that decision. You may make a calculated risk to extinguish the fire as soon as possible to minimize damage and simultaneously make the necessary search for possible victims, even if the chance of the structure’s being occupied is remote.
Assuming that there are no occupants, what is your next step? You need to decide if you will proceed with an offensive or defensive attack. The considerations that affect your decision are staffing, building construction, size and location of the fire, and water supply. You also need to evaluate the risk factors to personnel (safety) while bearing in mind that there are no apparent civilian lives at risk. Firefighters will place themselves in harm’s way to help others. If the emergency does not involve the threat to human life, fire command officers and firefighters need to consciously choose the method that will extinguish the fire with a minimum of risk to firefighters. This does not mean that you should not be aggressive in your approach. It means that you need to be under control and make decisions based on the information presented.
First and foremost, you need to know what you can realistically do with the staffing you have on the initial alarm. For example, during interviews I have had candidates tell me they would establish a water supply, stretch an attack line, lay a backup line, comply with the two-in/two-out rule, initiate a search, and place a ladder—all necessary functions. Then I ask how many people their department typically gets on a first alarm, and there are not enough hands to do all of those things. To do all of the things necessary takes adequate staffing. If you don’t have it on the first alarm, you need to call for help and then perform the functions that you can realistically accomplish, bearing in mind the safety of your personnel and the magnitude of the fire. For example, if an adequate number of firefighters are not initially on the scene and the fire is significant, you may wish to consider a blast with a master stream device. This may seem counter to some teachings in that it may potentially spread the fire and other products of combustion, but it may also provide a quick knockdown. Your training, study of fire behavior, and experience will help you make the best decision.
What is the building construction? The building in this photo is of relatively new construction. This should indicate that the use of lightweight structural members is a real possibility. Study after study and experience have shown that buildings with this type of construction are prone to early collapse. This does not mean that your choice will be a defensive attack. It means that you need to gather as much information as possible as quickly as possible pertaining to the fire’s location and intensity. Can you place personnel in the building in areas that offer relative safety? A good rule is never to place firefighters above the fire if you suspect lightweight construction. This would mean the first floor in the case of a basement fire or on the roof if the attic is involved. Remind personnel of the basics regarding entry—crawl, sound the floor, etc. While nothing is guaranteed regarding construction and fire behavior, the location of the fire and its severity should allow you to make a good choice.
Water supply is obviously critical to any fire of magnitude. In addition to the personnel and equipment needed, you must have an adequate volume of water for the fire presented. Experience, training, and knowledge of fire science should help you determine the amount of water needed to knock down the fire. Particularly in single-family dwellings, the amount of water needed to control the fire, when properly applied, is often less than what might initially appear to be needed. One- and two-room fires in single-family dwellings are frequently controlled with tank water from engines carrying 500 to 1,000 gallons. This is not to imply that hydrant hookups should not be part of the process. You always need a backup plan.
Fire departments exist to rescue people and extinguish fire (among other things). Rescues should involve the most risk. You must extinguish fires after rescues have been cleared. This should be done while minimizing the risk to firefighters. Solving this problem takes practice. Not many departments have enough fires to generate the amount of practice members need to make sound decisions every time. Therefore, they must use simulations and discussions to create the confidence that they will need. Play the “what if” game regularly, formally as part of your training and informally around the kitchen table. Practice with any type of decision making will make problem solving easier.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department, Previously, he was chief in Farmington Hills, MI. He was president of the IAFC (1997/98) and acting chief operating officer of the USFA (1999). He has bachelor’s degrees from Western Michigan University, Madonna College, and the University of Cincinnati. He is an adjunct faculty member of EMU and Maryland Staff and Command.