Flood Response: Maximizing Safety and Customer Service

BY ROBERT M. CEMBOR

In March and April of LAST year, many communities in New England experienced flooding at historic levels. During this crisis, the Warwick (RI) Fire Department responded to water rescues in addition to regular fire, motor vehicle accident, and emergency medical calls. Although most of our flood work involved the more mundane activities like utility shutoffs and pumpouts, these tasks also present hazards of which responders should be aware. It is easy to be complacent and underestimate the power of water, but with proper training and preplanning you can identify hazards and maintain your safety.

PREPLANNING

Below are some considerations for preplanning flood response.

  • Identify the equipment you have that is appropriate for a water emergency (e.g., boats, exposure suits, ropes, personal flotation devices). Determine your level of training and that of your crew.
  • Identify your incident command structure. Before you encounter a similar emergency, consider the following: Does your department’s incident commander (IC) have a system for evaluating and incorporating outside resources into your operations? A large incident will overwhelm your community’s resources, and outside entities—e.g., federal/state agencies and private contractors—will begin to show up with personnel and specialized equipment. Know where to send them for proper evaluation for use within your community.
  • Apply risk vs. benefit analysis not only to rescues but also to service calls such as utility shutoffs and pumpouts. Do not enter water that could contain an electrical hazard, raw sewage, or other obvious and not-so-obvious harmful contaminants. Act as you would at any technical rescue or hazmat event: Slow down, and visually evaluate conditions first if occupants are not in immediate danger.

SECURING UTILITIES

You will need the following tools when securing utilities: a radio, a flashlight, three-quarter boots, and a spanner wrench or set of pliers. A radio offers communication when you are not in a direct line of sight of your crew, and you will need a flashlight since many of the residences may have no electricity and have dark and cluttered basements or utility closets. There could be a gas leak or a hazard in the atmosphere you are entering, so have a multigas meter available and wear your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). A voltage detection device and a thermal imaging camera (TIC) are also useful. The TIC may provide you with limited detection ability, since it will show only items actively powered and warm compared to the ambient air (e.g., cell phone chargers, computer surge protectors).

(1) Flooding in Warwick, Rhode Island: The Pontiac Mill and the NyLo Hotel on Knight Street. (Photos by author.)
(2) The Warwick Mall as it begins to flood.
(3) The National Guard arrives to place sandbags to assist fire and highway crews to keep Interstate 295 open.

You need three-quarter boots when walking in high water; they will maintain your firefighting gear’s integrity for fire calls, keep you dry, and reduce discomfort and fatigue. Most importantly, three-quarter boots will protect you from exposure to bacteria and toxins that may be present in basement water (e.g., household cleaners, poisons, and raw sewage). Bring a third pair of boots with you as a dry backup for firefighting operations, especially if you work long shifts. Use common sense, and avoid entering water that is higher than your boots if there is no life hazard and the utilities are already submerged.

A spanner wrench is useful and easy to carry in case you may have to shut off a natural gas valve. The tool’s gas cock socket is great for meters, and it can also be used, with a little creativity, for leverage with inline valves that are difficult to turn with your hands or may be frozen open. If you do not have a spanner, you can use the fork of your halligan on valves, although this is not ideal.

The early stages of our flood response in Warwick began with utility shutoffs and evacuations. Life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation took precedence during the flood. Our civilian dispatchers in the fire alarm division compiled and prioritized our service call lists, which were then forwarded to the local companies through our regular chain of command and dispatch protocol.

(4) Residents beginning to evacuate as the Pawtuxet River threatens the Greenwich Village Apartments on Lambert Lind Highway.

When we stepped off the apparatus for a specific residence, more than a dozen people surrounded us, asking for help in a scene similar to a mass-casualty event. Using a triage approach, we went door to door, identifying and mitigating hazards while informing residents about what to do next (e.g., evacuate, use a wet/dry vacuum, contact the appliance service technician). Any sound advice you may offer to homeowners on how to begin to put their lives back together will be appreciated. Inform homeowners of any emergency city resources available to assist them. Although it may be easier for your crew to separate as members perform multiple tasks at once, maintain crew integrity by voice or radio communication.

Size up the residence and its utility services. Ask the homeowner (if present) specifically what type of utilities the residence has—e.g., oil, natural gas, or propane? Older homes may still have an outside oil fill pipe or an oil tank in the basement that is no longer in service. It may have been replaced by natural gas or another system.

Ask the homeowner if the home has more than one electrical panel and where it is located. Look for a gas meter, a propane cylinder, and the main electrical service panel. You may find utility equipment in the basement in older homes, whereas newer or updated homes may have the equipment outside.

Locate the electrical panel, and see whether you can access it to shut it off. If you are unable to safely access the main electric breaker or fuse panel, call the local electric utility to shut off power. If possible, see if you can limit shutoff only to the affected appliances, and allow the homeowner to keep partial service available for cooking and heating. Also consider whether only the basement appliances are threatened by flood damage or the entire residence is threatened.

Be aware of water that may be energized by submerged electrical outlets and appliances. When in doubt, do not enter the water. If you feel a tingling sensation, back out of the water. Wiring may not make sense in older residences or may not be up to code; never assume the power is off. You can be reasonably certain with a margin of safety if the main breaker is off or if the utility company cut the power at the street on which you are operating.

If the area is serviced by aboveground electric, look at the nearby poles to identify power cutout switches. These switches may indicate that power to a business or a localized area of a street has been disconnected. You cannot rely on this indicator for safety concerns, but it will give you a place to begin your evaluation. Cutout switches may be in one of two positions, on or off. For more information and training on how to identify pole-mounted cutout switches, work with your local electric provider.

Provided the electrical panel is not in danger of being submerged, you may choose to isolate the basement electrical service. When isolating electric power in basements of houses with a moderate water depth (i.e., a few inches to several feet), we found a standard household nightlight useful if you lack a voltage detector. As one person checked the breakers at the panel, the rest of the crew used a nightlight in each outlet in the basement to make sure the correct breakers were turned off. Keeping some power available in a basement may allow a resident to continue to pump out water or use a wet/dry vacuum to complete cleanup.

EVACUATION

Tools you may need for an evacuation include a radio, a flashlight, a set of irons or a hydraulic forcible entry tool, multiple door chocks, and the master keys from the building’s lockbox. You may need a set of irons to open exit doors that are not normally used or may be blocked or doors whose locks have been changed and for which no key is readily available. Door chocks will keep main exit paths open for large crowds. If you are using an elevator, a firefighter should operate it in fire service mode and assist those with limited mobility. Your emergency medical service (EMS) companies should bring stair chairs to carry the disabled to safety using appropriate transportation available. This will be a large coordinated effort with multiple companies and resources. Have a designated IC, and use the incident command system, since an evacuation of this size will necessitate a multiple-alarm response Your IC will have to coordinate with local and state emergency management to determine a contingency plan for relocating residents to shelters prior to firefighters knocking on doors.

If you are involved in evacuations, have a plan. Be proactive; get the people out early before you have to use boats or other risky means. If using other means is unavoidable, you must have the special equipment and adequately trained personnel to use it (e.g., inflatable boats, hovercraft, swift water rescue personal protective equipment). Warwick had inflatable motorized boats for use in flooded roadways and purchased additional ones.

Give your evacuees a specific plan when you tell them to leave. Can you shelter in-place or use a combination of evacuation and shelter? Check with your officer in charge to make sure you have transportation and a destination determined before you start knocking on doors.

In the case of a large apartment building, you may choose to go floor by floor. Many residents will not want to leave, particularly those on higher floors, because they may underestimate the danger. Be polite but firm in your request and explain why it is not safe to stay. Be prepared to get residents in larger numbers than anticipated. Some may see your apparatus parked outside or hear from a neighbor on another floor and begin to evacuate without your instruction. There may a limited supply of buses available to move one complete floor at a time to a suitable shelter when the entire building is ready to leave.

You must decide whether to instruct the people to return to their apartments and await further instruction or gather them in a central area. Instruct residents to take only what will fit into a bag—important medical papers, medication, and a change of clothes. Give them a few minutes to gather their items.

PUMPOUTS

Pumpouts occurred much later in the event once water levels began to recede. In many cases, an early pumpout will only result in a return visit to repump the same level of water later, duplicating your efforts. Initially, we addressed immediate life safety and incident stabilization concerns. Once they were addressed and the rain ceased, the pumpouts began. Some communities may provide this service regularly for frozen pipes that thaw, the occasional sump pump failure, or another water situation. If you do not normally perform this task in your community, you may be called on to do so in a crisis.

(5) A “trash” pump pumps out the cellar of a multiunit, Victorian-style house.

During more extreme circumstances, your resources will be quickly overwhelmed. A pumpout list provided by your fire alarm or local dispatch center may have thousands of names on it with only a dozen pumps available. Even if you can obtain an unlimited number of pumps, you will have a limited number of personnel to deploy them.

The two standard fire service salvage dewatering pumps are the gasoline-powered trash pump and the submersible pump. The trash pump has a hard suction intake and a three-inch discharge and moves large quantities of water, about 200 gallons per minute (gpm). Its limitations include the level to which you can reduce the water, generally six inches because of the large strainer attached to the suction hose. The suction hose’s length, the weight of the internal combustion engine, and its production of carbon monoxide also limit the situations in which this pump can be used.

The electric submersible pump discharges about 50 gpm from a two-inch opening that connects to a standard fire hose or other commercially available discharge hose. However, the threads between less expensive commercial hose and fire hose are often not compatible. Although this pump has a lower gpm, it will remove water to about 1½ inches. This depth makes the situation generally manageable for the resident and protects the basement appliances and utilities from damage.

If time permits and the situation warrants a more thorough cleanup, a little creativity can make your pumps more effective. For the trash pump, we removed the regular strainer and fashioned a makeshift strainer using a simple wire fan cover from our bunk room, allowing us to reduce the height of the suction hose and pump down to a two-inch depth rather than six inches with the strainer attached. Without the restriction of the regular strainer, you can pump out more water more quickly (hundreds of gallons) for the homeowner if time permits and move on to the next residence sooner.

However, use caution in removing the strainer to avoid taking in large foreign objects that will damage the pump. You may also be able to feather the end of the pump suction tube without the strainer to pump out more water if time permits.

When using a submersible pump, determine whether it has a strainer incorporated into the sidewall. We found that using duct tape around the intake will reduce the size of the strainer, allowing the pump to hold prime longer and pump to a lower depth, providing a more thorough cleanup.

Hazards. When moving through water, if you cannot see your feet, use a long tool or pike pole to sound the floor or street as you move to avoid tripping hazards, possible washouts, open manholes, and other hazards. Although you would not pump an obvious hazard (e.g., a basement full of heating oil), you can consult your environmental management agency for advice. You could also use a containment boom to filter raw sewage and unknown products from storage shelves that may be contaminating the water (e.g., solvents, drain cleaner, paint, rodent poison, oil) before discharging your pumps into the street. Placing the containment boom or pad on the ground near your pump’s discharge orifice will filter some of the contaminants. This would not be recommended on a routine call but for a widespread disaster-related emergency. Consult with your department of environmental protection prior to doing this.

If possible, use enough hose so you can direct the water away from the house so that it will not seep into the nearby ground and reenter the basement. Refer to your department’s standard operating procedures/guidelines and local environmental laws as to where and how you may discharge your pumpout water. Work with your environmental agency, building department, and fire prevention office when in doubt regarding unknown products in the water or whether a structure can be reoccupied. When in doubt, don’t pump it out! Keep the product contained until a qualified person can properly evaluate it.

At the end of your shift, use an approved decontamination solution to clean your personnel equipment and gear. Flush your pumps with fresh water and restore your equipment to operational status. Keep track of any possible exposures you may have had to harmful bacteria or toxins, and document them. Documenting possible exposures will help your healthcare provider and employer trace the origin of adverse health effects that may occur later in your career.

The follow-up to a flood crisis may be difficult to organize. It may be a week before you are able to assist a taxpayer with a pumpout. Although many will have found alternate means to deal with the crisis, it is important to use the opportunity to check on their well-being and offer assistance if it is still needed.

Thorough planning is required to organize your service call list before you leave quarters, which will help you be more efficient. Follow up with homes on the pumpout lists. Use a note or an official document to leave at houses when no one is home, to avoid making multiple trips. Your note should state that the fire department and your specific company has stopped in to check on them; include the time, date, and a phone number to call if your assistance is still required. This lets your taxpayers know they were not forgotten.

•••

The experience gained from these floods has helped to prepare Warwick and its firefighters for future emergencies. The lessons learned were applied during the recent hurricanes. Emergency response utility workers and police were co-located with fire companies to provide a more efficient emergency response. Events like this offer an opportunity to connect with your neighborhood and establish good public relations. A little effort will go a long way the next time you ask the public and your elected officials for their support.

ROBERT M. CEMBOR is a firefighter with the Warwick (RI) Fire Department and a 16-year veteran of the fire service. He is a technical rescue instructor with the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy and is involved in urban search and rescue.

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