The Importance of Having an Incident Action Plan

By William Shouldis

The lessons from the October 18, 2003, Cook County high-rise fire in the “Loop Section” of downtown Chicago have sent shock waves throughout the fire service. Communities that have mid- or high-rise buildings are reviewing their standard operating guideline for evacuation, search, fire attack, and ventilation capabilities. In all probability, like most after-action reports, the main lessons will focus on the importance of having a practical procedure, an Incident Action Plan (IAP) that must be practiced at every emergency scene.

The basic steps for a fireground incident commander (IC) are simple: quickly obtain as much useful information as possible and then match the incoming resources to the situation. Without dividing the scene and delegating tasks, the IC cannot evaluate crucial circumstances. He must conduct a 360-degree survey, create a command chart, and have an idea of resource availability to ensure success. In the initial stages of an escalating event, it is feasible to keep mental notes on these specific action steps. But as there is an influx of companies and crews, the pinpointing of assignments and positions becomes more complex and must be written. Documentation and tracking are vital elements for a sound operation.

In reality, at any large-scale incident, limited resources and numerous variables will always confront the on-scene supervisor. The overriding factor must be life safety of occupants and responders.

It was no surprise that after the nightmare on September 11, 2001, the McKinsey Report called for all emergency response organizations to train in the incident command system and have a strict policy against bypassing staging. There was no surprise on October 24, 2003, when the New Jersey Division of Safety passed a ruling to require mutual-aid planning and mandate blueprints for emergency response in the aftermath of the multiple firefighter deaths in Gloucester City, New Jersey. Any fire department that fails to comply with the new decree can be fined $10,000 per violation. Furthermore, it will be no surprise that in the upcoming months a retrospective review of the Chicago office building fire will identify the operational and logistical challenges for the front-line troops.

Chiefs, company commanders, and firefighters must strive to create meaningful training tips. Career and volunteer members must identify influential factors that affect efficiency at an emergency scene. As educators in the emergency services, we should not wait until the
Chicago Fire Department collates its post-incident analysis on the difficult 12th-floor high-rise fire. It is time to tackle the tough task of personal responsibility. Having an all hazard/all risk IAP is the foundation for initial scene management.

I-Isolate issues that provide information for scene control. Suppression and medical personnel must be able to communication conditions. Many times this is over the portable radio. Yet, sometimes it is necessary to transfer information by phone or by pager. A final option that is slow but direct is a face-to-face exchange. Regardless of the method, progress reports must be made. Timely updates of the situation will allow command post decision makers and sector supervisors to develop safe strategic or tactical measures.

A-Accountability has many meanings. It is very easy to say but extremely hard to accomplish at a major incident. Having check-in points will alleviate many command and control dilemmas. An attribute of proficiency is aggressiveness, but working without a specific assignment or the proper tools is freelancing and dangerous. Actually, motivation and measuring up are not problems when smoke is showing and there is a belief that people could be trapped. However, it can be a challenge in the late afternoon when an automatic alarm is chronically sounding or in the middle of the night when a medical call seems a nuisance. Action-oriented individuals are the hallmark of the fire service; we are answerable to the community regardless of the nature of the emergency call.

P-Prepare to stay in constant contact with companies and crews that are operating in an IDLH (immediate danger to life and health) atmosphere for a cohesive and coordinated response. Conditions can rapidly change, causing problems in suppression, ventilation, and search. Providing an effective delivery of services to all part of the community is a process. Proper pre-incident planning, training, and teamwork can make it a reality.

Today, increase the odds of public praise and reduce the risk of community criticism by developing a regular routine. It is one thing to say that you are putting forth your best efforts. It is far better to support that claim with a standardized Incident Action Plan.

WILLIAM SHOULDIS is a deputy chief with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he has served for more than 29 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy’s resident and field programs, teaching courses in fireground operations, health and safety, and prevention. Shouldis has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and a frequent FDIC speaker.

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