BY ERIC G. BACHMAN
A purpose of preincident intelligence (PII) is to identify, anticipate, contemplate, and counter the challenges and hazards in the fire district. Preincident recognition of constant and fluid community factors will directly influence an incident’s outcome and responder safety. PII is a process that is meticulous and entails more than filling in the blanks of a data collection form. Most fire department preplanning programs generally focus on fixed constants such as construction, utilities, and protection elements. As important as these facets are, other tangible and intangible circumstances must be contemplated.
Although the common goal of most fire department mission statements is “to protect lives and property,” striving to do this requires a comprehensive preparedness approach. That approach includes three consequential distinctions summarized as “The Three Vs”: Variables, Valuables, and Vulnerabilities. Each must be considered in a fire department’s preparedness processes and programs.
By definition, variable means “likely to change frequently without apparent or cogent reason.” In the emergency services, variables can become a significant game changer in anticipated situations. Developing an exhaustive variables list is not plausible. However, by studying past incidents and reports, certain variable examples can be identified and then considered in the department’s preparedness program.
One of the most significant incident-influencing variables relates to facility occupants. The actions, reactions, knowledge, mobility, and abilities of visitors, residents, and employees of a facility certainly will vary and affect the incident outcome. Not recognizing the occupant characteristics can immediately change the fire department’s game plan or quickly overwhelm initial resources.
Visitor characteristics typically include unfamiliarity with the facility layout and its egress points. It is highly likely they do not identify alternative means of egress when they go in a building. A common response of occupants in adverse conditions is to vacate through the exit with which they are familiar, and that way is likely converging on the common point through which they entered. When an emergency occurs, what is the likely means of egress occupants will seek? Does the Station Night Club fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, in 2003 come to mind?
The term resident is broad; it includes home dwellers, nonambulatory healthcare patients, and special needs citizens, to name a few. Their self-preservation abilities vary and encompass a plethora of individual characteristics including age, physical condition, mobility challenges, and limited mental capacity (photo 1). When an emergency occurs, will they be able to recognize the hazard? How will they react?
|(1) Recognizing physical and mental occupancy characteristics at certain venues is important for contemplating response strategies and tactics. (Photos by author.)|
Employee actions can help or hamper response efforts. Facility emergency procedure training for employees varies. The procedures may not be well-communicated, consistently reinforced, or frequently practiced. Although facility policies and procedures may specify employee emergency actions, will those tasks be effectively executed during an emergency? Initiating a shutdown procedure, closing a supply valve (photo 2), or closing certain doors may be dictated, but were those actions performed? If not, the fire department may face a well-progressed or overwhelming situation from the incident’s onset.
|(2) Activating the propane shutoff valve may be part of the employee emergency action policy.|
Always verify the status of installed fire detection, protection systems, and similar type devices. During preplanning, a fire department may have noted the presence of a sprinkler system that seemed to be in working condition, but that information is only accurate at the time it is collected. An unmaintained, disabled (photo 3), or manipulated system will significantly change the situation that was identified as a contributing factor in many high fire-loss incidents reports.
|(3) A closed post-indicator valve will prevent the suppression system from working as designed.|
Environmental circumstances include the time of day, seasons, and the weather. Time of day influences many venues. The potential number of occupants, in many cases, depends on the time of day. The number of occupants in a church during a weekday late evening will likely not be the same as early morning to mid-afternoon on a Sunday. The occupant load of a nightclub at noon will significantly be different than at midnight.
Seasonal considerations include the time of year and holidays. The inventory of certain hazardous consumer commodities at a home improvement store is often reflective of the time of year. In early spring, inventories of “cides” (herbicides, pesticides and insecticides) are commonly stockpiled. Summer months may have higher inventories of pool chemicals. In mercantile establishments, inventories will be robust (increased fire load) in November and December for the holiday shopping season.
Acute and chronic weather are also components of this category. Except for certain locales, snow is an acute weather example that can reduce access paths and cover fire hydrants or water sources. Many snowfall events can be forecasted, but surprise snowfalls have occurred. Other acute weather variables include storms and flash flooding. Strong storms, tornadoes, torrential rains, and the like will significantly influence emergency operations. These events, depending on your locale, are of relatively short duration, but they are not low-impact events. A chronic environmental variable is drought conditions that reduce or eliminate usable static water sources.
Other short- and long-term variables include transportation, construction, and infrastructure projects. Such projects can inconvenience or preclude certain response routes and contribute to traffic congestion, further affecting response time (photo 4). The types and degree of variable examples include more than those mentioned in this article. Thorough study of the fire district will allow a fire department to better assess its variables.
|(4) A bridge closure necessitates a reevaluation of the response routes, which can take some time.|
The effectiveness of the fire department is often illustrated statistically by comparing property value saved to property loss. Those values often serve to justify support of fire department activities and finances. However, those statistics describe physical costs and not extenuating costs such as business interruption, postincident revenue loss, and impacts to facility personnel or residents.
Value is a broad term. Sometimes fire department success is not based on monetary save or loss statistics but by what was saved or lost. Value can be measured monetarily by replacement cost or be subjective with regard to something that is relied on in an operation or a process. Value can be sentimental such as a picture that evokes a memory. Value can represent historical significance and an invaluable item or representation of a certain sect.
While preplanning and gathering intelligence about a facility, discuss the valuable parts of its operation with staff. Pose the question, “What is most valuable to the facility? Explain that the response must go beyond the context of replacement costs. Define value and follow up with the question, “What can the facility afford not to lose?” This information should be a critical consideration when faced with an extraordinary situation or one with limited resources.
You’ve likely heard the saying, “We won the battle but lost the war.” Applying this to the fire service, sometimes the best incident outcome is winning the battle. As an example, a fire department responds to a structure fire at a facility and finds the fire well advanced beyond the available resources. Perhaps the most effective use of resources is to protect only a certain portion of the building that houses operational records, not necessarily the high-cost equipment. If those data are lost, it would not be possible to resume operations postfire.
Value is relative, and it is important to understand its relationship to the facility. At an agricultural facility where the primary operation is milking, the most valuable aspect of the entire complex, other than the herd, may be the milking parlor. Loss of the milking parlor means milk cannot be processed. It will directly and immediately have an adverse effect on the entire herd if they are not milked on schedule. Churches have many valuable spiritual items that reflect the foundations of their religious beliefs and ceremonies. Meet with clergy to ascertain what is most valuable to them. It may be historical artifacts used only for special ceremonies such as antique chalices, scrolls, or a bible. It may be valuable stained glass, or it may be an item used for a significant part of services such as the organ and its piping. Regardless of the venue’s size, it has varying degrees of value to its occupants. A part of preplanning and intelligence analysis is improving customer service.
In the context of the fire service, what elements are capable of harming fire department personnel or the department’s ability to effectively operate? Assessing the vulnerabilities of the facility in comparison with the department’s equipment, training, staff, policies, and procedures is a critical preincident process. Recognizing how the facility’s vulnerabilities match the fire department’s capabilities will promote more effective preparedness.
Regardless of the vulnerability, preincident recognition and preparedness along with postdispatch application can avoid making a bad situation worse. The range of vulnerabilities is infinite. One example is the use of certain chemicals. Understanding the physical and chemical properties of chemicals will help to determine how to properly protect fire department personnel and select appropriate mitigation measures. A vulnerability may be an extraordinary fire load that exceeds the department’s ability to deliver adequate fire flows. Calculating and practicing deliverable fire flows before the incident fosters appropriate resource management when determining strategies and tactics.
Identify other vulnerabilities affected by personnel training, equipment, policies, and procedures so that ineffective postdispatch strategies and tactics do not further complicate a situation or contribute to personnel injury.
Fire department preplan programs typically focus on listing facility constants. However, recognizing, evaluating, and contemplating the Variable, Valuable, and Vulnerable circumstances of the facility, the community, and the fire department are just as important. Preincident intelligence is a never-ending process that makes you better informed and prepared. It supports the mission of protecting lives (including fire department personnel) and property. There are many links in the incident response and survival chain. The fire department cannot afford to be the weak link. Contemplating the three Vs will help strengthen the incident outcome chain.
ERIC G. BACHMAN, CFPS, a 32-year veteran of the fire service, is a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Co.
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