BY FRANK MONTAGNA
Q.Why do we contact the incident commander (IC) or our officer when we are unable to accomplish our assigned tasks and also when we accomplish the tasks?
If a firefighter is assigned the task of venting a roof or a window, removing a victim from a window, or shutting down a sprinkler system, he needs to report his success or failure to his company officer. If an officer is told to stretch a line to attack the fire on the second floor or to search the basement, the IC needs to know when and if that task has been completed. The officer needs to know if the firefighter’s assigned tasks are completed so he can report the success or failure of his assignment to the IC, so the IC can assign him a new task. The IC is making decisions and assigning other tasks based on the fact that he has already assigned a task to your company. Your completion of the task or your actively pursuing that task can affect the safety of all on the fireground, civilians and firefighters alike.
If an engine officer is assigned to attack the fire on the second floor, the IC may assign another unit to search the third floor based on the fact that he has a unit controlling or extinguishing the fire on the second floor. If the engine officer cannot extinguish the second-floor fire or has been unavoidably diverted or delayed, he must notify the IC. The firefighters on the third floor could be in danger without a line operating below them.
If the officer is assigned to search the basement using an exterior entrance and cannot make entry at that point, the IC needs to know. He might redirect the officer to another entrance or assign another unit to attempt entry by way of the interior. Conversely, if the officer achieves his goal and completes his assigned duties, the IC needs to know. Knowing whether your task is completed successfully or cannot be completed supplies the IC with information he needs to know to determine if his strategy is working or if it must be altered. It also lets him know if the officer and his unit are free for another assignment.
I once assigned an engine company to the top floor of a three-story private dwelling to extinguish fire showing at the bedroom window. There was fire on each floor, but it was manageable with the resources on hand. I had a line in the cellar, by way of an exterior entrance, and another on the first and second floors. They were heavily engaged but were making good progress. If we could extinguish the top-floor fire, we would be in good shape.
The officer took his line into the building, but a truck officer diverted him to the interior cellar stairs. Fire was coming up the stairs and lapping into the kitchen. Extension at this point would have jeopardized all on the upper floors, as it could have gone up the stairs to the second floor. Stopping this fire from spreading onto the first floor was a good thing. Not telling me about the change in my plan was not.
As I watched, I saw the fire on the third floor spreading. I did not see the white smoke I was expecting from the engine company’s extinguishment efforts. The officer did not answer my repeated attempts to contact him. The third-floor fire was quickly spreading, and I thought the engine company there might be in trouble. The company in the cellar was reporting heavy heat, the result of the engine on the first floor directing its line down the cellar stairs and pushing smoke and fire back on the unit in the cellar. I was considering pulling the plug on the fire and ordering everyone out. It was not going as expected. Instead, I directed another engine company to stretch what I thought would be a second line to the third floor. When the firefighters arrived at the third floor, they reported that the engine in question was not on the third floor. They then, by themselves, made quick work of the fire there.
After the fire was knocked down, a discussion with the diverted engine officer revealed that he had not heard my calls. Luckily, the fire went out, and no one was hurt. Protecting the stairs was not a bad move, but not notifying me was. Directing the line down the stairs put the unit in the basement in jeopardy and almost resulted in my backing out all the units. Had there been a collapse or some other mishap, I would have looked for the diverted engine company on the top floor, not at the basement stairs. It could have cost the rescue effort precious minutes. In the case of a Mayday or the need for a roll call, not keeping your officer posted as to your location and progress could have the same result. If you are assigned to vent the rear windows but come across a victim on a side fire escape, you may have to remove him to a safe location. Should a backdraft, flashover, or collapse occur, your officer will look for you at your assigned location, but you won’t be there.
Keep your officer or the IC, whichever is appropriate, informed of your location and the status of your assigned task. If you are diverted from your task, are unable to accomplish it, or do complete it, notify the appropriate person. Keeping the appropriate officers informed makes for a safe and efficient fireground.
Q. Why is it necessary to use your combustible gas indicator (CGI) whenever you are investigating a reported odor of gas?
You are, after all, an expert. Years of experience have trained your nose to recognize natural gas. Anyway, natural gas is easy to detect. It has that distinctive rotten egg smell, and you can certainly tell when it is present, so why bother with the CGI? Well, there are several reasons that make it not just a good idea but mandatory that you use a CGI to investigate a gas odor.
First, to set the record straight, natural gas has no odor. That rotten egg smell we are all so familiar with is not the odor of natural gas. It is the odor of mercaptan, a chemical odorant, added to natural gas, giving it the familiar rotten-egg smell.
Second, the mercaptan can be removed from natural gas, leaving it odorless once again. We know that natural gas is lighter than air and will rise when released. When natural gas leaks from a pipe underground, it naturally attempts to rise, but concrete pavement, asphalt roadway, and even a layer of frost on the ground may prevent it from doing so. Constrained from rising into the air, the leaking gas may migrate long distances through the soil before finding a way up and out of the ground. This migration may follow the path of gas service lines, water lines, or underground electrical ducts, resulting in the leaking gas migrating into buildings. It can enter buildings through cracks in the wall or holes through which gas, water, telephone, or electric service enters the building. It can also get into the sewer system and travel a long distance before entering a structure via the building’s sewer line.
Gas traveling through soil, on its way into a building, can have its mercaptan filtered or scrubbed out as it passes through the soil. The gas may now be odorless or have a greatly reduced odor. Even with all of your years of experience, your educated nose may not be able to detect the presence of the natural gas seeping into the building, or it may detect only a slight odor when there actually is a dangerous amount of gas present.
Additionally, your nose can become desensitized to a natural gas odor. Your educated nose might pick up a slight odor of gas initially but can become desensitized to the odor and no longer detect it. As a result, you could incorrectly think that the gas odor has dissipated and that all is well, even though the gas is still present.
So you see, without a CGI, you are playing Russian roulette. You may or may not smell the leak, and the gas may or may not be present. Any determination you make without a CGI is suspect and is not reliable.
Those of you who respond into areas free of natural gas service also need to use your CGI. Propane also has an odorant added, giving it the distinctive smell you so easily recognize. It, too, can be leached out if it leaks through the soil on its way into the building. In fact, the odorant in propane, when stored in steel storage tanks, can also fade over time. This could result in a tank full of propane with little or no odor. This occurs most frequently in new tanks or in tanks that are not used often.
A CGI is the only sure way to detect the presence of natural gas or propane. You should use your CGI whenever you investigate odorsany odorseven if you do not suspect that the odor is the result of natural gas or propane. Do this to rule out or detect the presence of these potentially explosive gases.
Q. Some departments assign tools and fireground tasks based on the riding location of responding firefighters. Why do that?
This practice can actually be quite beneficial. It lets the firefighter know, when he boards the apparatus, what tools he will use at fires and emergencies and what position he will cover. With this knowledge, he can target his size-up to the specific tasks he is expected to accomplish; since he knows what he is going to do, this size-up can start on receipt of the alarm. It works best when the officer assigns the riding position.
By assigning firefighters to specific riding positions, the officer is assigning jobs. He can assign the positions based on experience and skill, ensuring a safer, more efficient operation, or assign positions based on a need to develop the talents of specific firefighters. The more experienced firefighters can be assigned to operate in the more complex or dangerous position or to operate remotely from the officer while the less experienced ones are assigned to work under the officer’s direct supervision.
By virtue of assigning a task and tool to the riding position, firefighters, in many cases, can go to work at the scene without the need for orders or discussion. If you are assigned to the inside team, you know you are going with the officer and are bringing the forcible entry tools. If your riding position is assigned the task of venting the roof, you know you must find a safe way to the roof of the fire building and that you may need to bring the roof saw with you.
When everyone knows his tool and his job on arrival at the fire, the operation on the fire scene starts smoothly and quickly. If a firefighter is missing and does not answer his radio, having an assigned position gives the IC an idea of where he should be and a place to start looking for him.
This system necessitates that your firefighters be trained to perform the tasks you assign them and that you know your firefighters’ capabilities. Of course, assigned positions do not entirely negate fire scene orders or directions. The commanding officer still must relay safety concerns and variations in standard tactics to firefighters as needed, but prior training and assigned riding positions can go a long way in making the firefighters more efficient and the fire operation safer.
FRANK MONTAGNA, a 39-year Fire Department of New York veteran and a battalion chief for 22 years, is assigned to FDNY’s Training Academy and is responsible for curriculum development. He has created numerous courses for his department, and his fire simulations are used in FDNY’s promotion courses. He has a B.S. in fire science and lectures on various fire-related topics, including those covered in his book Responding to Routine Emergencies and the Workbook (Fire Engineering 1999, 2005 respectively).