The Importance of Planning Meetings at Large-Scale Incidents
You knew sooner or later you would be going. The radio has been squawking about the 1,000-gallon propane tank that was struck by a fork lift and now is leaking. Vapors are going into a populated area, there is a major highway nearby, and several businesses are open in the area. It is early in the incident; first-due units are on the scene are conducting life safety (a fire department mission at gas emergencies), shutting down and evacuating the closest businesses. The police department has the highway shutdown.
(1, photo above): Your engine company supports the hazmat team with fog streams to direct propane vapor away.
Your engine company has been assigned to the hazmat team to provide any support necessary for the initial hazmat team entry. You arrive at the command post (CP) and notice the incident commander (IC) because he is clearly visible with his vest on at the back of his vehicle. One of his assistant chiefs is setting up a map of the area and taping it to the side of the chief’s car. He has a vest on that says “Plans Section Chief.” Another assistant chief is assisting him has a vest on that has “SitU” (“Situation Unit Leader”) on it. His job at this large-scale incident is to provide a visual representation of the scene and track the situation and resources so that everyone has a common operating picture, pretty much at a glance, at the map.
As you arrive at the CP, the plans officer is shouting there will be a planning meeting in one minute. All commanders need to be there, he says. You notice the police sergeant and the EMS lieutenant are already waiting.
The plans officer provides a short situation report with what is known and unknown in about 30 second. The sergeant interviewed the fork lift driver, who reported that he did not spear the tank, but lumber fell off the forks onto the tank and it started leaking. The driver thought the valve on top broke off, but he ran quickly from the scene. The IC looks to the hazardous materials (hazmat) chief (HZ) for a recommendation. HZ recommends an entry to try to shut off the valves if possible and to recon to evaluate the damage and determine if plugging and patching may work. HZ recommends firefighters with combustible gas indicators be positioned around the perimeter to establish and maintain a safe zone with the help of the police in evacuating and denying entry. HZ also recommends limiting ignition sources by shutting off electric and gas service to the complex.
The IC agrees with those three recommendations. The IC then makes assignments as follows: HM will do the entry; your engine company will man and position two hoselines to drive and dilute the vapors away from the entry team and the most populated areas. Two members of the truck company will act as the Firefighter Assist and Search Team (FAST). The sergeant recommends a complete shutdown of traffic and will establish detours as the rush hour approaches. The IC agrees. SitU posts these on the map (these will help direct additional units into the scene). The operations chief has his vest on now and will be in-charge of all the moving pieces. The EMS lieutenant advises he has set up a casualty collection point at the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk Streets and the rehab and medical site for responders will be set up nearby. IC reminds the bosses at the CP that this is unified command between fire, police, EMS, and HM, and that a commander from each unit will remain at the CP to direct their units and coordinate within the Unified Command Post.
The safety officer from HM has developed a safety plan and reviews it in 30 seconds for the group and hands it to the Plans officer for documentation. The IC assigns radio frequencies for the operation and asks if there are any questions or concerns. The IC says enthusiastically: “Okay, let’s go to work!“ The first operational period is underway in just a few minutes: everyone knows the plan, it is well-coordinated, and already in motion. The SitU has marked up the map with unit locations, evacuation zones, etc. This will be a huge help to the IC, who can now visualize the situation and assign incoming units after a quick look at the map. This gives everyone a common operating picture of the response—who is doing what, where they are, and why. Most importantly, it will help determine how incoming units, if needed, will assist in resolving the issue. If the initial entry does not stop the leaking propane, the map will be a critical component to planning the next steps, relieving personnel if this is a long-duration event or if it takes a bad turn.
This meeting only took three minutes because everyone—Plans, Situ, IC, police, EMS, and HM—new their job in the planning process and know and understand the value of the planning meeting. We like to say, “Make time to save time.” This three-minute meeting did just that and started the response to a very dangerous situation smoothly, efficiently, and quickly.
(2) Because of the damage to the tank, the leak could not be stopped and had to be flared off. Planning as described in this article was successful in mitigating the incident without injuires to responders or environment damage.
According to our Incident Command System training: a planning meeting will be conducted as soon as is practical to develop the incident action plan. The purpose of this meeting is to gain situational awareness, share information, define current actions, and plan future actions to mitigate the incident.
I get it— filling out a form never resolved any emergency or stopped any propane leak. But it’s critical for the commander to recognize that commanders from all agencies learn this process and learn to use their staff by giving them an assignment. The commander does not have to formally do all these steps per se, but certainly they form an excellent road map for size-up, planning, and assignment of resources…even if it only takes place in his own head. The first incident action plan maybe in his head. If the plan was developed without the key staff around, the IC must effectively communicate it to his subordinates and other agency commanders.
Think of this as a baseball team. The manager is the IC; a ground ball gets hit to the shortstop; he throws it to the second basemen, who makes the out on the runner going from first to second base. The second baseman knows the plan and throws it to the first basemen…double play! The team knew their roles in advance, made judgments based on the plan they had practiced, and key players were able to support the manager (the IC). The result in an effective play. The team wins!
The planning process is not much more than a CAN report with some accessories like: a staff to suggest strategic and tactical objectives, then execute critical parts of the planning process. The IC formalizes and approves objectives, then makes assignments regarding on scene or responding personnel to accomplish the objectives.
Next time you go to a multiagency emergency, take a look at the CP (hopefully it’s a unified CP). Is it chaos or is it a group of leaders who are organized into an efficient team that obviously has practiced together and forms an effective battle group? It could mean the difference between operational failure and success.
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