BY GEORGE BLACKMORE
On February 18, 2010, Andrew Joseph Stack deliberately flew his small single-engine aircraft into the Echelon I office building at 9420 Research Blvd. in Austin, Texas. Prior to that, he had set fire to his own residence approximately two miles from the Echelon I building, drove 15 miles to the Georgetown Municipal Airport, and took off heading straight for the Echelon I building. The night before, he had posted a rambling manifesto on the Internet complaining bitterly about the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Stack died in the plane crash, as did one innocent civilian employee in the building.
Photo by Randy Denzer.
The plane struck a large 18-inch steel I-beam between floors on the outside of the building. The small general aviation aircraft stopped at that point and fell to the ground without penetrating the interior of the building. Fuel and shredded debris were carried into the building, and a large fire ensued. The intense heat from the aviation fuel that sprayed into the building caused severe deflection and twisting of the metal structural elements, but most of the sprinkler system operated and held the fire from advancing beyond where the fuel had penetrated into the building.
A partial renovation on the second floor resulted in fewer people than usual in the impact area. As it was, the approximately 112 employees inside Echelon I evacuated and were accounted for within three to 10 minutes of impact. County fire departments (emergency services districts) training inside the City of Austin jurisdiction across the highway from the incident heard the impact, saw the resulting fireball, and responded immediately. Federal law enforcement and Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) resources were located in the building next to the targeted structure.
I was driving back to Austin from San Antonio, where I had attended the Texas Homeland Security Conference. I was just south of New Braunfels, a little more than 45 miles from Austin, when my pager started going crazy—a second-alarm structure fire, requests for additional dispatchers to report to work, a downed aircraft. Things were very busy back in Austin. Since I was out of radio range, all I heard was an intermittent beep.
My phone rang. The emergency management coordinator for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) was calling. She asked if I had heard or knew anything about a plane flying into the Echelon I building, where the Austin branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was housed. LCRA, she added, was about to increase security measures at the multiple dams on the Colorado River. As we were speaking, a white Suburban marked “Federal Protective Services” sped past me with lights and siren, heading north toward Austin. I told my colleague that there may be something to what she said, but that I would have to get back to her. I laid a little heavier foot on the accelerator and headed straight for the Austin Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
Note: The Echelon Plane Crash After-Action Report was authored by and is primarily intended for Austin Fire Department (AFD) use. Much of the information in this article is based on that report, to which dozens of representatives from AFD, mutual aid, and the other agencies that responded to the Echelon incident contributed. Incident Challenges and Proposed Recommendations are presented in the Lessons Learned and Reinforced section.
NOTIFICATION AND RESPONSE
Eyewitness accounts reported that a private plane flew into a building, and a loud explosion and fireball followed. Members of several county fire departments were across the 10-lane freeway in a shopping center parking lot conducting hazmat training. There was only one apparatus, but four departments were participating in the exercise. They witnessed the fireball and explosion, reported the events to Dispatch, and self-assigned to the incident.
The plane impacted the building on the side facing the multilane freeway. Since that was the quickest access to the site, the county departments’ only apparatus responded to that location. Other county responders, including the hazmat coordinator (a chief officer), responded to the far side of the building, which was the entrance side of the structure. The lone county apparatus, thinking a blitz attack with tank water could achieve some knockdown and afford building occupants additional time to evacuate, pulled a 2½-inch preconnected hoseline and attacked the fire from the impact side at ground level.
Meanwhile, building occupants of Echelon I, the targeted building, were evacuating in an orderly and rehearsed manner. Several occupants appeared at windows on the second floor. A civilian glass installer with an extension ladder stopped and initiated a rescue of those individuals.
The first-arriving AFD unit was directed to assist with rescuing any additional occupants from that second-story location. Meanwhile, an IRS employee reported to Command, which had been established on the entrance side of Echelon I, that all employees were out of the building except one, who was unaccounted for. Shortly thereafter, responders determined that the targeted building housed federal offices of the IRS.
The second-arriving AFD engine company proceeded to the fire department connection (FDC) and supported the sprinkler system. The impact severely damaged a three-inch sprinkler lateral, but the engine company was able to provide enough pressure to overcome it to augment the system and allow the sprinklers to control fire progression. Knowing that all building occupants had been accounted for, except one, and realizing that a plane had deliberately crashed into federal offices, causing significant damage and heavy fire, Command ordered everyone to exit the structure.
Command regrouped, reviewed strategies, and initiated an offensive attack, which included an attack with hoselines attached to the standpipe system in the interior stairwell on the second floor. Additional companies conducted a primary search in the less-affected areas adjacent to heavily involved fire locations. The fire was knocked down within an hour and was declared under control after an additional 30 minutes. The missing employee was located four hours later, deceased, in the immediate vicinity of the impact.
Summary of Findings
The response was almost immediate. Casualties were low as the result of a combination of factors, including employee evacuation procedures and building design. Established automatic-aid practices allowed the fire departments training within the City of Austin’s jurisdiction at the time of the incident to respond and initiate operations. The targeted Echelon I building had implemented a written evacuation plan, conducted annual evacuation drills, and trained floor wardens to guide occupants, facilitating evacuation.
INTERAGENCY COOPERATION AND UNIFIED COMMAND
County fire departments training within Austin’s city limits were the first on-scene, initiating attack and assuming command. When the AFD division chief arrived, he established Unified Command, assessed the situation, declared a defensive strategy, and ordered all firefighters from the building. After conferring with representatives from law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire departments, and additional federal agencies located within the Echelon campus, an AFD battalion chief was designated Operations Section chief, and initial incident objectives were determined.
These objectives focused on fire control, establishing and maintaining a secure perimeter, implementing a traffic management plan, and initiating a criminal investigation. The City of Austin’s command vehicle was requested within 15 minutes of the incident and responded to the scene, providing a total turn-key ability to set up for Unified Command in the parking lot on the entrance side of the Echelon I building. The local FBI field offices were in Echelon III, approximately 200 feet from Echelon I. The nature of this incident was such that policy makers, agency directors, and executives responded to the scene. The City of Austin’s mayor, city manager, police chief, fire chief, EMS director, FBI assistant special agent in charge, and other federal and state agency executives all converged on the scene and established a policy-, intelligence-, and information-sharing group in Echelon III.
The AFD used two senior chief officers as liaisons for the Policy Group and Unified Command; this greatly facilitated information exchange. There were still numerous challenges with such a unique event, with more than 300 responders from multiple agencies, jurisdictions, and levels of government. Law enforcement personnel outnumbered other responders by approximately two to one. The coordination and communication among more than a dozen law enforcement agencies on-scene was difficult, yet they managed to accomplish the law enforcement objectives fairly quickly and efficiently.
Summary of Findings
Unified Command was established very early in the incident and functioned extremely well. It consisted primarily of local agencies and the FBI, although other federal entities were present and represented within Command as needed.
We have a well-established practice of multiple-agency planning initiatives that allows for personnel familiarization or at least face recognition of key players during emergency situations. The City of Austin’s public safety departments have a high degree of comfort with Unified Command because they use it in day-to-day operations. Public safety personnel’s participation in regional Incident Management Team (IMT) programs facilitated the implementation of incident command system (ICS)/IMT tools and techniques: incident action plans (IAPs), organizational charts, communications plans, planning meetings, and so on.
The City of Austin EOC was activated approximately 45 minutes after the plane struck Echelon I. The EOC duty officer activated the public safety agency EOC callback procedures when he became aware of the incident. The Austin Police Department (APD), Travis County Sheriffs’ Office (TCSO), Austin Fire, and Austin/Travis County EMS all responded to the EOC and began coordinating efforts with Unified Command on scene. EOC representatives were prompting and fielding requests for extended operations—e.g., powered light towers, food, fencing, and portable toilets. Information and intelligence were exchanged among agencies, Command, and the EOC. As information and intelligence began to paint the picture of what happened, it was communicated through various mechanisms—i.e., on-scene among some command elements, among agencies at the EOC, and between the EOC and associated on-scene command elements. It was determined very early in the incident that the plane crash was intentional; that the pilot had set his own residence on fire; that he owned and stored an airplane less than 20 miles from Echelon I; and that he had an ongoing dispute with the IRS.
Summary of Findings
Overall, the EOC functioned as designed. City of Austin agency representatives were all very familiar with one another, which facilitated cooperation and working relationships. We initiated the Web EOC early in the activation so we could track significant events and resource orders. The EOC’s ensuing resource requests for extended operations freed the on-scene command elements to focus on other issues. Hard-line phone numbers (vehicle work station phones, not individual cell phones) were established between the EOC and the City of Austin command vehicle early to communicate with staff at the command post. Intelligence and information sharing among public safety agencies at the EOC facilitated communication to the respective agencies on-scene. The City of Austin public information officer (PIO) section was set up in the EOC as part of the Joint Information Center (JIC) but separate from on-scene PIO activities. This was done to allow the on-scene PIO to focus on local media coverage while the EOC PIO section concentrated on outside requests and broader information releases.
JOINT INFORMATION CENTER (JIC)
The significance of the plane crash was understood; all involved knew it would attract tremendous media attention in very short order. The Policy Group decided early in the incident that local government—the City of Austin—would take the prominent role in information sharing until such time as hazards were mitigated and the FBI stepped in as the lead agency for the incident. By early afternoon, City Hall and the EOC were fielding calls from across the nation and the world. The city’s PIO section coordinated information released through an on-site PIO, who scripted releases, scheduled media briefings, and relayed information back to the EOC. At the EOC, the city’s PIO section had four personnel drafting media releases and answering inquiries as they came in. Having the JIC split between the Policy Group on-scene and the EOC worked well and allowed the information to be more broadly disseminated while still being coordinated and on message.
Summary of Findings
The JIC was established early in the incident, and the City of Austin took the lead in all information sharing with the media and public. The Policy Group placed the JIC nearby for effective information coordination. The JIC sent personnel to the EOC to coordinate information and media releases to a broader market and to field numerous phone and e-mail requests. Recognizing early that PIO and JIC functions would be critical, Unified Command initially assigned an AFD senior chief officer as PIO.
After life safety was ensured and incident stabilization was realized, the incident became law enforcement’s responsibility; the primary focus was now on the criminal investigation. A complicating factor for all law enforcement activity was that at least 14 law enforcement agencies were participating—the APD; TCSO; Williamson County Sheriffs’ Office; FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Texas Department of Public Safety; Texas Rangers; Federal Protective Services; Secret Service; U.S. Treasury; University of Texas Police Department; St. Edwards University Police Department; Austin Community College Police Department; and AFD Arson Investigations section. The APD’s Communications section put out a regional request for assistance before law enforcement accountability or check-in procedures were established. Many of the law enforcement officers were involved in managing traffic and securing the outer perimeter. A large number of officers were needed because of the expansive geographic area involved, including a multilane freeway interchange. Integrating officers into the traffic-management plan and outer-perimeter security was not very difficult, although personnel accountability was never coordinated through Command.
The APD initiated the criminal investigation according to standard protocol within city limits until a federal agency having responsibility assumed the lead. APD detectives sit on the FBI JTTF, which happens to have its office in Echelon III, so communication, coordination, and information sharing occurred without delay. Law enforcement implemented its part of the IAP—establishing Unified Command, discussing secondary devices and the need to conduct searches to clear areas adjacent to the plane crash site, investigating the fire at Stack’s residence, and conducting a search and investigation of the neighboring general aviation airport. Law enforcement agencies agree that access control of the inner perimeter, because of the presence of so many law enforcement agencies and any number of credentials, presented an extreme challenge that will require further refinement.
Summary of Findings
The investigation is ongoing. Three separate, but related, incidents over a wide geographic area necessitated law enforcement response. Overall, law enforcement activities were well coordinated and effective in accomplishing the incident objectives. Law enforcement (APD, TCSO, and FBI) integrated into Unified Command. Law enforcement agencies provided mutual-aid assistance and easily integrated into traffic management and outer perimeter operations. Information and intelligence were freely shared with personnel and agencies that needed to be informed. Law enforcement response was large and rapid.
As tragic as the events of February 18, 2010, were, it could have been far worse. Unfortunately, one innocent civilian was killed, and there were several additional injuries; but had circumstances not prevailed as they did, there easily could have been many more casualties. All the responding agencies regularly work collaboratively on multiple planning initiatives and worked cooperatively during this emergency that had the potential for escalation, large numbers of casualties, and unknown hazards.
By all accounts, this incident was managed extremely well; most considered it very successful. However, there are numerous lessons to be learned from this incident, and the discussions and the information the agencies take away from it will hopefully lead to new and improved strategies for response to deliberate acts aimed at inflicting great harm on our communities.
LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED
- Law enforcement implemented a traffic management plan early, and multiple law enforcement agencies in the vicinity assisted in enforcing it. However, the overwhelming law enforcement response created a lack of accountability.
- Other accountability problems involved the public safety disciplines present, which did not have accurate personnel-tracking systems in place across all the agencies within their discipline.
- The self-assignment of the mutual-aid resources caused confusion and difficulty with accountability. Also, many of these responders did not have the corresponding apparatus on-scene, creating confusion for responding AFD units, command personnel, and Dispatch as to what resources were actually available.
- There was some difficulty involving clarifying expectations on when and how fire departments should transfer command when one department responds into another department’s jurisdiction and assumes initial command.
- A central check-in location should have been established and staffed early in the incident.
- Improve the productivity of the City of Austin’s unstaffed command vehicle at these types of incidents. Limited technology was in place because of budget constraints, and the cadre of trained drivers and technical support was limited. We were unable to send mast camera feed to the EOC because of a lack of satellite service.
- Review the service plan for the command vehicle and the process for initiating its response. The unstaffed command vehicle does not have adequate automatic response trigger mechanisms; it currently relies on a request for response by incident commanders and an inconvenient callback procedure. Request City of Austin command vehicle response early if it is suspected that an incident could be a significant event with potential for escalation.
- No adequate ICS structure was established below Unified Command. Some command and general staff were assigned, but not branches. Communications directed to Command should have been directed to branches. Assigning branch or divisions/groups helps ensure that agencies/disciplines focus on organizational details and assignments.
- Early in the incident, assign Command and general staff to develop an IAP and provide support into the next operational period.
- Consider deploying AFD support staff to augment emergency scene operations.
- There is a need to expand familiarity with ICS principles to ensure that all on-scene responders understand Command and general staff functions, especially the roles of incident safety officer and Operations Section chief.
- Establish an Intelligence Section within the Unified Command structure.
- Order resources more efficiently. Several resource orders were not coordinated through the designated process—food was ordered through one agency instead of the EOC and state asset requests bypassed the normal official process through the Disaster District Chair (DDC), for example.
- Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and distinctions between Unified Command and the Policy Group.
- Activate the AFD Community Services Group (CSG) at large incidents, not just at residential incidents. The CSG’s primary mission is to assist affected or displaced residents at emergency incidents, typically home and apartment fires. Large-scale incidents with significant impact to commercial occupancies have a need for the CSG as well, to assist employees of affected structures.
- Review and refine as necessary EOC notification and activation procedures. The duty officer concept is sound, but if the officer is not notified, he cannot activate the EOC.
- Continue to formalize Unified Command concepts and training among regional agencies and jurisdictions.
- Provide advanced ICS/IMT training for an additional number of AFD and other agencies’ personnel. Personnel trained and equipped with advanced ICS skills, tools, and techniques facilitate effective coordination and EOC operations, as well as incident management.
- Ensure that command officers wear ICS vests. It is preferable that this be carried down to unit leaders, but minimally should be done at the Command and general staff levels.
- Assign Planning and Logistics Section chiefs early. Rapidly escalating incidents necessitate dedicated planning and logistics to anticipate the direction of the incident and the needs of command.
- Develop a rapid incident credentialing plan.
- Continue to train law enforcement personnel in the National Incident Management System/ICS/IMT concepts.
- Establish clear planning and briefing schedules for all EOC activations/operations.
- Develop a cogent plan for addressing chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats; secondary devices; and other unknown hazards that could be associated with an incident of this nature.
- Request callback engineers early in incidents involving structures with significant structural damage. Significant structural loading from the sprinkler system coupled with substantial structural member damage creates a critical need for assessment by qualified engineering staff.
- Control access through the inner perimeter. Perimeter security has a dual function: to restrict access to a crime scene and to ensure personnel safety in a hazard zone.
- An undocumented change in 911 call-taking for incidents involving explosions delayed the dispatching of an appropriate level of resources by about 40 seconds. AFD initially dispatched only one engine company to an EMS request for assistance with a burn patient.
- Review the procedures for changing the City of Austin’s call-taking processes.
- Write policies and procedures that ensure all affected agencies are notified and have the opportunity to provide input before any change to call taking, processing, or routing is implemented.
- Organization and distribution of radio communications among the multiple talk groups assigned to the incident need improvement. Although Dispatch assigned multiple talk groups to the incident, most fire communications occurred on the primary tactical talk group.
- Notify the EOC, the PIO, the City, and other officials in a timely fashion.
- Disseminate information to other government agencies housed in adjacent buildings (and citywide, if appropriate) that might potentially be targets as well.
- Become familiar with federal government communication and security strategies so that additional federal agencies possibly impacted by an incident can be notified.
- Review and redesign if possible the current EOC phone system to make it less complicated to use.
- Look for ways to increase personnel familiarity with Web EOC through training. Research and advance an initiative to incorporate Web-based EOC into a broader business practice across City of Austin departments.
- Continue the practice of splitting the JIC between the incident site and the EOC.
- Review and implement, as necessary, an information policy about declaring an intentional act prior to concluding the investigative process.
- It was difficult to communicate the JIC organization and its processes to all involved and to schedule media briefings and start them on time. Review and refine, as necessary, City of Austin PIO notification and activation processes.
- Information and intelligence sharing were sometimes haphazard or incomplete. Develop a formal process for sharing critical information and intelligence with agencies outside of law enforcement. Consider assigning a fire officer to the local FBI JTTF.
- The EOC duty officer was not officially notified of this significant event but learned about it through casual conversation. The EOC was activated 45 minutes after the plane crash.
- Assign an on-scene EOC liaison at each site to facilitate information exchange from Command to the EOC.
- The second-arriving AFD company recognized early the need to support the building’s sprinkler system with an additional water supply and a fire engine (pumping apparatus), which was able to overcome the loss of water caused by the system’s broken lateral. The sprinkler system was highly effective in stopping fire progression and reaffirms the fire service’s strategy of supporting sprinkler systems early in the incident. At this incident, water lines were not in the City of Austin water utility database, hydrants provided inadequate flow, and the incident was mitigated somewhat by using techniques for maximizing hydrants.
- Reaffirm the strategy to avoid private water systems and hydrants for establishing a water supply for these types of incidents, if possible. The on-ground hydrant system for the entire Echelon campus was insufficient to sustain heavy fire flows.
- Initial responders declared a defensive strategy, but in reality they employed a mixed strategy, using a blitz attack (defensive) while assigning personnel to conduct interior search and rescue operations (offensive).
- Some confusion arose over the definition of a “blitz attack” among county and city fire departments. The plan is to work toward developing a shared terminology for terms involving fire strategies and tactics.
- The blitz attack could not be sustained beyond the 500 gallons of water in the apparatus tank. Some factors contributing to this were the water supply problem, lack of familiarity with the jurisdiction, and absence of direction for incoming fire apparatus.
- Review and revise as necessary the AFD’s Standard Operating Guidelines (SOGs) for High-Rise Fires. Current SOGs require that high-rise procedures be used in structures with five or more floors. Had high-rise procedures been implemented at this incident, aerial apparatus most likely would have been placed in less than optimal positions for tactical fire operations—for example, aerial companies would have been assigned functional responsibilities instead of setting up for master stream operations. In addition, augmenting the sprinkler system may have been delayed, since present SOGs stipulate that a later-arriving engine company establish the water supply instead of the second engine company at the incident.
- Develop an SOG that addresses the potential for unknown intentional hazards or placement of secondary devices targeting emergency responders at incidents involving premeditated acts aimed at causing great harm or destruction or specfic target hazards.
- Locked law enforcement vehicles impeded access for fire apparatus and medic units that needed to get closer to be effective.
- Document incident benchmarks.
- Perimeter management was challenging because of the large number of law enforcement agencies and credentials. Only credentialed personnel wearing the appropriate level of personal protective equipment should have access to sensitive or hazardous areas. Law enforcement should develop more effective procedures for managing the perimeter.
GEORGE BLACKMORE is a 30-year member of the Austin (TX) Fire Department, where he serves as assistant chief of special operations and homeland security. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and is a graduate of the Austin Police Department’s West Point Leadership Academy and the Homeland Security Executive Leaders’ Program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He sits on numerous regional homeland security committees and is the team leader of the Capital Area Type III IMT. He has also attended numerous National Fire Academy courses. Chief Blackmore is a certified Texas master firefighter; an NFPA fire officer II and instructor III; an aircraft firefighter; and a Texas EMT.
Austin’s Community Service Group: Valuable Asset in Plane Attack Response
BY RANDY DENZER
On February 18, 2010, in Austin, Texas, the Echelon I building housing federal employees was attacked by a man who flew an airplane into the building. The resulting fire swept through the second floor of this four-story building. Amazingly, besides the pilot, only one individual lost his life.
I received the initial working fire page and turned on my radio. After listening to size-up from the first-in engine and recognizing that this was going to be a big incident, I phoned Dispatch and advised that I would respond as Community Service Group (CSG) 1.
Arrival and Size-Up
As I approached the scene, the first thing I noticed was the large number of people moving across the parking lot toward Jollyville Road. There was an ever-increasing volume of smoke from the fire and a growing number of people, so I requested from Dispatch a full CSG page to get as many team members en route as possible. I parked in a remote parking lot on Jollyville Road, knowing that a large number of apparatus would be responding. As I walked toward the “A” side of the building, a police officer asked me if the Austin Police Department should start evacuating the adjacent structures. I told him that we would first need the parking lots cleared for the fire units. I also asked that he direct the evacuees across Jollyville Road.
I found the initial command post (CP) on the Delta Alpha corner of the building. I met with the incident commander (IC) and informed him that I was CSG 1. I also told him that I would start working on civilian accountability after I performed a hot lap. As I walked down the entrance road on the Delta side, the radio traffic indicated that crews were getting ready to enter the building. I was impressed at how much fire was showing on the second floor and snapped a couple of quick pictures to show the IC when I returned to the CP. There was too much flying debris on the Charlie side to continue my hot lap to the Bravo side, so I returned to the CP to inform the IC of how much fire was showing and to begin accountability operations.
From passing police officers and civilians, I had heard that 10 to 12 employees were missing. To obtain an accurate accounting of the evacuated occupants, I had to find employees who worked in the building’s management office. I located a security officer normally assigned to the lobby; he helped locate key building personnel. Since the IC needed floor plans and building systems information, I asked the security guard to help locate building engineers and maintenance personnel as well as a building management representative.
The CP was quickly becoming overrun with first responders and civilians who were trying to provide information. The security officer brought me the lead fire warden for the building, the building engineer, and a management representative. After I gathered the group, I moved all civilians away from the CP. I then created a staging area for the key employees with whom I would be working. The staging area was close enough to the CP so that I could relay critical information as I obtained it.
I then introduced myself as their liaison to the CP and explained that I would be their single point of contact from then on. I also emphasized the importance of their remaining in this staging area so I could obtain and relay information as needed. At that point, I received a copy of the floor plans from the building engineer. This one item made my job easier in terms of making notes and getting an idea of occupancy.
The building engineer indicated that the structure had unprotected bar joists on I-beam girder construction. I immediately relayed this information to the IC. The building manager informed me that the majority of the first floor was vacant and that he felt there were about 150 or so Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees working on the second through fourth floors. The lead fire warden then told me that the second, third, and fourth floors had IRS floor fire wardens. I asked security to bring those wardens to the liaison marshaling area.
After I gathered the key employees, I was able to begin decreasing the number of missing occupants down to five or six. I noted their names and asked the lead warden for any type of employee roster. The fact that almost everyone had a cell phone made accounting for evacuated personnel much easier. I obtained a transport list from the emergency medical services (EMS) public information officer. I was told that two employees were transported with burn injuries. The EMS supervisors provided the names of those transported.
I debriefed floor fire wardens, starting with the least damaged floor (the fourth floor) and moved closer to the fire floor. The respective floor wardens assured me that the third and fourth floors were clear. The wardens also indicated that guns and ammunition were stored in a safe on the third floor, should that be an issue. The second-floor fire warden did not clear his floor. Using the plans for the second floor, he pointed out areas he was able to search before the ceiling started to come down on him.
One person was reported missing on the second floor. I asked the second-floor warden to draw a stick figure in the exact location where the person was last seen. I then wrote the missing individual’s name alongside the drawing. I reported to the CP and showed the Operations officer the location of the only missing person. To confirm that the missing employee had not left, security took me to verify that his vehicle was still in the parking lot. It was locked, and the missing person’s cell phone was charging on the seat. I walked the lead fire warden to the Charlie division and asked him to point to the location in which the missing person worked and to cross-check the report given by the second-floor warden. He confirmed the accuracy of the information on the plan. The fire victim was found in the exact location the floor wardens had indicated.
CSG 2 arrived. I asked him to maintain control of the staging area and not to let anyone leave. Red Cross Disaster Services had been contacted early in the incident. When their personnel arrived, we went to talk to the wife of the missing individual. I asked if there was any possibility that he had gone home or somewhere else. She was confident he would not have left. I introduced her to the Red Cross workers and returned to the staging area. I cleared the scene after being relieved by CSG 3.
Lessons Learned and Reinforced
CSG protocols used at ordinary apartment fires are readily adaptable to large building fires.
Reports from law enforcement officers and civilians that a dozen people were missing proved to be unreliable and based on hearsay. Always be methodical about accountability.
The building’s floor wardens played a key role in accounting for the fleeing office personnel. To the extent possible, the wardens ensured their assigned areas were evacuated and were able to account for everyone. When the AFD witnesses fire drills, we should emphasize the value of these floor wardens. Also, when responding to high-rise alarms, we need to start making better use of this asset.
RANDY DENZER is a lieutenant and a 12-year veteran of the Austin (TX) Fire Department (AFD), assigned to Engine 40 B-Shift. He is a member of the Community Services Group, the AFD Wildland Prescribed Burn Team coordinator, and a lead instructor for fire and EMS. He is the District 3 vice president for IAFF Local 975.
Austin’s Community Service Group
Although a thorough analysis of the Austin (TX) Fire Department’s (AFD) response to the incident is in progress, one aspect is understood: AFD’s Community Service Group (CSG) proved to be a valuable asset on the fireground. The CSG is part of the AFD’s response to multiple-alarm incidents. This functional group’s primary responsibility is to serve as a liaison between the affected occupants of the structure involved and the AFD. The main areas of concern for CSG responders are tracking victims, liaison with building management (if necessary), contacting assisting agencies, and advocacy for displaced residents with Fire Operations.
Accountability. When CSG responders arrive at a “typical” apartment fire incident, for example, the top priority is accounting for all the residents. Locating, rounding up, and interviewing the fire victims allow the department to determine if any residents are unaccounted for. During the initial contact with the displaced victims, the responders can learn about any missing people, pets, or high-value possessions and notify Command, who, in turn, prioritizes Operation’s goals and objectives.
To account for missing residents at apartment fires, the CSG typically obtains a rent roll from the apartment manager; this allows us to verify the exact number and location of displaced residents. This rent roll is often our civilian accountability roster. If it has been determined that the residents will be displaced, we contact Red Cross Disaster Services so that alternative shelter can be provided.
Displaced Occupants. Austin is also home to the University of Texas, which serves 50,000 students. If our response involves a student community, we contact the dean of student affairs. The Office of the Dean is extraordinarily helpful in assisting this segment of our population and the unique problems being displaced by a fire presents to them.
It’s often the case that displaced residents can relocate on their own if they can retrieve their car keys and vital possessions (wallets/purses, medicines, pets, and so forth) from their apartments. The CSG will inventory the needs of the displaced residents and, with the assistance of Operations companies assigned to the CSG, retrieve these possessions, sending the residents on their way. This accomplishes two objectives: First, the residents are more comfortable leaving the scene and staying with friends or relatives; second, the fireground is cleared of concerned fire victims, making the incident commander’s job easier.
Property Management. Finally, the CSG acts as a liaison between Fire Operations and property management. The property managers are kept informed of the progress of the suppression efforts, the cause of the fire, and the condition of the building with regard to repair and reoccupation. Typically, a fire watch is extended to maintain custody of the scene until an investigation can be completed or because portions of the complex were allowed to be reoccupied. A company is held on-scene as an extra safety precaution. Management is informed about the progress of these activities and property security after the AFD leaves, is told how to reestablish utilities that may have been cut off during the fire, and is informed on other issues relating to recovery from the incident.
AFD recruits its CSG responders from within Operations; they are issued a radio, pager, and a set of coveralls with AFD patches and a National Incident Management System-compliant vest. Responders are assigned days to be on call.
When the aircraft slammed into the Echelon 1 building on February 18, 2010, the CSG response was adapted to meet the needs of this unusual incident.