By Eric G. Bachman
Arguably, the most influencing emergency incident aspect is information. Not knowing where the incident is and what the problem is makes everything else moot (initially, anyway). After we answer those two pieces of information, we subconsciously process and analyze a whirlwind of thoughts such as the time of day, the route of travel, the potential occupant dispositions, other responding resources, hydrant location, and so on.
However, some Information cannot not be known, such as when a fire will start, how long it has been burning before it is discovered, and how far it has progressed after we arrive. On the other hand, numerous amounts of information can be known before an incident such as construction type, utility controls, hazardous material use, and installed protection features. If you are not engaged in preincident intelligence, almost everything about an incident will be unknown.
Preincident recognition of circumstances that will later influence an incident helps anticipate incident consequences. When this is applied postdispatch, it can enhance emergency operations and responder safety. Beyond understanding site-specific hazards and challenges, preincident intelligence can support or justify other fire department facets including training needs and equipment inventories.
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Despite the importance of preincident intelligence, many fire departments fail to gather even basic information about the facilities they protect. When I talk to fire officers about specific facilities in their districts and pose the question, “What do they do?” too often the answer is, “I am not sure.” Although fire departments cannot be experts in every industry, it is imperative, that the fire department has a principle understanding of the facility’s purpose. Logically, one the obvious clues is the facility name. In many cases, however, the name of the facility is nondescript and yields no suggestions of its conduct (photo 1).
(1) Facility names may be vague and not indicate their business practice. (Photos by author.)
Naming descriptors can be ambiguous. You cannot assume business operations, especially with descriptors such as enterprises, logistics, industrial (photo 2), and technologies. What do they really mean? All are broad and can encompass varying degrees of operations and hazards.
(2) Naming descriptors are broad with ambiguous meanings.
Also, facilities with similar identifiers may not partake in the same practices. Photos 3 and 4 are “container” facilities. The facility in photo 3 produces corrugated boxes. The facility in photo 4 manufactures styrofoam cups and plastic utensils. Although they are “container” manufacturers, each has their own intricate and specific processes, materials, and hazards. The facility in photo 4 uses many hazardous substances and intricate processes which you must know before an incident.
(3) This “container” manufacturer make corrugated boxes.
(4) This “container” manufacturer makes styofoam cups.
There is a fine line between perceived and known hazards. Often, there is a tremendous void in what the fire department thinks are the potential hazards and what is actually lying in wait. The difference in these two hazard awareness perspectives can be the difference between life and death. In photo 5, what is the occupancy classification? To many, it appears to be a storage barn. In reality, (and not marked anywhere on the exterior) the facility is a sewage pumping station. Inside are four levels below grade which present many access and confined space hazards.
(5) Unmarked buildings and as well as buildings built to blend into the community present no clue of any potential occupant hazards.
With the examples above and which correlates to local circumstances, there can be an information GAP. This is especially so when similarly named facilities engage in dissimilar operations. Fire department leaders must strive to close the preincident preparedness information GAP. Hopefully, you noticed that the word GAP was highlighted. By definition, it means incomplete and deficient. For the purposes of this article, it represents insufficient information as well as an acronym to describe three basic and essential preincident information processes. By not closing the GAP, how do you know what equipment is needed and what training competencies are necessary?
G: Gather—What Do You Protect?
Gather information about your jurisdiction; this will allow you to answer the question, “What do we protect?” This does not only include stereotypical fixed facility target hazards, but rather transportation corridors and infrastructure elements. Gathering can be difficult; sometimes, efforts to better understand a facility can be met with many obstacles. A lack of information sources or a reluctance of facility personnel to cooperate can frustrate fire officials to the point that the officials give up. Sometimes, research can yield a library of information that can be overwhelming. Regardless of which end of the information spectrum you find yourself, it is important to remain steadfast, persistent, and focused on the purpose and benefits of your efforts.
A: Analyze—How Can It Harm Me?
Analyze the information you gather. This process should answer the questions, “How can it harm me?” and “What are our capabilities and limitations to respond and mitigate an incident?” Gathering a target hazards list and cataloging them in a database by itself is not an effective practice to prepare for an emergency. It is necessary to Analyze the information to identify aspects that may harm you and influence emergency operations. For a fixed facility, there are many factors to review and contemplate that will influence your response and safety. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the construction type?
- What and where are the utilities/shutoffs?
- What hazardous materials (photo 6)?
- What processes are used?
(6) This danger sign on an interior door indicates that chlorine gas (in the fine print) is inside.
For transient hazards, you must ask the following questions:
- What commodities are commonly transported through the area?
- What is the topography of the area?
- Where are storm drains located?
- What natural or man-made conduits exist that will influence a spill?
- What environmentally sensitive areas and other exposures exist?
P: Prepare—What Can I Do About It?
Prepare for the potential hazards. How/What do we need to improve our abilities to respond? The answer to this question could be relatively simple by enhancing training. It could justify acquiring certain equipment to mitigate specific situations such as special extinguishing agents (photo 7) or it could include significant expensive of technical equipment. These examples are dependent on local hazards. But if there is an information GAP, you may not recognize specific mitigation tools beforehand.
(7) It may be necessary to use special extinguishing agents to counter specific fire types.
The answer to the question of how/what do we need to improve our abilities to respond could also yield a complex answer as well as reveal a significant deficiency on the part of the fire department. Regardless of how simple or complex the answer, you must address it before an incident to prevent or reduce the risk of injury or death to your personnel.
Blindly committing your personnel to hazards or a situation for which members are not prepared will only have one end result: negative. It may not be feasible for the fire department to acquire the necessary training or maintain the identified equipment for a variety of reasons such as funding, time, space, or staffing. However, you must know what resources (equipment and technical experts) are needed, where they are located, and how to get the resource quickly at all times of the day or night.
Maintaining perspective is a key to preparedness consideration. No matter the disposition or complexity of the fire district, the universal incident priorities are the same: Life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. Understanding your capabilities and limitations is crucial. If the best option is taking a defensive posture, such as isolating and denying entry into an area without other intervention actions, there is no shame in that. The mindset of many fire managers is that we always have to do something; “That is what the public expects” is the rationale. However, knowing that you are not able to effectively mitigate a certain circumstance and putting on a “show” for the public will most likely end unfavorably. The unfavorable outcome could result in reducing the credibility of your organization or, worse, injury or death. You will not know of the dangers that await you, nor will you appreciate your inabilities if you do not work toward closing the information GAP.
Other aspects to consider include consistent maintenance and review of the information to ensure accuracies that are not addressed above (see my March 2003 article, “Common Preincident Intelligence Failures”). However, as a starting point, departments that do not have a preincident preparedness program must try to close the initial information GAP. Being better informed improves the safety of personnel.
Communities are constantly changing, and technology is becoming ever so complex. The longer you wait to gather site-specific information, the wider and larger that information GAP becomes. The larger the obstacle, the more frustration and more overwhelming it will seem. Closing the information GAP will better serve your community as well as improve the safety of our personnel.
ERIC G. BACHMAN, CFPS, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and 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 Company.