Disaster Planning’s Key: COOPERATION

Disaster Planning’s Key: COOPERATION



Copyright. The Sacramento Bee 1985, Sacramento. CA

Sizeup, command, communications, coordination, and control of large-scale disaster scenes like this Sacramento, CA, multi-casualty freeway accident involve multi-agency input. They also involve extensive planning and training well before an incident occurs.

October 6, 1985, started as a typical Sunday for members of the Sacramento, CA, Fire Department. Fire Prevention Month activities were in full swing, and many companies were going door to door, talking to neighborhood residents about fire safety in the home. The weather was warm, and a brisk breeze was blowing out of the southwest.

At 3:37 P.M., a fire was reported at the California Almond Growers Exchange’s hull processing plant. The fire was spreading rapidly over almond shells being stored for processing. As this fire grew in size, eventually going to four alarms, another incident began to unfold nearby.

Upon hearing the dispatch for the Almond Growers fire, Acting Battalion Chief George Bicker proceeded to respond to the Sacramento Fire Department communications center. This is normal procedure to follow when both of the other battalion chiefs are involved with incidents.

As Chief Bicker made the transition from Interstate 80 westbound to Interstate 5 southbound, he observed a grass fire in the median area of the interchange. Bicker stopped his vehicle and radioed the communications center to dispatch an engine to the scene. He also requested that the California Highway Patrol respond because smoke from the fire was obscuring driver visibility on the roadway.

Upon arrival, the engine parked along the edge of the roadway out of the traffic lane, while its associated water wagon (with a skid mount pump and 500-gallon storage tank) entered the burn area to attack the head of the fire. This procedure is the normal grass fire attack mode for a two-piece company, and extinguishment was proceeding properly. The chief turned over command of the operation to the engine captain and continued on his way to the communications center.


As Captain Ed Butler and his crew worked on the grass fire, smoke rose from the depressed basin area. The wind carried smoke across the northand southbound lanes of Interstate 5. Suddenly, Butler heard what he thought sounded like several crashes up on the freeway. Dense smoke and the basin location of the fire did not allow a view of the freeway lanes, so Butler ran up to the incline to the edge of the southbound lanes of 1-5.

The southbound lanes were clear, but the view of the northbound lanes was obscured so Butler ran to the median divider strip for a better look.

A pile of bent and twisted steel extended for several hundred feet up and down the four lanes of the northbound roadway. Several vehicles were involved in fire with victims trapped inside. Butler immediately requested an additional engine company for a major vehicular accident.

To better assess the situation and his needs, he proceeded to the north end of the accident scene. The on-scene engine repositioned across the southbound lanes, parked in the median divider strip, and commenced an aggressive attack on the vehicle fires with a 1 1/2inch booster tank line. This quick action undoubtedly saved the lives of several people who were still in their wrecked vehicles and threatened by the flames.

In reviewing this incident, the department found that many independent agencies were able to interact well with each other and deliver a coordinated effort. By using the incident command system, there was no question of who was in charge of what.

Procedures followed

As soon as Butler completed his evaluation, he ordered the water wagon to also reposition on the freeway median strip for use of its Hurst tool to free two victims who were trapped in a vehicle underneath a large semi-tractor trailer unit. At this time, he also requested that the California Highway Patrol (CHP) helicopter and the University of California Medical Center Life Flight helicopter be dispatched. Both of these aircrafts are capable of transporting critically injured victims to nearby trauma centers. A call also was made for any available ambulances to respond to the scene.

Captain Butler’s call to the communications center for assistance resulted in the response of an additional engine and water wagon to the scene. Chief Bicker had monitored the call for assistance and was already returning to the scene. En route, he requested a truck company to be dispatched, also to assist in the extrication of trapped victims.

Sensing that the magnitude of the accident scene was extensive and seeing the smoke and vehicles ahead, Bicker also requested that still another engine company and another Hurst tool be dispatched. All this transpired in a few short moments after the accident occurred.

The command structure began to build. Captain Butler was the incident commander and was now in communication with the onscene highway patrolman, who became the scene manager. A command post was established at the north end of the accident scene, using the CHP car as a command post. Because the crash scene was spread out over so much territory, two triage areas were designated.

After Chief Bicker arrived at the scene and was briefed, he assumed command and directed the incoming companies. As soon as the fire was totally extinguished, a complete search of all vehicles was immediately conducted. This search revealed that there were eight fatalities in three separate vehicles, and that two female occupants were still trapped in a vehicle under a semi-tractor trailer.

The tractor was on top of the car, and a valve on the truck’s diesel tank had been sheared off during impact. This allowed fuel to pour down from the tank onto the trapped victims and flood the area. A passing California National Guardsman, who had stopped to assist, used his hand to cover the leak and stop the flow of fuel during the entire rescue operation.

Rescue efforts

Chief Bicker ordered a truck and engine company to affect the extrication of the two trapped victims. A water wagon was ordered to position itself at the north end of the accident scene near the rescue effort and apply aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) to protect the scene.

Ironically, an employee of the County Health Department, who is responsible for the county’s emergency medical services (EMS) program, happened to be passing by the scene shortly after the accident occurred and was designated as the triage coordinator. He was aided by an engine crew and several off-duty nurses who had also stopped at the scene to assist.

As ambulances and medevac helicopters responded, victims were loaded according to triage methods and transported to nine local hospitals that had sufficient facilities to handle the arrivals. No facility was overloaded, and patient care was rendered appropriately to all of the injured.

Rescue efforts continued to free the two trapped females. A large commercial truck wrecker was brought to the scene to assist in removing the tractor rig from atop the vehicle. At approximately 5 P.M. (2V2 hours later), the last of the surviving victims was finally removed from the wreckage with a coordinated team effort.

At this time, a secondary search was made of the scene to make sure that there were no other victims still alive and trapped. After it was confirmed that everyone had been found, units stood by to assist the coroner’s office in removing the eight fatalities and to prevent any ignition of fuels still on the scene.

As wreckage was pulled apart and the roadway cleared, the destruction revealed that a total of 31 automobiles, vans, pick-up trucks, and three large tractor trailers had been involved in the accident. In addition to the eight fatalities, a total of 43 people had been injured and transferred to local hospitals.


In reviewing the incident, the Sacramento Fire Department has gained valuable insight and experience that they can use in the future.

  • First, they found that the department was capable of functioning effectively, even as two major incidents were occurring simultaneously. Both incident commanders had their respective personnel switch their radios to alternate channels. This allowed each scene to be on different frequencies, thereby eliminating confusion and overlap of communications from the two separate scenes. This action also allowed the communications center to remain uninterrupted on its main dispatch channel for all other communications not related to this incident.
  • The department also found that many independent agencies were able to interact well with each other and deliver a coordinated effort. By using the incident command system, there was never a question of who was in charge of what. It is ironic that just one week prior to this tragedy, nearly all of the individuals involved with this incident had participated in a multi-casualty disaster exercise that used the same incident command system structure.
  • The department also discovered that they were able to handle the mass casualties and trauma at a scene of a major incident. Crews reacted quickly and efficiently to extinguish fires, additional help was requested immediately, the scene was stabilized, rescues were made, first aid and comfort were rendered to the injured, and the 12-hour long tedious job of removing the dead and clearing the wreckage from the roadway was accomplished professionally.
  • Finally, the department learned an important fact that will undoubtedly have a positive impact on their members and on others who also must deal with traumatic incidents. As the staff officers interviewed those who were involved in this situation, it was evident that they were still experiencing related stress and other emotional problems. The typical firefighter buries these feelings and puts on a macho facade that says, “None of this bothers me.”

However, in reality we are all emotionally affected to some extent by these tragic events. As a result, our department has taken a positive step forward in dealing with job-related stress. Two psychologists were retained to conduct group counseling. Individual counseling is also now available to all members at the department’s expense.


Considering the magnitude and devastation of this accident, it is fortunate that no more than eight lives were lost. The capabilities of the emergency response and EMS in our community were tested to the fullest, and the results were exemplary.

Disaster planning is beneficial and necessary because someday your community may also be called on to respond to a similar mass casualty incident.

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