May Roundtable: Plan B If A Device Fails

Plan B This term brings to mind the image of a firefighter, in full bunker gear and SCBA, kneeling in a black smoke-filled hallway in front of a door, mostly closed, to a room rolling in fire with a limp hoseline in his hand–no water. Now what does he do?

The old salts would sit around the kitchen table and reminisce of fires long extinguished. They would talk about mistakes they and others made, successes, and close calls. We young bucks would listen intently and learn. We learned what they did when they ran out of water or the line burst. We learned what to do if, suddenly, fire began to roll over our heads. We learned what to do if we lost our footing on a snow-slicked roof and began to slide down the face of a roof.

Today’s world of firefighting has changed dramatically since then. Technology has made our job safer and, in some cases, simpler. SCBAs, digital pump panels, thermal imaging cameras (TICs), and PASS devices come to mind. Manufacturers are quick to point out the positives of these devices and how they improve our job. Training officers usually spend hours with sales reps learning how to teach the troops how to use the new devices. But how much time is spent teaching what to do in the event Plan B is needed? What if the TIC fails or it can’t be located? What if the engine fails and the pump panel goes dark? What if the SCBA fails? (By the way, buddy breathing devices, for lack of a better term, are illegal. What now? Do we teach our members how to use a device that voids the warranty of the device and, if used, could jeopardize Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or state workers’ compensation claims? —John “Skip” Coleman, retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

Question: Does your department have a plan for times when a technological device you are using fails–for example, what if the thermal imaging camera (TIC) fails after a crew enters an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere or if you’re in trouble and your PASS device fails to activate?

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
The biggest challenge is to make sure we still train our people in what to do when technology fails–what to do when something we’ve gotten used to using stops working. A good example of this is our dispatch centers and computer aided dispatch (CAD). We’re using some great stuff when it comes to dispatching, but when the system locks up, drops a unit, or shuts down, often the dispatchers find themselves in a situation where they don’t know what to do if the button they’re pushing isn’t doing anything. Fortunately for us, when this happens, there is a senior dispatcher in the room who remembers the old days and can still dispatch without CAD when it drops or fails. You still have to know where units are, what still districts they work in, who’s available and in quarters, who backs whom up, etc. Other situations include your TIC’s battery going dead during a search, or you may drop it and can’t find it. You still need to train your people in how to search using landmarks such as a sofa, an end table, a wall, or a window or doorway without a TIC. That way, they can still find their way out when the camera fails. What about when your portable radio mic stops working after getting hit with a blast of water, and you can hear but not transmit. I know the radios are supposed to be covered, but it still happens.

Hopefully, your people are trained so they can react calmly and safely when things fail. It all comes down to training. When you get to a point to where you rely solely on something’s not going wrong, it will. And then you’re out of luck if you haven’t showed your people how to deal with a failure. When one of TICs fail, we get right back into the way we worked when we didn’t have them, and that brings us back to the basics. When an air pack fails or begins to falter, we train our people how to react and work with that unit or their partners so they can get out of the building and to safety.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York
All of our firefighters are equipped with fireground radios and can communicate directly with all other personnel at a fire operation. Our radios serve as an excellent backup if there is an equipment failure. If, for example, a PASS alarm should fail, the radio provides an individual with a vital means of communication.

SCBA is the most important technological device we routinely use. If a firefighter’s SCBA fails, our procedures require that he immediately notify his officer and leave the IDLH area accompanied by another firefighter. Again, the fireground radios add a safety margin in accomplishing this.

A TIC failure is not as critical as an SCBA failure and can be dealt with by assigning another company to the task or by using visual clues to determine heat conditions.

SCBA, radios, gas-monitoring devices, and TICs are great assets. However, there is a danger in relying too much on technology. We can make use of technological devices, but they should not be used at the expense of using basic firefighting principles.

Knowledge of building construction, fire and smoke behavior, and constant awareness of your surroundings will keep you alive. Technology should act as a supplement to rather than a replacement for such skills.

Jim Mason, lieutenant,
Chicago (IL) Fire Department
Operating in a smoke-filled structure fire is one of the most dangerous situations there is. Our selfless acts in these buildings should not be protected by technology alone. We must have a plan B for everything that is involved. Secondary plans for the failure of the technical devices that are now common should be included in our preparation before the alarm.

Much of this goes back to the basics of firefighting. We should not use technology as the single source of operational success. Tools like TICs and PASS units help us get to the goals faster; but when they fail, we need to be able to go back quickly to tried-and true-winners of the past. If we are solely dependent on these devices to see through the smoke or alert others that we are in trouble, we may be scrambling when a bad battery comes our way.

For the most part, these devices will not tell us they have failed until we are inside the building. To prevent the failure of these devices from becoming our death sentence, use redundant procedures. For example, to prepare for a bad TIC, we need to have sized up and focused on orientation of the search prior to entry. For a failed PASS, we need to maintain crew continuity inside the burning structure so we can tell our partner if we experience any of the classic Mayday problems such as being out of air, lost, or being significantly hurt or trapped.

Many years ago when the first power saws came to the fire service, it was another tool to bring to the roof for vertical ventilation. This was in addition to the first tool that always worked, the ax. Truck men of those days would need to take both tools for the times when the saw failed to run because of a lack of oxygen. When that “new” technology failed, the secondary plan was the same as it is today. Go back to the basics.

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department
There is a philosophy of “fighting fire smartly.” As firefighters, we are subjected to dangerous conditions and situations. Each member must become proficient in recognizing and dealing with these dangers. To perform our duty, we must not fear these conditions; we must respect, understand, and combat them based on incident-specific needs. This is also applicable to the tools, equipment, and personal protective equipment (PPE) we use. In addition, this means going back to the basics and ensuring that we train on “what to do when technology fails.”

Firefighters need to be able to think outside the box. By having a set of procedures that are “preincident” directed (procedures by the numbers or by technology), our personnel become restricted in their ability to operate successfully because of the requirement to take action in a preset order, not as directed by the scope of the incident. Therefore, we need to conduct training exercises in what to do when your technology is not operating.

If your TIC fails, go back to the basics: Feel the wall, open it up, check the voids to ensure the fire is not in there, continue your search, continue your assignment. However, report your problem to your chief officer, who will ask the IC for a replacement to be brought in for your use, since we know that the use of a TIC will assist us to complete our task more efficiently.

If it is the PASS that fails, then I need to know what type of failure we are having: Does the device continue to sound, fail to register air, etc. Again, go back to basics: What did we do prior to PASS devices. If the failure occurs prior to your entry, change the SCBA prior to going in. If it is a chirping sound you can’t turn off, you need to get this corrected ASAP, since we cannot have continued false negatives on the fireground. We are trained to react to a continuous sounding PASS, so you cannot ignore this. If this is the case, inform your company officer, who will inform the IC and have the situation corrected at once. If the gauge is not working properly, notify your company officer; it now becomes more important to maintain company accountability. Continue to work until air management lets you know it is time to leave or your assignment is completed, then exit and get the SCBA changed. If the situation is that you are in trouble and the PASS is not activating, immediately communicate emergency traffic and report your situation. Hopefully, you can stay calm and report your location to firefighters responding to assist you. Train so that you don’t get into unfamiliar situations and/ will know what to do when technology fails.

Craig H. Shelley, fire protection advisor
Our department does not have a policy or training in place for such an event. We are, however, implementing Firefighter Safety and Survival training, which will incorporate training for such an event. Having seen the technological advances over the years and our reliance on the equipment that has been developed, I see the need for such training.

Firefighters have become lost in buildings because of the failure of the TIC at an inopportune time. Training for such events should include battery replacement in zero visibility as well as the importance of having fully charged equipment and spare batteries available with the operator. Can your operators change the batteries with gloves on? Chargers for the batteries should be mounted on apparatus so that there will always be spares available. There is a show on television called “The Weakest Link.” I have used that title to describe the reasons for events as highlighted in the question. A battery failure is one issue, but the failure to carry a spare battery then becomes the weak link in your operation. The failure to check the battery’s condition at the start of the shift is another weak link. If there is no policy or checklist in place to check the equipment, this becomes another weak link. Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. What’s your weak link?

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services
We have no specific on-paper plan, but we have taken proactive steps to attempt to ensure that all the technological gadgets we carry function properly on the fireground.

TICs do fail, and PASS alarms may malfunction, whether by not activating or by constantly alarming when no problem exists. Our department has taken a proactive approach to maintaining all equipment to ensure its readiness in a fire. Extra batteries are carried for our TICs, and our new SCBA’S have a manual override for our PASS alarms.

Every firefighter should have his own plan for when something happens on the fireground. It is called training. We all have our training to fall back on. What did firefighters do before TICs or PASS devices? We all received training on emergency procedures; we learned how to search, how to follow the walls. We learned the basics of firefighting to keep ourselves and our brothers and sisters alive. We as firefighters must train daily to keep ourselves sharp and on how to keep all the equipment we carry in good working order.

The department can be proactive in maintenance and replacement, but we must use our common sense to keep crew integrity inside a burning building, to ensure our and civilians’ safety.

Mike Mason, lieutenant,
Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department
TIC and PASS device failures occur frequently throughout the fire service. Few departments have established standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for these failures in the dynamic fireground environment. Even our department comes up short in providing specific procedures for such events, but we incorporate these failures into training scenarios, and they come under thorough discussion and review regarding what should be or can be done when they occur. Some national programs deal extensively with these malfunctions while training in rapid intervention operations, Maydays, and tactical survival. We emphasize communications and accountability when thermal imaging, SCBA, or PASS devices (integrated or stand-alone) occur during fireground operations.

The number one proactive behavior in preventing these malfunctions is checking your thermal imaging and SCBA thoroughly at the start of each tour of duty. Our department, through rules and regulations, adheres to these life-saving procedures without question. It should be a policy to review the mechanical functions of your TIC as well as your SCBA with integrated PASS devices through morning checks. If a problem is found with a piece of equipment, it should be taken out of service and its repair should be placed on the highest priority list.

Knowing and understanding thermal imaging operations through training helps to avoid problems as well as predict problems with these cameras in the fireground dynamic. Technology failure with thermal imaging can occur in many ways: On-Off buttons, standby modes, contrast settings, temperature indicators, lens disruptions, as well as a complete malfunction. We should learn not to rely totally on technology; we should also train in the basics of fire attack and search. Follow some of these basics when using thermal imaging in aggressive firefighting, especially when fighting fire and searching.

Check your TIC daily, and operate all of the camera’s features. Also, start with a fresh battery.

When dismounting your vehicle at an interior firefight, turn on the camera. Do not turn it on for the first time while inside the fire structure. Use thermal imaging throughout the size-up of the exterior before proceeding to the interior, especially to help confirm the fire locations within the structure.

Avoid tunnel vision use of the screen. Be aware of the camera’s void space: The camera cannot see directly in front of you, from your feet. This can be from six to eight feet, depending on the direction of the view.

When a malfunction occurs, resort back to your training in these environments and what you know regarding your actions and the safety of your members.

Immediately report a malfunction in an emergency traffic message to your sector officer or command when you are involved in interior firefighting or search operations in IDLH atmospheres. The information should be reported utilizing an emergency traffic message.

When the TIC malfunctions and you or your members are experiencing the loss of situational awareness, use an emergency traffic message. Depending on time and conditions, and if disorientation continues, send out a Mayday and continue to attempt leaving the structure.

With regard to SCBA PASS devices, again, proactive behavior during routine daily checks can be the ultimate life savior, as you will catch a problem before it occurs during the firefight. Most SCBAs are integrated with the PASS device activated on charging the cylinder. Some departments still use stand-alone devices clipped onto the air pack harness. This presents problems of a different nature: battery malfunction or loss of charge, clips breaking off, forgetting to engage the clips, glove-hand manipulation are just a few. Remember that even integrated devices may use batteries to provide audible sounds. An integrated PASS alarm is the optimal way to go for one big reason–you can hear it activate automatically when you charge the cylinder without having to remember to activate it, unlike a stand-alone, which is in another location on your harness. PASS device malfunctions on the fireground, especially when discovered when engaged in interior firefighting, is a grave concern. We incorporate some of the following basic procedures regarding SCBA and/or PASS device malfunctions in our policy.

  • Daily check your SCBA and all of its functions to ensure PASS device activations while in the charging mode and for motionless activation. Remove from service any PASS device that is not functioning properly.
  • When arriving on the fireground with strategies that incorporate offensive procedures involving interior firefighting, make sure the cylinder and PASS device, integrated or stand-alone, is charged and functioning before entering hot zones.
  • Each firefighting member involved in offensive and some defensive firefights is responsible for controlling their PASS device’s nuisance alarms.
  • When a PASS device malfunctions (integrated or stand-alone), meaning a lack of function entirely or it is unable to be silenced, conduct an emergency check to ensure that all SCBA functions are operating normally except for the audible PASS device.
  • If positive pressure is present with normal inhalation and exhalation, advise your immediate company officer of the PASS alarm’s malfunction.
  • If there is any problem with the above mentioned, exit the structure immediately, if possible with a partner while advising your immediate officer of your exit.
  • The company officer or the member with the malfunction of the PASS device with an air-supply problem is to report the problem and the fact that he exited from the structure in an emergency traffic message to the commanders. If the situation and problem is severe, he should transmit a Mayday.
  • If at any time the removal or exit of the member or members jeopardizes the tasks undertaken–whether hoseline advancements or searches–the entire company assigned to the task is to retreat from the structure with the hoseline for protection and tools for search while reporting an emergency traffic message to commanders.

Incorporate the above mentioned procedures for thermal imaging and SCBA/PASS device malfunctions into your policy or guideline for tactical operations in IDLH environments.

Mike Bucy, assistant chief,
Portage (IN) Fire Department
Most of our systems have a backup. We still teach how to search for victims the old-fashioned way-tools and hands. Our rookies and veterans go through extensive search and rescue training each year, including rapid intervention team (RIT) training. Thermal imagers are nice, but they are an add-on luxury. Nothing replaces the basics of training-hands and knees with the proper tools. As far as PASS device failure is concerned, we have a few items instituted. First, we stress checking the SCBA packs daily. Hopefully, this will find most problems. Second, every member on the fireground has a portable radio with man-down alerting. Third, we religiously use personnel accountability systems to track our personnel. Last, we train our firefighters how to fend for themselves in case of unexpected events. Technology is awesome and its uses are growing, but nothing compares to the best non-technological tool at a firefighter’s disposal-his brain.

Michael A Whelan, assistant chief (ret.),
Traverse City, MI
The movement in the emergency services is toward using technology to replace our dwindling staff. This movement is positive and is improving customer service. Unfortunately, with this change there is a growing belief that technology provides the “magic bullet” where the technology relieves us from our responsibility of manual and tactical skills to keep our people safe. Technology is a great time saver that allows us to do more with less. Technology will fail at the worst possible moment. Many suffer from what I call the “Star Wars” syndrome. Because we have heard about a technology or have watched it on television, the technology is perceived as real. This is often a fallacy. Microprocessors have not yet replaced knowledge, common sense, and logic.

I have observed that when the subject of accountability comes up, we all claim to follow it. Many rely on dispatch accountability, or they believe that their “I know who my people are and where they are working” philosophy or the “magic” of electronics, computers, RFID, and GPS will keep their people safe. We want a mystical system will check a firefighter when he arrives at the scene, magically identifies him, and tracks him with no effort. This technology does not yet exist. Unless proper fall-back procedures are put in place, we have set ourselves up for another disaster. Any technological solution must have a backup plan that is understood, practiced, and automatic.

Barry Matthews, deputy chief,
Fairview (NY) Fire Department
With the addition of TICS and PASS devices, we must instill in our members that basic search and rescue procedures can be their last resort when technology fails. These procedures include the standard of choosing a wall when entering a structure and proceeding in a clockwise or counterclockwise search pattern, the use of search ropes when entering areas, and posting a monitor at the front door to keep track of crew entry and exit. When all else fails, back to basics

Mark Schollmeyer, lieutenant,
Brevard County (FL) Fire Rescue
Technology has long been a double-edged sword in the fire service. In most cases, technology makes our jobs easier, faster, and more productive. On the other hand, whenever the latest and greatest technology comes out, we tend to grasp onto it and rely solely on it. Every piece of equipment has limitations. TICs, PASS devices, mobile data terminals, radios, and gear are no exceptions. We address these problems in our firefighter survival program by reviewing and reinforcing the basic skills. One of the limitations in the case of TICs, is battery life. We instill in our survival students basic search patterns, wall counting, and hose coupling identification to get them out if technology should fail them. While technology has given a boost to the fire service, sometimes the basics get us out of a tough spot.

Ron Ayotte, deputy chief,
Marlborough (MA) Fire Department
Technology has certainly made the job easier, but it has its limitations. Let us not forget that Murphy is on every fireground and that despite our best efforts, things can and do go wrong at the worst possible moment. Training on the basics, such as maintaining situational awareness, is the key to dealing with technology failure. We entered IDLH conditions and found victims, put out fires, and overhauled before the days of the TIC. PASS devices can fail. Proper SCBA checks, changing batteries before they go weak or dead, and giving every crew member a radio can prevent some of the failures.

Anthony Riehl, firefighter,
Hackensack (NJ) Fire Department
Whenever my department trains on an evolution that includes electronic equipment, we reinforced throughout that evolution that the use of these tools should not lead to the absence of basic skills, good judgment, and use of the senses. For example, while conducting a primary search of a fire building, the TIC can be extremely beneficial, but does this mean that we should come off the wall, stray from a tagline, or not keep a secondary means of escape in mind should conditions deteriorate? Absolutely not! If we reinforce good habits and train on them regularly, those skills will be used on game day. Obviously, there is equipment failure that can put the brakes on an incident. For example, air-monitoring devices must be functional when entering a questionable atmosphere. Members who are engaged in operations use several of these meters at the same time, so that if one should fail, there is another one to immediately replace it. Additionally, with regard to PASS devices, we recently purchased new SCBAs that include an integrated PASS. This is great, but we are taking it a step further by continuing the use of our original PASS device as well; this gives us a backup. Of course, this equipment must be checked regularly to ensure proper function. We must train regularly to keep our basic skills sharp and not fall into a false sense of security.

Travis J. Sowa, captain,
Orchard (TX) Fire Department
In my department, we have a pumper that is constantly giving us electrical problems. I was recently faced with a situation where a simple fuse became inoperable at a fire scene. This fuse controlled the power to the pump and pump panel. Needless to say, the pump stopped operating; all we could do was to move the truck out of the way and bring in an older pumper to take its place. The older pumper is all mechanical and has proved its reliability time and time again. It may not be 100 percent NFPA compliant, but it still does the job. The older truck will be our contingency plan the next time the new truck fails to do its job.

Richard Wilson, lieutenant,
Bartlett (IL) Fire District
Personnel safety is the concern if a device fails. Our chief officers expect that the firefighters communicate the problem and get out of the IDLH atmosphere safely is they need assistance. All of our front-line apparatus have a TIC, therefore, should one fail, we can grab another. If an SCBA/PASS device fails while in the IDLH area, that crew (two in/two out) will move out of that area and into a clean environment, remove that unit, and set it aside. Our certified will check and repair the unit after the incident or send it out for repair or replacement. Depending on the failure, all the units may undergo another inspection in view of this failure. Some years ago, during a cold weather training, the SCBAs were freezing. One froze in the closed position. An inspection of that unit found that the user had used it at a fire before and it was soaking wet from overhaul. It did not have a chance to dry out before the training in cold weather. All our units were checked, and all personnel were advised to make sure that the SCBA was protected from the elements and hoseline runoff. If the PASS alarm fails to activate while a member is in trouble, members are instructed to use the portable radios they were assigned to initiate a Mayday.

Herbert Hoffman Jr., chief,
Orange City (FL) Fire Department
Some technological advances can be substituted for (if necessary) with an earlier device. One example is hydraulic extrication tools. I began my career in a small department in North Beach, Maryland in 1974. We used hand hydraulic tools to perform most extrication tasks. Although these tools are significantly slower, if need be, they can still perform the work. I brought this to the attention of some new firefighters about 12 years ago; not one was familiar with hand-powered hydraulic tools. Not only are these hand-powered tools a good standby for power hydraulic tools, but they may be used where a typical power hydraulic setup cannot access or if a portable power unit is not available. Another use for porta-power equipment is for agricultural and factory accidents. I would suggest that all firefighters attend a Farmedic course. I reluctantly attended this course (due to its name) after completing Haz-mat Tech. I have two stations in a small city with no agricultural or factory occupancies. However, immediately after completing this course, we had a patient entrapped by a PTO shaft under a truck.

Cleighton Tourtellotte, deputy chief,
Oxford (MA) Fire-EMS Department
Our department takes a multifold strategy on this topic. The first and most important is to have a good preventative maintenance program. All technology-based equipment such as SCBA/Integrated PASS, TICs, CO and multigas meters, and laptops are checked, tested, and calibrated on a regular basis. We have been very fortunate that this has helped in that we have not had a failure in a critical situation. Checks are scheduled on a weekly basis, and maintenance records are kept on file. For SCBA/PASS maintenance, repair, and flow testing, we have sent members to the factory to be trained as technicians and provided them with the necessary tools and equipment. All work is done in-house.

The other aspect of our plan is redundancy; we have multiples of most of this equipment readily available at any general alarm response. Our first-due engines from each station and the heavy rescue have TICs and multigas meters. The rescue has a RAD 57, and each ambulance has a CO meter. We have a grant written for additional RAD 57s. Should a device fail under use, we immediately have a backup available if needed.

Another aspect of this scenario is training and communications. We instruct our members to use their assigned portable radios to communicate any concerns, observations, or issues that affect personal or crew safety. Mayday procedures are documented in SOGs and reviewed annually. Members are taught not to rely on this equipment as a stand-alone device. Technology is great and of benefit, but it must be used in conjunction with solid firefighting tactics and a sense of personal and crew safety.

Nathan Hiester, lieutenant,
Beavercreek (OH) Fire Department
Technological advances have provided the fire service with some wonderful and not-so-wonderful tools. I think we can all think of several items that were a huge help and boost in firefighter safety, as well as some that didn’t work out so well. The tech tools we rely on most do a good job and become second nature to us. We forget what it was like without them. During company-level training, we try to practice multiple methods for accomplishing the same task. This usually involves using different tools to accomplish similar tasks. The end result is a well-rounded firefighter who knows how to use a TIC but also knows how to find fire with his other senses when the battery dies; the teams also practice on how to help their partner when the SCBA malfunctions. The bottom line is that there is never a substitute for good training and leadership. If we teach our crews only one way to do things, we are creating an environment in which they rely on the one tool they know for that task. When that tool fails, look out; we have all seen those results. Our backup plan should be built into our training programs and ingrained into the fundamentals of our job so that when a tool does fail, we automatically go to plan B, C, D, etc.

Frank J. Colelli, captain,
Montgomery Township (PA) Department of Fire Services
Firefighters are trained in basic skills to keep safe in the ever-changing conditions they encounter while attacking a fire or operating in an IDLH atmosphere. It is imperative that we practice and train on basic skills daily so that if and when an equipment breakdown occurs, they can fall back on those skills. For example, while searching a dwelling/building, we are taught to stay in contact with a wall, search line, or hoseline; these practices shall be maintained when using a TIC. Throughout the years, a tremendous advancement in technology has helped the fire service move forward, but we must never forget the basic skills we are taught in our basic fires academy classes, because those are the skills that will save us when the new technology fails.

Lucas Maas, firefighter/paramedic,
Newton (IA) Fire Department
e: Our department mentality is not to steer away from basic training and skills just because we have technology at our fingertips. We have trained our personnel to understand that we cannot always rely on technology because it can fail and nothing is ever made or works perfectly. That is the reason experience, training, knowledge, and skills are so important in our profession.

As far as what to do if the devices fail, I can only say how I would handle the situation, because my department does not have a consistent way of handling these types of issues. In case of a TIC failure, it is important that we all have a good understanding of the basics of firefighting tied in with some experience. We need to make sure we know what we are looking for, what we are supposed to hear, what we are supposed to see, and where to find what we are looking for. This involves having a good knowledge of the basics of fire behavior, building construction, and size-up skills. If the PASS device fails to activate if I am in trouble, I would try to manually activate it, then I would inform command and the RIT team of my situation. I would implement our department’s emergency action survival techniques, and I would have to do the best I can in explaining where I think I am and make sure command and RIT understand my transmission.

Nick Morgan, firefighter,
St. Louis (MO) Fire Department
To my knowledge, our department doesn’t have a formal backup plan in place. As good and as helpful as these new technological devices are, they are still prone to failure. TICs, PASS devices, portable radios, SCBA and “Head’s Up” displays SCBA locators are terrific inventions and help to make our job safer and more efficient. Our department just recently purchased a new inventory of SCBAs. They include the newest technologies to help firefighters remain aware of the amount of air remaining in their SCBA, as well as in assisting the incident commander (IC) and the rapid intervention team (RIT) to locate downed firefighters and, hopefully, rescue them before it’s too late. Of course, most of us have had experience in finding concealed fire or locating victims in need of rescue with TICs.

However, the most dangerous attitude we can take is to believe that new technology renders time-tested firefighting tactics and procedures obsolete. We still have to maintain our awareness of where we are and what we are doing. We still need to monitor our air supplies and maintain proficiency with all of our tools. We still need to know how to check doors, walls, floors, etc. for heat with our gloved hands, and we still need to know how to use proper search patterns and differentiate between ventilation for life or for fire. Technology, while great, is not infallible or failure proof. The basics of firefighting are time tested and fireground proven. If we ignore or lose our skills in these areas, we do so to our own detriment.

Our department has TICs in each of the battalion chiefs’ vehicles and on the truck companies and rescue squads. This ensures that a working TIC should always be available on the scene once these units arrive. Each firefighter has an integrated PASS device and a locater device attached to their SCBA. Every riding position on our fire apparatus has a portable radio. However, every captain is responsible for his crew, and each firefighter is ultimately responsible for every piece of personal protective and safety equipment assigned to them. In any fire or hazardous emergency, each one of us is responsible for ourselves and the other members of our crew. We have to maintain our situational awareness and look out for each other at all times.

Thomas W. Frazier, engineer,
Strasburg (VA) Fire Department
We use training to prepare our firefighters for failure of technology. The basic training does not incorporate the TIC; it is introduced only after the firefighters have been trained in the basics of navigation and searching in a zero-visibility IDLH environment. If there is a failure, they fall back to the basics and continue working. Although the TIC is a valuable tool, we don’t consider it essential to operations.

To prepare for the failure of a PASS or other failure emergency, we try to operate in teams of at least two. Each team has a portable radio; if a member should have to operate alone (we don’t send a lone member into an IDLH environment), the member would have a radio with him. We also use regular personnel accountability reports (PARs) to account for all members working at an incident, to determine if someone may be in trouble and has had a failure of their PASS or radio. If a technology such as the radio system were to fail, we would have to adapt to the situation when it arises; I cannot recall training for that type of event.

Jeff G. Clayton, firefighter,
Brampton Fire & Emergency Services,Ontario, Canada
Every front-line apparatus in our department has a TIC onboard. All new recruits are first trained to operate at structure fires without a TIC; once they have a solid grasp of the basics of structural firefighting, the TIC is introduced into their training. This ensures that the recruit can operate without the technology of a TIC, should it fail. As well, during company search drills, the firefighter is often told, “The TIC has failed.” We have found that this keeps the firefighters more oriented in the structure. Although the TIC is present, they not relying on it as their primary means of orientation.

Should a firefighter become disoriented because of a TIC failure, all personnel are trained to transmit a Mayday, thus activating the RIT. After transmitting the Mayday, all personnel are to manually activate their PASS. Should the PASS fail, our training dictates that we continually make noise, as was done prior to the introduction of the PASS alarm. This allows the RIT or other companies in the area to locate the disoriented or injured firefighter with an audible beacon to guide them. Often the firefighters’ assigned tool is used; anything available can be used as long as it makes a loud noise. Verbal contact can be attempted as the RIT nears the injured firefighter. Should the firefighter become incapacitated, the RIT is trained to locate him without an audible beacon.

David J. Bullard, engineer,
Martinez-Columbia (GA) Fire Rescue
One of the biggest challenges we face and will continue to face in the future is how to address the blend of technology and safety. Our department has a TIC on every apparatus; radios for each riding position; and, of course, all have an SCBA with integrated PASS device. Three years ago, we began a Mayday training program, which is repeated annually by each member. A departmentwide survival program is being developed; it will address some of the issues pertaining to what to do when technology fails us. Basically, we are strongly emphasizing basic skills and how technology can only aid, not replace, them. The dead battery on the TIC should only be an inconvenience if the crew is still using traditional navigation and room orientation. We have adjusted our Mayday procedure to include transmitting the PASS device by portable radio. Should the PASS device fail, since each riding position has a radio, a standard Mayday could be transmitted if the firefighter is conscious. Should the portable radio fail, activation of the PASS device should draw attention, if we can curb the “crying wolf syndrome” of accidental PASS activations. If the firefighter is conscious and one of the means of signaling for help is unavailable, the firefighter is encouraged to make noise or do something to draw attention. Some scenarios would be tough to plan for. Possibly the best way to prevent failure of our technology is to diligently check the equipment to catch deficiencies ahead of time.

Robert Traub, lieutenant,
Dallas Bay Fire Department, Lake Site, TN
Our department emphasizes that all the “new” technological tools are nothing more than extra tools. All fire personnel are told that these tools were not designed and should never be used to replace basic skills, such as maintaining wall contact, mental maps, and a good accountability system. The department has taken the stance that these devices may aid in operations, but they should not be the primary basis for the operation.

Dave Gallagher, lieutenant (ret.),
Huber Heights (OH) Fire Department
I would suggest that the affected crew, person, or team leader do the following:
o TIC. Immediately notify command and resort to your basic firefighter training, maintaining travel and search patterns. Do not hesitate to get to the heart of the matter, be it a primary search or extinguishment because of such a failure. The TIC is not a life safety tool; the fire service has depended on the “old school” (basic skills) for quite a while.
o PASS. This is a life safety issue. Get the member to the exterior as soon as possible. Just about the time you decide to ‘”push it,” getting hung up could easily be next. Usually there is another SCBA available. If the failure is the result of thermal insult, then implement the Mayday with associated .LUNAR reporting.

Tony Tricarico, captain,
Fire Department of New York
The members of the FDNY are taught to use the TIC as a tool, not as a crutch, just for this reason. Should the TIC shut down as the firefighter is searching, the member should have been “mapping” the search in his mind so he can have a viable return route for egress should it become necessary. When a member is searching any area, he should not be relying on the TIC as the only sense of direction. All senses should be on full alert, and the “old” method of searching an occupancy should be used in conjunction with the new technology.

As for the PASS device, should it fail, we have an alert button on our radios that increases wattage for transmissions once it is depressed. It also gives off an audible beacon signal to assist in locating a member in distress. If all of your technology fails at once, rely on your training; it’s kept us alive for many generations.

Joel Holbrook, captain,
Washington Twp (OH) Fire Department
Though technology is great, we must not become dependent on it. We have a TIC mounted on all frontline fire apparatus, and crews are encouraged to take it in on all fire-related calls from investigations to working fires. However; when we train with the TIC, instructors and officers remind the crews of the limitations of technology. We stress to our students that the TIC is a tool and that they must rely on their basic skills: stay in contact with a wall, stay within voice contact of their partner, and sound floors. In my opinion a TIC failure should be the least of the crews’ worries. Concerning the PASS device, we are fortunate enough to have an in-house SCBA service program. The SCBA are meticulously cared for and maintained, but this is not to say a failure of the device is out of the question. Unlike RIT and Saving our Own training, where we stress recognition of the PASS’ sounding, we rarely train on how to react if the PASS is needed and does not activate. We could activate the emergency button on our radio or call the Mayday, but if this is not possible, we must rely on command and control of the incident. I am a strong proponent of progressive fireground PARs, every 15-20 minutes from the arrival of the first companies. This may be the only backup our interior crews have if their PASS device were to fail in the time of need.

Matt McDowell, firefighter,
Bluffton Township (SC) Fire District
Our department has integrated PASS and preaches carrying the TIC at fire calls. Regarding a PASS device failure, our fireground emergency communications SOG provides members with many different ways to deal with this problem. The first is preaching crew integrity; hopefully, two or more PASS devices will not malfunction at the same time. However, we understand that things happen; therefore, all riding positions are assigned a radio so that, if faced with an equipment problem, they can either radio for help (call a Mayday) or activate their Emergency Identifier Button (EIB). All members of our department are trained in firefighter survival and RIT; therefore, we are all ready to act (or react) when something happens.

We also teach that the TIC is an invaluable tool for improving a search for victims and or fire but that it is not a substitute for fundamentally sound search techniques. Therefore, if there is a problem with the TIC, members can either continue their search without it or will have maintained their orientation and exit accordingly.

Mike Newbury, captain,
St. Louis (MO) Fire Department
Discipline and thinking are the most basic and fundamental backups of technology. If you are disciplined in sticking to the buddy system (no freelancing) and personnel accountability and if you are assigned a sector, an attack line, or a stairwell and stick to your job with your crew, your odds of getting lost all by yourself go way down and your odds of having a buddy to help you go way up. Even if your whole team (attack line or ventilation team) gets in trouble, the odds of every PASS, radio, or SCBA all failing at the same time is infinitely lower than one failing, so you should have a buddy to help. That being said, you can easily get lost as a group in a zero-visibility atmosphere, but if you stay together, your odds that someone will get the distress call out before you all run out of air is better than if you freelance and get lost by yourself. This is what I mean by discipline.

The more you and your crew train in orienting yourself without and with technology in a low- or zero-visibility IDHL atmosphere (i.e.,. using the hoseline, search line, following walls), the more likely you can think and reorient yourself and find your way out-or, if on a RIT team, find the firefighter in trouble. This can be done with mask blackouts while on air and in a safe environment. In my department, this training is part of ongoing RIT training, which also includes obstacle courses and disentangling exercises. The more you train in these things, the easier it becomes.

I had to learn this the hard way and got in trouble. Thank God, my crew mates were close enough to hear me and help me. That is how I became an advocate of firefighter and crew discipline and ongoing training.

Now as far as backup technology is concerned, radios with a “fireground” and a “Mayday” channel are musts. Firefighters in trouble do not get heard when there is too much traffic on the radio channel. Every firefighter needs a good radio, needs to know how to use it well, and should be able to find the Mayday channel in his sleep

Christopher Olsen, lieutenant,
Crystal Lake (IL) Fire Department
Our department does not have specific procedures for device failure on the fireground. We all know that tools of any kind can fail under strenuous use. This is where it becomes extremely important to perform good, thorough rig checks in the morning. Our personnel are expected to perform rigorous vehicle checks at the change of shift in the morning. Each member is responsible for completing a check of the equipment and signing off on certain items such as SCBA, radios, and all ALS equipment we carry. Communication is paramount at shift change, as it is in any other aspect of our jobs. Any equipment problems need to be shared at the change of shift. If equipment is found to be inoperable, we have procedures that state the equipment is to be taken out of service, replaced with functioning equipment, and be written up and sent to the responsible party for repairs. For failure or trouble on the fireground, we have procedures for Mayday and emergency traffic should one of our members need assistance. Training is the most important part of our job–every person must know these procedures should they ever encounter problems. Hopefully, by doing these thorough equipment checks, we can avoid any failure problems while on the scene.

Subject: Thermal imaging cameras (TICs), personal alert safety system (PASS devices), firefighting technology

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