Photo by Tony Greco.
By Eric G. Bachman
Preincident intelligence on the hazards and challenges a fire department faces is invaluable and, at times, limited. Its influence on fire department operations and personnel safety is undeniably critical as corroborated by lessons learned in numerous published case study reports. It is an important fire service tool and, like any tool, it needs to be properly maintained through personnel who are properly trained. When a tool is left to deteriorate and personnel skills are not consistently reinforced, the expected end result is ineffectiveness.
Fire departments are significantly affected by many factors outside its control. Funding is arguably the most common; it affects nearly all other facets of the organization. A second factor is staffing, and a third is time. Regardless, whether you are in a career or volunteer setting, there always seems never seems to be enough staff to do the job more safely or enough funds to maintain or acquire even the most basic response and personal protective equipment. Also, in every life endeavor there is never enough time. With these factors, fire service leaders are tasked with trying to effectively balance administrative and operational tasks.
When fire department leaders meet with municipal officials to negotiate budget requests or initiate public fund drives, they try to convince the officials of and justify the need for more funding. A common response from municipal officials from cash-strapped communities is that the fire department must do more with less. In a volunteer setting, operations support is directly affected by fluid fund drives. A low fund-raising return means that the fire department must do more with less.
Fortunately, preincident intelligence is the one fire department aspect where more is critical to effective and efficient operations and personnel safety. The education system boasts that “Knowledge is power.” When correlating that to the fire service, the more you know, the more effective the decisions to initiate specific strategies and tactics.
There are low- to no-cost options fire officials can employ to obtain more intelligence on the community they serve. One is through open source resources. (See my article “Open Source Intelligence” in Fire Engineering’s January 2015 issue as a preplanning aid.) Regardless of the method a fire department uses to collect, maintain, and present preincident intelligence, the effectiveness of that information depends on four basic characteristics summarized by the acronym MORE.
Preincident information must be maintained. By definition, “maintain” means ensuring something continues to work properly by checking it regularly. Just like a self-contained breathing apparatus, a saw, or a rescue tool, intelligence must be maintained. This is not satisfied by the initial collection of facility information because it can change. And, for some venues, changes occur often. Personnel turnover, facility processes, practices, and systems change. A company officer or incident commander (IC) charged with directing life-influencing instructions must have up-to-date information. Making decisions using outdated or inaccurate data can contribute to inefficient strategies and tactics.
Unlike purchasing a tool, there are no manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations for intelligence. So, at the very least, the fire department should have a standard operating procedure (see my article “Developing Preplanning SOPs” on Fire Engineering’s Web site, November 25, 2013) that prescribes a minimum schedule of maintaining preincident data. Like preventative maintenance (PM) of a fire truck or a piece of equipment to ensure operational readiness, the same theory applies to intelligence. A phone call, an e-mail, some other correspondence, and a periodic site visit to review current information are common maintenance practices. Periodic review of facility information is necessary to verify that the facility is still in operation. Did you ever get dispatched to a facility that, on arrival, you say to yourself, “When did that go in?”
A second maintenance-enhancing concept is having good rapport with facility representatives. This will enhance timely notifications are made to the fire department when something changes. Even for a facility that historically has been consistent in its personnel and operations, periodic and persistent contact will reinforce the rapport and facility realization of the fire department’s interest in protecting it. When I teach preplanning practices to students, one comment I reinforce is that the information collected is only as accurate as it is on the day it was collected.
The second characteristic that promotes effective preincident intelligence and postdispatch use is how the information organized. Time is of the essence at an emergency, and you cannot waste time combing through disorganized, confusing, and layered information. You must massage and present preincident intelligence in a manner that allows a company officer or incident commander to immediately recall specific information. Whether the fire department uses an internal or commercially-made facility information document or software program, the data must be organized to support prompt recounting of the information.
Physical data sheets can include many pages of information. An Internet search of data collection templates can yield many versions and editions of data sheets that are detailed and lengthy. But, you must recognize that there is difference between a data collection tool and a fireground support data tool. Data collection forms are typically lengthy and should be used during the initial surveying of a facility. Use them as a checklist of sorts to ensure that the most basic of facility features and circumstances are noted. This author has seen data collection forms encompass as many as 12 pages; an information package this large is too cumbersome for the initial-arriving officer to effectively use. You cannot waste time searching lengthy, hidden, or difficult-to-locate information. When that occurs, the result is frustration, and the “tool” goes unused.
NFPA 1620, Standard for Pre-Incident Planning, provides a data collection form that categorically lists specific information, providing an outline of facility information. Using this document is a good starting point, but local conditions should be a catalyst for a customized approach to collecting data.
Fire departments should also consider using a condensed information tool that provides basic—yet precise—information to initiate initial fire department operations. In several National Fire Academy programs, using a quick action preplan (QAP) is recommended. This one-page document provides some basic facility features, fire suppression factors, and other incident influencing considerations. A QAP is a good starting point for a fire department with no preincident data program. However, departments should consider customizing a similar document to account for local conditions. A QAP or locally-developed briefing form (hard-copy or electronic) can be very useful to the officer riding the right front seat; it is more manageable with what can be arguably deemed the most common initial venue information.
This does not mean that a detailed compilation of facility information is not available. A detailed data collection tool may be most appropriate for an IC to use during a complex or expanding situation. But for the company officer riding the right front seat, the most efficient tool would be a QAP-such as a document (computer template). I am not electronically savvy; although apparatus-borne computers are popular, you should consider having hard copy mediums available for redundancy. Whether it is presented in a hard-copy (ring-binder) format or electronic medium, the key to its effective use is organization.
Another key characteristic to effectively using preincident data for postdispatch considerations of strategies and tactics is providing relevant information. Relevant means the information is important, pertinent, and significant to the facility components that may influence incident operations and responder safety. Information must be concise, descriptive, and meaningful. Many facility features can be described ambiguously and interpreted differently. A common example is large and small such as “A large warehouse” or “Small storage building.” Both descriptors are subjective to interpretation depending on individual experiences.
Height references too can be misleading. For example, one distribution warehouse referred to by facility personnel as the “high-bay warehouse” is, in fact, one open space. However, it is 200 feet wide, 600 feet long, and 75 feet high. The information contained on preincident documents is intended to not only list specific criteria but also to paint a picture of what will be encountered. When certain details are missing or are vague, it may cause confusion and unpreparedness. But, the more relevant the description, the more effective and efficient ways you can use it. Michael Terpak, deputy chief of the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department, through his teachings and in his book Fireground Sizeup, a method to better describe size. In the case of the example above, the descriptor could be “one story equal to seven,” meaning that it is one open space equal to the height of seven levels.
Data collection mediums are structured, which is important for consistency in use. But you also need to develop them with some flexibility to account for facility-specific circumstances or nonexistent elements. Not all facilities may have built-in detection and protection systems. For a facility not equipped with a detection or suppression system, the data form (template) section regarding this aspect must be clearly marked as “Not Applicable” so you do not concentrate efforts on trying to locate the information.
Besides the broad interpretation of size, you must accurately detail other factors. For example, when directing an engine company to support a fire department connection (FDC), commonly, the data form may advise “FDC on Side C.” However not all FDC’s have the same connection type. Some may be Siamese 2½-inch ports, while another practice is a five-inch storz connection. That is important information for the engine company supporting it and should be realized before locating it. The relevant information listing would be “Five-Inch Storz FDC on Side C.” Concise and relevant information better prepares crews for the strategy and tactic.
“Easy” represents accessing the information. This does not mean facility information should be open to public view. Some information may be confidential and sensitive such as facility personnel contact or access codes. These, as well as host of others, all require operational security against unauthorized access and use. But, enlisting difficult access to security measures or employing a practice of sequestering materials from those with a need to know is not effective or efficient. Whether the data is maintained in a ring binder or as part of a computer software program, appropriate storage and access safeguards must be in place to protect the information. There must be a balance to foster rapid access for immediate reference.
Preincident intelligence is a critical response and safety tool. More intelligence is desirable and necessary. However, more is not just a representation of quantity; rather, the MORE acronym represents quality of information. Initiating effective and efficient of strategies and tactics is often dependent on specific facility information. Ensuring that information is of MORE quality will contribute to improved preincident preparedness and postdispatch operations.
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.