Students Get Feel of Command In Delaware All-Day Exercise
The fire that requires the use of 20 to 30 more companies requires command capabilities that experience can rarely provide except in a handful of metropolitan fire departments.
In Delaware, where the only paid department is in Wilmington, volunteer fire department officers receive training in staff and command work that gives them a realistic taste of handling a fire extensive enough to demand two or three dozen companies. This experience is the fourth day of the staff and command course at the Delaware State Fire School in Dover. It puts into action three other days of schooling in staff and command principles and techniques for handling fires and other incidents that require multiple-company operations and effective control of operations.
The staff and command course will be conducted again this year on the weekends of February 23-24 and March 2-3. The course last winter also was held on two consecutive weekends at the State Fire School in Dover and had an enrollment of nearly 60 men.
Three working groups
When the men arrived at the school for the final day of the course, they were divided into three groups, designated blue, green and yellow. None of the students knew what the simulated fire incident was going to be, but they all knew that the major problems in the exercise would be the establishment and operation of a command post and the effective use of communications.
Under the supervision of Louis J. Amabili, director of the Delaware State Fire School, and John L. Smith, senior instructor in charge of the staff and command course, a detailed message script had been written for the exercise incident, a fire in the Dover business section. The times, messages, originators and recipients were all detailed on the message script.
Three army field telephones were in one room so that reports of smoke in buildings, fire spread, ambulance emergencies and other incidents could be phoned to the dispatchers. There were three dispatcher desks, one for each of the staff and command groups, in a second room. Through a wired intercom system simulating regular radio communications, the dispatchers dispatched engine, ladder and rescue companies and ambulances, and they maintained communications with the command posts and the fireground.
There was a command post room for each of the student groups, and another room was used as the simulated fireground. In this latter room, a hollow square was formed with tables. The tables on each side of the square were divided into three cubicles, one for each of the student groups. There was a map of Dover in each cubicle and in the center of the square, there were four fireground maps, one facing each side of the square. On these four maps, instructors lined the fire progress with red pencils for the officers in charge of each side of the four sides of the fireground.
A chief and deputy chief were appointed for each of the three student groups and these men selected their aides: four assistant chiefs, a water supply officer, an assistant water supply officer, a supply officer, an assistant supply officer, a safety officer, a public information officer, a medical officer, a communications officer, a radio operator and an assistant radio operator. Thus, most men in every group had an assignment for the day. The others filled in as aides or substitutes.
The all-day exercise started with all members of the three groups in the fireground room to hear a weather broadcast at 9:30 a.m. The wind was blowing at 30 mph, gusting to 60 mph. Five minutes after this broadcast, there were phone calls to the three dispatchers reporting fire in an electrical panel in a discount store. The first-alarm companies were dispatched and the exercise was fully under way.
A controller in the fireground room had a card for each fire company that could be dispatched. Each company card, color-coded for engines, ladder trucks, rescue trucks and ambulances, had the estimated travel time to the fireground, and the card was held for that number of travel minutes before it was delivered to the fireground commander.
Command posts set up
When each group chief saw that his fire was attaining extensive proportions, he left his deputy in charge of the fireground and went to set up his command post in a separate room, which would be the local fire station in a real fire situation. With him went his immediate staff. At the command post, wired communications were established with the fireground and the dispatcher.
Each chief had a fireground map at his command post, and as he made decisions, his aides marked the positions of apparatus and the progress of the fire as reported from the fireground. Instructors marked the progress of the fire on the maps in the fireground room to reflect the command decisions that were made.
From time to time, additional information and other emergencies, such as a request for an ambulance for a childbirth, were fed into the general problem through the communications system. These messages continued at intervals ranging from 1 to 20 minutes until the last message, a report of a fire in a dress shop on the perimeter of the fire area, was transmitted at 1:15 p.m.
The three groups then had half an hour to get what had become a minor conflagration under control and wind down the exercise.
Soup and sandwiches were served in the fire school cafeteria during lunchtime. One of the rules was that every student had to eat lunch in the cafeteria and have someone in his group take over his responsibilities while he was eating.
At the critique, the operations of the three groups were compared and evaluated. Two of the groups each had called 25 engine companies to the fire. The third group had asked for 55 engines, but held 20 of them in a staging area just outside Dover.
Fire flows were estimated from the capacities of the pumpers working at the fire and a standard figure of 250 gpm was estimated for each hand line nozzle. These estimates showed that one of the groups with 25 engine companies had a fire flow of 10,000 gpm while the other 25-engine group and the group with 35 engines on the fireground had fire flows of 4860 gpm and 4500 gpm, respectively. One of the 25-engine groups had 168 men on the fireground while the other had 254 men. The largest use of manpower, 330 men, was by the group that had 35 engine companies on the fireground, as might be expected.
Everyone agreed that there was a real communications problem during the early stages of the fire and that improvement was needed in this area. One of the big dividends of the exercise was the realization of how difficult communications can become when many companies respond to a fire.
As it was designed to do, the exercise emphasized the importance of using good command principles. By maintaining a chain of command, the members of each group proved to themselves the importance of a chain of command and staff work.