Surviving the Urban Interface Fire Response

BY JIM EASTMAN

Here we are, facing yet another fire season. Across the United States, many regions have experienced significantly abnormal conditions during the past winter months that will greatly impact the upcoming fire season. As we face the new fire season, a few questions will surely arise. Are we prepared for this season? Did we train enough during the off season to be prepared to handle a new fire season? Will this be the worst fire season … again? Are we prepared to interact with agencies with which we have never fought fire or even trained?

PREPARING FOR THE NEW FIRE SEASON

It is never too late to train for any fire season. In many parts of the country, the break between fire seasons is an opportunity to retool and retrain. For agencies coming off a busy season, the importance of training and preparing to enhance their skills and abilities for performing at wildland fires safely is fresh in their minds. For many agencies that routinely respond to urban interface events, the skills for maintaining a state of readiness have been reinforced during the past four to six months. But the off season allows only a relatively short window of time to develop a new state of readiness.

TRAINING RECOMMENDATIONS- STATE OF READINESS

Some training topics that appear on many schedules include progressive hoselays, mobile fire attack with a single nozzle person, mobile attack with double nozzle persons, float-a-pump (portable pump) operations or drafting operations, fire shelter deployment, structure triage and structure protection, water tender use, helicopter operations, aircraft use, hand tool operations and maintenance, incident briefing orientations, and radio communications, which should include cloning of radios or learning the basics on interagency communications.

What should we be looking for? Quickly evaluate the readiness of your personnel. Your personnel may be called on shortly to respond to wildland interface events. It will be important to have personal knowledge of your personnel’s readiness to deliver during a major fire campaign.

A few agencies have developed all-day training events to run through various wildland evolutions. The goal is to replicate what may occur when an agency is requested to respond out of its county or out of its jurisdiction to a wildland interface fire.


Photos by author.

During these events, assigned apparatus travel to the multiagency drill and check in on a travel frequency while moving from one jurisdiction to another. On arrival, units will check in using the incident command system (ICS) and start the process as they would on a real response with guidance from training personnel (photo 1). Once units check in, they are directed to report for a briefing on the objectives of the exercise. These are similar to the objectives identified in an Incident Action Plan for the current operational period. Once the assignments are identified, the units divide into task forces or strike teams and are assigned to geographical areas for the drill components. These drill components or performance skills are evaluated at these locations, which replicate divisions on a campaign (major) incident. After a set amount of time, strike teams and task forces rotate to new locations. “Training wildcards” can be used, such as a flat tire requiring ground support notification, or perhaps a strike team being diverted to a multiple vehicle accident, which could enhance the less than routine wildland drill. Back on schedule, other drill divisions perform structure protection with hasty hose pickup and redeployment to protect another threatened structure.

Readiness drills should familiarize personnel with the wildland apparatus operations of their agency. Rather than deploy Type 1 equipment, they may use the Type III equipment. Using this equipment ensures it is ready for the upcoming fire season for the home agency. Waiting to run this drill until the heat of the season demands that the apparatus remain in the home unit for emergency deployment instead of using it for a training exercise. Another training topic should cover off-road driving with Type III apparatus. Such training would add to the confidence and skills of wildland equipment operators. Agencies should also be checking the readiness of their Type I engines should that be requested for an urban interface incident. Is it ready to work in a wildfire environment with the appropriate tool complement? Remember, an urban interface fire is a wildfire burning homes, not a structure fire.

Employing live fire training will depend on your municipality’s rules governing its use. Live fire training is critical, but it is an operation that requires many training officers and extensive planning and logistics. Time may not allow it this season. Make sure to reinforce basic skills at least. Burn operations can come later.

INTERAGENCY DRILL MANAGEMENT READINESS

Okay, so now we have the troops ready. The wildland fire crews have their training scheduled. The topics have been selected. The drill dates are set ahead of the predicted start of fire season. Are the fire officers ready? The fire officers’ involvement for this portion will be dictated by your local agency. Consideration for attendance may be given for a few crew supervisors or captains. Encourage participation by the battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs, and deputy chiefs who respond and manage initial attack and extended attack wildland fires. Now is the time to schedule a multiagency response meeting (photo 2). Agendas for such meetings should include events from the past few seasons that have occurred with your agency. Consider focusing the meeting on a response into a neighboring jurisdiction where you have initial attack responsibilities or automatic-aid agreements. Then consider covering agenda items that would involve extended attack or planned need for wildland events. These events may require you to respond eight to 12 hours before arriving at an incident to assist with structure protection, direct fire attack with progressive hoselays, or even mop-up operations working with hand tools.


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Additional topics for this meeting can include seasonal employees or turnover caused by reassignments or retirements, new wildland equipment, and new resources available.

Consider a guest speaker covering the following to get this meeting started:

• The prognosis of the upcoming fire season, Red Flag Warnings, and how the agencies will react or staff for these weather events;

• Management of air tactical resources from private, local, state, or federal agencies;

• Issues or concerns from past events. Topics should include delivery of a prepared communications plan (ICS Form 205) for the first-out or second-out wildland events; anticipated resource responses for light, medium, or heavy dispatches; anticipated personnel levels for staffing buildup for the fire season; updates on automatic- or mutual-aid agreements; and unified command concerns regarding preidentification of the IC and deputy that may be assigned. Then consider the agencies’ responsibilities for information officer assignments.

Make sure to leave room for discussion with invited guests. The main focus for discussing such topics is to enhance the value of a good working relationship between federal, state, local, and private agencies to work hard on maintaining a positive working relationship.

Some agencies choose to adopt and commit to “Document 310-1” (310-1 Wildland Fire & Prescribed Fire Qualification System Guide), the model for many agencies to develop their fire service personnel with the skills, knowledge, and abilities to perform at wildland fires especially when considering response to federal or state incidents. Visit the National Wildfire Coordinating Group at http:\www.nwcg.gov for more information. The 310-1 documents can be located at http:\www.nwcg.gov/ pms/docs/docs.htm. Adopting these standards is a challenge for some, but the reward is a fire suppression force that will fight fires aggressively with maximum safety levels for all personnel. Later, your agency can tackle personnel condition and fitness readiness, which can be evaluated with a pack test, a test for wildland firefighters to see if they meet minimum levels of fitness to fight fire depending on the duties they are assigned. This requires the cooperation of both management and fire suppression personnel whether they are career, volunteer, local, or private firefighters. Many state and federal resources have already adopted this test.

RESPONSE TO THE CAMPAIGN INCIDENT

So now the troops are trained and ready. Management has its goals and concerns already identified and mostly resolved. Qualifications and standards are evolving to enhance the skills and performance of the personnel responding. Now the wildland event occurs.


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The dispatch for a wildland interface fire will probably be a request for needed resources. In neighboring jurisdictions, an initial attack is handled very much like the initial alarm in your home agency. When dispatched as a strike team for initial attack, travel as single resource to the event for immediate assignment. Resources can be organized by the strike team or task force leader later (photo 3). Additional resource categories are “immediate need” or “planned need.” “Immediate need” defines resources as needed during the current operational period of the incident but not necessarily as urgently as initial attack resources. “Planned need” refers to resources needed for the next operational period. The type of assignment (initial attack, immediate need, or planned need) will determine how much time is available for the strike team or task force to prepare, respond, and determine if it should assemble at a rendezvous point. If time is available, it is highly desirable for the strike team or task force to assemble and receive a briefing from the strike team/task force leader. No matter what type of response, initiate and maintain a Unit Log (ICS Form 214) to log the activities of your company. Record significant events for later review, training purposes, or financial reimbursement.


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If the dispatch request warrants a rendezvous, introduce your team and conduct a personnel survey to determine any special skills or ICS qualifications that may be used at the rendezvous point (photo 4). Quickly check and confirm the status of personal protective equipment. Identify the travel order of the apparatus with the slowest apparatus traveling in the lead position. Avoid open cab apparatus for wildland strike team or task force assignments. You may have to evaluate and judge the condition of the apparatus. Many strike team leaders have been given the authority to reject apparatus for a major wildland campaign incident. Confirm the travel frequency for all apparatus and determine if anyone has cell phones. Note the phone numbers, and update your communications center on the additional methods of contacting the strike team/task force.

If possible, designate one of your crews as the primary emergency medical provider, especially if it has the equipment and a certified paramedic. Designate a safety officer position just for your strike team. This position should be rotated during each operational period to keep all personnel involved and thinking about safety. You can never be too safe. You may not be able to document what you may have prevented, but you can always document what you did not prevent. Avoid the documentation by being SAFE.

If you formed as a strike team or task force before leaving the county, make sure to set the guidelines for travel. Let the crews know the location of planned rest stops and their frequency. Plan your refueling needs, especially if you are traveling eight to 12 hours to an incident. Some strike team leaders will travel in the last spot to avoid outrunning the fire apparatus. At times, you may have to travel forward to evaluate a rest stop for refueling. Designate an engine as assistant strike team leader to keep the five pieces of equipment moving if you move ahead to evaluate the rest stop.

LOGISTICS

It is easy to think that someone or some process will be taking care of you when you go out of the county. This is not always the case. When you leave your county, be prepared to take care of your own personal logistics for at least 24 hours. Prepare an out-of-county strike team kit, and update it once a month. Take an inventory, and include meal essentials in boxes that are not outdated. Do not forget to take cash or a department credit card if your agency allows you to use one. At times, auxiliary services may offer some logistical assistance. A word to the wise though: Sometimes these community organizations set up little trailers to serve food. Though these community groups have the best intentions, there can be complications if they are not coordinated through Logistics, especially regarding the food unit and menu planning. Many firefighters have taken ill from some food served without proper preparation.

INTERACTION DURING THE INCIDENT

Agencies, crews, and equipment from the private sector all the way to the federal sector will be involved at these incidents. Major operations fall under the management of an incident management team. Though you may not have personal contact with some incident management team members during periods of your assignment, during downtime try to become familiar with the units assigned around the base or camp. Some of your crew members may have never experienced such an operation, so be sure they become familiar with the ICS. The real event is the best training experience some personnel will get.

When a fire line mission is your assignment, participate in the morning briefing. Know your work assignment, and identify the other resources assigned near you. Identify the division or group supervisors under calm conditions; you just might need them when the heat is on. Perform within the guidelines of the Incident Action Plan-this is not a time for freelancing. Maintain the Unit Log (Form 214), and record completed and incomplete work. A successful response to a wildland campaign incident is one that is completed safely with no significant events.

Where most confusion can set in is with an immediate assignment to the fire line during the initial attack phase. Realize that there will be some degree of unknowing as you and the incident command components are in transition, building the management elements for the fast-moving, fast-growing event. You will be working with private fire companies that are on contract for federal incidents and with resources that responded from volunteer agencies or small local organized fire departments. Realize that you are on this incident to support the incident request and even some of the large departments or federal resources could have some problems. The real success centers around communication, cooperation, and coordination. If you increase the communications, you will get better coordination of the assigned resources with the least number of problems, which will lead to better cooperation to resolve the incident at hand.

LCES AND LACES

Regardless of how you received your fire line assignment, you are always going to fight the fire aggressively and safely. During the early 1990s, wildland firefighting agencies adopted a new fire line acronym: LCES, which stands for Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones. Lookouts need to be established to observe the cumulative changes of fire behavior. Communications are the backbone of safe and successful operations at all incidents. Escape routes to safety zones must be preplanned and their locations communicated to firefighters. Safety zones are locations where threatened firefighters can find adequate refuge from an approaching fire. In 1994, the letter “A” was added for Awareness. It represents the firefighter’s need for awareness regarding fuels, weather, topography, fire behavior, and understanding of work assignments. Despite which acronym your agency uses, adopt the process for discussion to cover your work assignments. An ICS Form 215A also can be used to evaluate the work line areas of assignments such as the division(s) where crews will be assigned. This document is often included with the incident action plan.

READINESS-RESPONSE-REVIEW

So there you have it. You quickly put together some drill topics for a single-day or two-day training class to ready your personnel for the fire season. You developed procedures to deal with the initial attack response with maximum safety for a successful assignment at a wildland interface fire. You’ve adopted standards and qualifications for an extended attack incident with Document 310-1. Your personnel are responding to wildland incidents working with federal, state, local, and private resources, providing them with invaluable hands-on experience. At the end of the season, you’ve survived the urban interface fire response. Now it’s time to review and critique your operations. You have only a short time to do this. In just a few months, another fire season will begin. Now is the time to review and prepare your personnel for the next season so the answers to some of the questions asked at the beginning of this article will be

• Yes, we are prepared for this season;

• Yes, we trained enough during the off season; and

• Yes, we are prepared to interact with agencies with which we have never fought fire or even trained.

JIM EASTMAN is a battalion chief with the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District and has more than 30 years of experience serving with state, city, and county organizations. He responds out of county on assignments as a strike team leader or as a division group supervisor throughout California. He teaches Fire Instructor 1A and 1B, Employing Audio-Visual Aids (Fire Instructor 2C), and Master Instructor at the State Fire Academy in Monterey as well as other colleges located throughout California. In addition, he teaches many incident command courses such as Basic ICS (200), Intermediate ICS (300) and Advance ICS (400), and Fire Command 1A and 1B.

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