The case for an aide

Deputy Chief (ret.) Burton W. Phelps makes a good case for the use of incident commander assistants in his article “The Case for an Aide at Multiple-Alarm Incidents” (August 2002). Budget cuts, unfortunately, have done away with the ability of many agencies to assign chiefs’ aides as they did in the past. But the tasks of communications, resource accountability, and documentation need not be restricted to line firefighters. Why not use a resource at the command post who accomplishes those very tasks every day—the fire dispatcher?

A number of fire departments in the California Bay area have acknowledged the value a dispatcher—trained and certified in the incident command system and field command post operations or communications management—can bring to command post coherency by establishing incident dispatcher teams (IDTs). The concept is not a new one: FDNY, for example, has staffed its Field Communications Unit with civilian fire dispatchers for decades, deploying citywide on any greater alarm fire; many other agencies have selectively deployed dispatchers to staff mobile command vehicles during major incidents. What Bay area departments have done is to standardize the concept by creating a deployable team of dispatchers, on call and available to respond from one to four members from off-duty to the command post of an incident at any time. One of them brings out the department’s mobile communications van.

Fire departments in San Jose and Mountain View, California, spearheaded the concept, new to most firefighters and chiefs, who quickly embraced the notion after working with the dispatchers a time or two and realizing the benefits. Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Gilroy, Napa, San Mateo County Communications, Marin County Communications, and others have all developed IDTs based on those in San Jose and Mountain View.

The role of the IDT is to become the ears and voice of an incident commander, freeing him or her from the umbilical cord of the radio and allowing the IC to concentrate on objectives, tactics, safety, changing conditions, and communications with tactical units on-scene. The IDT handles communications in and out of the incident, resource accountability, and documentation. Additional tools such as our mobile communcation van, which went in service in 1998, enhance our ability to support an incident’s command and general staff. Our IDT has responded to an average of 30 incidents a year since 1995, receiving nothing but praise from the chiefs and fire crews with whom we have worked.

Although the IDT is not on-scene immediately, few departments can afford to maintain permanent driver/aides for their chief officers. Developing a team of qualified dispatchers, trained and equipped to respond in a reasonable amount of time to an incident command post and assume those administrative tasks they do every day in the dispatch center, gives an incident commander a unique edge in managing any kind of incident.

Randall Larson
Senior Dispatcher
San Jose (CA) Fire Department

Sprinklers first

In “Tactical Fire Objectives for Commercial Occupancies” (Roundtable, November 2002), only one participant—Battalion Chief Leigh Hollins of Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue—made any reference to sprinklers.

The following should be standard operating procedure in every fire department: If the fire building is sprinklered, the first tactical operation is to supply the sprinkler system to the maximum.

The most effective way to save lives at a fire is to suppress the fire, particularly when the suppression system is already in place. This can be accomplished with a few personnel—in some cases, with one firefighter.

The sprinklers are operating right over the fire. Increasing the discharge greatly increases the efficiency. The sprinklers are prewetting nearby flammable contents and the structure, which thus do not add to fire growth. This important function is often ignored by firefighters operating handlines under the maxim “Put the wet stuff on the red stuff.”

You must preach this tactic and make it part of every member’s consciousness, since it goes counter to the normal instinct of running in the preconnect or performing a rescue. When sprinklers are installed in accordance with the Life Safety CodeT, important cost saving advantages in exits and other fire protection features are given to the builder.

All work requiring sprinkler shutdown should be done when the building is closed, or the building should be evacuated because the exits are inadequate for an unsprinklered building (a building with sprinklers turned off is an unsprinklered building). The evacuation protects the municipality and the owner against the massive lawsuits that would result if a fire occurred.

(For more information, see “Sprinklers Out of Service” and “Firefighter Safety: Update” in The Ol’ Professor, Fire Engineering, August 2002; “Update: Preplanning the Big Box Store,” The Ol’ Professor, Fire Engineering, November 1999; and my book Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, Chapter 12: Sprinklers, page 582, “Degree of Impairment of Sprinkler System”).

Francis L. Brannigan, SFPE
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