By Thomas N. Warren
There has been somewhat of a “tempest in a teapot” surrounding the use of the term “nothing showing” as a report by a first-arriving fire company. Some very notable individuals and organizations have voiced opinions relating to the effectiveness and consequences of using this term. Groups such as the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Society of Fire Service Instructors1 feel that a modern and progressive approach to fireground operations would exclude the use of this term. These organizations cite theories that they feel lead to a fireground complacency that will endanger both firefighters and civilians alike.
Some of today’s notable leaders in the fire service have also weighed in on this issue. The response from these organizations and industry leaders has not been completely uniform, which is a source of comfort to me. Like many concepts introduced to the fire service, some have merit and others fall far short of their promised results. The debate is healthy and keeps us thinking about our mission as fire service professionals. To improve, we must question and measure our policies and practices, always looking for better and safer ways to practice our craft.
To analyze the effectiveness of the term “nothing showing,” we need to take a look at a response to a report of a fire in a building or an automatic alarm. This is, after all, where the term will be applied. The response should be the same, but experience tells us that firefighters often prepare themselves differently for each of these types of alarms. The dispatch center sends a number of fire companies to an address for a report of a fire, either verbally communicated to the dispatch center or received through an automatic fire alarm system. The fire companies will respond because they were summoned by a report of a fire (verbally or electronically). There will always be a first-arriving company, and it is that first-arriving company’s responsibility to provide a brief size-up report of what they find at the address to which they were sent.
The National Incident Management System (NIMS) requires the first-arriving officer to establish command and provide this brief report. Virtually every fire department in the United States trains on the NIMS principles. Once command is established, the initial incident commander (IC) must decide on one of three command strategies:
- fast-attack, or
- establish a command post to coordinate a larger response.
This is a very quick process, and experienced fire officers are very adept at it. What follows next is, if there is no fire or obvious emergency present at the address, the IC (first-arriving fire company officer) must determine why a call was placed to the dispatch center or why an automatic alarm was transmitted to the dispatch center. This is essentially an investigative process that is necessary to determine what fireground tactics (if any) will be necessary. As we all are aware, the size-up begins when the alarm is received, but the “on-scene” size-up report should include a description of what the first fire officer observes on arrival. This initial on scene size up report should include the building size, construction type, obvious life safety hazards, smoke or flame conditions, occupancy, occupant status, and the intention of the first-arriving company. Indicating that nothing is showing on arrival is simply a component of the initial size-up. The fireground operations do not end at this point; it is simply a descriptive report of the observations of the first-arriving company. When nothing is showing, the natural progression is to investigate why the alarm was transmitted to the dispatch center. This progression should be part of every department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) and should be based on the NIMS. When there is no obvious sign of an emergency at the address to where the fire companies were sent, reporting that there is nothing showing and investigating is critical information to pass along to all the other responding fire companies.
Reporting that there is nothing showing on arrival of the first-arriving fire company should not send the message that all guidelines established in the department SOPs need no longer be followed. This is simply a report of the visible conditions on the scene, not a confirmation that there is no emergency. The status of the response has yet to be determined; we only know that there is nothing showing from the outside of the structure and that further investigation is required. The “nothing showing” report provides more information than we knew when we left our firehouses but not a plan of action or, worse yet, a plan of inaction. All relevant department SOPs still need to be followed for the integrity of fireground operations and everyone’s safety. One can argue that reporting only “nothing showing” and nothing further is problematic, but I would argue that when any fire company arrives and reports “nothing showing” that they will investigate why an alarm was transmitted from that address and not sit in their fire apparatus waiting for someone else to identify why the alarm was transmitted to the dispatch center.
Nothing showing is an accurate report of what is observed on the arrival and has as much validity as a report indicating fire showing on the third floor for example. When the second due engine company is responsible for water supply (as many SOPs require) that second due engine company will apply different tactics with each report. When the initial report is “Fire Showing on the Third Floor”, the second due engine company will find a hydrant, test the hydrant, dress the hydrant, lay a supply line to the first due engine company and assist the first due engine company with the connections. When the initial report is “nothing showing,” the second-due engine company will still find a hydrant and test it by opening it, but will not lay a feeder line or perform any of the other evolutions that they would if a fire was reported in the initial report. That second-due engine company has a vital role to play in this response, and the initial report will determine what tactics they will employ. The same logic can be applied to the responsibilities of first- and second-due ladder companies; their roles and apparatus placement is often determined by the initial report and based on department SOPs.
In some jurisdictions, the response will change when the first-arriving fire company arrives and reports “nothing showing,” which will trigger a more cautious response from all companies still responding to the scene. Responding fire companies may be required by their department policy to slow their response and comply with all traffic rules and ordinances while continuing to the address that they were dispatched. The effectiveness of this type of policy can be debated, but in most cases, the policy was implemented to help improve firefighter safety. Apparatus accidents are one of the leading causes of firefighters’ deaths and injuries, and policies such as this are usually developed and implemented after careful research and study for the sole benefit of the firefighters.
Fire department administrators who believe that using the “nothing showing” report by the first-arriving company is leading their members to develop a sense of complacency should look more closely at their operations and not try to change language or phrases used to provide a simple description of the absence of an obvious emergency. No matter what phraseology is developed, firefighters will understand this new phrase to mean the same as “nothing showing” and their behavior will revert back the to behavior that this new phraseology was intended to correct. In short, the firefighters will act the same way regardless of whatever new phraseology is implemented.
The change that is required lies in the operations of the department itself not in the phraseology or the reporting of the first in fire company. It is necessary to be more introspective and develop a cultural and professional change. The change that is needed must have at its’ base a development toward the operations of a professional organization.
The three areas that need to be developed and improved are the following:
- Fire department SOPs.
Improvement in these areas will promote the development of a professional organization and minimize unprofessional fireground behavior. It will also eliminate the need for fire department administrators to develop new phraseology to relay the same information.
FIRE DEPARTMENT SOPS
Every fire department needs SOPs to operate effectively and safely. Department SOPs should include operations in various scenarios that include routine responses and unusual responses. These SOPs should outline the responsibilities of every fire company responding to an alarm as well as how each fire company fits into the overall incident action plan. Every fire company has plays a vital role, and all roles are interdependent on every other fire company. Some examples of core SOPs includes self-contained breathing apparatus/personal protective equipment, high-rise operations, fire in multiple dwellings, residential dwellings, engine company operations, ladder company operations, or FAST Companies. Every firefighter should know these SOPs, and company officers should drill regularly, employing established SOPs. Everyone should know what is expected of them and what is expected of every other fire company responding along with them to an incident. A very effective way to guarantee that fire companies meet their SOP responsibilities is to incorporate department SOPs into every promotional exam and require SOP training programs. Fire officers will be required to know all department SOPs to be eligible for promotion and establishing a training program that incorporates SOPs will ensure that every member is current with all department SOPs.
Leadership is where fire officers and chief officers can distinguish themselves. Effective fire company officers will demand that every firefighter under their command knows his role and that the fire company is meeting not just its responsibility to the incident but, more importantly, to its fellow firefighters. Being ready to perform what is required is the basis of an effective and professional fire company. The company officer must demand this level of commitment from his firefighters every time they are dispatched to an emergency. Fire company leadership demands that being ready to fight fire or being ready to support firefighting activities based on department SOPs is the only level of acceptable performance. Chief officers, likewise, must demand that all fire companies under their command perform at this level. No fire company should be allowed to arrive on scene ill-prepared to operate effectively. Chief officers should immediately call out any fire officers who allow this to occur.
Fire officers and chief officers are responsible for efficient operations on the fireground and, more importantly, for the health and safety of their firefighters. When any firefighters, officers, or fire company fails to meet their responsibilities to the incident, they are failing to meet their responsibilities to their fellow firefighters. This is a serious lapse in judgment that must be addressed. Firefighters, fire officers and, chief officers who show this lapse in judgment must be disciplined in a fair and consistent manner. It is always easier to be the nice guy and look the other way, but a serious commitment to the organization, its mission, and its firefighters demands that everyone in the organization is operating to the same standard. Discipline is hard, discipline is uncomfortable, discipline is awkward for everyone involved, but it is an absolutely necessary component in any professional organization. I do not know of any chief or company officer who enjoyed disciplining a firefighter or fire company but, over a period of time, the chief officer or company officer who disciplines in a fair, consistent, and objective way enjoys a higher level of respect within their organization. With chief and fire officers of that caliber, everyone knows what is expected of them when they operate on the fireground, and this translates to an effective and professional organization.
Using the phrase “nothing showing” in an initial report is not the problem. As I said earlier, it is a clear statement describing the initial on-scene conditions, and it is meant to relay a clear image to all responding fire companies of what the first-arriving fire company sees on arrival. When the initial “nothing showing” report is transmitted, and all fire companies continue to respond in an efficient manner, following all department SOPs and preparing themselves for any potential that may occur, then there is no real problem. If, however, the response by the remaining responding fire companies to the “nothing showing’ report is to begin to become lax and take short cuts in complying with SOPs, then there is a problem.
The solution to this problem is to not develop a new phrase that imparts the same core message as the phrase nothing showing does; developing and implementing a new reporting phrase will only serve to change the phrase not the message or resulting behavior. The change that needs to take place is at a different level: the behavioral and professional level of the department’s members. This is where we should focus our efforts. The results of this approach will improve our organization and our fireground operations well beyond trying to motivate our firefighters by changing an initial fireground report. Our goal should always be to inspire our fire officers to strive for excellence and instill a sense of professionalism in all our members.
- International Association of Fire Chiefs & International Society of Fire Service Instructors; Firefighter Safety Call to Action, December 23, 2013.
Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.
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