Thursday, January 31, 2008

It's Chapter 11 for American LaFrance

ALF Owners Call For A Time-Out

by: Lou Angeli

Wilmington, DE (January 30, 2008) -- Here in Wilmington, DE it’s the biggest news regarding fire apparatus since Chief Jim Wilmore ran out of working engines. What’s the big news bulletin? On Monday of this week, the venerable American LaFrance Corporation filed for bankruptcy in US District Court in Wilmington.

American LaFrance filed here under "Chapter 11" of the bankruptcy code, which typically is used by businesses that need to buy time to reorganize their finances and secure new capital. In many cases, Chapter 11 filers continue to operate. According to Bloomberg Financial some of the largest creditors listed in the filing include American LaFrance's owner, New York-based investment firm Patriarch Partners, and trucking giant Freightliner, which sold the business to Patriarch about two years ago. Various employees are owed $1.4 million for accrued vacation. It’s not clear but some say that ALF could be as much as $250 million in the hole.

This is a HUGE story for the fire service nationwide, because now 2 of the Big-3 fire apparatus manufacturers are in trouble. Ocala (FL) based
E-One showed a substantial drop in earnings last quarter and some say that sale of the firm is inevitable. The remaining large capacity apparatus builder, Pierce Manufacturing, seems to be doing well, albeit the firm’s profit margin remains mighty slim.

“American LaFrance (ALF) has claimed that a bungled implementation of IBM software contributed to the demise of its business,” says IT reporter Kelly Fiveash in The Register. ALF said that when it switched to its new ERP software last June, "serious deficiencies" threw its operations into chaos.

"These problems have resulted in slowed production, a large unfulfilled backlog, and a lack of sufficient funds to continue operating." as reported by ALF to The Register.

With ALF under Chapter 11 protection, and unable to make good on current deliveries, it is unlikely that fire department administrators will consider the firm during the bidding process. With that in mind, ALF's frontline sales team, the independent distributors, are moving quickly to represent other firms. In a few days time, German-owned
Rosenbauer has already signed many of ALF's key distributors, including Delaware-based DPC Emergency Equipment.

View photos of American LaFrance Fire Apparatus

My bet is that Italian-based
Iveco-Magirus will make a run for American LaFrance. They already own much of the international market and, like Rosenbauer and other European manufacturers, Magirus and its partners are eager to expand into the states.

By the way, the fire apparatus situation here in Wilmington has been resolved in big fashion. The WFD, under the command of former Chief Jim Ford -- and the current boss Chief Willie Patrick -- boasts the second-fastest response time in the country (according to a Boston Globe study) And the department recently took delivery of eight new frontline Pierce machines.

featured photo: An American LaFrance Rescue-Pumper operated by the Belvedere (DE) Fire Company. (photo by Lou Angeli)

(2) The Register

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why America Still Burns!

by: Lou Angeli

Organized chaos. That's how the fire scene is often described. The adrenaline charged atmosphere feels like a battleground. But in this war zone there's no time to develop a battle plan. For the firefight to be successful action must be immediate. Firefighters have only a few precious minutes to defeat their opponent.

Back in the day, Firefighting was all about racing to the scene, donning a tin helmet and aiming the nozzle at the flames and smoke. And that's pretty much how the general public still perceives the job. But times have changed, and today there’s an art, not to mention a science, to fighting fires.

In terms of extinguishing blazes, today’s firefighters are trained to go face-to-face with the beast, inside the burning building for an "offensive" attack. Some fire training experts say that the trick is to tame the fire, before extinguishing it, and there are dozens of tactics for doing so. But these strategies often come with extreme risk. Bottom line -- firefighters must make crucial life and death decisions quickly.

During the past 30 years, annual civilian fire deaths have been reduced by 50%. But firefighters deaths continue to rise, with 115 being lost in the line of duty last year alone. Even more disturbing are OSHA and the National Fire Protection Association’s predictions that fully one-third of the current firefighting force of 1,000,000 will be injured on the job during they year 2008. Of those who will be injured, it is estimated that over half do not have adequate insurance coverage to attend their needs. Is this any way to treat the Bravest?

Change Comes Slowly to America's Firehouses

Our firefighting counterparts of just 50 years ago were leather-lunged old salts who were overworked, under trained and poorly equipped. Without adequate personal protection, or proper equipment, a "career" in the fire service back then was a sure fire invitation to an early grave.

Thankfully, our job as firefighters has evolved into a high-tech profession. During the last generation alone, the fire-rescue service has seen more change than it did in its first 250 years -- but it's still a slow process.

In the years immediately following World War II, some of the technology that had been made available to the armed services was brought home to fire stations by the soldiers and sailors who actually used it. Tools and equipment like Chem-Ox masks, fog nozzles, even 1.5 inch hose were all born from military uses during the War. Imagine the culture shock that existed among veteran firefighters, when these "wet behind the ears" probies introduced their new toys. Hell, the old-timers we're just growing accustomed to motorized apparatus.

But the post War techno-revolution was short-lived, and our counterparts of the late 50's and early 60's found themselves falling way behind the rest of society. The World was changing, and so were our first-alarm districts. In homes and businesses, wooden furniture and cotton products were replaced by plastics and hydrocarbons, which changed the way we did business at fires. The DuPont slogan, "Better Living Through Chemistry," brought new meaning to America's Bravest.

Without proper equipment and training, fighting these "new wave" fires was a tough game. By 1965, we'd lost possession of the ball and our forward momentum had stalled. Our coaching staff was perplexed and the spectators were beginning to lose their interest.

The Fire Act

In 1972 President Richard M. Nixon (a Republican) made a bold move by appointing a special commission to study the fire problem here in the United States. His directive was simple -- determine the fire problems, and make suggestions on how to fix them. Nixon was determined to make the Commission succeed, and he did so by enlisting and recruiting the nation's movers and shakers of the fire-rescue services. Once together, theirs was no small task.

The commission took on some very controversial issues including rising civilian deaths, firefighter safety, the high-rise dilemma, and fire prevention. Their report "America Burning" was a harsh, and very critical review of the fire situation here in America.

"It is appalling,' the report began, 'that the most technologically advanced nation in the World, reports the highest per-capita fire deaths and monetary fire loss." They pulled no punches in their treatment of the issues, and those of us who serve today, owe a great deal to the men and women who recommended the changes most of us take for granted.

A Generation Later

However, now 30 years later, the fire problem here in the United States has once again raised its fiery head. And according to fire administrators, the situation seems to be getting worse, instead of better.

“To a great extent, the fire problem in America remains as severe as it was 30 years ago.” That’s the very first sentence in the 1999 report, “America Burning Recommissioned.” Even with the introduction of the smoke detector, the incidence of fire in this nation has increased to an alarming rate. Why? Some say it’s public apathy.“

Americans have always been neglectful of safety and loss prevention,” says investigative journalist Herb Denenberg. He adds, “Perhaps we are more focused on producing wealth than preserving it.” The 1999 commission agrees. “The indifference with which Americans confront the subject, which the 1973 Commission found so striking. continues today.”

Fire is the most common of all home disasters and the third leading cause of accidental injury and death in the home. Fires spread very quickly, but it isn’t the fire itself that kills! Deadly smoke and poisonous gases snuff the life out of victims long before the flames reach them. There's no time to stop and think and wonder what's the best thing to do. The situation can change in seconds. Half a minute after the smoke alarm goes off, an entire floor of your house could be filled with dense smoke.

More than 3,500 Americans die each year in fires and over 100,000 are injured. An overwhelming number of these life threatening fires occur in the home. However, there are time-tested ways to prevent and survive a fire. It's not a question of luck - it's a matter of planning ahead.

Too many fires are caused by carelessness and ignorance of fire safety principles that have been, until now, thought to be obvious. Education about the fire hazard should not only reach children, but to the adult community as well – the caretakers. But one of the problems for fire departments is finding necessary funding to conduct adult oriented public education programs. Fact is, there are few fire safety informational programs designed for adults.

Do you know what you should do if there's a fire? Are you sure? Does everyone who lives in your home know?

It may seem elementary to many adults, but when fire strikes gather your family at a pre-designated meeting place. If everyone is out of the house -- and thus accounted for -- the firefighting team's number one problem is solved -- life safety. If this simple rule is ignored, the entire situation changes drastically as a rescue must be organized. Firefighters have died trying to save people who were actually out of the house but failed to meet up with their family as planned.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Volunteer Firefighter’s Family To Get 9/11 Benefit

A Bittersweet Victory for the Family of a 9/11 Hero

by: Lou Angeli

(New York, NY) – January 16, 2008 – On September 11, 2001, attorney Glenn Winuk rushed from the Broadway law offices of Holland & Knight (1) along with the rest of the firm's staff. But instead of running north, away from the carnage that was unfolding at the World Trade Center, the attorney grabbed a mask and a pair of gloves from passing firefighters and charged toward the billowing smoke. It was the same thing he had done in 1993, when terrorists set off a bomb in the center's basement. It was the same thing he had done hundreds of times over 20 years as a volunteer firefighter in Jericho, NY.

Glenn was found 6 months later, his remains cradling those of a woman victim. He was wearing surgical gloves and a stethoscope. His family, friends and colleagues all asked that Glenn be remembered as a rescuer, but government felt differently denying that Glenn was a “real” firefighter. Even though Winuk was not counted among the FDNY’s 343, the department itself acknowledged that the 20 year veteran was serving in a capacity as a volunteer firefighter-EMT.

State and Federal attorneys spent thousands of hours trying to build a case against Winuk and his role as a 9/11 volunteer rescuer. Why? The feds didn’t want to payout the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit of $250,000 (2), fearing that other families would come forward with the same claim. It is estimated that government spent perhaps 10 times the PSOB amount in its effort to disprove Glenn Winuk’s worthiness to serve behind the badge.

For the Winuk family, proper recognition of Glenn’s contribution at the World Trade Center had nothing to do with money. In fact, the bronze 9/11 memorial that runs alongside the length of FDNY Fire Station 10 was donated by the Winuk family and Glenn’s co-workers.

After years of bickering, last March the New York State Assembly finally brought resolution to the issue in a bill that was passed posthumously giving Glenn Winuk active status in the Jericho Volunteer Fire Department. (3)

Today, after a five-year fight, the U.S. government has dropped its effort to prevent a volunteer firefighter killed at the World Trade Center from receiving a federal death benefit for public safety officers who die on the job.

The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance fought his family's effort to collect a $250,000 payment due to police officers, firefighters and other government emergency workers killed in the line of duty. The agency argued that the benefit was intended only for active-duty public safety officers, and that Winuk didn't qualify because he hadn't been on regular duty with his volunteer department.

Fight has gone on too long (4)

The long court battle finally ended on Jan. 10, after the Office of the Solicitor General decided to drop its last appeal in the case."It's really terrific. This fight has gone on too long," said Glenn's brother, Jay Winuk.

Although the move clears the way for Winuk's parents to receive the $250,000, the family says their primary interest is in achieving proper government recognition for Glenn's public service.

"It's very meaningful to my parents," Jay Winuk told AP.

He added that he hoped President Bush would now see fit to award his late brother the 9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor, which was given to the relatives of 442 other public safety officers killed in the terrorist attacks.----


Monday, January 14, 2008

Saving Firefighter Ryan

by: Lou Angeli

Flashover! Even though firefighters are beginning to understand it, this fatal phenomenon is still shrouded in a veil of mystery. Experts in the fire training arena have differing opinions and descriptions of Flashover, but they all seem to agree on one thing. It's a nasty thing!

Simply put, room and contents begin to burn at a very rapid rate during the growth stage of the blaze. Heat is radiated from burning combustibles, then reradiated by the walls and other structural elements. This "thermal feedback" causes an even greater acceleration of heat. Finally, the entire room and its contents ignite with violent and explosive force.

Our culture and its technology have served as a major contributor to the problem of flashover. Up until the 1960's, the average residence contained natural products made up of woods, cottons and other fabrics. Back then it often took a blaze from 8 to 10 minutes to grow from inception to the fully-involved stage.

But in our present day world of synthetics, plastics and hydrocarbons, the same room takes only 2 to 3 minutes to reach the peak of fire growth. This accelerated rate of burn has become a major concern for firefighting teams and the officers who command them.

Oddly enough, it was a prevention tool designed to save lives that first brought Flashover to our attention - the home smoke detector. In days gone by, fires typically went unreported until they vented from a window, sending the fastest civilian running for the Gamewell Box.

Today, because of the effectiveness of early warning systems, departments are now notified of fires much, much earlier. Companies now arrive on the scene during the growth stage, entering the structure at the worst possible time, just prior to flashover. Combine this with the standing practice of aggressive interior attack, and one can quickly understand why firefighters have become more aware, and much more concerned, of the phenomenon. The simple fact is - we're seeing it much more often.
Inside the simulator: At an elapsed time of one minute, superheated smoke begins to bank down toward the firefighters on the floor. With 45 seconds the smoke ignites in what firefighters once called a smoke explosion, but now know as Flashover.

Low Tech System with High Tech Results

In Europe, where line of duty deaths, and interior attack, are quite rare, the multi-national fire community was shocked, when in 1987, two Swedish firefighters lost their lives to a flashover incident. In response, training officers in Stockholm saw the need to create an awareness program for the brigade's firefighters. They developed a rudimentary simulator that allows attack teams to identify potentially dangerous environments during the early stages of the firefight. Their primary goal: to demonstrate to suppression teams how to escape a flashover and exit safely.

On the fire training grounds near Stockholm, I prepare to videotape the special fire training simulator designed by the Swedes. I was expecting a high-tech block structure, with thermal sensors, gas jets, and emergency sprinklers. Instead, I'm led to a series of overseas shipping containers, that have been laid out in random fashion to represent various firefighting scenarios.

According to Roland Lindquist, Director of the Raddnings Verket, (The Swedish Fire Rescue Services Agency) the system was adopted by all departments in Sweden by 1990. Instructors there further refined both classroom and hands-on curriculum, and today every Swedish firefighter is required to take this special training course. It's dubbed the Swede Survival System, and it's taken Europe, and this nation, by storm.

Foreign Technology -- American Know-How

Six thousand miles away from Stockholm, in America's heartland, Indianapolis firefighters carry on a tradition that's been passed down from generation to generation -- mounting an aggressive interior attack. Like so many departments nationwide, Indy fire administration have armed all front-line personnel with the very best in protective equipment -- A secure envelope, that guards firefighters from intense heat and vicious flames.

But some say that this very same envelope denies firefighters the use of an important God-given safety regulator – the sense of feel. In short, present day protective gear is so damned good, it's difficult to determine when to bail out.

A 3-alarm blaze in Indy's downtown section, found three firefighters deep inside the bowels of the beast. A huge structure, the Athletic Club blaze was stubborn, and difficult to ventilate. According to other interior personnel, the trio entered a smoky room in search of the seat of the fire, but within moments the room erupted in an explosion of flame, instantly snuffing out their lives.

IFD was determined to prevent similar horrible accidents from ever happening again. They imported the Swede Survival System, and since its installation, EVERY IFD firefighter and officer has received extensive flashover training -- many, more than once.

In other departments throughout the USA, training officers have adapted the system to meet the needs of America's aggressive firefighters. Their goal, to show an uncontrolled blaze in a SAFE, controlled atmosphere. And to date, nearly one hundred departments and agencies have answered the call.

Share your experiences INSIDE the Flashover Simulator by posting your comments here! Also, view the video clip "Saving Firefighter Ryan" on FlashoverTV.

Remember: Everyone Goes Home! Everyone!



Flashover Training

FireCollege Lead
Originally uploaded by jenni f.

Firefighters practice extinguishing techniques in a Flashover Simulator during a Rapid Intervention Training (RIT) at PCC. (photo by: Jenni Farrow)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Firefighting Volunteers and The Fickle Public

Volunteers at the mercy of the communities they serve

by: Lou Angeli

(New Castle County, DE) -- I became a firefighter on a dare. I lost the bet and have been calling myself a volunteer ever since.

It was the late 70's, and the smoke from Wilmington’s “King Riots” (Martin not Rodney) had not quite cleared. Even though the rioting had been suppressed in a matter of weeks, the city remained a “police state” for several years, with heavily armed National Guard and State Police patrolling Wilmington's neighborhoods each and every night. Whether the constant military presence was really justified is still being debated in the First State. But one thing’s for sure - the riot patrols were a constant reminder that the city had somehow gone bad.

Civil disorder had ruined a huge section of town, and well populated Irish, Italian, Polish and Hispanic communities surrounding the devastation, were being abandoned for the safety and comfort of the city’s western suburbs. My parents and our family followed the lead.

The same scenario was being repeated up and down the East Coast as cities along the I-95 corridor lost families (and tax base) to suburban communities. In most cases, growth came so quickly to suburbia that government was ill prepared to cope. With the emphasis on providing better roads and a more appropriate infrastructure, Fire-EMS-Rescue protection was the last thing on most legislators’ minds.

“The Volunteers will handle it!”, was the reaction from many county seats and state capitals. But there was an inherent problem with their thinking. Volunteer fire departments were originally designed to protect small rural communities - not extensions of the big city.

Me and Citizen Fritz

Still in college, and a cub journalist for the local newspaper, my editor had assigned me to develop a feature expose’ on Delaware’s volunteer Fire-EMS system for the first-ever edition of Delaware’s first Sunday newspaper.

It seemed that some very vocal residents of a rapidly growing Wilmington suburb, Pike Creek Valley, were complaining that their community was being denied adequate Fire-EMS-Rescue protection. “The Valley” was a no-man’s land, developed on rolling farmland, miles from the nearest stores, churches and volunteer fire station. The community's mouthpiece, “Citizen Fritz” claimed that under the best of conditions, response time to “The Valley” was in “excess of 15 minutes.”

Although I didn't want the story, the editor claimed that I was best suited for the assignment, because I was already a Reserve Firefighter in the Wilmington Fire Department’s CD incubator system. He also knew that as a career advocate, I’d make the story controversial.

While researching the story, the local volunteer department’s President suggested that I join the company as a “probationary member” to get a firsthand look at how the volunteer system worked. But there was a catch to his proposal. If my report was favorable to the volunteers, I’d have to join as a full-blown member.

The Pike Creek Valley community lobbied heavily at the county and state levels to have a career fire station built - the first ever in Delaware, outside the city of Wilmington. Politicans promised quick action, which came in the form of an “outside” study. The results from Princeton, “not enough call volume to warrant a career station...’ but ‘the community is a prime candidate for its own volunteer station.”

At first, County government suggested that the existing volunteer agency relinquish the “valley” section of its district to the local community. And both the county and state agreed to fund the new entity as Delaware’s newest department. But there was just one problem, a big problem, as I reported in that very first edition of the Sunday paper, “ one in Pike Creek Valley wants to man their proposed new volunteer fire station.”

Since then Delaware’s Mill Creek Fire Company has built, recruited personnel for and manned a well equipped fire station not far from the spot where I first interviewed “Citizen Fritz”, whose complaints of inadequate volunteer service were among the loudest. 25 years later, I’m told that “Fritz” has never stepped foot in the station that he so vehemently demanded.

“Citizen Fritz” is just one of millions of citizens nationwide, who enjoy the tax payer friendly protection of a volunteer system, but who are unwilling to join the “community of givers”, a term coined by Chief Ken Farmer of North Carolina. In most cases, “takers”, like Fritz, are also unwilling to dole out the money needed to support the career system that they believe they deserve.

So the controversial decision as to “what level of protection a community deserves” is not one that we as firefighters make, but a choice that falls smack dab on the laps of the citizens we serve.
“Fire, Rescue and EMS volunteers continue to provide a valued and low cost service in many communities, as they have for hundreds of years.” says volunteer activist Jim Wick, who was a member of Mill Creek Fire Co during the Pike Creek controversy. Today, Wick heads the Oregon Governor’s Fire Council and reminds us that “the volunteer service is still a good service, but it’s a changing service.’ He adds, “We need to keep the focus on service and cost to citizens.”

Case Study - An American Fire Station

What would be the cost to citizens of converting their local volunteer agency to a career system? That’s the question that we posed to a half dozen fire service administrators, both career and volunteer. Their answers were remarkably identical, and is best illustrated by using the Pike Creek Fire Station, the one that “Citizen Fritz” demanded, as an example.

The Pike Creek fire station is operated as Mill Creek Fire Company’s Station #2, and serves as a remote sub-station to its main headquarters, which is still located in the heart of the original community, Marshallton, Delaware. The department operates as a corporation and is contracted by the state and county to provide emergency services.

When the department was founded over 75 years ago, it was a small farming community with less than 1,000 residents living in the district. Today, the department serves a community of nearly 60,000, covering 17 square miles and a wide variety of risks. Annual call volume for both stations is in the thousands, and increasing each year.

Although the department has 200 or so members on its books, Station #2 is covered by 24 or so “active” volunteers, who are commanded by two company level officers and an Assistant Chief. During daytime hours, the department employs a core group of “paid” volunteers to staff and operate from the main fire station. The volunteer members of Station #2 operate a BLS ambulance, quint, rescue pumper and brush rig.

Even though “our administrators” disagreed on staffing levels -- some suggested three and even two person engines -- for the sake of argument, it was agreed that two firefighter-EMT’s would be assigned to the ambulance, with three other firefighter-EMT’s and and a shift commander assigned to cross-man the fire suppression and rescue rigs, 24x7, 365 days a year.

The committee arrived at the calculations by various methods and formulae, but the final average cost to the community came in loud and clear. Converting Station #2 to a career system would run a little over $840,000 per year, excluding capital expenditures such as training, PPE, tools and equipment, apparatus and building maintenance. Add to that amount projected overtime to cover vacations and sick leaves, a solid benefits package, and of course, a pension program, and the final number is well over $1 million. That’s the cost of running one small volunteer station, as a career job.

The benefits of such a career model are obvious. Immediate response by career professionals, day or night, as opposed to a delayed home response by well trained volunteers. In an ideal world, with no financial restrictions, my choice would be crystal clear.

But the ideal world only exists on paper, and the hard, cold reality is that the general public is not ready to bear the financial burden for the perfect system. At the same time, the chances of persuading John Q to devote a dozen hours each week to what we consider to be a noble profession are slim to none.

"Without the level of dedication provided by local community volunteers’, says Chief Rod Carringer of Indiana, ‘fire rescue services in this country would be forced back upon state, local and federal governments.” And the thought of inviting federal management at the local level has many administrators shaking in their boots.

“If the federal government intervenes at the local level,’ notes Chief Michael Perkins, ‘the quality of protection will be based on a community's ability to lobby in Washington, not at the town hall. And that’s where small communities will lose out.”

Forcing The Community To Get Involved

“We have to take stock and the populace must make up its mind, which way they want to turn?’ says John Adams, recently retired LA City Battalion Chief. “If they (the community) want quality fire protection, they’ll have to pay for it one way or another.” He adds, “Money makes the system work, and that is the bottom line.”

“If volunteerism is replaced by a career system, we may have better coverage and quicker response’, says Pennsylvania volunteer Penny D’Ottavio.. “But one thing’s for sure. The local community will finally be forced to get involved -- by paying higher taxes.”

And so the debate over career vs. volunteer is not one in which we, as firefighters, should be engaged in at this time. I n a very real sense, the antagonist in this story is not the stubborn volunteer or the head strong career advocate - it is public apathy.

Change is blowin’ in the wind. Will change in the fire service be a breeze, or forced upon us like a gail force wind? Only the general public can determine how hard this wind blows. But one thing's for certain. We can affect the outcome of the approaching storm by taking our message to the street, and allowing the public to decide.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Firefighter and Partner

Originally uploaded by alecani

I was searching photos of the Italian Fire Service and found this one from one of the Vigili Del Fuoco's USAR Teams. The Vigili were th first fire department, organized during the reign of Julius Caesar.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Disorientation and the Interior Firefight

During a recent Delaware fire incident, 7 firefighters became trapped on a 2nd floor duplex during a tough firefight. Fortunately, the firefighters were rescued during an agressive Rapid Intervention Evolution with just minutes to spare. Initial reports were that there was no life hazard, as occupants had been accounted for. But considering the time of day, 7:30am on a Saturday morning, Chief Chuck Hayes did what most chief officers would do -- order a search.

Several have our subscribers have asked me to repost this 2006 feature dealing with Disorientation and the Interior Firefight as it closely resembles the Delaware incident. LPA

by: Lou Angeli

(Anytown, USA) -- The fire service here in the USA is extremely fortunate to employ some of the bravest firefighters and most knowledgeable fire officers in the world. But firefighting is inherently a dangerous profession, and things will and do go wroong. When a firefighter loses his or her life in a burning structure it is usually a result of unanticipated or unexpected fire development, not the inadequacies of command or even a firefighter’s skills.

So what’s the problem and how do we fix it? Back in the mid 70's, the fire service modified its approach to firefighting from surround and drown -- to one of adopting an aggressive interior fire attack. This tactic requires that firefighting teams make their way inside the burning structure and remain there under even the most severe conditions. Over the past few years the procedure has become the source of heated debate among instructors and officers because the interior attack assumes that there are victims inside the burning building who need to be rescued.

Since the introduction of superior protective gear (Nomex and PBI) in the late 70’s, virtually every fire-training instructor nationwide has taught their students to conduct an extremely aggressive interior attack, sometimes referred to in the books as Offensive Strategy. The idea is to take an pro-active stance, moving nozzles and hoselines deep inside a building to meet the fire monster on its own turf.

But my personal belief is that -- unless a life safety issue exists -- firefighters should never attempt to inhabit the same space as fire. Being there is a lot like snorkeling in shark-infested waters, then poking a Great White in the eye.

Inadequate Staffing

According to a report issued by Captain William R. Mora of the San Antonio Fire Department, many firefighters (often Truck company members) choose to begin search and rescue operations without the assistance of an Engine company and their hoseline. "It's in our blood to rush in." one rookie told me. "Try keeping me out!"

Unfortunately, in far too many situations, the search begins prematurely because of poor staffing (career) and lack of responders (volunteers). The obvious concern in these situations is that teams that have entered won’t have the extinguishing tools to cool a blaze should flashover rear its ugly head. (Ever wonder why FDNY has a "can man.") And with no hose (or lifeline rope) to follow back to safety, firefighters often have no way out!

When the search and rescue effort goes south, a firefighter can easily become disoriented and lost in the blaze. Without a buddy by his or her side, they face the unknown alone. Panic sets in and it’s just a matter of time before they breathe-out their bottle, collapse and succumb to the blaze.


“The root of the disorientation problem in the fire service,’ the San Antonio study reads, ‘is the lack of knowledge about the extreme danger posed by enclosed structures and the disorientation sequence.”

In many communities, especially those protected by volunteer companies, firefighters sometimes ignore the important fact that fighting a structural blaze is a team effort. Rather than wait for next arriving units, the few who have assembled on the fireground often begin search and rescue -- or the hoseline advance -- lacking appropriate support and resources.

Crucial to fire extinguishment is proper vertical ventilation, which we’ve all been taught should take place simultaneously with the hoseline attack below. However, before the chain saw is on the roof, well-meaning hose teams – working alone -- may quickly find the seat of the fire and bravely open the nozzle to dampen the blaze. But with no vent opening to release smoke and hot gases, the team destroys the delicate thermal balance, allowing super-heated air from above to drop down to the floor and bake them like lobsters.

In cases like this, inexperienced firefighters may panic and abandon the line, leaving their partner behind. The team is now separated, company integrity is lost, and it can only go downhill from here. Call in the FAST team!

“Firefighters must be warned of the extreme dangers associated with enclosed structures,” says San Antonio’s Captain Mora. “(They) must be informed that (waging) an aggressive attack immediately on arrival may be ineffective and unsafe in many cases.”

Life Safety Issue

There’s no denying that firefighters must enter flaming structures to conduct search and rescue operations, especially when civilians are reported trapped, or the commanding officer feels that an interior attack is warranted. However, changing the behavior of two generations of firefighters, who have had the term “aggressive interior attack” drilled into their helmets, will be a tough assignment for company officers and training personnel. But change is coming slowly and some forward thinking administrators have begun to embrace alternate tactics, like large line blitz attacks using portable master stream devices.

A reminder: We’re told that the most important tactic in any type of firefight is size-up. So, the next time your company pulls up in front of a burning building, quickly establish command and learn as much about the situation at hand as you can. If there is no life-safety issue and no danger to surrounding structures, hold back the hoseteam, by their SCBA straps if you must. Wait for second due companies to arrive, then engage in a coordinated attack.

Like they say, “Everyone goes home!"



Saturday, January 05, 2008

RIT Team Rescues 7 Delaware Firefighters

Saving Our Own
by Lou Angeli

(Wilmington, DE) – January 5, 2008 -- An early morning Delaware blaze may have turned deadly for 7 firefighters if not for mutual aid pre-planning and a superfast FAST Team. The blaze in a 2-story apartment complex in Alban Park (see map), moved quickly through the building, trapping 7 firefighters who were working on the 2nd floor.

The fire at 561 Homestead Road was reported just before 7:30am to the New Castle County Fireboard, which dispatched three volunteer departments. The building complex is in a subdivision bordering the state’s largest city, Wilmington.

Upon his arrival Chief Chuck Hayes of the Five Points Fire Company reported heavy smoke and fire conditions in the 50-year old building complex. His radio report automatically activated the response of a Rapid Intervention Team (or FAST Team) whose sole responsibility is to rescue and recover trapped or lost firefighters during working alarms. Not long after they arrived, the team was put to the ultimate test.

The RIT Team assignment was given to Engine-1 of the Wilmington Fire Department, which responded as a part of a long-standing mutual aid agreement with the county’s volunteer companies. The RIT Team stood by as firefighters from Five Points and Elsmere advanced a handline to the 2nd floor.
Wilmington Fire Dept. RIT Team working during a 2006 High-Rise Blaze

According to a report published in the Wilmington News Journal, journalist Victor Greto writes “…the fire below them burned through the hoseline, cutting off their water supply. As the fire grew worse, the trapped firefighters issued a ‘mayday’ call, triggering a Rapid Intervention Team response from a 4-person crew outside, associated with Wilmington Engine No. 1.” (1)

With the stairway gone, the RIT Team quickly improvised creating an escape path using ground ladders to replace the steps. Engine-1’s crew located the firefighters and carefully led them to safety in a rescue operation that took approximately 5 minutes. The rescued firefighters had little or no breathing air remaining in their bottles.

Tom Mitten, a spokesperson for the Five Points Fire Company told the News Journal that the operation “Went like clockwork.”

The trapped firefighters all experienced injuries during the operation and were stabilized at the scene, then transported to the Christiana Trauma Center for further treatment.

The Alban Park blaze clearly shows the importance and effectiveness of Rapid Intervention Teams on the fireground. (2) Like the deadly Charleston Sofa Warehouse fire, disorientation was the reason for the “Mayday” calls in Alban Park. Unfortunately, Charleston firefighters had no RIT or FAST Team in position and it was just a matter of moments before 9 brave firemen were lost. (3)

“Knowing that the RIT Team is on the fireground is always a real comfort,” one firefighter noted. “But the fact that they actually went to work was a frightening experience.”

Volunteer departments in New Castle County, Delaware as well as the all-career Wilmington Fire Department are to be commended for having trained, trained and trained again in RIT Operations. Like the man said, RIT Teams are a real comfort to have around when the job goes bad. And it is quite possible that 7 Delaware firefighters owe their lives to a relatively new system that is designed to rescue the rescuers.