Saturday, November 20, 2010

Working in the Dragon's Lair

"Knowing When To Back Off"
by: Lou Angeli

November 20, 2010 -- When a firefighter loses his life in a burning structure it is usually a result of unanticipated or unexpected fire development, rather than inadequacies in a firefighter’s skills.  And that goes for those in command as well.  The fire service here in the USA is extremely fortunate to employ some of the most knowledgeable fire officers in the world.

So what’s the problem and how do we fix it?  Well here in America, our approach to firefighting has always been one of adopting an aggressive attack, a tactic that requires firefighting teams to make their way inside the burning structure and remain there under even the most severe conditions. If you've ever discussed interior attack with a European firefighter you know what I mean -- they think we're absolutely bonkers.

Since the introduction of superior protective gear (Nomex and PBI) in the late 70’s, fire-training instructors nationwide have 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 offensive stance, moving nozzles and hoselines deep inside a building to meet the fire 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.

When the search and rescue effort goes south, a firefighter can easily become disoriented and lost in the blaze.  This is especially true in departments, which respond to a blaze without enough firefighters to handle a typical working house fire. In some of these cases, a firefighter must conduct a preliminary search – alone. 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.

San Antonio's Captain William R. Mora studied firefighter line-of-duty-deaths for 12 years in order to determine if the was some common mistake that fallen firefighters possibly made. According to his findings released as the U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001, Enclosed Structures are highly prone to producing life-threatening hazards and are directly linked to firefighter disorientation and line-of-duty deaths.

“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, short-staffed companies often begin search and rescue -- or the hoseline advance -- lacking appropriate support and resources. Many officers refer to this as a "rescipe for disaster."

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 Maine 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 RIT team.

In these turbulent financial times, City finance directors take direct aim at the Fire Department, slashing away at budgets, with little consideration as to how cuts will impact publicsafety. With fewer companies and less firefighters, especially in smaller career departments,  the common concern among firefighters is whether sufficient manpower will arrive to back them, should they be told to initiate an intertior attack.  As a result, safer offensive attacks are becoming more commonplace as Battalion and Company level officers carefully weigh the safety of their crews versus the salvage of the plasma TV hanging on the wall.

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. Fortunately though, some more 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. I f 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!”

(1)  Mora, W.R., "U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study, 1979-2001" (2003)
(2)  Mora, W.R., "Enclosed Structure Disorientation",, January 2006

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wilmington's Rescue-1 Disbanded

Last tour ended at 0700 hours, New Year's Day

Wilmington, DE (January 1,  2011) -- The financial climate has dealt a crushing blow to everyone in Delaware, and the city of Wilmington is no exception. With decreased tax revenues, the loss of major employers and a stagnant business climate the City of Wilmington is hurting. So it should come as no surprise that Mayor Baker has ordered across the board cutbacks, which include both police and fire.

However there was one cutback that had emergency professionals extremely concerned, and that was the decision by Wilmington Fire administrators to close down one of the most important fire-rescue assets in the state – Wilmington Rescue Company -1.

Wilmington Rescue-1 was the only Fire-Rescue unit statewide that was staffed with career, highly-trained professionals, who responded to a wide variety of non-fire emergencies at a moment’s notice 24x7.  Rescue-1’s members are an elite team, who deal with emergency incidents that neighborhood companies aren’t able to handle; like hazmat, building collapse, high angle rescue, water rescues, and many more.

Just outside the city line, well trained volunteer firefighters are being lost to the poor economic climate and changing lifestyle, a situation which has increased the value and need of Rescue-1 as a regional responder. Most Volunteer companies in northern Delaware have done away with their own Heavy Rescue units because members can no longer devote the time needed to train for all levels of emergency response. Today, county companies have combined their staffing and resources to create several regional special operations teams, which many agree rely greatly on Wilmington's career staffing and expertise.

One agency which will be hit hard by the loss of Rescue-1 is the Delaware State Police Aviation Unit. Although the state police provide the pilot and aircraft for high angle emergencies in Wilmington, the actual rescuers come from Rescue Company-1. In Fact, all 4 platoons of Rescue-1 had trained often with the the DSP to prepare for water rescue along all 3 of the city's rivers, as well as high angle rescues amidst the growing number of residential high rises, both downtown and along the Christina Riverfront.

"Through the years the members of Rescue-1 have saved more lives then any mayor or council could count." says one area training consultant. "This isn't only stupid politics,' he adds, 'Its short sighted people making decisions they have no right or experience to make."

When the closure was announced, the local press reported much like they would any other story -- with little reference to the true issue, and that is how the loss of Rescue-1 would affect the community.

So here's the quip that the News Journal forgot to publish. "When the doors to Rescue-1 were shuttered early this morning, the citizens of Wilmington not only lost hundreds of years of training and experience, they lost yet another fire company -- that's 2 in one year with 8 less men on the street. "

Every house fire becomes a General Alarm

Starting today, the cold reality is that the members of the Wilmington Fire Department will be hard pressed to extinguish a working fire quickly and effectively with an on-duty citywide firefighting force of just 26. Multiple working fires will be nearly impossible to handle as citizens wait for mutual aid companies from the county to arrive to fight their blaze. Remember that term mutual aid -- because now that Wilmington Fire Department will no longer be able to honor their part of the agreement with the volunteers, how much longer will volunteer companies allow their districts to go unprotected in order to serve as Wilmington's 2nd alarm fire assignment?

Who will ultimatelty come to Rescue Company 1's rescue? Perhaps some enterprising private contractor like Rural Metro or Falck would offer full time fire-rescue response as part of a paid per call or contract service. (however their staffing is 2...3 if you're lucky.) Or maybe the Delaware River and Bay Authority will pick up government's slack much like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did in lower Manhattan.

The most recent buzz suggests that the city would pay bordering volunteer companies, to provide fire-rescue service in a fashion not yet determined. Lord knows whether such a system would work since it is the exact opposite of the current national trend --known as the combination department, hiring career personnel to assist volunteers.

In this post 9/11 environment of special response teams, Delaware will be the only state whose citizens do not have access to a career, multi versatile Rescue Company to assist DEMA on large scale emergency incidents. However with staffing at such low levels one can assume that companies won't be leaving the city to honor mutual aid requests.

Back in the old days, around the New Year, Wilmington's Fire Chiefs would often annouce their plans for the coming year during a press conference. With plenty of donuts and coffee, fire administrators would tout new equipment and tactics, which they claimed would revolutionize the city's firefighting efforts.  A sample from the list of projects included; rapid water, the automatic nozzle, providing Nomex bunker gear to all members, a fireboat capable of navigating the Delaware River, and the replacement of all front line fire apparatus, at no charge to the city. 

Unfortunately, this year's bragging rights have been suspended, because there are no changes in the works which will improve the way WFD fights fires. Why? Because effective fire-rescue work is not accomplished by machines or nozzles -- it is by all counts well trained firefighters and officers who knock down the blazes.

The first rumors of the closure of Rescue-1 came in late September -- and it came as a shock, somewhere around 360 joules direct to the brain. But this was no last minute decision by the administration. It's fair to believe that Mayor Baker's master plan earmarked Rescue-1 to be shut down after his budget was passed. And the wheel keeps on spinning around as there is already talk of dropping another company during Fiscal year 2012.

It is unfortunate to say, but the staffing issue will not be brought to the forefront until a victim dies or is injured for life. I have the same concern for firefighters, who by their determination and nature will continue crawling on their bellies to meet the beast head-on. I ask that fire officers
consider alternate offensive tactics, and to call the next due engine or truck at the first signs of Flashover.