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Fire & Life Safety: Tackling Fire Prevention while Practicing ICS

There have been many successful, long-term campaigns to install smoke alarms in homes throughout neighborhoods, cities and states. In Des Moines, the planning committee sought ways to have a big impact in one day and at the same time utilize the prevention effort to practice the incident command system (ICS) with operations personnel. Last fall, the Des Moines Fire Department (DMFD), in conjunction with many other agencies, canvassed nearly 3,000 homes in one eight-hour period.

This project was put into motion by the state fire marshal’s office a few years ago when they initiated their "100 Years, 100 Percent" smoke-alarm campaign throughout the state of Iowa. The goal of this program was to make sure every school-aged child had at least one working smoke alarm in his or her home. School kids without alarms were identified through a survey process during parent-teacher conferences.

The DMFD wanted to take this program one-step further, to ensure every house that was visited had the correct number of working smoke alarms in the correct locations and to continue to increase public awareness about smoke alarms. To accomplish this task, the department identified a target area based on the highest number of fire responses to that neighborhood and the most number of school-aged children who requested alarms on the survey.

Several planning meetings were held, with many partnering organizations helping in the effort. Polk County Emergency Management helped develop an incident action plan for the event. The American Red Cross and the LDS Church played a key role in coordinating volunteer sign-ups and organizations.

Using ICS, the DMFD organized more than 500 one-day workers and volunteers. Volunteers were organized into task forces of three or four people; the neighborhood was divided into 40 geographical divisions—each assigned to one of four branches.

At check in, all volunteers were given breakfast and an FAQ sheet and were encouraged to watch a six-minute video about smoke-alarm installation (this video was also distributed via email to those volunteers that preregistered). DMFD personnel were assigned as division supervisors, branch directors and command staff positions to manage the event.

Polk County Emergency Management coordinated transportation for the many volunteers and the DMFD provided radios for communication and such equipment as drills, ladders and safety glasses, in addition to what volunteers brought on their own. All supplies were distributed using a t-card process.

Division supervisors were given packets of maps, waivers, educational material and job aides for each of their assigned task forces. Resources and personnel were tracked on a large organizational chart and progress through the neighborhood was documented on a large map of the area. Throughout the day, the planning section was able to forecast whether or not we would complete our mission of almost 3,000 homes based on the progress reports and completed documentation submitted by the branch directors.

By the end of the day, the DMFD along with many volunteers knocked on the door of every single-family home in the selected neighborhood. More than 2,100 new long-life smoke alarms were installed, another 342 alarms received new batteries and more than 1,400 alarms were verified to be working appropriately.

In addition to this one-day event, the DMFD and other Des Moines neighborhood associations have continued the effort by installing smoke alarms in homes identified through the school surveys. The DMFD has been tracking each installation to quantify the impact of this project.

Undoubtedly, this project will save lives, but another immediately tangible benefit of this project was the practice it provided for the DMFD and many organizations in terms of preparing for a disaster or other large-scale event. It also allowed the fire department to work side-by-side with citizen volunteers and collaborate with public-safety partners in a non-emergency situation.

It gave us an opportunity to practice resource tracking, accountability, planning functions, mass care and many more functions of the ICS in a fairly benign environment. The practice was invaluable and will certainly improve our operational effectiveness using the ICS at a major incident.

A majority of the fire department personnel who participated in this project agreed that incorporating ICS into this large fire-prevention effort will pay huge dividends in the fire department’s ability to manage a disaster or other major incident in the future.

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