There has been an alarming increase in near-miss and close-call reports about losing situational awareness to fireground hazards. Firefighters can get separated from each other, work too deeply into their available air and lose orientation inside a building. Even if we’re conducting good size-up and risk assessments, we still need to account for those mistakes that lead to loss of situational awareness and compound critical fireground hazards.
Many articles, presentations and training tools have emerged to help combat this issue, and they all have merit at helping to eliminate or reduce this problem. However, looking at this as a career-training and an incident-safety officer, I've noticed that a simple teaching and operational guide might be missing: a very basic company-based, command-monitored system: The PAL solution. It centers around three main "watch out for each other" actions:
- Air supply
Incident commanders and company members can use this simple system to develop their own situational awareness of those operating in the hazard zone. They can also use PAL to assess the safety systems and support the crews in the hazard zone need.
Inside the building, PAL works like this: Each time a company makes entry, moves from area to area or floor to floor or changes tasks, they need to check on their PAL. This is best done by face-to-face, hard-contact location of their partners.
This isn’t designed to be a radio report or IC-generated action, just simple crew-level accountability.
For example, engine 1 has a crew of two firefighters and an officer advancing a hose line into a structure through division A, moving toward a fire located in the B/C division of a two-story home. Each time that company makes a significant change in location, such as a change in floors or movement to a different division, the company officer should generate a quick PAL check, making sure their people are still together, asking for their air supply and asking them to describe their location to each other.
This will support the situational-awareness assessment. The officer should quickly complete this at regular intervals while watching out for other work-environment hazard markers, including changing interior conditions and fire-control progress.
All of the critical elements of a mayday message, should one be required, are contained in the PAL report. Members will have maintained a working knowledge of who's in trouble, what their air supply is, where they are and why the situation is an emergency. The IC can then more effectively launch a rescue plan and coordinate the other resources needed to support the rescue.
From the view of the IC, the most critical duties while running the incident action plan will require the use of the PAL in the same fashion. First and foremost, the IC must identify who is operating in the hazard zone. This is especially critical upon arrival and taking command at an established incident. Consider this the first PAR the IC will conduct.
Knowing their air-supply capacity relating to tasks assigned them keeps the IC aware of how deeply positions need to be backed up and reinforced. Working air supply for those at the task level should only be calculated in the 10-15 minute range in situations where exit travel is an issue.
Finally, knowing members’ location at all times by where they’re assigned (with laser-like focus on those who are inside of or on top of what's burning) ties together the IC's use of the PAR as a survival-awareness tool. This is one of the foundations of situational awareness. When coupled with ongoing monitoring of the fire and smoke conditions, it may reduce the hazards of crewmembers getting lost and working beyond their air supply inside the building.
Let's take on the loss of situational awareness by taking care of our PAL!
Forest Reeder is a division chief and the training and safety officer for the Des Plaines (Ill.) Fire Department.