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Near-Miss Reporting: Unexpected Weather Events

Over this past spring, regions all across the nation have been dealing with severe weather events. Though many affected by wildland fires and flooding are equally impacted by these disasters, the tornados have been at the forefront because so many lives have been lost and so much property devastated by storms of historic proportions.

Throughout all of these unexpected incidents, the nation’s fire and emergency service has provided the initial response. But what happens when we’re performing our daily operations and one of these weather events suddenly affects our incident scene?

The following reports from the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System [http://www.firefighternearmiss.com] concerning operations during a tornado or its weather-related side effects should promote a dialogue within our departments for addressing this unique situation and produce storm-related procedures and guidelines that will protect our firefighters and EMTs.

Report 06-260 brings to light what happens when you’re actively working at a fire and a severe weather event quickly envelops your incident scene:

“Our department was conducting defensive fireground operations at a large commercial structure … Approximately 30 minutes into fireground operations our area was placed under a severe thunderstorm warning. This weather warning was upgraded to a tornado warning. Doppler weather radar indicated a possible tornado 15 miles west of our location moving east. The leading edge of the storm was producing heavy rain and lightning and had reached our location.

“Incident command was in place and our command staff was in constant contact with local emergency management officials on the impending weather. Weather conditions and a threatening tornado made fireground operations unsafe. Incident Commander made decision to suspend all fireground operations and advised all personnel to seek shelter in business next door.

“Two firefighters were positioned in the platform when order was given to suspend operations. They exited the platform by climbing down the ladder of the platform, leaving the ladder still in the raised position. Within 30 seconds after the last firefighter had dismounted the ladder and was seeking shelter, the platform was struck by lightning.

“Our personnel forced entry into the business next door and over 30 firefighters were moved to interior hallways for protection … Had the incident commander not made the decision to suspend operations we would have had at least two firefighters seriously injured as a result of the lightning strike.”

Report 08-238 poses the question of considering the risk versus benefit of responding to an incident during a severe-weather warning:

“The local weather service issued a tornado warning for all of the local county. The news media tracked one potential tornado on the ground within the jurisdiction of this fire department. Fire service crews were aware of the warnings; however, they did not have a total awareness of the situation. The on-duty battalion chief allowed crews to respond during the tornado warning.

“The response that generated this report was a false alarm activation that placed four apparatus and seven people in the direct path of a tornado. The tornado damaged two apparatus and trapped emergency crews from entering the area as a result of fallen trees and debris.”

Report 08-244 addresses the situation of a response during a prolonged storm watch when a sudden weather event encompasses the incident scene.

“Our fire department responded to a reported fire alarm. Control had sent out a page approximately 3 hours before, stating that the county was under a severe thunderstorm and tornado watch.

“A new firefighter and I responded to the scene and were first on scene. The new firefighter put on full PPE, with the exception of SCBA and structural firefighting hood. I placed my helmet and coat on, without the chinstrap of my helmet secured …

“We were directed by a senior firefighter to conduct the walk around of the structure. While walking from division A to division D, the wind started to pick up … The new firefighter and I heard a tree start cracking, and we ran for the truck. An F3 tornado had just touched down across the street from where the fire alarm was located.

“The new firefighter, a senior firefighter, and I were thrown a minimum of 5 times. The senior firefighter and I both lost our helmets during one of our falls; one helmet was found over 1,500 feet away from the scene of the fire alarm.

“During our attempt to get to the safety of our engine, the tree that was approximately 30 feet away from us was uprooted and fell, blocking the roadway. The wind was blowing so hard that it was impossible to open the door to the cab from the driver’s side; we had to run to the passenger’s side to get into the safety of the cab.”

These three events have led to lessons learned that may be appropriate for departments that plan to either implement new storm procedures and guidelines or update existing ones. Consider the following when examining your department’s procedures and guidelines:

  • Personal protective equipment should be worn properly.
  • Command must have a system in place to receive updated weather reports in a timely fashion.
  • Situational awareness must include not only your specific incident alone, but also what’s happening in the wider area around you.
  • A risk versus benefit analysis must be considered as part of crafting response procedures and guidelines.

The Near-Miss Reporting System website is an excellent tool for finding examples of incidents or lessons learned from weather-related events and how they affect the safety of firefighters and EMTs. The powerful search feature is easy to use and provides a wealth of knowledge.

For more weather-related reports, visit the “Reports for Training” section on the Resources page of FireFighterNearMiss.com. If you or your department experienced a near-miss event during the recent storms, please submit a report and share your experience.

John C. Woulfe III is the assistant director of IAFC National Programs and Consulting Services.

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