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Updating Policies and Practices: Recognizing the Need

We already know that practice makes perfect, and we also know it works. Over the past year, thanks to an aggressive training officer, Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills (Mass.) Fire-Rescue and Emergency Services (COMM Fire) has focused its training on SCBAs, firefighter maydays, survival and rescue. Practical evolutions include breaching walls and entanglement.

COMM Fire isn't alone; many departments recognize the need. The fire service has learned that firefighters lose their situational awareness, failing to understand they're in a life-or-death situation and need to call a mayday. Chances of survival increase when firefighters are trained in self-survival, rescue and calling the mayday.

For COMM Fire, it's paid off. Recently, when a firefighter fell through a floor, an immediate mayday was initiated. The firefighter wasn't seriously injured this time, but before this training, it was unlikely a mayday would have been called.

The stigma of calling maydays has also decreased. The SOG from COMM Fire's Firefighter Mayday Parameters specifically addresses this:

The decision by a firefighter to initiate a mayday will never be wrong and will never be questioned by the COMM Fire-Rescue Department. The department will not tolerate the harassment of firefighters who have initiated a mayday in which others feel the situation wasn't warranted.

For years, firefighters have trained on laying lines, pulling hoses and dressing hydrants—an important review, but often without a goal other than simply completing the drill. NFPA 1410 addresses this through timed practical evolutions and basic scenarios:

A forward lay using one engine and one supply line. Deploy 300 feet of 5-inch hose from hydrant to fire scene. Crew shall deploy 2 hose lines (1 attack and 1 back-up) capable of flowing a minimum of 300 GPM within 3 minutes from the start of the evolution. Engine shall be permitted to charge initial attack line with tank water; hydrant shall be established before back-up line is in place.

NFPA 1410 sets a standard. And while firefighters have congratulated themselves on how smoothly they've accomplished similar evolutions, did they do it in the three minutes the standard sets?

A recent safety-investigation report released by Prince George's County (Md.) Fire/EMS investigated a fire from February 24. Two firefighters were trapped and injured and, ultimately, seven firefighters were injured. The investigation team indentified the most critical factors:

  • An effective size-up wasn't completed, including a 360-degree survey walk around the building and evaluating environmental conditions.
  • No incident action plan was communicated and firefighters were dangerously positioned above and in the outflow path of the fire.
  • A firefighter emergency occurred, but no mayday was effectively communicated.
  • Multiple existing policies and procedures were not followed.
  • Training deficiencies were identified at all levels.
  • Command, control and accountability deficiencies were identified at all levels.

We've seen this all before in other near-miss, injury and line-of-duty death reports. We've lost firefighters in vacant buildings. Lightweight truss construction and higher interior temperatures have increased the risk. We're recognizing the dangers of both carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. Firefighters are becoming disoriented, failing to quickly recognize when they're in trouble.

So while your training addresses these challenges, so should your SOGs.

Fire department SOGs and SOPs should be a continuing, evolving process. Easier said than done—it's time consuming, but it can be simplified by reviewing those from other departments and tailoring them to fit your department's needs.

New SOGs require research and should be based on your department's current operations, accepted standards and NIMS, as well as lessons learned through after-action reports.

New challenges may require new SOGs, but resist the urge to just write another one without reviewing the potential conflict with existing SOGs. That conflict will contribute to confusion on the incident scene that could result in injuries or death.

Remember: your training and SOGs must reflect each other so when the alarm sounds everyone knows what to expect and what's expected.

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