Reports of fires makeup a small percentage of calls for service in Communications Centers but when they do come in they are the highest priority events. A simple mistake, transposing an address number or changing a west street to an east street, can be deadly. According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2010 there were 369, 500 fires in America. During those fires, 2,640 people were killed and 13,350 people were injured. Roughly $6.9 billions of dollars were reported in damages. According to the United States Fire Administration’s 2011 statistics, there were a total of 81 firefighters killed. Of those 81 deaths, 36 Not Incident Related 44.4%; 25 Structure Fire 30.8%; 6 Wildland 7.40%; 4 Weather/Natural Disaster 4.93%; 3 MVA 3.70%; 2 EMS 2.46%; 2 Outside Fire 2.46%; 1 Tech Rescue 1.23%; 1 Other 1.23%; and, 1 Unknown 1.23%
According to the National Fire Protection Association of America, the top five deadly deadliest/large-loss fires of all time in America are:
1) The World Trace Center on 9-11-2001 with $33.4 billion in damages
2) San Francisco on 4-18-1906 earthquake & fire with $350 billion in damages
3) Great Chicago Fire on 10-8-1871 with $3 billion in damages
4) Oakland Fire Storm on 10-20-1991 with $1.5 billion in damages
5) Southern Ca on 10-20-2007 with 1.9 billion
What can a Public Safety Communications Telecommunicator (Dispatcher) do to help the firefighters when a call for a fire is received?
Let’s start with the basics first. Every dispatcher who takes calls for fire-related incidents and/or dispatches fire personnel should be familiar with the Incident Command System (ICS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS). In the early 70’s, the Federal government funded a program in California called Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies, or FIRESCOPE. The program was developed to coordinate agencies during major wildland fires. FIRESCOPE became the foundation for ICS, and NIMS. Fire departments quickly concluded that the system could be adapted to many varieties of calls, including structure fires and multi-casualty incidents. California had the advantage of a state-wide mutual-aid channel, ‘fire-white’ which any department could use during a multi-agency event.
The Incident Command System allows for consistent operations at three levels: single jurisdiction and/or agency, single jurisdiction with multiple agencies, and multiple jurisdictions with multiple agencies. ICS is now utilized by fire departments due to the standardized system and universal acceptance among fire agencies. ICS is easily used for any call, whether it is a single auto fire, an earthquake, a tornado, or a major wildland fire involving local, state, and national first responders.
The Incident Commander is the first person on scene of an event. Depending on the type of the event, the crew on scene will advise on additional help. For fires or mass casualty incidents (MCI), the senior person will tell the dispatcher who is in charge and give a name of the incident. For example: ‘2241 is Ashby Command’. Until he tells dispatch otherwise, 2241 is now the Incident Commander. If 2241 lets a Battalion Chief take over the leadership, he will pass command. For example: ‘2241 is passing command to BC 2201’ Ashby Command is still the name, but the person in command is the BC now.
The Battalion Chief may set up sections to handle different tasks. In ICS, there are five main sections: Finances, Logistics, Operations, Staging, and Planning. Not all of the sections may be activated, although the Operations will always be (that’s the firefighters). The Incident Commander has Command Staff: his Information Officer (liaison to the press), Liaison Officer (contact point for mutual aid), and the Safety Officer (is responsible for monitoring safety aspects of the scene and personnel – this person can override orders of the Chief if he determines an immediate safety threat is present).
Two important facts for dispatchers to remember: 1) log ALL requests and results, and 2) know your terminology. AIR SUPPORT is helicopter and planes, whereas tankers are vehicles. A TASK FORCE is a group of units or personnel responding to an incident (2 engines, a truck) whereas a STRIKE TEAM is a group of similar equipment responding to an incident (3 engines).
Know your agency’s policies & procedures. What is the proper method for obtaining information on fires? At what point do you disconnect from the caller? Do you use any system of questions? If so, do not deviate from the system in place.
Before we go any further let’s go over a few points; years ago, during a training session with an outside contractor one of the speakers was a lawyer. Now, it’s no secret that most of us in Public Safety have a love-hate relationship with attorneys. On this particular day, this gentleman who a couple of useful words that stuck with me.
Like many of my sister and brother dispatchers, I was taught when taking calls for fires to tell the caller to tell others inside the house to get out. He told us we were setting ourselves up for potential lawsuits. Of course we gasped – how could this be so? He told us to change what we said. His reasoning was, if that person delayed exiting the building to bang on doors, and they were overcome by smoke or became trapped – hence dying- we could be held responsible for the death. It was better, he told us, to tell them to get out and to ask them if anyone was inside to their knowledge and to pass that information on to the fire department personnel. IF, they chose on their own to delay their exit and sound the alarm, then we couldn’t be held responsible.
Sad, huh? This was the same reason I changed my handling of in-progress events, telling victims/RPs to if you feel it is safe to do so, stay on the phone with me. That was my disclaimer on a recorded line.
Back to fire dispatching.
Get the address. Always repeating the street numerics and spelling out the street name is a good practice. Confirm the city or county. If the resident is the caller, tell them you are entering the call right away (especially if you are a call-taker only). If you are a single dispatch center, you’ll have to place the person on hold while you dispatch the units, so tell the caller what you are doing. If it’s an RP, ask them to hold while you get units enroute. Come back on line. Ask the caller if there is anyone at home (to his or her knowledge). How about any pets inside?
For a commercial fire, what type of business is it? If the fire is in a medical building, ask what kind of medical office? Dental, labs, or radiology offices keep chemicals or potential nuclear materials inside. Even a doctor’s office may have oxygen. Consider the various fluids on hand for different businesses such as auto repair shops, beauty or barber shops, veterinary hospitals, and gas stations. If a vehicle is on fire, is it next to a building? What type of vehicle is on fire? A passenger car may require different response if it is in a gas station verses it being stopped in the middle of street. A semi truck hauling a load of paper goods verses a tanker truck full of chemicals may require a hazmat response. If the rp can provide the code on the DOT sign at the back of the truck, get it. Any of this information should be passed on to the responding crews.
If you have never heard the radio traffic at a working fire, try to find some tapes. The sound of firefighters speaking through microphones hooked up via their Scot packs can be muffled. Now add to that, the increased breathing rate attributed to the hard work from being in a fire while carrying the extra weight. Their voice is higher, from compensating to speak over the sound of the equipment and background noises. You may hear a bell or alarm sound; that is the warning to the wearer that they need to exchange the air bottle on their Scot pack.
Radio traffic may be split over multiple channels. It is not uncommon to have command / operations on one channel, medical on another, and if a firefighter or civilians are missing, the search on a different one. The larger the incident, the more channels can be used.
Training for ICS and NIMS is on-line and free at the FEMA site. Listed below, I’ve also listed links to other fire-related organizations. The tape recordings are sobering. Can you understand what the panicked callers are saying? What of the firefighters?
Remember the tapes are for training purposes.
Stay safe out there.
2nd alarm fire with a roof collapse with resulted in a rescue
a fatal fire with a downed power line
San Bruno gas main explosion – 7 people killed and 38 homes destroyed – this tape sounds garbled at various points as the recording came from a scanner
fatal fire – 7 residents inside home died