Why bother preplanning? You’re a smart firefighter, and you know everything about the buildings in your coverage area, right? You’ve taken a building construction class, meaning you can now take a quick look at a building and know everything you need to know about it when it’s on fire, when there’s an active shooter in the building, or when a gas pipe is leaking inside of it, right? Wrong.
Preplanning is a lot of work. Sure, if you don’t get around to it, you may get lucky and everything will work out. Maybe you have run too many EMS calls and don’t have time for it. Maybe you’re even a little nervous about it, as you haven’t had a lot of training about preplanning, building construction or related things needed for high-quality preplanning. We’ve heard all of the excuses, and they’re all signs of a fire department that has not reached its peak performance.
De Facto Historians
Fire departments are essentially the de facto historians of buildings in their communities. Property owners change, and no one else pays the amount of attention needed to handle emergencies in those buildings the way firefighters do—or at least should do. Buildings in your community have been around for decades, maybe even hundreds of years. Many changes have occurred to those buildings over that time, and those changes can impact how a building behaves in a fire or other emergency. Good firefighters know this, think about it and plan for those emergencies. Long-time members of your department (and those who operate/maintain the building) often have good information about key building features and hazards that should be shared with future generations of responders. Bottom line: We must somehow capture all of this good information from our colleagues and put it somewhere we can all find and use it when an emergency occurs.
Performing preplanning includes several separate key parts. After determining preplanning priorities and assigning/scheduling preplans, the information-gathering process starts. I recommended that a small group set the priorities and schedules, but all members of the department can participate in the information-gathering process. Maps, online mapping programs, property drawings and floor plans, facility insurance surveys, facility fire alarm and sprinkler drawings/specs, and other facility emergency plans are all useful tools to gather and mine for preplanning information.
My preference in conducting preplanning is to first do whatever research you can prior to going on site. Gather and review the documents, check maps of the area and aerial/satellite photos of the property to get the “lay of the land,” as they say. Search the property online for any information/history about the property that may prove useful in the emergency planning process. You might even find webcams or traffic cams that could be hot-linked into preplans, providing real-time intelligence about an incident as it occurs.
Start at the Top & Work Down
When visiting a site to begin the data-gathering process, I like to start at the top—on the roof of the building (if I’m able to get onto the roof). Whenever possible, capture information about the roof and get a more close-up overview of the building and the site. Envision scenarios where you might need to work from the roof and of incidents that might occur on or along the roof.
From there I suggest working your way down the building, floor by floor, continuing to gather information as you go. Get information about hazards, contents, the structure/construction, and fire protection and other key features of the building.
Most firefighters seem to be good visual learners, so I encourage preplanners to take lots of photos. You may not use them all in the preplan, but photos will help prod your memory and provide great references while you are developing/documenting your preplan. Mark up photos in a photo-modification software program, with arrows or other markers highlighting key fire protection features, such as fire department connections (FDCs) or fire protection valves, as well as hazards to firefighters in and around the building. Use aerial photos to designate sides A, B, C and D. You might even use video for key hazards/features.
Software & Sharing
The most important part of preplanning is being able to quickly read/use the data when you need it. Preplanning software is a great tool for this, allowing you to create, store and share your preplans. Whatever software you choose should be easy to use and easy to share with your mutual-aid companies, police and medical first responders, so that everyone is on the same page. At the same time, the data needs to provide a level of security for the information included. Some software allows sharing between first responders and building maintenance and operations personnel, so that first responders can quickly locate shut-off valves and similar items, even when hidden, to reduce unnecessary losses. Good collaboration with property owners/maintenance personnel means they should be able to keep the information updated, and cloud-based programs allow such changes to be instantly shared with everyone who has access to the plans.
On Other Calls …
During your preplanning efforts, you’ll learn more not only about specific buildings, but also about buildings in general. While you’re in a building on an EMS run, take a few moments to make some notes about the building; this will help you if you have to return when it’s on fire.
There really is little excuse for why your department should not have an active preplanning program. Doing any bit of planning will make you a better, smarter firefighter or officer. Unless your chief is after you about preplanning, it’s likely that no one will push you to do it, that is, until your ISO score dings you significantly for poor preplanning, or you respond to a significant incident and realize that you should have known more about the building. Like I said before, preplanning takes a lot of work, but if you want to be the best fire department you can be, you have to do it—and work at it.
Responding as mutual aid recently, I was assigned as the water supply officer at a major fire at a farm complex. Fortunately, the first-due chief had done a good preplan of the complex and shared it with us. I was able to quickly pull up the water supplies for the facility and make good tactical decisions about where to get water for the incident. Don’t you want to be able to do that?
Sidebar: Speccing an Electronic Preplanning System
An electronic preplanning system should be designed to catalog key information about buildings, structures, water supplies, areas and other natural or manmade features—and be compliant with NFPA 1620: Standard for Pre-Incident Planning. This information is used by emergency responders and other building personnel to understand the operations and hazards of the building or location to permit prompt and safe response to incidents or other situations requiring intervention.
When specifying an electronic preplanning system, the system should be able to:
- Catalog and present complicated building information in a manner that is understood by response personnel, while communicating key details that can protect responders’ lives and speed emergency control
- Be used with buildings, highway intersections, railyards, ships and other complex facilities
- Allow for different types of users—rapid, key information for initial responders and more detailed information for incident commanders, planning chiefs and other key ICS staff for involved incidents
- Allow for multiple users (police, fire, EMS, mutual-aid organizations) across the community to access it simultaneously
- Memorialize design intent for the life of the facility, reducing the risk and impact of a serious incident
- Provide a searchable, portable document that can be printed for offline review or hardcopy back-up
- Keep data from different users in sync to ensure that all information is consistent for all users to avoid “versioning”
- Allow input of photographs, maps, drawings, hotlinks and other vital information necessary to manage incidents
- Provide security of information via password protection or similar with different levels of access for preplan authors and users (read-only)
- Allow users to be in Groups and allow Groups to “share” preplans with other Groups in read-only fashion for true interoperability and public/private partnerships, for example: Fire Department A can share preplans with the neighboring fire departments. School District B can share preplans with fire and police departments
- Be compatible with NIMS-ICS, Fire Code and NFPA 1620 requirements
- Support running on devices from laptops, PDAs and tablets
- Allow for touch-sensitive screens by personnel wearing even thick gloves
- Facilitate a rapid search to find a preplan based on fuzzy matching of properties, such as GPS latitude/longitude, U.S. National Grid map coordinates, street address, facility name or other information
- Provide a means to “drill down” to get more detailed information in specific areas of the preplan
- Be user-customizable, to be tailored to what is most appropriate for the facility (containing single structures, multiple structures and split up by floor or groups of floors as needed)
- Support building complexity (e.g., multiple structures, a structure with multiple roofs, hazardous materials on the property or within the structure itself and various types of water supplies)
- Be reliable, with high availability/back-up capability