Conduct a 360-degree view before deliberately placing our most important resource in harm’s way
“You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it,” is a great quote that sounds a lot like something longtime catcher and all-star Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees may have coined. Not sure of the author, but these true words of wisdom are often used liberally in both fire department leadership and emergency operations training sessions. The day-to-day supervision discussion point is made to always be very curious about what is going on within and around your organization. There are quite a lot of highly publicized case studies that demonstrate very bad behavior such as the ladder truck that failed to respond to the heart attack or the “pretend robbery” of a fire station by an off-duty firefighter. The question must be asked, was the leadership team of those organizations curious enough to prevent such poor behavior from occurring? Some might want to describe this behavior (curiosity) as being a micro-manager. Don’t be led down that path (mushroom management kept the boss in the dark). Always know what is going on in and around your organization (we will call it departmental situational awareness).
The same trait (possessing a highly focused curiosity) is needed at all responses. Bosses and the operating crews need to have a clear picture (understanding the hazards that lay head of the firefighting forces) of what is happening in and around all sides of the event (fire, hazardous materials, rescue, EMS, and even public service calls). Always keep in mind that there are seven sides to every response problem (i.e., top, bottom, four sides, and the area that the problem is occurring in) that we are called on to solve. It’s impossible to see all sides of the hazard zone areas and the exposure problems from a single vantage point (command post). Hence the need to always take the time to conduct a 360-degree view (reconnaissance) before deliberately placing our most important resource (our members) in harm’s way.
A few years back, I worked on the executive staff of a large urban fire department. The department saw a lot of work of all types. It was a priority for me to catch all the runs that I could to watch, appreciate, and support some of America’s best firefighters doing their job. In one such case, I was able to arrive early into the alarm at a collection of townhouses burning. Based on the location of my condo, I was able to reach the rear (side Charlie) of the burning buildings within a minute or two of the incident commander (Battalion 4) arriving on location. The battalion chief gave a perfect brief initial report (BIR). It contained all six critical points (Figure 1), clearly painting the picture of the situation that we were facing. The BIR is the foundation of the on-scene size-up process that the incident action plan (IAP) would be based on to attack what seemed like a fairly routine small fire in a dwelling.
Battalion 4 started off by repeating the fire building’s address, followed by the building description (“middle of the row, ordinary constructed attached dwelling”), the conditions (“moderate smoke from the second floor and roof”), the initial action plan (for the engine to lay a supply line and advance an attack line on side Alpha), and announcing that Battalion 4 was assuming “First Street Command.” The chief’s voice was cool, calm, and collected, providing all the vital information that is necessary to start offensive operations in the hazard zone as required by our standard operating procedures (SOPs). However, because of the layout of the townhouses, Battalion 4 was not aware of the conditions on side Charlie, and for that matter both exposure buildings Bravo and Delta sides were already on fire, changing the operations significantly.
As I drove past the rear of the fire building (my home was about six blocks away from this alarm), it was obvious that the fire had occupied the entire first floor and would soon be controlling the second floor of all three addresses. Further, both the exposure buildings had already turned into additional fire buildings as well. I provided the report to First Street Command from side Charlie of the building, to include recommending a second alarm be sounded to cover all the positions and to be better prepared to fight what had become a significant fire incident. Without taking the time to get this critical 360-view feedback, command would not be able to make the best decisions possible to efficiently, effectively, and safely put the fire out.
A little more than 10 years ago, we experienced a Mayday event that critically injured two members and seriously injured two more. A fire and explosion were reported in the middle of a sections of row houses (townhouse-type multifamily dwellings). The fifth-due engine company was assigned to cover the exposure building on the Delta side of this significant working fire. A long attack line was pulled and directed to enter the selected location to ensure that the fire did not spread into the attached home. Little did the company officer know that the fire had already moved well into the building that the engine company was assigned to protect. On entering the first floor of this address, the company officer had the responsibility to check the floors below the suspected fire area and move up to check the second floor, once it was clear to do so. After a terse look on the first floor only (skipping the basement check), the officer moved his crew of three additional members to the second floor to make a stand and stop the progression of the fire movement further into this housing unit.
Once the nozzle was opened on the flames on the second floor, the forced air movement caused the fire from the basement to travel up the staircase and into the space that the crew was operating in on the second floor. Once the officer realized the gravity of the situation (heavy fire on both sides of his company’s position, trapping his crew), he ordered the evacuation of those four members from the building. It was nearly a disaster that would have taken four great young firefighters’ lives. The company scurried down the flaming staircase and fell out onto the front porch, at which time a Mayday was sounded by members nearby watching the events unfold. Thank goodness all exited the building quickly; two members were very seriously burned, but they would come back to full duty after a long recovery process, eventually becoming fit to fight fire once again.
Always take the time to visualize all seven sides (by using division or group reconnaissance CAN reports) of a hazard zone event when asked or when conditions change. If possible, command should wait to get the appropriate reports (ensuring complete situational awareness) before committing members into a high-risk area.
You Can See a Lot by Just Looking
Recently, our fire administration members were proud that a detailed SOP discussing the need for a 360 view to include floor-to-floor interior checks was researched, developed, reviewed, and ready for implementation. The next phase of the plan was to provide a comprehensive training session for all hands of all shifts and then activate the newest of our SOPs. Something very interesting happened along the way. One of our company officers (in the training session) asked the most obvious of questions that had been completely overlooked.
The company boss simply asked, “What do you want us to do when we conduct the 360 or the floor-to-floor check?” “Of course, follow the policy,” the cheerful instructor pointed out. “No, chief,” was the retort. “What exactly do you want us to do when we are given that assignment?” said this curious company officer. It was at this point that we realized that the SOP was not complete. We had failed to identify what to look for when assigned this task and what information to report back to the incident commander when asked to conduct a 360-reconnaissance view or a floor-to-floor conditions check. A few weeks later, the answers were added to both the SOP and the training presentation.
Here is what we came up with to answer the question, “What are we supposed to do then given this assignment?” The first goal of conducting a 360 or floor-to-floor check is to determine the extent of the life hazard. The next priority is to control the incident from becoming larger. Finally, we focus on conserving property (see sidebar) by the most effective means possible.
The list that our team developed for both a 360 and floor to floor (below the fire) includes the following:
1. Check for trapped occupants.
2. Check for and support automatic fire protection systems.
a. Support sprinkler systems first; pump and maintain 150 psi.
b. Standpipe systems next; EP=NP+FL+or - elevation.
3. Locate and control utilities.
a. Natural gas.
b. Bottled gas (LPG).
c. Electric service.
d. Fuel oil.
1. Fire conditions beyond the view of the command post.
2. Building stability (potential for collapse; consider the collapse zone if needed).
3. Fire extension and fire extension pathways (windows, doors, etc.).
4. Advise if assistance is needed and if the assigned tasks are progressing.
5. Identify any unique or unknown construction features.
6. Report if there is a basement present.
a. Walk-up basement.
b. Walk-out basement.
c. Look-out basement.
7. Be aware of and suggest needed updates to the incident action plan.
a. Operational mode (offensive, defensive, reset).
d. Critical factors.
8. Identify other hazards (animals, terrain, slippery conditions, etc.).
9. 360 views must be continuous.
10. Initial 360 performed by company officer.
11. Ongoing by safety officer.
These items are a great starting point and should be adjusted to the needs of your jurisdiction. Next, these items should become a checklist for the safety officer to reference. As critical issues are discovered, the safety officer (360) or the company officer (floor to floor) needs to communicate the situation to the incident commander and take the corrective action directed.
All Seven Sides
The incident commander must be in a fixed location with the necessary resources (tactical worksheet, pencils, lighting, reference materials, quality communications, etc.) to properly manage the activities in the hazard zone. Command must ask for a 360 view and a floor-to-floor report to get a detailed picture painted and to develop an accurate size-up. To safely place our members in an immediately dangerous to life or health hazard zone, all seven sizes of the problem must be considered and evaluated, or the incident commander will not be able to properly perform his job.
The great incident commanders innately understand the above operational truths. To be efficient, effective, and safe at incidents, all seven sides must be evaluated and covered at every alarm. Start ahead of the problem, stay ahead of the problem, and successfully complete the operation ahead of the problem. If this process is not possible because of one or more of the critical factors (personnel, apparatus, water supply is out of balance), go defensive early. Actually, as soon as it is realized the operation is not going to be effective, the commander is falling behind and taking too great of a risk. If the hazard zone is evacuated five minutes too early as compared to five seconds too late, congratulations to the incident commander and safety officer because, “Everyone got to home!” Remember, great incident commanders can always forecast what is going to happen and when it will happen before it does happen. Don’t be surprised by the fire spread or what is happening inside or outside the building.
Dennis L. Rubin has served more than 35 years in the fire and rescue service. He has been a line firefighter, company officer, and command officer. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program and has been an adjunct faculty member of the NFA since 1983. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Executive Leadership Course in Homeland Security. Rubin is the author of Rube’s Rules for Survival and D.C. FIRE (Fire Engineering). His third textbook, It’s Always About Leadership! will be released by Fire Engineering late spring or early summer 2018.