When considering the command process, there are numerous interferences that do not allow the Incident Commander to fully execute his or her battle plan. Let’s look at the ordinary every day citizen. When bad things happen, “people” usually band together and want to help. (The first major human behavior study for a large fire was performed by John L. Bryan after the MGM Grand hotel fire in Las Vegas in 1980) His theories have proven themselves time and time again, e.g. the WTC bombing in 1993. If you examine examples of emergencies, disasters and catastrophes, you will see that people will respond to aid others. It was believed years ago that people panicked under most emergent circumstances. People normally panic when all hope is lost, e.g. they have sight of an exit door in a night club in a medium smoke condition and know that if they keep moving, they will make it out alive. When the lights go out and/or the smoke obscures their exit, (hope) panic may set in followed by a human crush, stampede or other phenomenon. (Ref. The Station Night Club Fire, West Warwick, RI in 2003) In case after case, it’s been found that ordinary people do extra ordinary things during an emergency. People came out of the Bayou in boats in Louisiana to help save other people during and after hurricane Katrina. People carried others down numerous flights of stairs in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 just to name a few. Looking at the national news and seeing the aftermath of an earthquake, you will see ordinary people on top of piles of collapsed buildings trying to find survivors. Note that volunteers could be both well-meaning and ill-intentioned. People have different motives for their actions. Most will not be looking for credit or recognition but others may be. In addition, an ill-intentioned person may be trying to hinder operations or to delay aid or assistance on purpose, whether they have an issue with the business, the building owner, the workers or the people who occupy the space. There have been cases where people were “pretending to help” an engine company connect to hydrant and the helper either cut the suction line or simply did not connect it at all. This mimics the arson model where a home owner cuts down a tree across the driveway in order to delay a response to the house when the fire breaks out, or in this case started intentionally. On your initial response, you may not be able to control or coordinate these people. So, know that ordinary every day working folks may be in your way and may interfere with your operational plan, intentionally or not.
Trying to Control the Interferences
So, how do we control these “volunteers” and possibly use them to our advantage? What can we do to insure they have a positive impact on our battle plan? A good starting place is public education. A well informed public can be an asset during or after an emergency however it would work best if this same informed public had enough information to prevent an incident from happening in the first place. Since the fire service first stepped in to the school systems years ago to teach young children on the merits of fire safety (after the Our Lady of Angels fire in Chicago in 1958 which also changed the fire codes for schools) we’ve believed that the impact of those fire safety lessons and sessions were lasting for those children but did not necessarily carry over in to their adolescence or adulthood. As people get older their priorities change and unless they were a victim of a fire, it becomes an issue of indifference. “Someone else will take care of it. I need not worry about it.” What have we done to increase fire safety awareness amongst working adults? We keep after the kids and still do what we do in the schools because we know the kids are our best messengers. In the 1980’s after the Loma Prieta (CA) earth quake, the California authorities noted that there were throngs of people who helped or wanted help. They organized the Citizen Corps which eventually morphed into the CERT (Citizen Emergency Response Team) program, spear headed and moved forward by then FEMA Director James Lee Witt. So, we took the opportunity to organize our adult volunteers along with giving them some basic training and equipment.
So, through the kids and the CERT and similar programs, we get yet another chance to further educate our populations. As the fire service has realized in recent years, controlling flow path, ventilation and fire travel through a building will give us and the people who are trapped in said buildings the advantage. What’s old is new. Lloyd Layman wrote about this in the 1950’s and Keith Royer and Bill Nelson in the 1960’s. It just took us a long time to memorialize it and back it up with scientific data. Let’s apply our firefighting lessons learned to public fire safety education. We’ve been telling our citizens to sleep with their bedroom doors closed for a very long time. Most don’t but they know they should because they’ve heard it before, over and over again. If we further educate them by telling them, “close the door behind you, do not break the windows, keep the front door closed, etc.” we may actually be helping our battle plan before we get there or as we pull up. Don’t forget that public education also includes other emergency services. A northeast police department instructed all of their officers for years that “if you come upon a burning house, break as many windows and you can while waiting for the fire department to arrive.” Partner with local law enforcement and show them way that’s a bad idea.
There are other “human elements” programs that can be implemented in order to assist your battle plan. Many heavy commercial, industrial or high rise buildings have fire brigades, industrial fire departments, evacuation teams, hazmat teams, fire wardens and emergency management teams often called crisis management teams. These are trained, organized groups of dedicated employees who wish to help their companies, preserve their jobs and do some good for their surrounding communities. Working with these folks ahead of the incident will pay large dividends down the road.
It’s important to note that whatever battles plans you have need to be tested in order for them to be valid. A well written plan is only successful if it’s tested and consistently re-tested to insure it’s valid, workable and viable. Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Be well, stay well, be safe,
PS: I want to thank all of you who were in contact with me before and after my cancer surgery. Back to work, doing well and feeling good. If you get a chance, see the Nozzlehead column in the current edition of FireRescue magazine. Good old NH (BG) told my story over again as noted in my Journal as #45. REK