Recently, I found myself in the unenviable position of Incident Commander at a house fire that resulted in a civilian fatality. We arrived to find heavy fire from multiple rooms and witnesses telling us that people were inside. An aggressive interior attack and search operations were begun with the 2 first arriving units and supplemented with later arriving companies. One victim was pulled unresponsive from the home and transported by the ambulance provider. The individual later died, the injuries just too great. The rest of the house was cleared and determined to be occupant free. The following are a few observations from my own self-critique of this type of high-risk emergency:
In a high-risk situation such as this, communication is critical. There can be no mistaking what the strategy and tactics are going to be. Each company officer must know his or her task and how it fits into the bigger picture. Communicating this is your responsibility.
Avoid getting hands on. When you see crews struggling with placing a line that is needed in service quickly, it is not your responsibility to help them. Assisting them with victim removal is not your job. With so many moving parts and a fireground that is rapidly changing, it is important to remember that your responsibility is the entire scene. You do not have the luxury of focusing on one portion of it.
Be calm. Your voice must remain steady on the radio at all times. Your movements and motions must be purposeful and quick but appear smooth and relaxed. When the companies are faced with a dangerous environment, you have to be the one that provides strength and resolve, motivating them to slow themselves down so they may think more clearly.
Control your crew members. When a life is in danger, firefighters naturally push themselves to go above and beyond. While this is commendable, it can have severe consequences when not properly monitored. Do not allow them to take foolish risks. Stay firm with them keeping them focused on the task as directed by yourself. Be very alert for the beginnings of freelancing.
Know your standard operating procedures. Now is not the time for everyone to run their own play. This is the time for everyone on the fireground to function seamlessly, to support each other, to anticipate others needs. This is best done by knowing what your department’s procedures are and by communicating assignments accordingly to your crew.
Learn your equipment. When seconds are critical there can be no margin of error. Know which line to pull. Be able to start power equipment on the first try. Be able to find any piece of equipment after only opening one cabinet or door. Potential victims or your own department members are counting on you to get it right the first time. There may not be time for a second try.
Preparation beforehand is what sets you up for success when it counts. Long before the alarm is ever sounded, you should have mentally, physically, and skillfully prepared yourself. Be the one who continues to learn, gets in the gym, and performs drills regularly. There is so much to learn and become proficient at. The civilians and your fellow firefighters are trusting in you to know what to do, when to do it, and how to accomplish it.
We as firefighters hate defeat. Losing a civilian is a tough pill to swallow. Remember, though, we do not control man’s destiny. It is our responsibility to be prepared for whatever the next call might be and to be able to professionally mitigate the emergency. We can not predict where or when the next fire may occur; we can, however, be mentally and physically fit and properly trained to face the situation we find. It is in knowing that we did our best given the circumstances that we can find solace even when the outcome is less than desirable.