Across the country, in today’s fast paced world of emergency response systems, we as a community have evolved. But this evolution of response systems does not equally affect our community wholly which can cause problems when trying to coordinate response and mutual aid efforts. In some areas of the country, the morphing of response systems is quite progressive making every incident more likely to be mitigated rapidly by ensuring coverage areas are always protected and the quickest and most effective response (based on testing and research) is achieved. In other areas, consistency is lacking and resources are not supported or depended on, both in local agencies and those that they border. Even worse, some of the most progressive departments in the country fail to recognize supporting agencies based on personal bias and preference, further delaying resource arrival to a situation that is degrading extremely fast.
If you are reading this article, you know that houses, buildings, furniture, cars, and pretty much anything that catches on fire today will burn much quicker than years prior. With new materials introduced, houses will collapse trapping victims who would have been able to escape and destroying property that may have been safe for much longer just a few years ago. With this in mind, how can we continue to be complacent with the manner in which we assign and dispatch resources to incidents.
For the purpose of example, let’s say a busy day is about to unfold in two very different areas of the country. Crews are arriving for their shift, checking out their vehicles, checking equipment, and catching up. While this is occurring, fires started at the same time with the same points of origin and even the same house design, layout and features. What a coincidence! The residents are still asleep upstairs. It’s a Saturday morning around 8:30am. In both situations, a passerby notices smoke beginning to escape from the cracked first floor window and reports this to the 911 center. Here’s where things start to change for each fire’s evolution and outcome.
The first 911 center receives the call. Immediately, through CAD (Computer-Aided Dispatch) software, appropriate questions are asked identifying a possible structure fire. The CAD automatically recommends the closest units based on the required number of apparatus according to resource category (engine, truck, rescue/squad, ambulance, command unit). In this case, the closest 5 engines, 2 truck companies, rescue squad, 2 ambulances, and 2 command units are assigned to the call by the dispatcher as they continue taking call information. A pre-alert is sent out to all the stations with units due to respond and mobile data terminals in apparatus with basic call information and location. The dispatcher wraps up the call and commences the radio dispatch over the main frequency with only a single identification tone differentiating the call type directing units to respond on the appropriate tactical response channel.
Upon arrival, the first engine forward-lays a large diameter supply line to Side A with the second engine directed to connect to the hydrant that the first engine laid-in from and pump the supply line (This process is made extremely smooth with the use of a 4-way hydrant valve). The third engine will establish a water supply to Side C, if possible, with the fourth engine supplying water just as the first and second arriving engines did. The first truck company will position on the A/B corner and the second truck company will position on the C/D corner. The fifth engine will secure a tertiary water supply for RIT and work with the Rescue Squad to act as RIT and clear any obstructions around the house that would hinder access and rescue. These are standard response guidelines for the region. All responding units know their role based on arrival time and can see other units in the CAD map. All units were dispatched by distance and time to scene, so they are arriving as shown in run order for the call in the CAD.
A quick interior attack as begun by the first arriving engine while checking the area for victims. The crew of the second engine pulls a second line assisting the first engine with hitting the fire. The truck company arrives and conducts VES (Vent-Enter-Search) operations and find all of the family members rescuing them with minor smoke inhalation injuries. Another member assists in coordinating horizontal ventilation with the interior crews relieving the heat which was being routed upstairs threatening the residents and preventing their escape. The fire is extinguished quickly and water supply allows for continuous attack of the fire as soon as the engine arrives at the driveway. Subsequently arriving units swap out with interior units and open up the walls to check for extension and perform overhaul activities. Salvage operations can begin quickly. The fire was confined to the room of origin and the assignment is scaled back to the first two engines and first truck.
At the same time as the first call was received, the second 911 center receives the call. They also utilize their CAD system running through common questions to identify incident type. The dispatcher continues to take call information and completes the call before setting off each station’s tones. Each is repeated and 8 seconds in duration, total. Tone alerting, alone, takes about 30 to 45 seconds to complete before call information is relayed. The closest three stations are alerted for the structure fire and will bring only what they decide to or typically do for similar responses. As the response commences, the first due station responds with an engine and rescue squad. The second and third station respond with an engine. 3 engines and one rescue squad are now responding to the structure fire.
As the first engine arrives on-scene, they decide they want to forward lay a 900 ft. supply line from the closest hydrant to the scene and rely on the hydrant’s residual pressure alone to overcome the friction loss. They lay out and begin to pull lines and go inside with their rescue squad acting as RIT. The second engine arrives and pulls up right to the scene. The fire is building and the pump on the first engine is screaming. Water is getting on the fire but not enough. The second engine’s crew notices residents in the second story window. They get a 24’ ladder off their truck, but due to the second story being further from the ground in the rear, where the residents are, because of a basement, they are forced to attempt to work through the second story from the front of the house to make rescues. The hallway is now charged with smoke upstairs with heat building. The third engine arrives on-scene and pulls a line off the first engine going inside to assist the first engine in knocking the fire. Command makes the decision to request additional resources asking dispatch to tone out the next two stations on the run card and “find a truck company”. Due to lacking mutual aid agreements, the station that should be second due to the call is still asleep in their beds, ladder truck and engine sitting in the bay unavailable for the call. The next two stations are 15 and 20 minutes away respectively.
The next two stations are dispatched and the latter, 20 minutes away, is asked over the radio asking for their truck company to respond after the dispatch. The fire is quickly growing out of control. Flames are climbing the stairwell as no ventilation has occurred to allow heat to escape and a second line is just now being put into service. The rescue efforts on the second floor are difficult with the fire now impinging on the division 2 crews’ only escape route. The pump on the first engine is starting to have trouble due to the long layout and distance from the driveway to the house. Command decides to evacuate the building. The residents are pulled out unconscious with major burns to the face and shoulder after being carried through the superheated gases in the hall. The operation is now in defensive mode. The fourth engine and aerial device arrive and set up for defensive operations and the house is a near total loss.
Tactics and dispatch policy can be questioned, but the most important realization to make is that scenario two lacked a resource-based emergency response system. While many consider all-hazards response to mean we must spec engines to respond to everything and limit the need for specialized units, this definition is not what all-hazards response as an emergency response system should be. All-hazards response for an emergency, in essence, means having all the tools needed for a given incident type to accomplish all scene tasks at least until a second alarm can arrive, if necessary.
In a resource-based emergency response system, each unit has its’ place and is expected to accomplish a certain set of tasks. Yes, modifications to this initial IAP (Incident Action Plan) set by standard procedure can be done and should be based on availability of crews and tasks which need to be accomplished. However, without ensuring specialized units are identified and responding when they could likely be needed, mitigation efforts are sure to be fruitless. “But what about the times we don’t need them?”, one might say. It’s much easier to turn units around that are a few minutes or even seconds away than get units on the road and to the scene that are 20 minutes away.
We are providing a service. To effectively provide that service, emergency response must be an integrated system that eliminates classic mutual aid and builds an automatic aid system that incorporates every agency with firefighting resources so that they can be dispatched and assigned quickly and specifically based on the needs of the incident and distance to the call, regardless of the jurisdiction or imaginary political boundaries. Consideration must be made that each jurisdiction’s fire protection service is only a piece of the emergency response system and must consider the needs of not only its’ area, but the needs of neighboring jurisdictions as well.
When an incident commander notices that the fire is building in the structure and a truck company is needed for ventilation that isn’t on the road, the fire is already a loss. Different units have different roles and can provide specific equipment. That is the reason NFPA 1901 exists and makes requirements for ladders and other equipment or water capacity to be carried based on unit type.
Without a resource-based emergency response system, there is no telling what units will show up to the scene and no telling what equipment will be available. Time is of the essence, whether a trauma patient trapped in a vehicle with 30 minutes left in her golden hour or a structure fire progressing quickly threatening the lives of the residents trapped upstairs. Assignments of today must include resource specification (or unit dispatching) to ensure all the equipment, personnel, and water get to the scene that could likely be needed for the first initial actions best allowing for the preservation of life, property, and the environment.