By Rusty McCombs
Published Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Homewood, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, is a city tightly canopied with old growth oaks and pines. Windstorms frequently uproot the huge trees, which then totally obstruct roadways. Although it’s located in the center of the state’s tornado alley, Homewood has been fortunate to dodge any direct hits. The deadly tornado outburst of April 27, 2011, (249 Alabama fatalities) produced destructive storm paths both north and south of the city. But even when Homewood is spared fatalities, Homewood Fire and Rescue Service (HFRS) firefighters spend considerable time and effort performing clean-up operations.
After watching Homewood firefighters struggle to move large trees from the roadways to gain access for emergency vehicles in a post-storm emergency, Mayor Scott McBrayer re-assigned one of the city’s surplus Bobcat skid steer loaders to the fire department for exclusive use during an emergency. “With the Bobcat loader available to push downed trees out of the road, firefighters will have much quicker access to areas that are cut off due to storm damage,” McBrayer says.
Prior to obtaining the Bobcat, firefighters conducting tree removal would use the chainsaws carried on fire apparatus to cut the trees into manageable pieces. Large trees had to be meticulously cut into firewood lengths and moved by hand; the Public Works Department was only able to provide backhoes for assistance in road clearing much later into the operations. As a result, HFRS officials knew that having a readily available fire department-controlled skid steer would greatly reduce the time needed to clear a path for a fire truck.
The Bobcat acquisition also further prepares the department for the inevitable. “We know that we must prepare for the possibility that our luck in avoiding major storm destruction may run out,” observes Fire Chief John Bresnan. “Rescue of victims in a storm aftermath cannot take place if our firefighters and equipment are unable to reach the scene.”
The key to properly integrating this new resource into the department’s operations? Training and clear operating procedures.
Skid Steer SOP
Upon acquisition of the Bobcat 763 skid steer loader, HFRS soon learned that information available on the use of a skid steer for fire department emergency operations was nearly nonexistent. It fell upon several department members who owned and operated skid steers for farm, logging and construction work to compose the standard operating procedure (SOP; see the attachment at the end of this article for the HFRS' skid steer SOP).
The SOP emphasizes the safe and methodical use of the Bobcat in a confined area with numerous ground workers present. The policy stresses that fire department operations with the skid steer are very unlike commercial production operations where the machine is run at full throttle and the work area is clear. All fire department tasks are conducted at slow speeds with the engine throttle set in a low position.
The key component of the SOP is the designation of the Bobcat crew to always consist of an operator and a ground-person. The crew maintains constant radio contact on a dedicated channel. A hand signal system was also developed so that the chance of miscommunication is lessened. The operator works under the direction of the ground-person and conducts no freelance operations.
Training on the operation of the Bobcat is conducted at a local wood waste recycling facility. “We have developed a training program that incorporates communication systems and operation procedures that will allow us to safely utilize the loader in the chaotic conditions that exist in the wake of a storm,” says Fire Medic Brett Ashworth, lead Bobcat instructor. (Download various HFRS Bobcat training materials at the end of this article.)
In anticipation of dealing with the next storm, the Bobcat loader will be kept on a heavy equipment transport trailer and housed at Fire Station 1, ready for rapid deployment. “We now have the ability to expedite road clearing for emergency access,” Chief Bresnan adds.
The community expects us to be able to respond quickly, even in the throes of a storm. Our experience in acquiring the Bobcat demonstrates that all departments need to think creatively, and work with city management to determine ways to improve disaster response capability. Sometimes, the answer is simple and inexpensive—but when it comes to saving lives, it’s priceless.
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