The best time to know emergency procedures–and the worst time to learn them–is in an actual emergency. Normal emergency scene confusion becomes even more complicated when something unexpected happens. Very rapidly, the familiar can become unrecognizable, as the incident becomes more complex. In such situations, a company officer’s leadership is more important than ever.
Let’s look at an example to illustrate: Like many mechanical failures, this one begins with a minor flaw that either went undetected during routine inspections, or wasn’t taken seriously. One small nick in the SCBA mask strap spawned a tear that migrated radically until the strap’s design strength was seriously reduced, which caused it to fail. The weakening of the strap had occurred over many hours of use, but the catastrophe that followed the strap failure developed in just seconds.
During those seconds, the strap separated and smoke began to fill the firefighter’s mask. In an instant, the firefighter was breathing smoke and became visually impaired, which caused him to become disoriented. At one moment, the firefighter was deep in the building helping advance a hoseline with another firefighter and the company officer. The next moment, the firefighter was in trouble, frantically trying to find fresh air. The company officer quickly realized that a member of the crew had a problem, but couldn’t immediately identify the source of the problem.
It’s the company officer’s responsibility to ensure that every firefighter on their crew is familiar with basic firefighter survival skills–in other words, what to do when you get into trouble. Crews must prepare and practice, together, for these events to facilitate a successful outcome.
Managing an unexpected event in a safe and efficient manner requires that the company officer manage three essential elements: people (starting with yourself), information of all sorts from all sources and the event itself.
Manage yourself first. You can’t help anyone else if you become a victim. The first priority for a company officer, when your crew is in trouble, is to manage yourself. You must quickly orient yourself to the situation. This is where your personal preparation should begin to kick in. By knowing and practicing the basic self-survival techniques, you can respond systematically to an unexpected event, instead of wasting valuable time trying to come up with a response plan.
Determine the following: What is the status of your air supply? Where are you? What were you doing when the emergency happened? Make a conscious effort to stay calm, conserve your air and begin to control the situation. Your command presence will help you and your crew work together to overcome the problem.
Manage your firefighters. If one of your firefighters is in immediate danger, you must react appropriately and quickly. Who has a problem? Is it a personal behavior problem (sometimes firefighters do crazy things in a dark, hot building) or an injury? Was there an equipment failure or is the firefighter out of air? Is your crew intact or have you lost a firefighter?
Quickly assess each individual, including the following: breathing status (air exchange), SCBA air supply, level of consciousness and mechanical malfunction or entrapment. You and your crew must stay together and communicate as a team; this will enhance your chances of solving of the problem.
Many sources of information contribute to a successful outcome during a crisis situation, but the most critical may be your department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) that identify the steps required to cope with such emergencies. SOPs help to maintain focus and expedite the workload. Fire crews that practice mayday SOPs before the event will respond more effectively during an actual emergency.
The company officer must have the ability to size-up the situation (problem) and quickly implement a survival action plan. You must ask many questions to correctly identify the situation, but two questions are vital:
- What’s the fire doing? You and your crew originally entered the structure with a specific objective in mind. The fire doesn’t get put on “pause” just because your crew has a problem.
- What are the current conditions surrounding you and your crew? The current and future conditions will dictate whether you stay and attempt to solve the problem or move to safer location.
A vital link to overcoming an unexpected event is the effective exchange of information between the crew in trouble and command. Remember the LUNAR acronym to quickly relay information to command: Communicate your last known LOCATION, your UNIT identification, your NAME/Number, your AIR SUPPLY and any RESOURCES you need.
Manage the Event
Surviving the unexpected emergency in a safe and efficient manner requires the company officer to quickly but systematically troubleshoot the problem, develop a survival action plan, communicate the plan to the crew and command, and then execute it as quickly as possible. The following are some suggested survival actions that company officers may consider.
Alert command that you have a problem. Even if you think you can solve the problem, don’t wait until it’s too late in the emergency to call for help. If this is a serious situation, such as a lost or trapped firefighter, you must report a mayday to command, which will immediately redefine the incident objectives to include you and your crew.
If it’s a problem that can be solved by you and your crew, or possibly with the assistance of another crew working nearby, then request “emergency traffic.” Relay to command your unit identification and personnel accountability report (PAR), your location, your problem, your actions, your crew status including available air, and what you need (give solutions, not just problems).
After communicating with command, which should be brief, take action on dealing with the problem. If you can solve the problem, then communicate that to command and exit the structure. Once you’ve exited, communicate your PAR and any further needs or information to command.
If you can’t solve the problem, report a mayday immediately! The most important factor in calling a mayday is to actually make the mayday call. You should know, before engaging in firefighting operations, when and how you will make this important decision.
Some examples of possible mayday conditions you or a member of your crew may encounter include:
- Becoming entangled or stuck with low air remaining;
- Falling through a roof;
- Being caught in a flashover;
- Falling through a floor;
- Becoming disoriented and losing connection with other firefighters and/or the hoseline;
- Your primary exit blocked by fire or a collapse and you’re unable to get to a secondary exit; or
- Your low-air alarm begins to sound and you’re not near an exit, door or window.
When encountering any of these conditions, you must immediately call a mayday and report your status to command. Keep the crew together and continue to attempt to solve the problem and/or search for an exit and get out of the building.
Help them find you. Activate your portable radio emergency distress button and your PASS device, when appropriate. Continue to monitor the radio and update command. You may have to turn your PASS devices off to talk, and then back on once you’re done. If conditions deteriorate, retreat to an area of safety.
If you and your crew are still unable to get out, then get into a horizontal position on the floor, which will maximize the audible and visual effects of the PASS device. Aim flashlight beams toward the ceiling and use tools to make tapping noises to assist rescuers in locating you.
Are You Ready?
Fighting fires today is more hazardous than ever before. Fire crews must be prepared for the unexpected. As a company officer, you will face no greater challenge than managing an unexpected incident where a crewmember’s life is on the line. Ask yourself, “Have I properly prepared myself, and my crew, for an unexpected, challenging event?”