Shouldn’t you be building intelligence? - Pre-emergency planning for fire & rescue

CarolinaFireJournal - By Greg Jakubowski
By Greg Jakubowski
07/05/2011 -
Almost every community currently has buildings that firefighters and fire officers drive by and ask themselves, “I hope we never have a fire in that place.” If you haven’t thought about it, you might want to look around a little harder — as there are plenty of buildings out there that are potential death traps for firefighters. Even newly constructed buildings can present any number of challenges to those charged with handling emergencies in them. image

Relatively small buildings with relatively complex issues, such as outpatient medical centers, are being constructed even in small jurisdictions. These can have equipment valued at millions of dollars, and have patients that are non-ambulatory and even sedated at times, which can create challenges for emergency responders.

Research facilities or exotic pet stores where animals are housed present a different set of challenges, as do buildings with unusual security arrangements. Significant quantities of flammable or combustible liquids can be found in many locations, and we recently found that the barn buildings at our local Grange Fair are being used from November to April to store large RVs, boats, jet skis, antique vehicles, and other vehicles — with heavy fuel loads and high values we weren’t necessarily expecting.

Highway intersections and rail yards present their own peculiar challenges, and pre-incident information can greatly ease the stress an incident at these locations can generate. Gathering pre-incident information while a facility is being constructed, and on an ongoing basis, as well as sharing it with those who will need to know it in the future is a time-proven best practice. In many cases, however, this effort has been completed simply by memory and the passing of stories at the firehouse. In today’s world, there are new tools to help us with this.

Quality pre-emergency information about the area, and the facilities involved in the emergency provides a key piece to strong management of an incident. After a significant event occurs is not a good time to start trying to gather key information about the facility to assist in managing the incident. Where do you stand with pre-incident information about the facilities in your jurisdiction, and in those nearby jurisdictions you are likely to respond to? If you have pre-incident information, is it current? Is it accessible to all of your personnel who need it in an incident? Is it kept in a binder securely located inside the facility — which you may or may not be able to access during a disaster — or in a file in an administrative office somewhere. Or, is it readily accessible to the incident commander and other incident personnel in the field?

Complex facilities can develop a life of their own during a disaster, and the larger and more complex they are, the more likely this is to happen. It is best for the facility and the community if this situation doesn’t occur, and while “automatic” shutdowns and other safety features that may be built into a facility are good, they often require some form of human intervention. How these shutdowns and safety features work is critical for emergency response officers to understand and be able to properly use if needed during an incident. While we don’t advocate emergency responders trying to operate a facility, they need to know what they can and can’t do during an incident, and much of this can be planned out and documented before the incident occurs.

Photos by Greg Jakubowski

What looks to be a simple office building is an outpatient cancer center with expensive equipment and special construction.

How the facility is constructed may play a vital role in managing an emergency in the building or facility. But this information can only best be utilized when it is accessible to responders and incident managers in a time of crisis.

The photo in this article of a simple office building that was built in a small community. However, if we have done a good job of planning this same building during construction, we find that it isn’t what it looks like at first glance — it is an outpatient cancer center with some sophisticated multi-million dollar medical equipment in this section of the building. This equipment uses gamma rays to treat patients, and thus has concrete radiation containment walls built around this section of the building:

Had pre-incident planning not been done during construction, and then documented in a software program that makes this information available to firefighters/police/EMS, responders arriving at an emergency here might be quite surprised to find four feet of solid concrete behind the “windows” of this building and be challenged by the 8000 pound doors to these rooms. But, since effective pre-emergency information gathering was completed, accurate data about the facility is available to responders that would be on the scene, and area commanders that may be miles away.

Preplan information is not only valuable for firefighters, but also for police/security forces which may need to deal with an active shooter or a hostage situation in a building such as this, or to find a place to shelter in case of severe weather or civil violence/disturbance. EMS personnel can benefit by preplan information as well, from something as simple to identifying which elevators in a building will fit a cot, to pre-designated triage locations and helicopter landing zones.

Fire and EMS personnel can coordinate positioning for a facility that has the potential for mass casualties by identifying which water supplies, if used, could block ambulance access to the incident scene, and which ones might be better used to facilitate rapid transport of victims off of the incident site. Predefining this will avoid confusion when an incident actually occurs.

In today’s world, we are seeing more and more use of security and traffic cameras. Many of these resources can be controlled by logging in through the Web. Web-based preplanning programs can allow the integration of MSDS databases, security and traffic cameras, and other similar resources into the pre-incident information cache for responders, commanders, and planning officers.

As a matter-of-fact, do your firefighters use Facebook or other social media sites? Do they use it too much? Some preplanning programs are simple to use as these social media sites, and if you can divert at least some of your firefighters’ attention to the preplanning program, you might find you quickly build a database on the facilities in your coverage area. Sooner than you think, this building intelligence will be available right in a heads-up display in your firefighters’ masks.

I receive all sorts of emergency data at my fire department. This includes SARA information from facilities, dam emergency plans, and a variety of other information. We also discover information about facilities while responding to alarms or EMS incidents at them. With a web-based preplanning program, I can quickly and easily enter the new or updated information, immediately placing it at the fingertips of those who need it at a future incident. Preparing your response teams with a strong, well-exercised incident command system and first-class pre-incident information will give you a strong basis for achieving success in some of even the worst conditions.

Greg Jakubowski is a fire protection engineer and certified safety professional with 33 years of fire-service experience. He is a Pennsylvania State Fire Instructor, teaches for the National Fire Academy, and serves as chief of the Lingohocken Fire Company in Bucks County, Pa. Greg is also a principal in Fire Planning Associates, a company dedicated to helping fire departments, municipalities and businesses with pre-emergency training.
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