The truck company officer transmitted a 10-76 — a report of a working fire in a high-rise building. Having a major electric fire located in the penthouse mechanical floor, it was necessary to shut down the power. The chief of the first battalion ordered the building’s power to be shut down to allow operations on the fire floor. After the order was received, I then immediately notified my officer about the co-generation plant and that it would be necessary to disable the plant before the power shut down.
With my knowledge of the building having a co-generation plant, I knew that if the power were shut off, it would cause the co-generation plant to reenergize the power supply through an automatic transfer switch. This automatic transfer switch would supply the electrical riser with full power, and the mechanical room would also be reenergized.
With this knowledge we prevented any injuries that could have occurred to the firefighters on the fire floor. Having situational awareness of the building’s critical infrastructure allowed us to perform more efficiently and mitigate the risk of injury.
Pre-planning — also known as pre-incident planning or pre-fire planning — is an important and necessary aspect of our mission as firefighters. Good pre-planning affords us better situational awareness. Pre-plans do exactly that — create a plan for us. It’s that simple.
Pre-Planning from Start to Finish
Nowadays there are different types of plans ranging from paper plans to dynamic, interactive digital plans for PCs and tablets. There are lots of options and approaches, and some may be more practical or effective for certain departments than others.
No matter the method of storage and display, pre-planning always starts with a walkthrough done by the fire department that results in the identification and compilation of all the critical information for one building. Pre-plans contain the location and description of the various types of critical information for that building, including utilities, fire alarm systems, sprinkler control valves, access points, hazardous materials, type of occupancy, and type of construction, contact information of the building’s owner, and more.
Pre-Planning should start from the bottom up, with the foundation of a building. From looking at things like the critical infrastructure and construction, occupancy, and history of the building, you can gather the vital information that’ll help you develop a plan. It’s a laborious process going through a building with a fine-toothed comb, but identifying all of the critical assets pertaining to the building is fundamental to the process.
Images are an important addition to any pre-plan. Combination gas and oil fired boilers, shows main gas shut off valves in yellow.
Pre-Planning on Paper
Pre-plans are still most commonly prepared on paper and left on paper. And since most districts’ pre-planning documents are paper, they can usually be found in a pre-plan binder located in the command vehicle, engine, truck, or rescue apparatus. Most preplans reside within the fire district constraints, unavailable to neighboring districts. Some departments have a mutual aid agreement that allows a district to share their pre-plans with surrounding districts.
In worst-case scenarios where there isn’t mutual aid, there aren’t shared pre-plans, districts don’t have up-to-date pre-plans, or there are no pre-plans at all.
Try finding a specific paper pre-plan quickly, or sharing that piece of paper with a mutual aid district. It’s not impossible, but it’s not as simple as it could or should be.
That is the drawback to pre-planning on paper: the inconvenience of the medium. That isn’t to say that having no pre-plans is better than working with paper pre-plans. But all things remaining equal, if it is possible to digitize your existing pre-plans, it is in your department’s best interest to do so. You may even consider updating your pre-plans and switching to a more visual and interactive platform.
A main electrical panel with a UPS system.
More and more fire departments are taking pre-plans from the page to the screen. The greatest benefit to this approach to pre-planning is the ability to share the information among your department and with mutual aid departments. Digital pre-plans also offer a greater range and depth of information, organized intuitively and always at your fingertips.
For a truly comprehensive, dynamic digital pre-plan, you must start with the building’s floor plans. Blue prints (or as-builds) are necessary to create CAD drawings of each floor in a building. In some cases, CAD drawings are readily available, making the process more straightforward. When only paper drawings are available, they should first be converted to CAD drawings. Once we have the floor plans in CAD, those floor plans become the foundation for a digital pre-plan. Assets can be placed directly on the floor plans during walkthroughs, and many other additions can be made: video or video feeds from security cameras, photo documentation of assets, material safety data sheets and more. It’s a large task, but well worth the effort. If this seems too large an undertaking for a department to handle on its own, there are companies in this line of work that you can collaborate with, taking some of the burden off fire departments themselves.
After digital pre-plans are created, they are often stored in a database. Databases for pre-plans are ideal in that they allow departments to easily share single or multiple pre-plans electronically, can allow pre-plans to be updated more easily, and are an overall more efficient way of accessing and displaying information.
Responding and Training with Pre-Plans
Since pre-plans allow us to have a more visual awareness of the building to which we’re responding, first responders can begin strategizing their response as soon as a call comes in. Effective pre-plans provide critical information that support first responders when sizing up any incident — critical information that will help them when creating strategies and tactics for executing their job.
Having paper or digital pre-plans is just one facet of being prepared for responses. Along with pre-plans, familiarity with the building to which you are responding is critical. First responders can become familiar with a building through training exercises that can be done that incorporate pre-plans. For example, tabletop exercises with visualizations using smart board technology can provide the ability to view all critical assets, draw in the positioning of an apparatus, and allow us to be able to accurately comment and critique on how effective chosen tactics are. These plans prepare firefighters in a more efficient, in-depth way. The knowledge that can be taken from training with a pre-plan — especially a digital or visual one — can highlight not only what was done wrong on a job, but, more importantly, what was done right.
Being familiar with a building and understanding the infrastructure, critical assets, and hazards before you respond is a best-case scenario. But in my experience, I have come to base my career on responding to worst-case scenarios. Having access to pre-plans allows us to mitigate the chances of the worst-case scenario.
No Pre-Plan is too Small
The perception may be that some buildings are more important to pre-plan than others, or that the benefit of pre-planning is limited to only large infrastructure. One building is no more important than the other when it comes to pre-planning. No building is more important to plan.
As a first responder, every building pre-plan is important — from a small commercial building to a school, hospital, hotel or university. Every building that we respond to is treated with the same importance. Pre-planning is no different.
By having access to the information provided in pre-plans, our decision making as firefighters is enhanced, the risk of injury is lower, and there is a greater chance of protecting the lives and property of those in danger.
Whether pre-planning or responding, it is vital to recognize the unique characteristics of each building because they are the features that can either prevent or cause injury. On that particular day when I responded to the 10-76 high-rise fire, I was in the right place at the right time. I didn’t have access to a recorded form of information, but I had the benefit of my experience.
Without records of critical information, critical information cannot be dispatched when it is needed most. If I had not had worked in that building, I really don’t know what would have happened. When I walked out of that fire, I knew situational awareness played a part in keeping me and the other firefighters safe. Whether it comes from pre-plans, the dispatcher, or your own experience, situational awareness is something that every fire department needs to have.
Dennis Amodio is a retired firefighter with the City of New York Fire Department, assigned to Rescue Company 1 (Special Operations). Amodio has extensive experience with engine and truck work, collapse rescue and high rise operations. He worked the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center rescue operations. Amodio works to train fire departments nationally and internationally in effective firefighting and rescue techniques. Currently, he is the Safety Division Director of GEOcommand, Inc. at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, NY.