By Carl J. Haddon
Fire department standby requests come in many shapes and sizes. However, it might surprise you to know what kind of equipment is required to do them correctly and not get caught with your bunker pants down. Most go well. But when standbys go bad, they often go really bad.
Standby requests cover high school football games, Fourth of July fireworks, 65,000-person festival concerts and rave parties, and 150,000 fans attending a NASCAR event, to name a few. These activities can be easy overtime money or a nice donation for your volunteer company or your department’s favorite charity. They can also be your worst nightmare in the blink of an eye. Are you equipped and ready?
So, do these standby requests require specific apparatus or rescue equipment? Maybe they just need an engine or a brush truck, a basic life support bag, and a couple of firefighter EMTs. Trust me when I tell you that the answer might surprise you. Events like high school football games are commonplace and usually no-brainers, and the aforementioned equipment complement is usually sufficient-for other events, not so much.
Let’s look at something a little more challenging-and this really happened. One morning, the department received the memo that the county fairgrounds will host what event promoters would eventually bill as “Pumpkin Fest.” The event will be a combination of a carnival and a concert. It will be an all-day event on a Saturday, and onsite camping will be available on Saturday night. The memo states that expected attendance is approximately 25,000 and that concert acts will be announced at a later date.
You know the layout of the fairgrounds; the evacuation plan is in place and tested. You know the capacity of the fairgrounds is more than 50,000, so all should be golden, right? How bad can a Pumpkin Fest be?
Load-in was all according to code, and the fire marshal was satisfied. Professionals erected the huge stage and three 40-foot-tall video and spotlight towers on the grass. Event representatives asked the local fire department to provide a staffed brush engine to be on standby, just in case.
The events of that weekend would make for a good book. However, for the sake of this article, I will share just a few of the after-action report items to illustrate some of the surprises the department faced.
The fire crew reported on site as scheduled just before the gates opened at 0900 hours. They clocked out of the event at 0300 hours the next morning. The event’s attendance was 51,000 people, and the camping area was at overflow capacity. During the 18 hours, there were 447 calls for EMS with 41 ambulance transports, four air evacuations, and one gang-related fatal stabbing. Crews responded to 16 trash fires on the spectator lawn area, one vehicle fire, one high-angle rope rescue, and one confined space rescue.
The well-meaning souls at the fairground’s first-aid office were completely overwhelmed within an hour after the gates opened. Pumpkin Fest turned out to be a hard-core rock/metal event that featured a number of bands that had been previously indicted for inciting riots at other concert venues. This was not a Holly Hobby, quilt-and-craft event with a gospel concert. This event was more like a living version of Dante’s Inferno.
During an opening act, one of the video operators suffered a significant cardiac event on one of the 40-foot-tall towers, requiring rope rescue. One of the roadies became trapped between the stage loading dock and the lift gate of one of the band’s big rigs when the lift gate on the truck failed, requiring some confined space entrapment work. All local hospitals’ emergency departments were inundated, and many remained “closed to trauma” because of saturation for much of the day and most of the night. Ambulances were scarce, and many had to be brought in from neighboring areas.
Concertgoers started fires on the lawn area at the behest of one of the band members on stage. He suggested that the crowd gather all of the paper trash and create makeshift bonfires that they, the crowd, could dance around. The crowd obliged with great enthusiasm. Each of these fires grew to be quite impressive. Important to note is this was not the kind of crowd that was going to let an engine and crew onto the lawn to put out the fires that they worked very hard to start. Concertgoers lit their concert T-shirts on fire and waved the burning shirts over their heads like some sort of medieval signal torches. And yes, these burning shirts significantly contributed to the number of serious burn victims who required air transport to the local burn center.
Traffic was a snarled mess, delaying additional resources. Once on site, crews had to offload necessary equipment to smaller trucks because the large fire apparatus could not maneuver through the crowds and the confines of the venue.
Getting fire apparatus to where the fires were burning on the lawn area was not an option even though there were adequate vehicular access points and hydrants around the perimeter. The only safe and viable means of fire control was with 2½-gallon portable pressurized water extinguishers. The “can crews” required law enforcement escorts to the fires and back to their apparatus. Even if event officials could muster the necessary law enforcement in time, shutting the event down would have surely caused a massive riot and only made matters worse for everyone. Believe it or not, the crowd wasn’t overtly violent. Everyone except the emergency personnel seemed to be having a great time behaving questionably. Food and beer vendors did quite well, and no one reported criminal activity other than their filled cardboard trash cans being stolen and used for bonfire fuel.
Understand that this was an extreme case of things going bad in what seemed like a heartbeat. The fact is that bad things happen to good fire departments. If put into this situation or a similar situation, does your department have the equipment, trained personnel, and depth to handle an event gone wrong like this? Would you have the access to a cache of disposable or consumable prehospital medical supplies to treat more than 400 patients in a single shift? How deep do your mutual-aid roots go? Who would have thought of the need for technical rescue personnel and equipment at a concert? Does your department even routinely use commonplace equipment such as pressurized water extinguishers? If so, how many? Many departments don’t use them at all. Many believe that the pressurized water cans saved that night from becoming a whole lot worse.
Unfortunately in the past few years, we have seen a number of temporary concert venues just like this one devastated by wind, lightning, and structural collapse. As I look back on the events of that day and night-I was part of the initial engine crew-it is mind-numbing to think of the outside resources, mutual-aid response, additional personnel, hospital staffing, apparatus, equipment, and supplies that it took to make it through that event. No preplan meetings, incident action plans, or planning meetings could have foreseen or forecasted the events that occurred during that standby. Remember, it was billed as Pumpkin Fest, and our one brush engine was hired to be there on standby “just in case.”
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.