Wildland fires within the wildland urban interface (WUI) are major events that require special training, equipment, and strategies. Many urban and suburban firefighters have no chance of ever responding to these calls.
But, many will go to much smaller grass and brush fires, especially in mid to late summer when rainfall is less frequent. These calls are not especially complex, but complacency can set in and create challenges. It pays to prepare by reviewing basic concepts.
In many firefighters’ response districts, there are few large areas of grass or brush. As a result, departments give little attention to these incidents as they are perceived as more of a nuisance than a threat. In most cases, they are correct. With all the responsibilities that are part of a well-run department, there often is not time to do everything, so there is a prioritization of incidents. But, all organizations should at least briefly review their operations on these calls so that complacency does not set in.
For the most part there are two threats to firefighters when operating on WUI incidents: health-related and roadway-operation-related. You could add a risk to injury in that responders are operating on uneven surfaces and are subject to sprains and strains.
Awareness is important when minimizing risks to firefighters. There always needs to be a sense that something could go wrong in any aspect of this profession. When someone lets his guard down, there is the added potential for a mishap or worse. We must not overlook the simple things.
Working on the roadway or nearby is a very risky venture for firefighters. Included in the different types of grass fires experienced by departments are small fires along interstate or limited access highways. They look innocent enough and, for the most part, the fire extinguishment aspect is. The fires are easily extinguished – and the grass comes back greener. It is the threat from traffic that must be considered. A firefighter in South Carolina was killed while operating on such an incident when a vehicle went through the site and hit the firefighter. You can get more information on this from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report. It is a stark reminder that the risks exist, and you cannot ease up even when the fire operation is so simple.
Health, wellness, and fitness are also factors. Working on brush or grass fires can be hard work depending on the location and what is burning. It may take some effort to get to the fire, especially if a suburban or urban department does not have the off-road capabilities that others may have. This extra work can add stress to the cardiac system. Further adding to this is the fact that many of these events occur during weather extremes – i.e., heat and humidity. And, structural firefighting protective clothing is sometimes the only option for operations. Organizations should be cognizant of the potential for health-related problems and either establish an on-scene rehab (if the incident lasts very long) or closely monitor personnel when they return to the station. This will mean adequately hydrating and monitoring vital signs at the least. Officers and supervisors should be in the habit of making sure that the personnel are evaluated properly and monitored as needed. Again, there are NIOSH reports of firefighters suffering from stress events on calls that are not of the magnitude of the major wildland fires.
Fire Apparatus and Equipment
Fire trucks have become the catch-all for equipment for all types of incidents. Some carry advanced life support equipment, special rescue tools, and the usual assortment of firefighting “stuff.” This can limit the space in compartments and other locations on the vehicle. Many departments limit grass and brush equipment until the threat is more imminent. This can occasionally lead to situations where a call comes in and the vehicle doesn’t have some of the basic equipment. This needs to be monitored so firefighters have the tools they need when they need them. If space is limited, then the tools must be easily accessible in the station. The good news here is that most of these calls are not time-critical, and crews can take extra time to gather the needed tools.
Water is still the best and cheapest option for these incidents. “Way back in the olden days,” departments had booster lines. I don’t mean to imply that there are not vehicles with these attack lines. But, many do not have them because departments need to create space, and crews deploy larger lines. Of course, the booster lines were good to use on grass and brush fires as large flows are typically not needed, and they are easily deployed, cleaned, and repacked. In lieu of these lines, departments should look for ways to quickly deploy and restore hoses. Trash lines and preconnects can serve the purpose. Assessing potential incidents can help determine the best option. For example, if the most likely event is a fire along the roadside, a short length should suffice. Stretching long lines that can push firefighters into a roadway can be unnecessarily risky.
Mutual aid can also be an asset. Some departments are much better prepared for grass and brush fires in that they have more experience and activity. It is sometimes difficult to budget for the “if/come” for rare incidents, especially those that generally don’t cause much of a financial loss or present much of a risk. Yet like so much of what a department does, there is an expectation on the part of the policy makers and citizens that we be prepared. I know this isn’t much of a priority for many, but preparation is always a good idea.
As any regular reader of mine knows, I rarely can write about anything without mentioning the importance of training. I know this is not a complex issue and in a lot of places not a big deal or concern. Still, it warrants a mention from time to time. This does not have to be a long-duration training session but more likely a quick review at the start of a shift or beginning of another training session. Everyone should know the basics and the resources available. As mentioned above, even these perceived simple incidents can have negative consequences.
Fire departments in today’s world are busier than ever. They are expected to respond to a greater variety of incidents that require more training. The increased volume generated by emergency medical service calls is just one example. The result of this is a need to better prioritize activities and make sure all the bases are covered.
It is easy to overlook calls that appear benign and focus on more frequent, risky, or complex incidents. It is hard to argue against this. But, it is prudent to at least briefly review all types of responses to make sure you are properly prepared and don’t get complacent. There are a few cases that should remind us that there is no such thing as a risk-free response.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.