It seems that the only types of fire incidents that are increasing are those involving wildland areas and the urban interface.
Certainly, those who regularly and routinely respond to those calls have received training and have a level of preparation that is more than the typical structural firefighter has. But, it appears that as the threats continue and more areas are subject to these types of fires, more structural firefighters will be asked to pitch in and offer assistance. There needs to be a basic awareness of circumstances and threats that can affect safety and operations. One would hope that there will be highly qualified incident commanders or incident management teams in charge, but they cannot control every individual operating on the scene. There needs to be a personal accountability.
In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I am far from an expert on wildland fires. The largest fire of this type that I can remember was about 200 acres, and it was very early in my career. Since then, our community has built up, and I don’t think there are that many acres in one place anymore! But, I do believe that individuals and organizations need to continually assess the risks present in their communities and nearby. This is a hazard assessment and identifies events that have a chance to occur. It is really preincident planning and making sure that you have the minimum skills to abate an emergency without unduly endangering personnel. As such, there are many areas of this country that are subject to wildland fires that probably never thought this could happen.
One aspect of wildland response that presents a risk is traveling to and from an emergency deployment. It seems like every year there are significant crashes that injure and kill firefighters responding to or returning from wildland fires. They can be on various types of apparatus from tankers (tenders) to engines to brush vehicles. Some of the hazards are related to off-road operations, while others can be traced to poor visibility because of heavy smoke conditions. Another consideration can be winding roads where the responders lack familiarity. Suffice to say, if response to these incidents is not a normal activity, refresher training and constant reminders are definitely in order.
Training and Mentoring
Survival skills should be the top priority for those with the least amount of experience. Those expected to respond should review prior incidents to identify expected risks when operating in this arena. They should also have some of the basic equipment assigned to individuals including fire shelters. These devices greatly reduce the chances of injuries and death. Finding areas of refuge in stressful situations should be discussed and practiced if possible (through simulation).
An area to consider for refuge would be a vehicle. It can be used as a shield or in some cases a place to get to if time and conditions warrant. There also should be some basic understanding of fire spread. This would include the slope of the terrain, weather conditions, and fuel makeup. Firefighters trained and prepared for primarily structural firefighting are taught skills for what to do should something go wrong. The same logic should apply if wildland fires are a possibility.
There are some other basics to consider regarding safety. Reviewing training manuals and other materials can provide just enough information to keep an inexperienced firefighter from making a careless mistake. Remember, regardless of the type of emergency, firefighters get injured through complacency, lack of competence, or not taking the incident seriously enough. When responding to unfamiliar events, firefighters are at a disadvantage. They need to take their time and have a margin of safety. I realize the need to protect property and confine the fire, but the risk taking in these cases should be minimal unless a savable human life is in peril.
Assigning novice crews to more experienced responders should be the top priority. In essence, the responders become labor to assist in the effort. They take direction and stay within their capabilities. Disciplined behavior is critical. This is no time for freelancing or having a discussion about an evacuation order. There needs to be a basic understanding of the organizational command structure and the rules of engagement. Firefighters with no or minimal experience need to realize they are at a great disadvantage and must rely on those who have a much better idea of what needs to be done within the incident action plan. There is no reference point on which to call, so the “hard drive” is probably blank!
Rehab and rest are extremely important. Not all responders may have the protective clothing specifically designed for wildland operations. They may be in a position where their only option is to use their structural gear. This can place a big strain on personnel in warm or hot environments. There needs to be common sense when approaching this, and there must be limits on working too long while wearing standard personal protective equipment. The rehab service must be done early and in accordance with acceptable practices. Obviously, this includes proper hydration, but nutrition, cooling, and rest are also components of a good rehab plan. Personnel must follow policies and not become too “macho” in their approach. This is no time to test your physical limits. Listen to your body and to those around you. Large wildland fires have long work periods, and the ability to pace oneself is critical to minimizing the chances of an unfortunate event.
As I mentioned above, wildland firefighting is not my forte. But, this does not mean that there are not some common-sense questions that need to be asked for an organization to be prepared as best as it can. The urban wildland interface zone is growing every year. This places more homes in danger and will require more resources to respond to attempt to control the fire and minimize damages. The situation is no longer restricted to the Western states. More areas of this country are experiencing major fires that they have not previously seen. More resources are needed, and more firefighters must accept the fact that they may be asked to respond and help. Even those who never thought of involvement in wildland fires need to have a basic knowledge “just in case.”
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.