Do sweat the small stuff: 3 common problems that can escalate into danger on the fireground
Solving challenges at every step makes a big impact on the safety of people and property
Sponsored by IDEX Fire & Safety
By Laura Neitzel, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff
Firefighting is a dangerous occupation made even worse by factors firefighters can’t control, like rapidly changing smoke and fire conditions. Then there are factors that should be controllable, but aren’t always – like aging infrastructure, miscommunication, faulty equipment, lack of critical information about dangerous materials stored on scene and, inevitably, human error.
Any extra or inefficient step that costs seconds of time can mean you don’t have those spare seconds that can prove critical in a life-or-death situation.
This was recently evident at a warehouse fire in Los Angeles that injured 11 firefighters and left an apparatus charred. Firefighters were following standard procedures to extinguish a blaze when they heard pressure building. They had just started evacuating when a fireball exploded.
“We had firefighters driven off the roof, frantically scurrying down the aerial ladder to safety through a blowtorch,” Los Angeles Fire Department spokesperson Capt. Erik Scott told The Washington Post. Having those few extra seconds helped the crew escape with injuries but no deaths.
David Durstine, a firefighter and vice president, strategic and government sales at IDEX Fire & Safety, remembers a less dramatic but potentially lethal incident involving what seemed to be a standard house fire – until a window failed. The rush of wind and fire dramatically changed the conditions in a matter of seconds.
“All our pre-planning and everything leading up to it beforehand would have said, ‘This is just a regular room-with-contents fire. We're going to walk in there, we're going to go in with one line and knock this thing out pretty quick,’" said Durstine, “but before we knew it, it was running over our heads and being pushed on us because that window decided to fail. ”
The biggest problem on the fireground, according to Jason Cerrano, a former firefighter and strategic account manager at IDEX Fire & Safety, is rapidly changing fire conditions.
“We usually don't go into a bad situation and get hurt,” he said. “We usually go into a good situation that turned bad, and then we get hurt.”
So, how can you control for the uncontrollable?
You can buy time by avoiding controllable mistakes – time you might need if the fire gets worse.
“Any time you make a small mistake, you lose a few seconds because you're making up for that small mistake,” said Cerrano.
Cerrano likens the timeline of fighting a fire to an hourglass. Once the sand starts trickling from the top to the bottom, you start losing time and the stress starts mounting. If you look at the top half of the hourglass as the water, you want to make as much progress as possible before it runs out.
Technologies and processes that add efficiency can metaphorically add sand to the top of the hourglass.
“If it saves you 30 seconds here and another 20 seconds there and 40 seconds here, it’s keeping the hourglass full for you,” said Cerrano.
Here are some of the most common avoidable problems that waste precious time and can turn into nightmare scenarios if not stopped at the source.
Problem 1: Improper apparatus placement
A number of decisions have to be made when approaching a fire. A key decision is where to position the apparatus, especially if you don’t know where the seat of the fire is, or if it’s not where you thought it was.
“One of the first mistakes we make is improper apparatus placement. That's probably going to cause me a problem with my hose connections or my secondary water source, or my hoses don't reach,” said Cerrano. “Positioning the apparatus improperly can make it harder for your second due crews to get in or can lead to you deploying the hose improperly, requiring an extra person to spend time flaking hose out. You just lost a few more seconds.”
Durstine, who serves in a rural fire department, says a mispositioned truck might mean that crews can’t get portable tanks positioned properly for water supply.
“The apparatus placement becomes absolutely critical so that I as a pump operator can maintain proper and adequate water flow,” said Durstine. “If you park it wrong, that's when that chaos starts and the problems keep compounding. The added stress from making a mistake can lead to more mistakes.”
Meanwhile, as the sand falls through the hourglass, that fire is getting bigger as problem #1 morphs into problem #2.
While no tool can help avoid the problem of improper apparatus placement, a water control system that allows control from a wireless tablet ensures that the pump operator can maintain visual contact with the crew even if the apparatus is mispositioned.
Problem 2: Problems getting water to the fire
Getting water to the fire is of the upmost importance, but often a call for water is missed for various reasons, most commonly because there is too much chatter on the radio or somebody didn't get on the right channel, says Cerrano.
He recalls a specific incident when he was working as a pump operator. “It was just a weird fire where I was on one side of the truck; the fire was on the other. Smoke was rolling out, but they weren't asking for water and I’m thinking “something is not right.’ I never did miss a call for water, but I felt like I did because I couldn't see them and couldn’t hear the crew.”
If any pump operator misses a call for water – or two, or three – due to an inability to see or hear the crew – that’s time wasted in which the fire can grow.
By automating many of the processes involved in getting water to the fire, an automated water control system like SAM can help a pump operator better focus on the crew and fireground thus reducing the chance of missing a call for water.
Problem 3: Having a good water source
Durstine says another potential problem is having adequate water sources and/or water supply.
“You've got a good hydrant and you hit a hydrant, but the hydrant isn't nearly what you thought it was and now you don't have sufficient water,” he said. “As a pump operator, that puts you into panic mode. As an incident commander, that puts you into panic mode of, ‘What do I do? Do I get the guys out? Do I continue fighting the fire? Are we going to run out of water?’"
Another concern is when a connection is made to a “hot” or over-pressurized hydrant and the pump operator misses a pressure spike. For example, if you get multiple lines and one crew closes two or three at once but you don't catch it as a pump operator, it can spike the pressure to 200 psi or more and pull the nozzle away from the other crew.
“That can put you in a very dangerous situation really quickly,” said Durstine.
A water control system like SAM can speed up pump operations by allowing pump operators to set discharge pressures quickly, maintain set pressures for each discharge and transition to a hydrant to keep water flowing smoothly and without disruption.
Putting sand back in the hourglass
Tools that make any step in the process of fighting a fire more efficient can put sand back in the hourglass, says Cerrano.
Could technology have prevented the L.A. warehouse from exploding, changing the fire conditions in an instant? Perhaps not, but having tools and technologies like the SAM system invented by Cerrano can add efficiency and take the guesswork out of critical jobs like pump operations to help reduce human errors that can cost time – and lives.
Are fire leaders ready to embrace them?
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Read next: 4 ways IDEX Fire & Safety's SAM system transforms traditional pump operations
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