Preplanning & Incident Management Trends

Issue 9 and Volume 8.

Incidents continue to get more complex each year. Even as populations grow, new technologies are developed, and people find new ways to create emergency situations, firefighters and other responders are expected to turn chaos into order. And it can feel overwhelming. Mass shootings, chemical fires and explosions with multiple casualties and evacuations, tanker fires disrupting major transportation routes and even larger events seem to be happening more and more often, and demand effective incident management from firefighters.

Although we can’t know exactly where or when the next event will occur, many incidents are quite predictable, meaning we can—and should—prepare for them. I am proud to say that I’ve conducted many classes and tabletop situations with a wide variety of groups, and later found that the groups had responded to a similar incident, and the training we went through together better prepared them to handle the event. We focused on planning for credible scenarios, and sure enough, it paid off.

I don’t claim to have magic powers to see into the future, but I do think a lot about where we are in the fire service today and where we might go. So let’s take a look at some preplanning and incident management trends that we should consider when preparing to manage the credible incidents of today, and tomorrow.

Trend #1: Tablet Computers
Laptops are nice, but they can be bulky and lack the functionality of tablet computers. I use an iPad, and it has some excellent features and great apps, most of which were free. Tablets feature multiple means of communication, including email and instant messaging apps. The photo app, standard with the device, allows you to easily send pictures via email, Facebook or Twitter, allowing others to see what you’re seeing in the field. Real-time information can be quickly communicated to decision-makers or to the troops in the field to guide them on what to do. One great app is WISER, which can tie in your location and weather, and help determine where a chemical plume is going—right now. I also use the Iamresponding app, which allows me to track who’s on duty and who’s responding, right in the palm of my hand. And I can use it to quickly update my own availability. There is an extrication app for hybrid vehicles called Hybrid Vehicle Extrication Guide, which points out these vehicles’ unique hazards. Multiple apps allow me to track weather radar for planning purposes, and the Google Earth app shows street views of buildings and other site information. I’d like tablets to ultimately replace our MDTs and, fortunately, tablet technology is only getting better.

Trend #2: Drones
It’s called the “fog of war” for a reason, and it applies to fire/rescue operations almost as much as the battlefield. We try to glean as much information as possible about what’s going on in order to make good decisions (situational awareness), but it’s often challenging to understand the big picture of what’s occurring around us from a position on the ground. Incident commanders have used helicopters for recon, gone up on roofs and aerials, and employed other creative means to get that big picture, but we may now have a better option. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or “drones”) are being marketed to the fire service. Some were on display at FDIC this year. Much like how unmanned bomb and SWAT robots give law enforcement a closer look at dangerous situations from a remote location, UAVs can provide firefighters a better view of an incident scene—and without placing personnel at risk or having to rely on helicopters, which come with a much heftier price tag. UAVs are becoming more and more simple to use, and can provide both video and infrared imaging to the command post and other operating units. Are there concerns about privacy and “eye in the sky” issues? Certainly, and they need to be addressed through department SOPs/SOGs and effective supervision.

Trend #3: Simulation Training
The best way you can prepare to handle an incident is to have gone through the incident previously, critiqued your performance and learned from it to be even better the next time. However, in our business, there are few or no “do-overs.” If we burn a building down, it’s gone. The next best thing is to study a building, transportation location or other place where an incident may occur and run simulated incidents there. There are several groups that are making very good simulation software to help with this, including CommandSim, Digital Combustion, Action Training Systems and others. To be most effective, the software should allow you to load your own preplan information on buildings/target hazards in your own coverage area. It makes it “real” for the participants, and they will take more away if they go through the motions of managing something in their coverage area. Of course, an even better training exercise is to take the simulation to the next level and do a full-scale drill!

Trend #4: Importance of Preplanning
As we sit here and contemplate how to manage incidents in the future, entrepreneurs, engineers, architects and others are thinking about new materials to use in buildings and new ways to construct those buildings. We must continue to monitor what is going on in the building industry, and what is being built in our own community. Get out and take photos of buildings being constructed in your area—at least weekly. You become the de facto historian of the buildings in your coverage area, and those photos may pay big dividends later. I have an outpatient cancer center in my coverage area that looks like a simple office building, but behind the windows at one end are 4-foot-thick walls that protect a room with 8,000-lb. doors. Those doors lead to two more rooms that house equipment that uses gamma radiation. We were able to get photos of the building during construction, which was great because we never would have been able to get photos showing those walls again. Further, those photos are included in our Web-based preplan software that we share with mutual-aid companies and the police, who might also find that information useful. Check out my friend Chris Naum’s website, http://buildingsonfire.com, which includes a lot of useful information about building construction and other key issues that we can incorporate into our preplanning.

In Sum
Take a few moments to think about how these trends might affect you and your department, and see what you might do today to start working in that direction to be a bit ahead of the curve.


A Preplanning Success Story
Best practices for formalizing a pre-fire planning process
By Bob Galvin

Most fire departments today struggle to build pre-fire plans for just a fraction of their commercial structures. So it’s astonishing to learn that one fire department in the country not only has created preplans for all of these types of properties, but for all of its residential addresses, too. Based on his department’s success with pre-fire planning, Joe Thuransky, deputy chief/fire prevention for the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department (MLFD) in Pittsburgh, offers a specific set of guidelines that can be enacted to formalize the pre-fire planning process:
1.    The chief officers of a fire department must support pre-fire planning, and more importantly, support firefighters charged with developing pre-fire plans. Due to the nature of their jobs, firefighters on the preplanning team must be given flexibility for preplanning, but they must stick to the end goal and meet deadlines.
2.    Establish a preplanning strategy, but start small and work up to your goals. Don’t try to prepare preplans for your entire response area all at once or you will fail.
3.    Identify and use resources available from within the department. For example, find out who has an interest in photography, computers, and data entry and collection, and put these people to work with assignments. Make sure everyone involved with pre-fire planning knows how to use the software and equipment. And, have only a couple people enter data to avoid confusion and mistakes.
4.    Show off results of pre-fire planning at training sessions to show progress and the importance of this process.
5.    Give credit where it’s due for pre-fire planning. Encourage people to go the extra mile to make the overall product a huge success.
6.    Remember, pre-fire planning is a continuous process. You’re never “done” because once all buildings are pre-planned, the plans must be updated. So, plan to inspect occupancies once a year, or at least once every two years, and then immediately update their pre-fire plans. Once a preplan is created for an occupancy, it’s easy to keep updating the data. Plus, extensive preplanning looks great for accreditation should your department decide to pursue it.

Read the full story here.