Situational Awareness

This past weekend was my Duty Chief weekend and typical for me it was busy.  One thing that made this weekend different from most is that our fire district was working multiple calls at the same time and a few of them were major incidents.  By major incidents I mean that they required multiple station’s to respond and stretched resources pretty thin.

During the weekend there were two events in particular that I found myself struggling to know just how large an incident I had.  You  hear people talk about Situational Awareness and this was highlighted to me this weekend.

On the first day of my weekend, we started with a residential structure fire on the east side of our district.  Upon arrival, the house was at least 50% involved and we began our standard deployment and operations.  Crews arrived and given assignments, accountability was run, water supply established,etc.  Pretty straight forward.  About 30 minutes into that incident, we were dispatched to a second incident which was a Major Natural Cover Fire (Brush Fire).  I cleared the first scene and responded to the second.  Part of my challenge to the second event is due to staffing, I responded to the structure fire in an engine and was now responding to the second also in the engine.  This means that I wasn’t in my staff car with my incident command tools at my disposal.

Western Taney Firefighters work to contain a 70 acres grass fire near the Arkansas State Line

Western Taney Firefighters work to contain a 70 acres grass fire near the Arkansas State Line

As I turned south toward the incident I could see the large smoke plume and realized this would be a major incident.  As I arrived on scene, I had a large grass fire in a hay field moving very quickly due to high temperatures, low humidity, and windy conditions.  Initially, we established flanking operations with water since we were in a field to try and contain the fire.

The fire quickly consumed 10 acres, then 20 acres, then 30 acres within the first hour.  We lost two old barns and the fire moved into the woods which changed the way we were extinguishing the fire.  Initially I was forced to command from the front seat of the engine as I pumped and rolled along the fire line.  Wasn’t hard to do initially with only myself in one engine and a Battalion Chief and firefighter in a brush truck on the other flank.  Soon we had multiple teams working and I was finally able to transition out of apparatus into a command post to manage the incident instead of the incident managing me.  The challenge was knowing the size of the incident. I couldn’t see all of my scene and struggled at times to know the size and scope of fire involvement.  Did I have sufficient apparatus and manpower?  I had to rely on others to report status to me so I finally could see the big picture.  Once I had the big picture, management was streamlined and the incident was successfully brought to a conclusion.

The second incident of the weekend happened two days later which began as a simple

Firefighters work multiple grass fires along US Hwy 65 North of Branson

Firefighters work multiple grass fires along US Hwy 65 North of Branson

grass fire along a divided highway.  Upon arrival there was a fast moving grass fire along the shoulder of the road contained between the highway and the outer road.  While it was moving fast, it’s spread was contained between the two roadways and not a major issue.  Just have initial apparatus arrive, flank the fire with water and everyone goes quickly.   However, as soon as I arrived and began deploying resources, I received reports of additional fires north of my location including a vehicle fully involved.

As I continued northbound, I found several other fast moving fires getting large very quickly and a large black plume that was the van fire.

Again, I worked quickly to assign resources to the multiple fire locations and requested additional resources to cover the need.  However there was a significant amount of time where I struggled to identify the exact scope of the incident including exactly how many fire locations were there and if I had sufficient resources to manage the incident successfully.

There were three important take away’s for me from this weekend that I thought it would be important to share:

1.  Just because things are happening quickly, don’t forget the important stuff!  SAFETY!   Protect your people by keeping accountability under control, have good leaders in important positions and give the groups what they need.  I think the tendency for many is to just let the incident run as it will until such a time as things slow down and then you can pick up the pieces and manage the incident the way it should be.  It is during these “wild times” that firefighter safety issues are at their greatest and those working the incident are counting on you to keep the incident managed and safe.  DON’T LET THEM DOWN!

2.  Don’t assume anything!  While I never assumed that I knew the size of the incident until I was able to confirm facts myself, it would have been very easy to just think I had everything under control and allow the incident to dictate my decisions.  Instead, I chose to continue to work to confirm the exact magnitude of each incident and identified resource needs early and called often.  This made sure I had correctly adapted my strategy to the conditions and utilized my resources efficiently.  It took me some time before I knew for sure the exact size and scope of each incident and I didn’t ever stop adjusting until each incident was under control and extinguished.  

3.  Be flexible!  Everyone has SOG’s that are the playbook of how you are to manage certain types of incidents.  SOG’s by their very definition are a guide to help you make decisions about how to work through a situation.  However, these were both very dynamic incidents that expanded quickly.  Being able to identify the resource requirements quickly based on real data was imperative to bringing the incident to a successful conclusion.  When the the strategies that you put in place are not working….CHANGE WHAT YOU ARE DOING.  Adapt, Identify a new way.

I always enjoy a good challenge and it had been a while since I worked an incident of this magnitude.  Having two in the same weekend was enough to add a few grey to my stock on my head I have already earned but I look at them as stripes of service any more.

The moral of the story is everything worked out in the end.  Not because of luck, not because of the planets being in alignment, but because we had great people and equipment, in the right place at the right time, and we adapted to the conditions that presented challenges to us to bring everything to a successful end.

It’s not luck, It’s management.  It’s big picture firefighting with situational awareness.

It is my hope that one of these days, maybe I can get a UAV and a crystal ball.  That way I can see everything around me and look into the future all at the same time.

Stay Safe,



Volunteer Training

Recently, I have been reading several posts and editorials about volunteer training. Many of these authors acknowledge that today’s fire service in the United States is made up of 70% or more volunteer fire fighters. The percentages are a little more or a little less depending upon which statistic you read.

But many of these volunteers today are receiving little or no training according to the same statistics. I am amazed by this and it bears asking the question…..WHY?

Training is one of those fundamental requirements of being a firefighter. Just like fire hose, nozzles, ladders, and water and PPE/SCBA. If you want the fires to go out, you have to have people, properly trained, to carry out the tasks necessary to get the job done.

As I read some of these articles, they cite reasons such as a lack of free time, no one qualified to provide the training, a lack of funds, and on and on and on.

GARBAGE! ALL OF IT. That is simply not a good excuse!

In today’s fire service, there are so many no cost or low cost training options out there that any of the reasons to try and rationalize why firefighter training isn’t happening simply doesn’t hold water.

There are books, youtube, facebook. blogs, and websites galore which provide training suggestions on how to train firefighters.

NFPA Standards outline how a training program should be developed and what kinds of training should be offered at what kinds of intervals.

I could go on and on and on. The bottom line is that there is simply no excuse why training cannot be done.

REMEMBER, TRAINING KEEPS FIREFIGHTERS SAFE. PERIOD. Take personal responsibility for your personal safety and the safety of your brothers and sisters. No one will make you do it. No one will likely punish you for not keeping your skills sharp. But there is a cost…

Not returning home at the end of a shift…

Not being there when your brother or sister needed you most…

Letting the public you are sworn to serve down when they needed you most. Trust me when I say that the public will remember. The next time you need new PPE, apparatus, tool, hose, whatever you may need… They will remember.

So while some say training is too much of a burden on firefighters today, maybe so. But I think an even more important question is can we afford not to train? I don’t think so.