After a devastating fire that cost nine lives, sweeping changes are made to improve incident communications.
I became chief of the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department 16 months after the Sofa Super Store fire that claimed the lives of nine CFD members. Like most members of the fire service, I was focused on any information coming from the incident so I could ensure that my own department learned all that it could from the tragedy.
This incident spawned numerous studies and the CFD was committed to learning from each study. There were literally hundreds of recommendations for change and many were well-thought and implementable.
The mayor and city government were committed to providing the significant resources required to move the organization forward. Also, CFD was successful in obtaining funding resources through a SAFER grant and a FIRE grant.
It was clear that the CFD members wanted the move forward. But while they didn't want to dwell on the past, they also didn't want to forget it either. Given all that happened on June 18, 2007, the organization is committed to ensuring that a positive is realized. The events have provided a mechanism to get to the future through change and we're committed to taking advantage of that opportunity.
This article focuses on the changes the CFD has made since the fire specific to communications, as it relates to command and operations. It should be noted that this is a work in progress. Change doesn't occur in a vacuum; rather, changes in one area often necessitate changes in other areas. The CFD continues to develop a new culture. Change, especially significant change, requires tremendous work to accomplish. A balanced leadership effort has been required to ensure that we provide meaningful opportunities to embrace the change. A critical component of implementing change is encouraging input and feedback from all stakeholders. Another challenge to implementing change is the tenure of the firefighter. To date, one third of the department has been hired since the fire. We anticipate hiring about 80 additional personnel this year. The balance between old and new firefighters creates varying needs and support requirements.
Creating the SOP
While the organization is still in the process of implementing change resulting from the variety of studies, we established a specific priority on operations. The obvious first priority was creation of a safe structural firefighting SOP, which provides the focus for our primary and highest-risk operations. The SOP also gives us the doctrine we needed to maximize our response capacity through automatic mutual aid. By presenting a well-developed SOP to the regional jurisdictions, we are able to compound the response and deployment capacity of the CFD as well as that of surrounding organizations.
A committee was formed to develop the SOP that consisted of personnel from every rank and function, which ensured representative diversity and duty assignment. The committee had broad freedom to research accepted practice in like organizations across the country in order to establish the best SOP, and to ensure compliance with NFPA 1710, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments.
The SOP covers all aspects of structural fire fighting. Consideration was given to accepted practices and national standards, such as NIMS, unit typing and plain-talk communications. This committee worked for six months and then presented its recommendations to the fire chief. It not only was important to assign the project of developing an SOP, but also to instill a sense of ownership among the committee members in the final product. To accomplish this, the committee was involved in developing the training curriculum, reacting to SOP-related feedback and evaluating the effectiveness of the initial training.
After the draft SOP was presented to the CFD and the feedback was considered, it was presented to the other regional departments for input and reaction. Battalion-based training was developed, which allows the battalion chief in each specific response area to teach the SOP to the personnel with whom they would be responding. To ensure continuity, the training staff provided oversight and support for each session. The training included a classroom presentation and actual response scenarios in the target community. This is not "check-the-box" training. Each company attends five sessions to cover each of the variations of the SOP — single family, multiple family, high rise, commercial and rural water supply.
Training for command-response personnel was, and is, accomplished through scenario-based exercises. On a regular basis, training personnel develop scenarios based on the risk assessment of the area — or of specific incidents that have occurred — using digital-combustion software to simulate command-response activities. This "command competency" exercise uses the battalion command vehicle pulled into a fire station bay with a simulation projected in front of the vehicle. Personnel use radios, command sheets, maps and other resources that would be used during an actual response. These exercises are powerful opportunities to put the IC under realistic stress without the risks and consequences.
This opportunity was critical for us because this is a new approach to command for the region. Scenario communications are accomplished through available dispatchers and the assigned response unit, using normal communication procedures. This exercise ensured that experience is obtained by dispatchers and unit personnel, thus giving all responders an opportunity for consistency in communication. This powerful tool is being rolled into our promotion process starting this year.
We've been able to bring together four regional department's response activities. Previously, these departments operated on separate radio systems with varying degrees of interoperability. In the most extreme cases, two departments could be dispatched and respond independently to the same structure fire and establish separate incident command on the same incident, without integrated communications. In fact, in many cases the two departments initially didn't know the other was responding.
The new SOP integrates all available regional resources and ensures continuity in response, command and communications. Units now respond on the same talk groups and the response is based on closest geographic location, as opposed to department affiliation.
Unit-level communications issues, such as the initial on-scene report (IOSR), were standardized to ensure consistency. We are trying to establish a rhythm in communications so that each call sounds the same and the responders know what to expect. Whether you are at the command post, responding to the incident or listening from home, this report paints a consistent picture and establishes a strong command presence, so that everyone knows the expectations of command and, ideally, the conditions they are facing.
In addition to the IOSR, unit communications from interior officers to the IC have been standardized. Reports now consistently indicate the conditions, actions and needs related to the current environment in which the unit officer is operating. These situational reports ensure consistency of the information that is provided to the IC for making command decisions standard, thorough and clear.
A Mixed Bag
A good example of how emotion can impact operations is the implementation of "command from the vehicle." While this concept is common and successful across the country, we met significant resistance to its implementation. While the majority of chiefs were open to the idea, a few had such a preconceived notion of failure that it became a self-fulfilling prophesy. It's interesting to note that as chiefs gained experience, they became comfortable with the vehicles as their command offices. And, as a result of implementing command the same way each time, we have gained consistency in our response.
The physical location of command is defined in the SOP as a stationary command post — normally described as "command from the vehicle" — that can be isolated from the environment, including noise, response personnel, media and other members of the community. The vehicle provides seating for a command team of up to four personnel. Isolation achieved through locking doors and windows, as well as the control of inputs through windows, provides a controlled communications environment that lets command personnel concentrate on specific tasks in order of priority. This ensures that extraneous conversation is filtered but not lost. Moving command from the street to the car also improved command's ability to hear radio traffic from the interior division and to use the more powerful mobile radio, in addition to repeater systems, mobile data computers and other technology as appropriate.
We also increased the number of portable radios assigned to each unit from one to five; this is consistent with our increased staffing, as five personnel are assigned to most units.
With the purchase of new SCBAs, each position provides a voice transmitter to ensure that communications from interior crews can be understood. The addition of a "Pak-Tracker" system integrated into our air packs lets commanders track the status of each crew member, including the firefighter's available air supply.
Communications, especially during the critical initial-arrival moments of an incident, are difficult at best. Given the state of our current radio system, critical messages aren't always heard. In battalion-based training, we emphasize discipline in using the radio and still are challenged in achieving critical communication and ensuring that action-impacting messages are received. This challenge has become even more complex with the addition of portable radios carried by each crew member. Radio discipline is emphasized, but still is a challenge.
With the implementation of the new SOP, we have established a fifth engine that supports the incident-command function. The crew's responsibility is to ensure that we are able to do all that we say we are going to do. The officer of this engine reports to command and takes responsibility for accountability. While we use generally accepted everyday procedures, we have work to do to be efficient at this critical communication moment. We have the same issues with personnel accountability report — we're not very efficient and completing it effectively is time-consuming. Certainly we gain efficiency using division and group supervisors in the PAR process, but we're not yet consistent in creating the reports. To improve accountability, unit officers should report when, where, why and the quantity of crew members entered an IDLH environment.
We also struggle with this inefficiency during a mayday event. It is very difficult to be time-sensitive and accurate during these critical communications efforts when every second may be a matter of life and death. Certainly we learned from the Sofa Super Store fire that the most critical time is the time it takes to become aware that a mayday situation exists. The earlier we become aware of an issue, the greater our chances for resolving it favorably. We should practice preventing the mayday event as enthusiastically as we practice responding to it. If we prevent firefighters from getting into trouble, the efficiency of a mayday response is less of an issue. Of course, we have to recognize that even when given the best training and conditioning, responders still may have issues, so we need to improve our mayday response.
Getting Better Every Day
The CFD continues to implement initiatives that will improve response. We're making progress and, most importantly, the region has developed good relationships that include communication at every level. The chiefs meet regularly, the operations chiefs meet regularly and the battalion chiefs who respond together meet and train together regularly.
Our response has gone from disorganized to unified. The level of commitment is inspired and the effort continues to invoke interest within the CFD as well as regionally. Just listening to incident communications you can hear the improvements. Incident communications have become predictable.
Thomas Carr is chief of the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department. He previously served as chief in Montgomery, Md. Carr has more than 30 years experience in the fire service. He has a master's degree from the University of Maryland and was a fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.