When it comes to fire scene management, there’s a saying: “What you do in the first five minutes will affect the next five hours.”
The first officer on the scene will come up with a “sizeup,” a brief (about 30 seconds) summary of the scene that goes out on the radio to the firefighters who are en route.
“Just a description of the structure and whatever conditions you can see,” says Deputy Chief Chris Buttlar. “Could be something like ‘two-story house, fire showing from one window.’”
The scene commander declares the mode of operation for the fire, whether it’s offensive—actively fighting the fire—or, if the fire is already too severe to save the structure, defensive, where the goal is to prevent the fire from spreading to adjoining structures.
“Of course, sometimes you may need to adjust your initial assessment,” says Fire Chief Nick Sohyda. Although he is the most senior official, Sohyda often defers command of the incident to the first officer on scene.
“Rather than just come in and take over, I can act almost like an advisor, or a co-manager.”
Both Sohyda and Buttlar stress the value of experience when it comes to making decisions about how to allocate resources in an emergency.
“There are so many critical factors that affect how you manage a scene,” Sohyda says.
Aside from weather, time of day and location, one of the most important skills a firefighter can acquire is the ability to read smoke—the color, velocity, density and volume of smoke can tell the story of how developed the fire is. If the smoke is moving faster, it means the fire is generating more heat. White smoke usually means there is moisture in the burning material; as the fire progresses and the moisture dries, the smoke color will change. Velocity, the speed that smoke is coming out of a window, can be an indicator of the heat and size of the fire. Density and volume can give clues to what is fueling the fire.
“This is all based primarily on experience,” Sohyda says. “Which can [come from] both live fires and simulators.”
This summer, Sohyda and Buttlar travelled to Phoenix to the Blue Card Command Training Center, a nationally recognized incident command center, to learn how to train the trainers who teach firefighters how to run larger fire operations.
“The Blue Card simulations have cues that force you to a decision point,” Buttlar says.
Once they are certified to train the trainers, the Mt. Lebanon staff will be able to save money by training their colleagues here instead of sending them to around the country for training. Also, our fire department will be able to generate revenue by hosting paid training events for other fire companies.
“It not only makes our people better but it saves us money in the long run,” Sohyda says.
The Mt. Lebanon Fire Department would be the first department in the state certified to do the training. Sohyda and Buttlar will complete a 50-hour online class and a three-day simulation lab. The training center could be running by March.
As more firefighters arrive on the scene, the management tasks multiply. “Manpower studies have shown that in high-stress situations, the span of control—how many people you can directly supervise—should be no more than five,” Buttlar says.
So, as more help arrives, a sector officer can command up to five firefighters and a division officer can command up to five sectors. All of the firefighters are tracked on an accountability board that an officer is in charge of, with a rescue team standing by in case something goes wrong.
Although each scene is different, about 80 percent of the structure fires Mt. Lebanon sees are “room and contents” fires. In those cases, there are normally three main tasks—attack, search and rescue and manning a backup hose line—and the groups rotate through each task in 20-minute work cycles, followed by a 20-minute rest period.
When Sohyda assumes command of an emergency, he normally does so in a “sterile environment.”
“I can be in a car across the street from the fire, in a quieter, calmer environment, away from distractions, because when 20 people are all competing for my attention, I might miss something critical.”
High-tech tools such as a thermal imaging camera can help firefighters pinpoint the location of the fire without having to enter a building. Firefighters can also glean information from exploring the roof. Has the fire extended that far? Is there smoke? Is the roof tar boiling? Perhaps most important is to make sure the fire isn’t in the basement, because that could affect the structural integrity of the ground floor, making it unsafe for the firefighters to even enter the building.
Every scene commander has to make decisions about risk management. Risk a lot to save lives, risk much less to save property. While the safety of firefighters weighs heavily in the risk management equation—“The goal is to send ‘em home in the same shape they showed up in,” says Buttlar—both he and Sohyda agree that there is a need to balance risk and reward.
“Sometimes you have to risk a lot to save a lot,” says Sohyda. “It’s not like we’re never going to risk anything. This is a risky occupation.”