It is with a great sense of sadness that I have read today's reports from Hamilton (Ohio) were a firefighter was killed in a house fire as a result of falling through a floor, into the basement. This is never an easy thing for any department or community to go through. With it occurring during what should time a time focused on family, friends, and celebration it is only more tragic.
Unfortunately, the process of handling firefighter mayday situations is one I experienced on multiple occasions during my time with the FDNY. Most of them had positive outcomes, however more than a few did not. In each of the cases where personnel were lost, I am proud to say I was part of a team that helped to make sure that those involved had the best possible chance of survival. The women and men of FDNY Fire Dispatch repeatedly demonstrated their skill, knowledge, creativity, and decision making ability when confronted by these horrific incidents.
The ability of Dispatch Personnel to help ensure successful outcomes for firefighters at the scenes of fires and emergencies starts from the first day of the training process and it continues for the duration of a dispatcher's career. I would like to share some of the specific lessons learned in the hope that when you have to face this type of event (and I hope you don't) you too will help to ensure as successful an outcome as possible.
1) It starts with learning. Everything. (Or as close as you can). You can never know too much about fireground operations; the equipment your agency (and your neighbors) have available and how that equipment is used. Understand the difference between a supply line and a hand-line. Learn about the buildings in your jurisdiction, the unique threats present and other critical nuances. More importantly, share important information about the incident with responders in an effective manner. Is the second due company delayed? Do you have reports of people trapped in the building? Is there a history of previous fires at the location? There are many possible examples, but remember, if it is especially critical, share it!
2) Stay Calm. No matter how crazy it gets- YOU are the voice of calm and reason. The odds are that the IC may have never managed a firefighter down scenario in real life. You will have to ensure that things remain calm, collected, and controlled. If you have an SOP for this scenario, you may have to guide the IC a little bit, especially if you have a checklist of tasks that you know are required. If a greater alarm is required to be transmitted when a mayday occurs, I hope the policy states to go ahead and do it- not to wait on the IC to say it. Taking the burden off the IC for what should be automated decisions allows the IC to focus on the task at hand- rescuing the firefighter(s).
3) Listen to the fire-ground radio channels. For some agencies this is mandated. For others it is by choice. Whenever possible, try to listen to what is going on just to improve your understanding of the operations and how they are going. That same tone of voice awareness that works for being an effective call-taker works for being an effective fire-ground dispatcher as well.
4) Maintain Radio Discipline and Control. During these types of events there is great potential for radio chaos. Make sure that all transmissions are as brief as possible. Especially on the radio channel where the mayday is being handled, radio congestion can be the difference between life and death.
5) Make your Notifications. For some agencies, transmission of a mayday requires other personnel to be notified. Often these are critical personnel who will be needed at the scene. The sooner they know, the sooner they can go. Try not to hold up these notifications if at all possible. This includes updating the history of the incident in CAD with the comments and reports from the scene. Make sure that this will be easily understood by anyone reading them later. This will make the entire process of understanding the incident much easier. Along the same line, the dispatchers involved should, at the conclusion of the incident, write down notes for future use: what position where they staffing; memorable details from the incident, etc.
6) Do not share information with outsiders unless specifically told to do so-- personally or professionally. In this media driven age, there will likely be many calls for information. Write down a prepared statement in line with your policy on media relations and read it verbatim to any media outlet that calls. "The fire department is currently operating at a fire at _____________. The fire department will provide additional information at a later time". Or some such thing. This also means that dispatch personnel should never post about the incident on social media until after it has been officially released by the in-charge agency. I have seen first hand the name of firefighter who was being given CPR out on Facebook before that firefighter was even transported to the hospital and long before the family was notified! This is wrong on many, many levels.
7) Assign one dispatcher to the incident. If at all possible, one dispatcher in the center should be assigned the sole responsibility of handling a fire with maydays and/or a firefighter down. This is critical to ensure an effective understanding of operation, passing of information, and general dispatch effectiveness. For those centers that are understaffed, consideration should be given to calling in personnel to support operations whenever a firefighter down/mayday situation occurs.
8) Participate in the debrief/CISD process. For most dispatchers, the handling of a firefighter down incident will be one of the most traumatic experiences of their career. They must be included in the PTSD/CISD process that occurs after the event. Supervisors, Directors, and Managers of 9-1-1 centers have a moral responsibility to ensure this happens.
9) Have a checklist! Dispatch Personnel and the Fire Department(s) They dispatch should sit down together and develop a procedure to manage these types of events. Even a simple ten item checklist will support improved operations during what is always a very high stress situation. This should be drilled on and trained on regularly. Many Fire Departments practice firefighter down drills, but I do not know of any that include their Dispatchers in these drills. That needs to change.
10) It can happen anytime, anywhere! Firefighters are (sadly) hurt in all kinds of fires and at all kinds of incidents. An apparatus or personnel may be struck at the scene of an accident, or a member may suffer a heart attack at the scene of a fire alarm. It doesn't have to be the biggest fire of the year to cause a mayday situation. Further, they often happen earlier in the incident rather than later. These are just some of the reasons why dispatch personnel need to be vigilant, aware, and capable of rapid effective action when this happens.