Dispatchers everywhere know that emergency situations can change rapidly.
For instance, when the fire crews in Shawnee County, Kansas were on the scene of a grass fire and a tornado touched down, dispatchers alerted the fire crews to take cover.
"At that time, two things were happening with the situation and back at the dispatch center," Melanie Mills-Bergers, interim director for Shawnee County Emergency Communications Center (SCECC) said. "On one hand we had the fire and the tornado happening. We also had to switch our CAD system from our normal mode of operation into storm mode, which helps us to better facilitate calls for service."
Taking the CAD system into storm mode helps reduce the response of fire personnel due the plethora of calls during a severe storm. It assists with ensuring enough resources are spread throughout the covered area in order to handle the extreme number of calls for service.
Storm mode does not prioritize or relate calls nor assist with duplicate calls.
"When we had fire crews out at the grass fire and that tornado came, we knew they had to get out of there and take shelter," Mills-Bergers said. "We also knew we needed to handle that call for service correctly as it entailed two major events."
To ensure the fire crews were kept safe, they left the scene of the fire and took shelter. By staying in contact with dispatch using their mobile device terminals (MDTs), the fire crew was alerted to when it was safe to return to the area.
"Even with a small tornado, call volumes increase," Mills-Berger said. "Facilitating those calls in storm mode in CAD helps us streamline responses and keep processes flowing. What's important is that we have a system that keeps up with the calls, so that citizens get the help they need when they need it and our first responders have access to as much information as possible through all aspects of a response."
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In a community with abandoned or otherwise dangerous buildings, prior knowledge about a location can mean the difference between life and death for fire crews.
According to Cindy Culp, battalion chief with the Independence Fire Dept. in Missouri, access to first-hand knowledge about structures helps fire fighters stay safer when responding to emergencies throughout the city.
Independence is located in the Kansas City metro area. Like many communities near large cities, there are areas with blighted structures and other buildings in disrepair. When fire crews are dispatched to these areas for a fire or other emergency, it's important for them to know what potential danger can be found on the scene.
"As soon as fire crews have boots on the ground, they're working toward keeping everyone safe on the scene, from the civilians involved to the crews themselves," Culp said. "But they also want to prevent or reduce any damage, especially during a fire call."
To ensure fire crews have all of the information they need while on the scene of a fire or other emergency, fire crews access data on the mobile data terminals (MDTs) located in their rescue vehicles.
This data comes directly from computer aided dispatch (CAD), and provides crews with information about the location including prior history, onsite known hazards or chemicals, hydrant locations, and anything else pertinent to staying safe.
"Anytime fire crews are in a building that has the potential to collapse due to damage from disrepair or fire, it's important that they know this before entering the structure," Culp said. "We're able to provide our fire crews with this information, so they know what they might encounter in a given situation."
When it comes to the world of public safety, dispatchers and first responders are always ready to provide help when it’s needed most.
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This article is part four in a four-part series on fire responses and the roles of firefighters in the US
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
In the world of emergency responses, sometimes radio communication is not enough.
When fire crews in Connelly, NY responded to a house fire where an individual was trapped inside, they experienced what it's like responding to an emergency and wishing for another way to communicate with their units and responding mutual aid companies.
In this particular situation, a neighbor reported the house fire after he was roused from his sleep due to the front windows of his neighbor's home blowing out as a result of the fire's heat. This individual also reported that the man's vehicle was parked in the driveway, which indicated that he was possibly still inside the home as the fire was burning.
"For fire crews, we're always going to work to make sure citizens are kept safe from the dangers of fires and other emergencies," Ulster County's assistant fire chief Robert Rausch who responded to that fire said. "When we responded to this call, which happened in the middle of the night, we knew that the element of danger was increased due to the information that the caller told dispatch, as he was rather certain that an individual was still inside the home."
When fire crews arrived on scene, the front entrance to the home was engulfed in flames. According to Rausch, crews began attacking the fire immediately to control the flame and gain access to the home to begin searching for the resident. Mutual aid was called in to dispatch by the fire chief on the scene requesting more equipment and personnel.
The large response to this house fire required more on-the-scene coordination than a typical fire emergency. To facilitate this coordination, the fire department set up incident command on scene, allowing for better communication regarding all aspects of the response.
Incident command helps manage responders, units, and resources along with planning to manage the effectiveness of what is available for conducting scene operations. It helps response personnel to know who oversees a particular scene.
With this house fire, incident command facilitated multiple crews designated to search and rescue along with those fighting the fire.
"Even with incident command in place, we relied on radio communication to speak with everyone involved in the response," Rausch said. "This was the only way we were able to tell where everyone was located and learn the whereabouts of incoming units."
While crews worked on ventilating the home, and performing search and rescue to locate the individual inside the structure, incident command helped ensure all crew members had as much information as possible to stay safe on the scene.
"Information is vital in any emergency response," Rausch said. "Accessing that vital information is key to keeping first responders and citizens as safe as possible."
Read more: How Firefighters Reduce Risk and Increase Preparedness Using Technology
This article is part three in a four-part series on fire responses and the roles of firefighters in the US.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
When fire crews respond to an unknown structure fire, they must prepare for the worst.
Unknown structure fires by their very nature present a level of danger for fire crews and the individuals involved in the emergency. While dispatchers gather as much information about the emergency as possible, what they know about the situation depends heavily on their computer aided dispatch (CAD) system's capabilities.
When a dispatcher can access premise history information regarding an address, which can include details of previous incidents at the address and potential hazards onsite, first responders use that data to stay safer on the scene. However, providing these details to fire crews is only possible when dispatchers have a CAD system with those capabilities.
According to former firefighter Dan Stringer who worked for a fire department in Michigan, there was one unknown structure fire that he responded to where access to extra information could have meant the difference between life and death.
The incident Stringer recalled involved a fire happening on a wooded property set back more than a quarter of a mile down a dirt driveway, which had significant ice accumulation due to a winter storm.
"When fire crews respond to an emergency and are unsure of the location, there is always the potential that the apparatus they're using won't make it to the scene due to impassable conditions," Stringer said. "A ladder truck is not going to make it across a one-lane, rural bridge, which can present a problem for responders getting to the scene. Thankfully, in this situation, we were able to get one truck on the scene and pump water to the scene from a fire engine parked at a hydrant location."
The scene in question involved a barn, which was completely engulfed in flames. When fire crews began attacking the fire from inside the structure, they discovered construction equipment and numerous drums of oil, some of which were beginning to boil.
"There was a significant explosion risk that we didn't even know about until we were inside the structure," Stringer said. "If those oil drums had exploded, that fire would have been catastrophic for the crews."
Although the barn was a total loss due to damage, fire crews extinguished the flames and no one was injured.
"Technology has made it possible for fire crews to know so much more when they respond to any emergency, but it's not available in all fire departments," Stringer said. "Instant, real-time information is vital to staying safe on the scene of an emergency."
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This article is part two in a four-part series on fire responses and the roles of firefighters in the US
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |
In many fire departments throughout the United States, when a fire emergency is reported and crews are dispatched, it’s common for crews to have very little information about the incident to which they are responding.
According to Brock Race, a 27-year veteran volunteer firefighter in Dover, NY, there have been numerous times in his career when additional information about a fire emergency could have helped save lives and reduced structure damage. However, one experience stands out the most and it involved responding to a smoke investigation call.
“The thing you have to remember with fighting fires is that crews are always going to strive to save lives and minimize damage,” Race said. “That was true when the first fire station was ever created and it’s true today. The good thing about today, though, is that we have more technology on hand to take some of the unknown out of a situation. There have definitely been times in my career when the unknown has been incredibly dangerous.”
With no access to a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system or other public safety software, fire crews relied solely on radio transmissions with dispatch, who were able to provide the address and what little information they had about the scene.
“When we got to the scene around 7 a.m. that particular morning, we saw that it was a tire recycling facility,” Race said. “While responding, we had no idea of the size of the building we were responding to or the hazards it contained.”
Race said the crew quickly realized that the smoke investigation call was really a raging fire in a building full of hazards.
“At one point during the response, I was operating directly over a storage room full of acetylene, which is a highly flammable and explosive gas,” Race said. “Luckily, we cleared out of that area after discovering we were over a massive fuel load, but that is the type of information crews are lucky to have in advance when possible. That information can help save a life.”
Within minutes the entirety of the tire plant was in flames. Mutual aid from 46 fire departments was called in from neighboring counties. Crews were cleared from the call seven days later.
While catastrophic large fires can happen in any community and in any situation, fire crews are more equipped to handle these situations when they have technological tools that provide them with more information.
According to Race, when fire crews have access to mobile data terminals (MDTs) in their rescue vehicles, this provides them with the same information dispatchers see with their CAD systems. This information contains premise history data, lists of known onsite hazards, building contact information, map views of the location, and other necessary details that can help crews understand and assess risk. Knowing these details helps crews plan and decide upon the best course of action for tackling a fire to keep fire crews and civilians safe while reducing structural damage.
“Throughout my career as a firefighter, I will always remember the fire at the tire plant,” Race said. “A situation like that would be much different now with the technology we can access.”
This article is part one in a four-part series on fire responses and the roles of firefighters in the US
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
In the United States, a fire emergency is reported on average every 23 seconds.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), that statistic encompasses everything from structure, home, outdoor, unclassified, and vehicle fires.
To understand the scope of fire emergencies in the US, it's important to understand the anatomy of a fire department.
According to the NFPA, there are 58,750 fire stations in the US, which consist of the following:
In addition to fighting fires, many of these fire departments also offer specialized services including vehicle extrication, public education, specialized rescue, fire investigation, advanced life support, hazardous material removal, in-house training, and intervention programs.
When a fire emergency is reported to 911, career and volunteer firefighters are alerted by dispatch and quickly respond to the incident. While career and volunteer firefighters are equally responsible for responding to fire, medical, traffic, and other emergencies throughout the country, in some cases volunteers adhere to a different set of guidelines or qualifications.
This difference in guidelines could mean these individuals can only respond with senior-level or career firefighters, however, they are instrumental in a fire response.
To find out more about the role of firefighters in the US, subscribe to The Call and follow our series on fire responses and firefighters over the coming weeks.
In August of 2013, severe thunderstorms moved over Marion County, Oregon, resulting in a series of lightning-caused fires.
According to Marion Area Multi-Agency Emergency Telecommunications Center (METCOM) communications specialist Loren Hall, these types of fires are rare, but on that day, several occurred in multiple areas of the county.
At 4:47 p.m., a call came in about a house fire within a gated community.
At that time, first responders were already on the scene of a motor vehicle accident and another house fire, which would preclude these individuals from responding to the large house fire. Acknowledging that this would delay the time it took for fire personnel to reach the house fire, the Marion County fire chief escalated the fire to a third alarm.
Categorizing fires with alarms indicates the level of response needed by local authorities. Each alarm elevation indicates the level of severity and how difficult the fire may be to contain.
By the time the first unit arrived on the scene at 5:03 p.m., flames were blazing from the attic roof. Less than half an hour later, a ceiling collapsed, engulfing the interior fire crew in the attic fire and causing a firefighter outside the structure to call MAYDAY over the radio.
As the fire continued burning, it escalated to a sixth alarm.
In total, 44 apparatus, including 18 engines, 15 water tenders, two wildland engines, six ambulances, two support trucks, and 125 firefighters were dispatched to the scene.
To handle the significant response to this fire emergency, an additional dispatcher and a command-level fire officer were brought in and roles were reassigned. This helped better equip the primary and secondary dispatcher to coordinate resources and dispatch additional alarms.
In addition, the command officer coordinated a regional-level response preventing other areas served by METCOM from going uncovered.
Furthermore, the computer aided dispatch (CAD) software system used by METCOM allowed for individuals involved with the fire to see what was happening globally and maintain a high level of situational awareness throughout the emergency.
“On a day when we have multiple emergencies occurring that require a large response, having the ability to work with our CAD system and provide dependable coverage over the entirety of the community that we serve is just incredible,” Hall said.
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