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A training session involving the shut-down of a broken valve on a fuel tank using LPG under computer control. South Wales FRS, Cardiff.

The importance of training and firefighter safety

Almost every day the media tells of a major fire, accident or the aftermath of both natural weather related and man-made emergencies such as acts of terrorism that have occurred somewhere in the world. Many challenges face fire and rescue personnel when they first arrive at the scene. Gulf Fire Editor Neil Wallington, a highly experienced former British Chief Fire Officer, reviews some of the critical issues involved, especially the safety of crews working amid dangerous situations.

When a major fire, a serious accident or other emergency occurs, firefighters, police and paramedics will rush to the scene to deal with the situation, where the immediate tasks will be rescue and extrication to preserve life, and deal with life-threatening injuries of casualties. Then some hours later, the tasks will change to restoring some normality to the site of the emergency and the community who might be affected close by.

The value of training

For front-line blue light emergency crews, the key to successfully dealing with any emergency, day or night and in all weather, is realistic training, training and even more training, to be ready for that moment when the call comes in, at any time of the day or night to mobilise to a real emergency. Training should be backed up by written operational procedures based upon experience gained and lessons learnt from previous major emergencies and how they were handled. Much of the learning process for fire and rescue personnel will be to embrace safety awareness.

When members of the public are at risk and rescue is the real priority, time is very unforgiving as the clock ticks on. At the site of any emergency facing crews, which might be a rapidly spreading building fire where firefighters have to quickly get to work to deploy ladders to upper floors and get hose lines to work, or perhaps take over lifts in high-rise towers and get breathing apparatus crews up at close quarters to the outbreak of fire to effect rescues. In dealing with all these real-life emergencies, regular realistic training sessions will always prove to be of critical value.

An aerial ladder platform effectively at work at a major industrial plant fire.

An aerial ladder platform effectively at work at a major industrial plant fire.

Emergencies in high rise towers and on the roads

Fires in high rise towers are a particular modern-day challenge for fire crews due to the sheer height of some structures, the time factor involved in getting up to the fire floor affected, and to residents or workers likely to be trapped above the outbreak and its toxic smoke. The role of stand-by breathing apparatus emergency crews is especially an especially important to the safety of personnel committed to close quarter firefighting.

Perhaps the emergency incident will be a serious road collision where crews have to carefully cut a roof and doors off a car which may be on its side or roof in order to gain access to a seriously injured driver and passengers within. In some road crashes, a vehicle’s air bags may not activate and must be disarmed in order not to further injure trapped persons or their rescuers.

As some of the crew gain close access to the injured to treat their injuries, familiarisation with the use of powerful and specialist hydraulics tools can save precious time when life is at risk. Other important aspects of road crash extrication work includes the management of glass; the complex electrical systems of modern day vehicles and hot engines and exhaust systems can pose a ready source of ignition when spilt fuel is all around the crash scene.

Hazmat operations

The drama facing crews on their arrival at an accident scene might be complicated by a tanker leaking flammable fuel, concentrated acid, alkalis or other hazardous substances, requiring specific containment, chemical or gas-tight protection and decontamination measures for the crews involved. Realistic training and exercise sessions which have provided knowledge in the precise and effective handling procedures of various hazmat substances will raise safety levels.

The same rule regarding the value of training also applies at the scene of other varied emergencies such as a train or aircraft crash, a collapsed building following a gas leak, a terrorist incident, or the aftermath of a wild weather event.

The management of major emergencies

Another key factor in the successful management of a major emergency incident lies with its Command and Control facilities. Firefighting and rescue crews all descending upon a serious fire or accident site necessitate procedures to safely and effectively deploy firefighting and rescue resources arriving at the scene.

The prompt setting-up of a Main Command Unit at the scene, with, if necessary, Forward Control points with vital communication links to various sectors of the operational site. Once again, well-planned and executed training will pay immense dividends.

In the event of a live incident developing into a disaster, at a fire or accident scene that is clearly involving in excess of (say) fifty or more casualties, a three-level incident management system may be required. This command level structure is termed (a) Strategic (Gold); (b) Tactical (Silver) and (c) Front-Line (Bronze).

Whilst Silver and Bronze levels involve the deployment and direct control of firefighters and other blue light emergency personnel and their resources on the incident ground, the overseeing Gold level can be located at a remote site away from the fire or accident scene. Alongside senior Fire and Police officers, this top level of Disaster Management also includes representatives of various public agencies such as medical and hospital services, mortuary facilities, power and water supplies, and transportation. Managing the media is also an important consideration at a major incident.

A 10 pump fire in shops and dwellings in East London showing firefighting operations in progress and parking positions of two pumps and ALP at work.

A 10 pump fire in shops and dwellings in East London showing firefighting operations in progress and parking positions of two pumps and ALP at work.

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR)

Specialist technical non-fire rescue operations also require training buildings and facilities designed to provide personnel with confidence in the use of equipment and procedures. Urban Search & Rescue (USAR), working in confirmed spaces, water and line rescue, and safe working at height all come into this category.

USAR operations can involve the location, extrication, and initial medical stabilisation of victims trapped in confined spaces due to natural disasters, structural collapse, transportation accidents, accidents in mines and collapsed trenches on construction sites.

The causes of USAR incidents can usually be categorised as those that are of accidental origin (natural causes including wild weather, earthquakes, violent storms, gas explosions and building collapse) and those caused by man-made deliberate acts such as terrorism.

Structural collapse incidents can comprise unstable or collapsed structures in an unsafe position. Usually building collapse incidents leave voids inside the debris that can result in numerous casualties becoming trapped under large amounts of very heavy and often unstable wreckage.

Firefighters trained in USAR work can be faced with complex rescue operations as USAR sites are usually within a multi-hazard environment. Past USAR incident experience shows that trapped persons are often found alive many hours and even days after rescue operations have commenced.

Exercises and pre-planning

Effective modern live-fire behaviour training for firefighter and rescue crews can involve multi-floor buildings with various fire scenarios and cosmetic smoke to create safe yet realistic and repeatable conditions. Other exercise facilities include reality-based IT simulation of the build-up of a range of emergency incidents right up to major disaster proportions.

For front-line crews, on-site exercises can also be valuable. Being familiar with the layout of major risks where large numbers of the public may resort to or live, such as large hotels, tower blocks or shopping mall complexes can save critical time during the early minutes when responding crews are first in attendance at the scene of the emergency. Advance knowledge of the layout of high risk premises adds a valuable safety premium for fire and rescue crews.

Access especially for pumping and aerial ladder fire engines around and a premises, together with the provision of suitable firefighting water supplies, control of lifts, air conditioning and ventilation plants can be absolutely critical to operational success.

Finally, there are other key aspects of a safe emergency blue light response, including the provision of various elements of a modern firefighting armoury. Especially important is the modern lightweight personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by Gulf region firefighters. These provide a high level of radiated heat protection from radiated heat likely to be met during firefighting operations in geographic regions with high ambient summertime temperatures.

Other key tools include thermal cameras to allow crews to readily see through smoke, lightweight breathing apparatus sets and communication systems that provide linked contact around the various control points of the site to allow a full and safe co-ordination of the various firefighting and rescue sectors involving a large building complex or tall tower.

All these important elements taken together alongside sound training and exercise regimes, pre-planning and firefighters’ personal levels of physical fitness should ensure a highly effective response to any emergency, either man-made or those caused by natural causes.

For more information, email neil.wallington@mdmpublishing.com

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Neil Wallington is a former British Chief Fire Officer, a Past International President of the Institution of Fire Engineers, and a holder of the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. He is the author of 17 books on the work of the fire service, and acts as a consultant with extensive experience in the Gulf on a range of projects.

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