How do experienced emergency response chiefs account for their personnel during significant emergency operations? Some of the worst urban fires in decades recently occurred just weeks apart from each other. On March 11, 2014, the San Francisco Fire Department ordered a “General Alarm”: all available fire companies and personnel direct to the fire. This order brought nearly half of the 196 on-duty personnel to the Mission Bay neighborhood to fight a fire in a 172-unit planned development which was under construction. This fire was eerily reminiscent of the Santana Row Fire in 2002 in San Jose which required 11-alarms and over 220 firefighters to extinguish the flames.
On March 25, the City of Houston, Texas sent 200 firefighters to a fire at a construction site where 368 apartment units were totally lost to flames. The following day, Boston Firefighters sent 150 of their own to the Back Bay to battle a fire in a Beacon Street apartment building. Two of their members gave the ultimate sacrifice and died in the line of duty at this fire. Lt. Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy died while operating at the 9-alarm fire. Both were recovered from the building’s basement—a fearsome and dangerous location due to limited access, limited egress and high temperature retention.
If you have ever had to manage a non–emergency event with 150 to 200 attendees, you can appreciate the difficulty in accounting for everyone’s attendance, whereabouts and needs. Contrast that to managing 150 to 200 firefighters and paramedics working under dangerous conditions with the ever present threat of collapsing buildings, work/rest cycles, heat stress, strained verbal communications and rapidly changing conditions. Fireground commanders and fire officers are trained to keep their crews together in teams. One mantra is, “we arrive together, work together and go home together” in routine and in dangerous environments. Keeping crew integrity is important to keeping members safe. The team leader must be able to account for the location and health status of everyone assigned to their company, task force, division, group or section at all times. Providing a personnel accountability report or a “PAR” is standard practice for firefighters. This is still done manually or with rudimentary tools such as clipboards, grease pencils or Velcro/magnetic nametags and fire company placards. Though not a perfect solution, every organization simply can’t keep all their workers together to maintain visual and physical accountability like firefighters try to do. Technology can be a powerful tool in keeping workers safe and their managers informed as to their real time location, status and needs.
At AtHoc, we are working to better understand the environments where critical communications are required. Our Mobile Notifier app is making mobile workers safer through geocoding, alerting and duress features from a standard iOS or Android device. We are the leaders at integrating legacy systems and even analog technologies to provide trusted communications in critical situations. Our hats off to all the firefighters in San Jose, Houston, San Francisco and Boston. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who have suffered loss. Rest assured that team here at AtHoc will study the lessons and “take-aways” from these large scale events to further the development of personnel accountability tools and platforms for those in harm’s way.