Most of you reading this article have probably had the chance to see the fire department respond to a call for service, but many of you may not be aware of what is going on behind the scenes when we are dispatched to an emergency. This article will discuss what occurs during those first minutes of each call we receive.
We are a volunteer department, and our fire station is not staffed. With the exception of when we are training or working at the department, our members are off-duty and are at home, work, or involved in other activities that make up our daily lives. When a citizen calls 911, the call goes to the Dispatch Center at the Grant County Sheriff’s Department. The dispatcher will attempt to understand the nature and extent of the emergency, based upon the information received from the caller. If it is determined that the Fire Department is needed, the dispatcher will notify our members to respond.
Members are notified in three basic ways: through the use of a radio pager, through our cell phones in text and e-mail, and often through the use of the city’s fire siren. Upon receiving notification, our members determine what type of response is required, based upon if the need is an emergency or non-emergency call. If the call is an emergency, our members respond from work, home, etc. as quickly as possible, because in many emergencies, each second matters.
Upon arriving at the station, our command officers begin assessing the level of response from members to determine how many personnel resources are available to respond and start determining work assignments for each member. For larger calls, or during day time calls when the numbers of available members are lower, the Incident Commander (usually the highest ranking officer responding) may make the determination to request mutual aid from a nearby department. The Fennimore Fire Department often requests the Lancaster, Boscobel, Montfort, Stitzer, Blue River and Mount Hope Fire departments for assistance when additional resources are needed.
Once it is determined what resources are needed, including both personnel and equipment resources, the initial responders from the department begin traveling to the scene. Our goal is to have the initial truck responding within less than 10 minutes from the time of the page, with our desired goal of 4 minutes. Our fire district is geographically extensive, so travel time to the outer areas of our district can sometimes exceed 20 minutes, even when traveling with emergency lights and sirens.
While traveling to the scene, our command officers are gathering information and continuing to plan. These decisions are based upon the information available to us, so it is vital that the caller provides as much detail as possible to the dispatch center when requesting assistance. Often, for emergencies such as structure fires or traffic crashes, on-duty law enforcement arrives on-scene before the fire department and will relay updated information to the fire department. While command officers are planning and coordinating resources, our firefighters are preparing any necessary gear and equipment and making operational plans to carry out the directives of the command officers (for example, which firefighters will be making entry to a burning building and which firefighter will lead that entry team).
Upon arriving at the scene, our firefighters will begin deploying necessary equipment. For a structure fire, hoselines will be prepared, truck operators will begin preparing the trucks to pump water, and we will set up a water source by either connecting to a hydrant in the city, or preparing to shuttle water to a rural scene.
For traffic crashes, we will begin stabilizing the vehicle, preparing our extrication equipment and establishing traffic control. All of our equipment and trucks are designed to be deployed rapidly and efficiently in order for us to start operations as quickly as possible upon arriving at the scene.
While this happening, command officers are conducting what is referred to as 360 degree evaluation. This involves the officer in command traveling around the entire scene and conducting what is referred to as a size-up, where that officer is looking at the extent of the emergency (such as how large a fire is, or how many vehicles are involved in a crash) and any unique threats to emergency responders (such as fuel leaking from a car, downed power lines, exposed gas lines, etc.). Based upon the information gathered, the officer in command will implement the initial strategy and tactics to address the unique nature of the emergency.
The above discussion is intended to give a broad overview of the process involved in responding to a call. There are many more tasks and details involved in making each call safe and successful that go beyond the scope of this article, and most of what was discussed here occurs in the first 10-20 minutes after receiving the call. Each call is unique and poses a different set of challenges that we must prepare and train for. In future articles, we will discuss more specific details unique to each type of call that we respond to. Until next time, stay safe!