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You Are Already Behind

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I’m sitting in my favorite easy chair at home, sippin’ a beer, surfin’ my tablet and swayin’ to the music of my favorite Pandora music channel.  A balloon pops up in the upper right corner of the screen showing a computer generated dispatch alert; “ 911: STRUCTURE RESPONSE: E-2, 3, 4, 5, BAT 1, M-1, L-6, E21, C1, S2  APARTMENT FIRE 2664 SOUTH NUGGENT STEET, TWO CALLERS REPORTING FIRE COMING FROM GROUND FLOOR APARTMENT. RESPOND CHANNEL 6. 19:27“

I continue to listen to my Journey channel, waiting for more info to invade my personal space. Another text message – “911: MULTIPLE CALLERS REPORTING FLAMES SHOWING FROM 1ST FLOOR UNIT. POSSIBLE PEOPLE TRAPPED ON 2ND AND 3RD FLOORS. 19:30”

At about the same time, my cell phone starts vibrating with messages from my Hootsuite feed.  Six citizens posted pictures and comments about the fire and what they are seeing.  Two include time stamped pictures –  one at 1925 hours and the other at 1929 hours, showing what appears to be a mother and two kids standing on a third floor deck, with heavy smoke coming from below. Both post comments saying that the fire is growing fast and the trapped family is screaming for help.

I open my bookmarked hyperlink to our local fire department working radio frequency, just in time to hear this: “Engine 3 on scene.  We have a 3 story multi-family apartment building with heavy smoke showing from the Charlie side. Engine 3 will be in offensive mode. More to follow…” The dispatcher repeats the size up, and notes the time – 19:36

As the size up is transmitted, another balloon pops up on my screen….with links to messages and photos appearing to show the trapped occupants being escorted down construction ladders by Good Samaritans.

Now fully engaged in unfolding events I can’t quite picture the exact location of this particular complex. So, I pull up aerial photos allowing me to see all four sides.  Wait….. I can see a fire wall extending up through the roof near the address apartment.  That’s good. Looking for more real time intel, I pull up the Washington State Department of Transportation camera network and quickly spot a camera pointed in the general direction of the “C” side of the apartment complex.  The still camera image – updated every 30 seconds- shows fire and smoke moving pretty much vertically, with nothing showing past the firewall.  The first snapshot even shows pictures of the trapped 3rd floor occupants being helped down a ladder.

In her initial size up, Engine 3 captain relays: “We have a working first floor apartment fire, with extension to the 2nd and 3rd floors.   Multiple occupants are evacuating…Report of five people trapped on Side Charlie!… Access to Side Charlie blocked by a fence. ” Engine 3 is in Rescue Mode on Side Charlie… Request 2nd alarm… Second due, you have Fire Attack. Hydrant in front of driveway”… The dispatcher begins to repeat the report, but is cut off by Engine 4; “Engine 3 from Engine 4!  We’re on scene and will be Fire Attack. Witnesses reporting dozens of people trapped on the Charlie Side!

While the Battalion Chief establishes Command, Engine 3 crew quickly breaks down the fence, and sees all visible victims have been removed from the floors 2 and 3 exterior balconies.    E-3 Captain – “South Nuggent Command from E-3, it appears all exterior trapped occupants from Side Charlie have been safely evacuated.  We need interior searches of floors 2 and 3 above the fire ASAP.”

South Nugget Command quickly gets crews working; knocking down the fire, searching the upstairs apartments and overhauling.  The radio traffic is a jumble of progress reports, assignments, and the usual fog of war type stuff.

Within a few minutes, I hear Command call for the Red Cross to assist the displaced apartment dwellers, and a fire inspector to determine cause and origin.

I’ve gone back to listening to my 80’s throwback music, when another balloon pops up with a link to a Twitter post; “These F#@#in firefighters are ignoring my neighbors who lost everything!”  A quick check shows that 20 people have already re tweeted the original message. Attached to the post is a photo of a woman and two kids sitting on the curb, apparently alone, cold and clinging to each other as they watch the fire.  Knowing how quickly things happen on the fireground, I quickly search Twitter and find a more recent picture showing a firefighter/paramedic talking with these victims, now covered with blankets and sitting on the back bumper of a paramedic unit.  I quickly re tweet this picture with a note: “The Fire Department has things well in hand and are helping these folks as best they can.”   The author of the post quickly responds back:  “I see that.  I hope everyone is OK.”  This message is re tweeted dozens of times shortly thereafter. 

Is this the future?  No, it’s NOW!  If you are involved in emergency response, you MUST REALIZE we (by “we” I mean all us retired emergency responder types) and the public are now watching emergency events unfold – start to finish – even before you arrive on scene.  Size ups should no longer start when the first unit physically arrives on scene.   In today’s “Connected World”  there may be enough info to get the process started before a rig pulls out of the barn.

The lesson for those who are “first in”;  YOU ARE ALREADY BEHIND.  Lesson for emergency response administrators; GIVE YOUR FOLKS THE TOOLS AND PERMISSIONS TO GET AS MUCH INFO AS POSSIBLE WHEN THE BELL HITS.

(Note: this is a totally fictitious event, drawn from my ever diminishing recollection of past incidents I was involved in.)

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About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.