How do fire departments that rely on mutual aid for their initial or reinforced response to fires and other emergencies ensure success? One answer should be that they train with those other departments. The ISO Fire Suppression Rating Schedule requires such training in order to achieve maximum credit for automatic aid. Regional multi-company training that is hands-on allows fire companies from different fire departments to work together towards a common goal. Depending on your department, your need for automatic aid or mutual aid may be for a routine house fire, structures that lie on the outskirts of your district, or large commercial, industrial, or institutional properties. Operating a multi-person incident command post, advancing larger hose lines using multiple companies, searching apartment buildings or hotels, or conducting specialized technical operations demand interdepartmental training. But how will you do it? If you are surrounded by multiple fire departments you can’t possible train with all of them – or can you do it creatively?
MABAS Division 3, the regional mutual aid group representing Chicago’s northern suburbs, has 17 departments with nearly 1000 full time firefighters operating from 39 stations. Its nearly three-dozen engine companies and ALS ambulances plus aerial apparatus and squads present a challenge for this sort of activity. Since the early 1990s, these fire departments have conducted a variety of multi-company drills each spring and fall. Drills have ranged from development of specific skills, to live fire exercises, to specialized operations, to joint fire and police active shooter operations.
Typically, each drill consists of a three-hour session each morning then repeated again in the afternoon for three days over three weeks. Each drill has an average of 6 engine companies and 3 truck companies. These companies are grouped into two engines and one truck and rotate through the drill’s stations or assignments. When this program was begun, a regional training facility did not exists and various sites were used. Today, the regional facility is used but off-site drills occasionally take place. One of three formats is typically used: One 3-hours evolution, two 90-minute evolutions or skill stations, or three 60-minute evolutions or skill stations. Regardless of the format used, all begin with a site safety briefing and end with a hot wash. IAPs are written using standard ICS forms and NFPA 1403 compliance documents support these IAPs.
Staffing the required instructor positions is the main logistical challenge. In order to deliver an effective experience and manage risk, all positions must be filled with qualified persons. The selection, management, and compensation of instructors has evolved over the years. To a lesser degree, each spring or fall session also requires certain commodities such as pallets, straw, plywood or OSB, etc. These costs too much be managed and a standard fee schedule has evolved.
The planning for each spring and fall session begins immediately after the last session has been completed. First, the question of “What’s the drill’s purpose?” must be answered before going any further. Typically there are two broad goals: Introduce or standardize a skill or focus on interoperability. Even with a clear goal, it must be kept in perspective that the 17 departments each are unique in some way and that with a cadre of some 50 instructors delivering the lesson more than 50 times in some cases, there will be some inconsistencies. Safety cannot be compromised but some will do things slightly different than others. With that said, the goals are kept broad and strategic.
Once the “what” part is known the “who” part is next. Who will be the target audience - firefighters, driver/operators, company officers, or command officers? One group or all of them? How would you do this? Break into groups by function or tell/show everyone everything? Or, teach to one group and the others are just there to enhance the main group’s experience. The answer isn’t simple but it’s also not complex. If you want command officers to lead there must be people to lead.
Once the instructional plans are developed there is usually logistical support required. NFPA 1403 must be complied with. How will consumables be ordered and restocked? What about EMS and rehab? Does the site need equipment such as a loader, fork lift, golf cart? How will you fuel these? Who can operate them? Many firefighters can do these things but is there sufficient proof of competency to manage risk? The list of these needs can be extensive but must be planned before starting on Day One.
The last two components are scheduling of participants and instructors/support personnel and the pre-event education. Will there be any pre-event education needed? If yes, what will it be, how will it be delivered, and who will ensure it’s done? Regarding scheduling, who/how will you ensure participating departments can still answer their emergency calls? Who decides that? How m any companies are needed each session? If someone cannot make it at the last minute can the drill go on safely or will it need to be cancelled? If cancelled, will it be rescheduled?
So what kinds of things can you do? Facilities and resources are the only limitations. Here are some drills we have run in the past:
- Simulated train versus school bus crash. 40 manikins on the commuter train filled with smoke. School bus on fire. People trapped in car crushed between train and bus. Multiple search and rescues, extrication, and foam operations. Bus was rigged to accept pallets using forklift.
- RIT/RIC skill stations: One station used live fire and manikin. One station had manikins laid out in an obstacle course and each had a different brand of SCBA (Scott, MSA, Draeger). One station required moving a manikin thought multiple obstacles (up stairs/down stairs, out windows on 1st and 2nd floors, through hole in floor).
- Ladder challenge: Multiple companies (engines and truck) presents with multiple victims at various windows and balconies and multiple floors. Setting of priorities, throwing of ladders, removals, and perhaps repositioning of ladders used.
- Standpipe ops: Walk up, flush and dress connection, lay out and charge, then advance down hall.
- Vehicle stabilization: Cars positioned on side, on roof, on another car and sets of different stabilization struts/buttress devices used under direction of SMEs. Goal was to familiarize each FD with what’s carried by other FDs.
SO there you have it. Regional multi-company hands-on training is doable. Planning is required. Logistics are a component. Start small and work towards greater sophistication.