It’s Time to Make Time for Pre-Incident Planning

a large commercial fire shows the importance of preincident planning

Pre-Incident Planning...We'll Get to It. Eventually.

How many times have you thought about pre-incident planning? If you’re like the rest of us, it’s likely not that often. 

Well, why not?

For the fire service, pre-incident planning is the equivalent of going to the dentist. There are a number of really good reasons why you should make that appointment, and most of them are related to preventing a long night of excruciating tooth pain. And yet, we put it off.

Is Pre-Incident planning really that important?

Yes. In letters 100-feet tall.

Don’t believe me? Better put your gut-check helmet on then.

Whenever a U.S. firefighter dies or is seriously injured in the line of duty, whether by direct firefighting activities or related events, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) comes in an does a thorough investigation into the entire event and contributing factors leading up to the event. After the investigation is complete, NIOSH releases their report on the event. These reports are more commonly known as Line of Duty Death (LODD) reports

The simply stated goal of these reports is “to learn from firefighter fatalities and prevent similar events.” 

Filter the reports list down to ‘structure fires‘ and pay special attention to the sections marked ‘contributing factors’, ‘key recommendations’ and (scrolling all the way down), the listed recommendations section.

“...This working fire represented a low frequency event with high risk to fire fighters due to construction features that included on-going renovation work, limited ingress and egress (most windows and doors were boarded up and a chain-link fence had to be breached to gain access to side Bravo and Charlie) limited access between floors (stairways removed and in the process of being rebuilt), highly flammable contents (polyurethane and other flammable liquids, building materials, etc.) and a non-functional sprinkler system. The fire department did not have a current pre-incident plan for the facility…”

“In this incident, the fire department responded to a working fire in a commercial strip mall. A working fire in a commercial strip mall is a low frequency event with high risk to fire fighters due to construction features that limit ingress and egress (fire walls on Side Bravo and Side Delta), make vertical ventilation difficult, may include hidden void spaces above drop ceilings and often contain showrooms full of goods and furnishings that restrict advancement of hose lines. The fire department had an outdated pre-incident plan for a previous occupancy at this structure.”

“Recommendation #4: Fire departments should define fireground strategy and tactics for an occupancy that are based upon the organization’s standard operating procedures. Incident commanders should base the strategy and tactics on the community risk assessment, building occupancy, pre-incident planning, critical building information system, staffing, and available resources….

...In this incident, the fire department responded to a working fire in a commercial strip mall. A working fire in a commercial strip mall is a low frequency event with high risk to fire fighters due to construction features that limit ingress and egress. The fire department did not have a pre-incident plan for this structure.”

These weren’t cherry-picked either. At the time of this publication, this was the top of the list after filtering for ‘structure fires’. 

The NIOSH Completed Reports List Filtered for Structure Fires. Captured Dec. 2019.

Pre-Incident Planning does not guarantee success or safety - but would you rather enter the maze blind or with a map?

Now this is not to say that the existence of a pre-incident plan would have guaranteed the avoidance of these tragedies. Far from it. Those examples also don’t directly say that the lack of planning caused the deaths. 

The takeaway here is that 50% of the most recent reports indicated that firefighters did not have sufficient pre-incident planning for that structure. The lack of which was important enough for NIOSH to document it.

If that isn’t enough, read through the following questions and see if there are any where you find yourself nodding.

"I have been to/heard about a fire where..."

  • A hydrant was missed or the nearest hydrant went unused because no one knew it was there.
  • Excessive time was wasted looking for the gas or utility shutoff.
  • A door was forced only to discover it belonged to the tenant next door/upstairs and not the fire building.
  • A door was opened to a “what the hell is this?” level of modification.
  • Trusses went undiscovered and only luck prevented collapse.
  • Firefighters entered the fire building at the ground floor only to later discover they were actually on the second floor of a building built into the grade.
  • Anything balloon-frame.
  • Hoarder conditions.
  • Businesses storing large quantities of flammable liquids that were previously undocumented. 
  • Large open spaces with confusing rows of shelves or cubicles.

Detailed preincident plans answer all these questions, and more. 

If an incident commander was handed the floor-plan of a large commercial occupancy that has fire coming from the second floor windows on the AB corner, how much better can their decisions be for fire attack?

When the first due engine arrives at a known chemical storage facility, and there is a vapor cloud leaving the building, how much better can their planning be if the structure’s MSDS sheets suddenly appeared in front of them? 

When the first due engine pulls up to the local hotel for a fire alarm, and discovers smoke pushing from multiple doors and people are yelling that there is a fire in the reception hall, won’t the engine be more effective if they knew exactly where that was and the best way to get there while protecting fleeing victims?

As population density increases and modern construction seems determined to injure firefighters, the need is greater than ever to be prepared before the fire happens. 

In NFPA 1620, the standard for pre-incident planning, the authors said it best by writing “a pre-incident plan is one of the most valuable tools available for aiding responding personnel in effectively controlling an emergency…emergency response programs are planned; emergencies are not. The best time to learn about an occupancy is before the incident.” (2015, A.4.1.1)

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