It all began with a high rise fire at the Phoenix Towers on Singer Island, Florida. Fire crews knew the building and had responded their many times for this type of event, a fire alarm. What they thought might be a routine alarm, suddenly became a mega event, full of the chaos that comes from a high rise building where upper floors are filled with smoke and lots of occupants need help. They also discovered they needed some help too.
The Phoenix Towers condominium on Singer Island, Florida. Photo by Billy Schmidt.
The Riviera Beach Fire-Rescue Department serves the City of Riviera Beach, Florida, which includes Singer Island. The Department has 4 stations located throughout the city, each housing a fire suppression unit and a medical transport unit. Every day there is a minimum of 17 personnel on duty including one battalion chief. It’s a diverse city that keeps the fire department busy on any given day.
The fire occurred at 1721 hours on a Sunday evening in a 25-story residential high-rise building. Initially dispatched to a fire alarm, units arrived and reported “nothing showing from the exterior.” An investigation revealed a smoke detector activation in the penthouse and several residents stating there was smoke in the hallways on the upper floors. Requests were made by the first-arriving crews to upgrade to a high-rise response and for additional units to assist with evacuation. The requests were denied by the responding battalion chief because there were multiple other calls in the city at the same time and their resources were stretched. The crews ascended the stairs and confirmed the presence of light to moderate smoke on floors 14 to 16. When they reached the remaining floors they encountered heavy smoke and several occupants needing assistance. The battalion chief arrived on scene and assumed command. The crews informed command of the smoke conditions and again requested more units for assistance. Command requested that dispatch upgrade the alarm to a full high-rise response and to send additional units for assistance. After some time, the crews found the origin of the fire and extinguished it with a dry chemical extinguisher. Resources from surrounding agencies, including tactical units and command staff, arrived on scene and assisted with ventilation and the successful evacuation of all occupants. There were no civilian or firefighter injuries or deaths. The entire incident lasted approximately 6 hours.
Adaptability is Important on the Fireground
No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. -Helmuth von Moltke
We pre-plan the building and train for the situation. But things rarely go exactly to plan. That’s why it’s important that we are observant and adaptable in every situation. Our preconceived notions about what is going to happen, because we’ve been to this fire alarm before, are likely to change before we even get started.
Complicated incidents, a fire alarm at a high rise with lots of occupants, quickly becomes chaotic when things don’t go according to plan. Critical cues, unexpected things, begin to appear that trigger a revision to our initial plan. Sometimes, the event outgrows our ability as a single fire department to safely and effectively apply the operations and support needed to bring order to the chaos. Building a strategic command team while working with other agencies can be cumbersome, but is necessary to establish a manageable span-of-control and provide for comprehensive resource management. Like firefighters, fire departments must be adaptable.
From Command To A Team
There are new rules for engagement in our complex world, so says General Stan McChrystal in his book, Team of Teams. The ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and its becoming more important in today’s fire service. Mega events, such as high rise fires and terrorist attacks, require new ways to communicate and work together. All agencies, fire and police especially, must learn to break down the silos, work across jurisdictional lines, and master the flexible response that comes from teamwork and collaboration. They have to be able to work as a “team of teams.”
Agencies must learn to break down the silos, work across jurisdictional lines, and master the flexible response that comes from teamwork and collaboration. Photo courtesy of Artie Werkle.
Practicing And Growing Together
In recent years, fire departments in Palm Beach County found themselves confronting more dangerous and complex incidents than ever before, requiring different levels of effort from all agencies and credible emergency management capabilities county-wide. The fire chiefs and training officers in the County recognized this and decided to do something about it. A county-wide command training program was created to improve incident scene management capabilities that would save lives and protect property, combine individual fire department efforts and increase resources, enhance jurisdictional flexibility to handle large-scale events, and provide for a safer, more accountable emergency scene.
The command training was modeled after the National Fire Academy’s Command & Control series, using a case method practice and decision-making exercises. Regardless of size or current capabilities, all fire departments within the County were invited to send personnel, with focus on potential incident commanders. This inter-agency approach would create an environment for open discussion and collaborative learning. The goal was to build stronger command teams to better handle mega events.
Using the Case Method and Staff Ride Concept
Fire instructors teaching incident command often use stories drawn from historic emergency events that will enliven their presentations and illustrate their points. Much of it is lecture with exciting pictures or video and little, if no student interaction or critical thinking. Instead, this county-wide command training promoted the use of decision-forcing cases that would enhance awareness, strengthen decision-making, and empower action from the front line officers.
Decision-forcing cases enhance awareness, strengthen decision-making, and empower action from the front line officers. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.
The purpose of staff rides are to further the development of fire service leaders. They are planned learning events that recreate previous incidents at the actual site of the events to produce a fireground analysis in three dimensions. It promotes maximum student involvement through a pre-study of the incident and the building, an instructor facilitated site visit, and an instructor facilitated dialogue session.
Staff rides are planned learning events that recreate previous incidents at the actual site of the events to produce a fireground analysis. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.
What We Learned From Each Other
The recent fire at the Phoenix Towers on Singer Island was the motivation for the latest county-wide command training hosted by the Riviera Beach Fire Rescue Department. Having facilitated the previous county-wide command training sessions, I was asked to help with this one. Over a three-day period, firefighters, company officers and chief officers from a variety of fire departments came together to review and practice command operations at a mega event. Using the recent fire at The Towers as a case study, participants worked as teams in a strategic decision-making exercise to identify the problems, communicate clear objectives, and implement executable plans to manage a high rise fire.
Over a three-day period, firefighters, company officers and chief officers from a variety of fire departments came together to review and practice command operations at a mega event. Photo courtesy of Captain Steve Trimble.
The incident at the Phoenix Towers was a big event. While the fire was determined to be electrical and not large in scale, the smoke it produced filled ten floors and required the evacuation of approximately 20 residents. Here are some of the lessons we learned:
- Recognize the size of the event and call for additional alarms early to reduce the reflex time for needed apparatus, personnel and other resources on any large building or long duration incident.
- Expand command before the demand. Preemptive actions to front-load a command team will ensure rapid, concise decisions and actions.
- Build trust between strategic commanders (chief officers) and tactical units (company officers) to better evaluate and act on the CAN reports and information provided by on-scene units.
It’s great to see so many fire departments come together for a common purpose. These are the people who will be out there handling these mega events and the more training they can do now, the better success they will have in the future. I plan to continue working with all fire departments to help them build better command teams that will calm the chaos.