Implied Communication, Updated

The following is about a fire where there are some questions within the department regarding the strategy and tactics used. This is only about the fireground communications and not the operations themselves. Link to the fireground transmissions can be found on STATter 911 or one of the individual department websites.

Note, 6 August 2008. After having been contacted by the creator of DC Fire Feed, the source of the tape of the Six Flags fireground radio transmisisons, it should be made known that periods of “dead time”, time when no transmissions are made, have been removed from the recording. Mr. Johnson was kind enough to explain how the recording works and how the actual time is listed. The numbers I list are those from the recording, so a reader could advance the tape to a certain point for a certain transmission. In the real world, as explained by Mr. Johnson, the real time is much longer.

Statement of exterior operations. Tape time 17:26, 22 minutes after dispatch “real time”

Evacuation order. Tape time 19:26, 26 minutes after dispatch “real time”

Knowing this seems to make the communications appear worse than originally thought. Bill C.

On Wednesday evening, July 30, 2008, the Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department was dispatched for a building fire at the Six Flags amusement park. The fire was reported in the Frightorium Haunted House, during park hours. The box alarm was unaltered and brought a preplanned response of four engines, two tower ladders, a rescue squad, three tankers, one water supply unit and one battalion chief (not counting additional career and volunteer chief officers responding). With the exception of the second-due engine, all companies initially assigned were at or above their minimum staffing levels. The structure is described by various individual department commentaries as a wood frame or heavy timber building with a metal roof. The occupancy period is limited. Since it serves as a haunted house, it is only occupied for a brief period in the fall. As companies arrived on the scene they reported heavy smoke showing, followed by fire throughout. The second-due engine (E.846) is the first (radio) to report on the scene being directed in by park staff through the employee parking lot. The dispatcher checks with the first-due engine (E.843) to confirm they know this direction and they reply that they are right behind the second-due engine [1]. Approximately two minute later a chief officer advises the dispatcher that another (?) will assume command and the previous will have the water supply. The dispatcher acknowledges this, assuming by his own question, that the chief officer is on the scene [2]. Chief 843A cuts in that they are not yet on the scene, but are still being escorted in and have heavy smoke showing. Engine 843 soon advises the need of a water supply unit since they have not laid out a supply line yet [3].

As these companies make their way further into the park, the length of a primary layout is estimated, as well as the reporting of the fourth-due engine company having arrived. Engine 818 is reported to have laid out from a hydrant approximately 1,400 feet of supply line. Someone is needed to pickup their line. Four minutes after reporting being escorted in, Engine 843 gives the first sizeup report (radio). “We just want to advise we have heavy fire throughout the building, it’s all in the cockloft, and uh, right now we’re laying out to a hydrant, we have not entered the building, everyone is out of the building.”[4]

What we know:
The first-due engine is understaffed (IC is now minus one company’s manpower)
Water supply will be an issue
Engine companies may have arrived out of order (someone need to pick up the fourth-due’s hydrant)
Not everyone came in through the employee parking lot (?)
The fire building is a loss; there is no need for rescues (or did E.843 mean all of his crew is out?)

What follows next is the beginning of announcements and a declaration of various strategies. Chief 839A asks the dispatcher to make an announcement for all units to follow the employee parking lot and service road around to where units are needed [5]. Before the announcement can be made Deputy Chief 802 requests the dispatcher announce to all units his arrival and that before any units do anything further, for all command officers to report to the building so a plan can be formulated [6]. The dispatcher, not knowing which building, has to ask. He is not answered, but instead, Deputy Chief 802 asks Chief 839A if he acknowledges this (his previous report to Communications). he does and countering his earlier request asks for the units to be at least staged. Deputy Chief 802 concurs and acknowledges writing off the building [7]. A few seconds later, a company reports having established a water supply and making entry into the building [8]. The dispatcher makes the announcement for units to follow the service road off the employee entrance [9].

What more we might know:
We may or may not follow the service road
There may be a staging area
Deputy Chief 802 might be the incident commander (or is it still Chief 839A?)
Chief officers are to report to the fire building (or maybe the maintenance shed, or the human resources building)
Command has written off the fire building
An engine company has committed themselves to an interior attack
The fire has grown

The question about “command’ is settled by the dispatcher when he asks Chief 843A if he has command or who does. Duty Chief 800 answers that Deputy Chief 802 will have “command” [10] The dispatcher then makes the announcement that Deputy Chief 802 has incident command. From the recording time of 11:20 until 15:00 we hear various unanswered, broken and answered transmissions. Two of the three tankers are requesting assignments; wagon drivers are calling for lines to be charged; the second-due tower ladder is requesting an assignment; and the due-rescue squad reports their activities on side Charlie [11].

More known:
Command is established and is busy
Additional units are approaching requesting assignments (remember the plan to stage?)
Supply lines and handlines need to be charged
A second engine company has committed to the interior attack (E.837, 15:00)
An engine company (E.833) is operating a handline from the exterior with one member
The RIC is divided between assisting the above engine company and mitigating an additional hazard on side Charlie

The fireground sectors as well as the final strategy appear to develop after an announcement from the Side Charlie Command. His request for the utility company is coupled with the only radio report of fire conditions other than the initial sizeup [12]. Six minutes after an engine company reports they are making an interior attack, Command is given reports of collapse on two of four sides. Command asks if Side Charlie needs to back out for a safer area to operate in. Charlie replies,

“I wouldn’t have anybody inside this building right now, no one, exterior only. I’ve got crews on side charlie and delta flowing water, knocking this fire down, but I’d go exterior only.“ (17:06) Side Charlie Command

“Communications to Command, are you going exterior only? Do you need an announcement?” (17:26) Dispat

“That is correct; it’s been exterior from the beginning.” (17.34) Command

“Very well, stand by. All units 13710 Central Avenue at Six Flags, exterior operations only, and I also copy the need for BG and E, we’re getting them now.” Dispatcher (17:36)

The rest from this point forward is reports of lines needing to positioned and charged; plan B for the water supply (wading pool); and the need to reassign someone to Water Supply in place of Chief 839A. To comment on any of this would be wrong and is not the point of this piece at all. It is to only provoke thought about our fireground communications and expectations, stated and implied, and what can be heard in the radio transmissions.

Strategy Declared

“Chief 808 to Command, priority.” Chief 808 (19:22)
“Communications to Command, Chief 808 is calling you priority.” Dispatcher (19:26)
“808 go.” Command (19:29)
“Evacuate the building, still have crews operating inside the structure. Evacuate the building, need all apparatus drivers to sound their airhorns, everyone out.” Chief 808 (19:33)
“Command to Communications – “ Command (19:44)
– Evacuation Tones sounding – (19:46)
“All units operating 13710 Central Avenue, at Six Flags, evacuate the building. All units 13710 Central Avenue, evacuate the building.” Dispatcher (19:58)

After this, strategy and tactics appear to progress without a hitch (you decide, the fire didn’t extend and no one was killed, right?). This isn’t about why chief officers had to formulate a game plan; why one engine found a closer hydrant than all the others; or anything else specific to extinguishing the fire. This writing focuses on the “communications” of the fire attack, what you can clearly hear for yourself. It is hard for a department to learn from itself without crossing the line of Monday-morning quarterbacking each other and pointing fingers at small petty issues instead of more important ones. The fire at Six Flags should ask all of us the following about our fireground communications:

What is happening to the initial sizeup and decisions afterwards?
Who is listening to us if Command is busy or being overwhelmed?
If you’re interior and I’m exterior, how do we know that?
If I’m interior and no one knows, what will happen if I need help (mayday)?
If Command doesn’t give you clear instructions, will you choose your own course? Will you tell him?
Can companies be held up momentarily in the beginning and still be aggressive?
Do incident commanders need aides to simply monitor the radio?

At the 9:52 mark in the radio transmissions, an engine company reported making an interior attack. Command believed everyone was operating from the outside and didn’t know until 19:22, almost ten minutes later.

Radio Transmissions Referenced
1. E.846 to PSC “advise the units the escort is taking us through the employee parking.” “Copy, going through the employee parking, Engine 843?” “That’s direct, we’ll be there in about five seconds, we’re right behind them.” (04:34)
2. C.839A (?) to PSC “_____843 (or C.843A) is going to take command; I’ll establish the rural water supply.” “Okay, can you advise what you have?” (06:28)
3. E.843 to PSC “ have heavy smoke showing, on the scene in about five seconds, side alpha; definitely going to need a water supply back here, we have not dropped a line, have to layout uh – .” (06:51)
4. E.843 to Command (08:30)
5. Chief 839A to PSC (08:53)
6. Deputy Chief 802 to PSC “I am on the scene, before any other units drop any lines or do anything else; I want the command officers up near the building so we can come up with a plan.” PSC – “Which building?” (09:11)
7. “That’s affirmative, we’re not gonna save this building – ” Deputy Chief 802 to Chief 839A (09:46)
8. unknown company “ – we have an established water supply, we’re making entry into the building – “ (09:52)
9. PSC to units assigned (09:58)
10. PSC to Chief 843A “do you have command? Which chief officer has command?” “Deputy Chief 802 is on the scene, has command” Duty Chief 800 (10:23)
11. Rescue Squad 808 to Command “on side Charlie, only got one person from 33 on a line back here, we’ll be working with him, we’re also shutting down propane tanks.” (16:17)
12. Side Charlie Command to Command “I need BG and E to get out here as soon as possible, I have two main, underground transformers that are smoking, I want to have them on standby, and I do have collapse on side Charlie and Delta.” (16:37)

Additional Reading
PGFEMS Press Release
Heavy Fire From Haunted House at Six Flags, Co.839/843
Engine Goes to Six Flags, Co.818
Engine 331, 332 and The Tower Ladder to Haunted House Well off at Six Flags Amusement Park, Co.833
Squad 8, Ambulance 88, Chief 8 & 8A take in haunted house on fire, Co.808
Fire Destroys Six Flags Attraction in Maryland,, WJLA
Haunted house a little scarier than imagined, STATter 911

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