In Portland, New York, 10 firefighters were recently transported from a working house fire due to exposure to unknown fumes. Three were treated with Naloxone; all were released from the hospital with no serious illness or injury. That’s clearly good news.
What’s so unsettling is that no one really knows what sickened the 10 firefighters in the first place. Moreover, the fire and suppression efforts left little by way of evidence for investigators to determine the source and nature of the fumes.
In his decades of fire service, Portland Fire Chief David McIntyre said he’s never come across a situation in which so many firefighters have been stricken with illness at one time, The Observer reported. He said there are “rumors and guesses” as to what the firefighters were exposed to while battling the remnants of the blaze, but nothing has been made official.
This is the type of scenario where you would expect to find a leaking container leading to a mass-casualty incident. You would expect to be able to learn quickly what the substance was and the container’s location. You would also expect the victims to be civilians or employees.
The Portland, N.Y. scenario was atypical. The offending agent and its source was never clear. The victims were firefighters working a house fire with multiple departments responding.
We are hopeful that the fire investigation and subsequent after action reports will shed some light on what happened. Hopefully, teaching lessons will emerge.
For now, this incident provides an excellent framework for hazmat-focused instructors to conduct meaningful training in the guise of traditional firefighting training. This scenario offers a wide range of training opportunities from a near exact replica with multiple departments at an acquired house to in-station training. Here are three things to weigh when creating a training evolution around the events in Portland, N.Y.
To enhance the realism, keep the “firefighters down from unknown fumes” component of the training to a select few officers. Make this a wrinkle in existing handline deployment, search and rescue, RIT, and ventilation training. One method would be to instruct the participating firefighters to keep their mobile phones at hand for in-training instructions. At different times, text various firefighters with the instructions to lay down and be breathing but unresponsive.
Engage all levels of the command structure at the fire scene evolution. Interior firefighters will need to recognize and react to their comrades going down. Interior officers will need to assess the situation and adjust fire attack and rescue tactics accordingly. Outside RIT and EMS providers will need to be mobilized. Incident commanders will need to process the information they are getting from the interior and make life-saving calls. Factor in additional resources, civilian exposures and decon. Activate a hazmat response with only the information at hand. Again, the complexity will depend on the training facility, the number of firefighters and the training officer’s imagination.
Carry this training into the classroom after the hands-on evolution. Consider instructing those involved at the scene to contemplate what went right and what went wrong. Then, hold the classroom portion a few days later where a full debriefing can be done. This will allow time for the participants to process and analyze the training. Making that training “post mortem” required will hold the firefighters intellectually accountable and hopefully encourage more of the informal assessment that takes place in the dayroom. The goal is to keep them thinking about and learning from this training long after the evolution ends.
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