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June 10, 2011 > Organizing chaos

Organizing chaos

By William Marshak

All senses go on heightened alert when there is a hint of smoke in the air. Is it benign... a campfire, barbeque grill or something threatening? Mankind has a complex relationship with this natural element and can embrace its presence or fear it. When controlled, flames inches away can be a source of warmth and comfort yet "friendly" flames can quickly turn deadly.

No one knows about this fine line between friend and foe better than those trained in fire-fighting techniques. Demonstrations such as "Fire Ops 101" held by the Alameda County Fire Department earlier this year and more recently, Fremont Fire Department, reveal the meticulous planning and training necessary to combat uncontrolled fire. Actions follow a distinct plan called an "Incident Action Plan" under the coordination of an Incident Commander. Even a drill is meticulously planned to observe "Standards of Coverage," making sure that all units involved are aware of and work within their roles.

As an example of fire-fighting techniques, a simulated apartment fire drill held by the Fremont Fire Department June 3, drew response from truck companies, an engine company, command personnel and an ambulance unit. Although smoke indicated trouble, critical assessment and attack plans were coordinated for an efficient response: victims must be located, water made available, ventilation issues considered, property protected and always safety procedures for everyone, including firefighters, remain a top priority.

An intricate sequence that Fremont Fire Chief Bruce Martin likened to herding cats brings seeming chaos into clarity through a "layered response." As firefighting units arrive in a predetermined sequence, each member of the assembling fire fighting team knows what to do and what can be expected from their counterparts. As little as possible is left to chance as building plans are scrutinized and firefighters in heavy protective gear with oxygen and face masks prepare to enter an unfamiliar landscape filled with smoke, heat and danger. Superheated rooms can suddenly burst into flame - flashover - and incinerate everything within. These situations call for total concentration, flexibility and knowledge of procedures that may be necessary for firefighters to not only put out a fire, but save their own lives as well.

Following the exercise, a trip through the murky interior gave a hint of how difficult maneuvering must be when confronted by heat, smoke and danger while hauling heavy equipment to combat a blaze. To adequately explain the presence of the variety of fire equipment at the scene of a blaze is difficult in the scope of a single article. As a result, each component of fire and emergency rescue operations will be outlined in a series that will begin in July.

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