Inside the hall
Between Alarms: January 2015
By Arjuna George
Does this sound possible in your department: a potentially missed mayday call; a firefighter who is unaccounted for; an over-stressed and taxed incident commander; stimulation overload; un-manageable multi-tasking; or bad radio communication? Any one of these situations sounds possible, right? How does this type of fire-ground environment sound instead: a mayday managed quickly and safely; all firefighters accounted for; stress under control; improved situational awareness; efficient operations; and fail-safe communication. Let’s look at how to make this a reality.
By Arjuna George
Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue (SSIFR) in British Columbia operates with a special and unique position called field incident technician – we refer to these invaluable citizens as FITs.
A number of fire departments in North America operate with FIT positions or something similar, but few have made these special assistants formal positions within paid-on-call environments.
Some major cities operate with the FIT model, but the positions are generally filled by experienced fire officers. For us in the paid-on-call world, taking highly skilled firefighters and having them conduct cold-zone activities is a waste of resources and skills. The FIT program allows us to recruit FIT-only members, which allows our firefighters to be firefighters.
The program started a few years back when SSIFR recruited a handful of volunteer amateur-radio operators to assist our officers with radio logs and communications. We quickly found that this assistance role was invaluable to our department’s operations. As we brainstormed options to keep these people, we began to develop the FIT program as it is today. The program is now one of our department’s most valuable assets.
In smaller communities, building a strong paid-on-call/volunteer department is a massive challenge in terms of recruitment and retention. By expanding our horizons and complementing our ranks with FITs, we allow community members to join the fire department who would otherwise not have been able to do so. Fire fighting is a physically and mentally taxing job; not all community members are able to meet these expectations, but many community minded people have a lot of other skills and talents to offer and can provide value to our emergency responses. With declining volunteerism, thinking outside the box is our only way to stay afloat.
By focusing firefighters on firefighting tasks and FITs on cold-zone duties, we have strengthened our membership and, at the same time, enhanced our fire-ground safety.
Our FITs have a niche field of expertise: FITs take care of accountability, staging, scribing, and general command-aide duties. Taking these tasks off the plate of active firefighters allows them to focus on maintaining their core fire-fighting skills.
The FITs at SSIFR regularly train with firefighters, targeting communication and command-aide skills. Our current FITs come from diverse career backgrounds, which lends a variety of skills to the department. The FIT role requires people who function well under stress, are organized and are articulate. As many of our current FITs do not come from a fire-service background, general fire-service awareness is important. The FIT training provides an overview of tactics, equipment, and fire jargon that may be seen or heard on the job, which provides better situational awareness on the fire ground.
As an incident commander, having a well-trained FIT standing next to you, assisting with communication and planning, is pure gold. The FITs also improve efficiency by using checklists, benchmarks, reminders and documentation.
One of the greatest benefits of a FIT is the second set of eyes and ears focused on firefighter safety. Decision making under stress, combined with communication breakdowns, are the leading causes of incident mishaps or line-of-duty deaths. Our department’s situational awareness now has a backup safeguard thanks to FITs. The field technicians operate on a second back-channel radio so they can communicate freely with other agencies, FITs or dispatch. This back channel reduces radio congestion and lowers the chance of missed communication.
The field incident technicians also relieve some of the many tasks for which an incident commander is responsible. FITs support the command positions so the incident commander can concentrate more on strategies and tactics, and more efficiently run the fire ground.
Our next step in strengthening the FIT program is managing the mayday. A fire-ground emergency is often pure chaos, and if a FIT can assist in any way, we expect our maydays will run more safely and effectively.
To launch a FIT program in your department, start with a small group of recruits who are not firefighters. The key is to make the FIT and firefighter jobs distinctly separate so the job responsibilities don’t become cloudy. Begin with simple size-up scenarios so the FITs start to understand the command structure and radio lingo. We chose accountability as our first priority during training. We found that our accountability was inconsistent and that it was a safety concern for our members. Having the FITs focused on accountability was our primary goal. Once you have a core FIT group with a good understanding of the fire service, brainstorm other tasks that they can help your department manage.
Incorporating a FIT program into a department will help strengthen personnel, improve firefighter recruitment and retention, and make fire grounds safer and more efficient. So, how can a FIT fit into your department?
Arjuna George is the deputy fire chief of operations on Salt Spring Island, B.C., and has served on the department since 1997. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AJGeorgefire