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Modular Approach to Emergency Scene Management

Miles J. Schlichte
Captain Gloucester Fire Department Team Leader
Cape Ann Regional Dive Team

During the last 13 years as a provider of emergency services, I have experienced countless events of varying levels of difficulty. Starting out as a firefighter riding on the rear step my duties were simple. Grab the proper tool, stretch a line, put water on the fire, wait for further directions from my company officer. I had four or five basic functions that I was responsible for. Life was easy. Moving along in my career, I became trained in emergency medicine as an EMT and was assigned to the Fire Department Rescue Squad. Now, in addition to my fire duties, I had another set of duties related to medical care. Often at fire scenes my duties would switch between fire suppression and medical treatment. To be honest, most of the time the switch was far from smooth. I remember the frustration of having one officer expecting my partner and myself to perform fire duties while simultaneously another officer would be directing us to a medical issue. I distinctly remember being in a frenzy as I was assigned more duties than I could effectively handle.

Around this time the seeds of how I would run an incident differently began to form in my mind. I could see that the officers in charge of the scene were also overwhelmed with many simultaneous decisions that were often diametrically opposed to each other. While these officers were supposed to be managing the "big picture" they were constantly being beset upon to focus on "little pictures." The common thread between myself working on the line and these officers was the fact that one person can only effectively handle four or five items at once. However, they were trying to personally supervise every step of every incident.

Now I know that everyone reading this is screaming "Incident Command." During this time in New England Incident Command was just beginning to be talked about and it was thrown out the window as soon as the alarm bell rang. Incident Command is far more common now and is better utilized by my department. This is because firefighters who have been trained in Incident Command are becoming officers and are comfortable in the use of it.

I am now an officer responsible for several companies and on occasion work as the Shift Commander responsible for the entire working group. I have the opportunity to employ something I call the "modular approach." This is nothing more than basic Incident Command and span of control policies implemented in a plain English format that doesn't scare off the individual called upon to act as a supervisor of that particular module. Here is an example. At a recent two family house fire that I worked as Shift Commander I had a fully involved attic space upon arrival. I had several immediate goals that needed to be relayed to my arriving companies. I did not have the time to tell them specifically how to achieve those goals. I told my ladder operator that I needed the roof opened. I did not tell him how or where and I did not stop to watch him. He was in charge of that module. I needed to move on. I ordered my Rescue company to search the building and report back. I moved on. I spoke to my attack crew officer briefly about which doorway to use and moved on. How he got water to the seat of the fire was up to him. I have already implemented three modules and had a couple more to deal with such as water supply and utilities control. These I also delegated off to individuals to take care of with only one directive; "I do not care how you do it, just let me know if it does not get done." I now had a chance to return and reevaluate the scene. Had I taken all of my available time personally directing the Ladder company on where and how to open the roof I might have lost the building as other operations possibly would have been delayed while waiting for direction. Now, all good fire companies reading this are saying, "We know our jobs, we would have already been starting our search or stretching a line." I know that to be true and I have been fortunate to work with companies that also know their job and do not need to wait for individual direction. However, I have also been to emergency scenes where everyone waits for one individual to give specific directions for each operation because that is how that particular individual wants to run an incident. I have also seen the catastrophic results.

The modular approach also works in water rescue. As the team leader for the Cape Ann MA, Regional Dive Team, I deal with individuals from several different communities. These individuals are call and volunteer personnel from smaller towns that don't have full time fire departments. They do not deal with Incident Command on a daily basis and their officers do not necessarily arrive at a dive incident. For this type of situation my modular approach works well. Example:

A small boat is witnessed capsizing in the Town of Essex and one person is reported missing. The Town of Essex activates its call department while simultaneously requesting the dive truck from the Gloucester Fire Department. Two members of the Dive Team are working and respond with the truck. One of them happens to be myself. The rest of the team (12 men) are paged out as the truck leaves. They will respond in their own vehicles as the truck is fully equipped. I arrive on scene with the dive truck and am immediately buried with fire, police, medical, family, and press personnel. I am out of my city and at a strange location. Fortunately, I see other Dive Team members arriving. I see the Essex Fire Lieutenant, who is a member of the Dive Team and assign him to be local liaison. His module is to go between myself and the local police and fire. He starts overseeing the local resources as they unload the dive truck to a staging area of his choice. My immediate concern is getting divers ready. The first arriving diver is assigned the module of getting three divers ready for the water. I do not care how he does it. Another arriving member is assigned the module of making sure that the necessary line tenders and their equipment are in place as the divers need them. Again, with no direction from myself. The initial chaos has been directed towards getting equipment in place and divers dressed. As other members arrive I assign them modules that reflect their best talents. I assign my best boat handler to get the boat launched, equipped, and running. Again, I do not care how he does it. A team member who is a local police officer arrives and I assign him to get information on the victim and any other information of note. He is the information gathering module. One of my paramedics is assigned to make sure that the on shore medical team is ready and capable of handling whatever should come their way. As other members and support personnel arrive they are sent to help whatever module may need them.

The point of this little exercise is to show how I try to deal with any emergency scene. As a scene manager, I have to constantly try to keep focused on the "big picture" and not get pulled into spending time looking at the "little pictures." Any emergency service manager will tell you that the hardest part of being promoted is letting go of the hands on action and delegating it to someone else. For me, thinking of any scene as being comprised of separate modules works best. I can then have qualified individuals take control of a particular module and only report back to me if there should be a problem that prevents completion of that module. By doing this the operation is moving forward on several fronts and one individual is not overloaded with trying to make every little decision. Of course it goes without saying that the Incident Commander has to be familiar with and have confidence in the people he is working with. The only way to have that confidence is regularly scheduled drills where scenarios are run that give all participants the practice in being in charge of a particular module.



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