Effective Pre-Incident Planning Reduces Firefighter Deaths

Pre-incident diagrams, like this one, show details that could be important to the fire-fighting effort, such as exits, sprinklers, hydrant locations, utility shut-offs, and so on.

Pre-incident planning is the process of gathering and recording information that could be critical for public safety personnel making life-saving decisions at an incident, such as a fire, terrorist attack, or natural disaster. Pre-incident plans generally include information that will be used by decision makers at a fire or other incident. Property and lives can be saved when the Incident Commander has access to this critical information about the building and its contents.

A huge benefit of pre-fire planning is that it has steadily improved firefighter safety, according to Wayne Senter, recent Chair of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). “What we see is that our death rate in firefighters is going down,” Senter said. “Probably the biggest thing that we’re doing in the (fire safety) service to reduce firefighter deaths is fire prevention and prefire planning.” Senter says formal pre-fire planning has been performed for more than 25 years, noting that the fire service industry has always done walkthroughs of buildings, inspected construction and contents, access and the possibility of a collapse.

Pre-plans Pinpoint Hazards, High Risks

Pre-fire planning is essential, no matter what size your fire department may be. A detailed pre-plan can help the Incident Commander determine what approach to take with battling a fire and how to best deploy firefighters and apparatus at the incident scene. Even the smallest towns contain buildings or sites that require pre-incident plans, especially schools, medical clinics, auto-repair shops, or any other businesses that may use flammable or otherwise hazardous materials.

A detailed pre-fire plan shows a building’s floor plan, doors and other access points, hydrant locations, roof construction, sprinkler and FDC details, alarm panel location, stairwells, utility shut-offs, and occupant contact information, and so on. One of the most critical pieces of information a pre-plan can offer is the presence of hazardous materials, what type, quantity, and location within the building. Ideally, pre-incident plans will list materials located at a site so they can easily be found in the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG).  This guidebook is used by Fire and Police Departments to identify specific hazards and how to deal with them.

Automating Pre-plans Is Goal

In years past, pre-fire diagrams and the associated information were usually copied on paper and stored in three-ring binders in the department’s vehicles. Someone would have to search through the binders to find the pre-plan for the building where the incident occurred. Unfortunately, as binders get full they become more difficult to reference so pre-plans take longer to find. Fortunately, technology is alleviating this problem.

Today, most fire departments have mobile computers in at least some of their vehicles and pre-plans are best stored there. When preplans are stored electronically they are much easier to maintain and can be accessed in seconds with a simple search or automatically from the dispatch system. According to IAFC’s Wayne Senter, “What’s different now is that we have the ability to put this information onto a computer and have it readily available to the responding firefighters. Computers give a perfect solution for how we can organize the data, keep it more current, and access it quickly,” Senter adds.

Pre-Plan Software

Software is now available to help fire departments create building and site diagrams and organize those diagrams into complete pre-incident plans. These plans are then stored on their mobile computers in the apparatus so they can be accessed on the way to an incident. One popular offering from The CAD Zone, Inc. (www.cadzone.com) combines two software programs, The Fire Zone and First Look Pro. The Fire Zone is used to electronically create pre-fire, post-incident, and fire-investigation drawings.

First Look Pro allows fire personnel to compile these diagrams, along with other critical information into an electronic database of pre-incident plans. Once plans are stored in First Look Pro, with just a couple of mouse clicks, the user can locate the plan for any site. Each plan can contain floor plan and site diagrams, photographs, details of the building construction, information on the best way to gain access, hydrant locations, and even strategy notes. A mobile mapping option for First Look Pro provides a street map that shows the location of the call and the current location of the vehicle that is updated in real-time by a GPS transmitter (included in First Look Pro Map.)

Automating Preplans Boosts Efficiency, Saves Time

Pre-inicident plans are not limited to showing a single building. It is often helpful to show several buildings in an area with details of the entire site.

For those fire departments that have turned to software programs to streamline their pre-fire planning, the results have been rewarding. For example, if the city or county planning department already has electronic drawings of commercial buildings, these can be imported into The Fire Zone program and easily modified to create an accurate pre-fire diagram.

The Hollandale Beach Fire Department (Florida) uses this method to gather some of their pre-fire diagrams. “You just remove some of the details (or layers) that you don’t need,” Chief Johnson says. Automated preplanning software is especially vital to the Hollandale Fire Department given that several buildings in its four-and-one-half-mile wide jurisdiction rise at least 50 stories high. Response times to fires are short, making it essential that preplan data be immediately accessible. “Preplanning software has come to the forefront due to limited staffing and resources,” said Chief Johnson. “On any given day here, there’s probably a crew out gathering information for a prefire plan, or updating a current record,” he adds.

Chief Bob Skillman, of the Loveland, Colorado Fire Department, reports that by using The Fire Zone and First Look Pro programs every building in its district will be  preplanned within the next three years. However, says Chief Skillman, “We’ve been fortunate since the city already had electronic drawings for a lot of buildings that we could import into The Fire Zone. We’re trying to work with our building department so that whenever plans come in electronically, we can get them imported into our preplan software program.”

According to Chief Skillman, having their preplan automated helps the Loveland Fire Department accomplish three important objectives faster than ever before: 1) Firefighters can be informed sooner about what conditions may exist within a building they are about to enter; 2) The Incident Commander will know more about the building construction and any hazardous materials so he or she can make informed decisions about what actions to recommend; and 3) Once inside the building, fire fighters can be given better direction about where to go, especially when visibility is reduced by smoke.

Electronic Preplans Are Better Than Hand Drawn

Converting to electronic pre-incident plans has resulted in better quality diagrams and more consistent information than found in the old manual plans. “We’re seeing more consistent drawings,” Chief Skillman says proudly, adding, “When people here do building inspections, they can update preplans, too.” The Fire Zone includes thousands of pre-drawn NFPA and other industry-standard symbols and many other features specifically for drawing pre-plans. These “wizards” are a big help for firefighters learning to create floor plan and site diagrams.

With First Look Pro, a department creates an electronic database of all their pre-incident plans. This gives fire fighters the ability to locate the plan for any specific address and to get information about other buildings near it. For instance, maps and aerial photographs can be added to First Look Pro that show an entire block of buildings and addresses. According to Chief Skillman “We can see where the alleys are, where buildings are chopped up, where a store starts and stops. This is a true benefit to us. We need to know how many apartments, apartment numbers, windows, corridor protections, fire alarm and sprinkler systems there are in these building.” First Look Pro provides an easy-to-use receptacle for all this critical information, and more, making it invaluable at the scene of an incident.

Loveland Fire Department has installed their pre-incident plans on ruggedized computers in their apparatus. The computers are linked to a Computer Aided Dispatch system that is shared by Loveland’s police and fire departments. The fire department applied for special grant funding and city funds to purchase the ruggedized computers for its fire trucks. In addition to the preplanning software programs, the ruggedized computers also will house a mapping system that can be used in conjunction with pulling up preplans of specific addresses.