One of the easiest tasks to overlook at emergency incidents is providing adequate scene lighting. Firegrounds, hazardous material scenes, highway incidents and technical rescue operations all need sufficient lighting to illuminate work areas and add to the safety of those operating there. By establishing illumination early, many incident operations can be positively influenced.
Unfortunately, none of us get to choose when the alarm sounds at our fire station. And not all emergencies happen during daylight hours. Yet, we must still respond to night-time emergencies and operate effectively and efficiently.
For instance, what happens when your station alarm sounds at 2:00am for a residential structure fire on the edge of your city? Being the closest apparatus, you arrive on scene first and find a two-storey house with smoke and flames exiting the front-side windows. As you prepare for an initial attack and arrival of other companies, one of your members starts a 360 size-up. A few moments go by and you hear a cry over the radio, ‘Mayday, Mayday’. As you and other firefighters rush to the rear of the structure, your hand lights illuminate a large pool with a firefighter struggling to stay afloat. A quick rescue ensues, and the firefighter is saved without injury. Hazard tape and tripod lights go up next to mark the danger. But could this have been avoided? Could this danger have been seen?
Operating at night brings additional dangers to every emergency scene and requires increased situational awareness. Firefighters today face numerous risks and hazards at incidents, but operating in the dark increases the likelihood of injury. It’s a fact that the number-one injury for firefighters is sprains and strains, which can come from slips, trips and falls.
Many of us have woken up in the middle of the night at our own homes and navigated our way through the dark to find the bathroom (perhaps suffering a stubbed toe or two). But, waking up in the middle of the night and having to operate on the side of a dark roadway at a multiple-vehicle accident is a whole other story. Broken glass, jagged metal and flammable fluids are dangerous obstacles at night. And that doesn’t even cover patient care. How can you treat injuries if you can’t see what you’re doing?
At fireground incidents, stumbling over hose lines or falling down stairways are certain possibilities if firefighters can’t see their environments. Potential collapse indicators or structural integrity of a building can’t be seen without proper illumination. Changes in smoke condition may even go unnoticed in the dark of night. But, with the proper equipment, we can shine a light on all these dangers.
Consider your environment
When preparing to illuminate an incident, personnel must consider the particular needs of the operation, the environment/topography and the available lighting equipment. Here are some areas of consideration for scene lighting:
Scene illumination can greatly help crews operate on the fireground. Exterior conditions can be closely monitored and better mitigated when clearly visible. For instance:
- Smoke conditions – Being able to see changes in colour, density, volume and velocity can help incident commanders recognize if things are getting better or worse. It can also help predict the fire’s behaviour and movement.
- Means of egress – Properly placed lighting can not only help Rapid Intervention Crews (RIC) identify alternate entry/escape paths but it can help interior crews identify emergency egress routes by illuminating windows, doors and other openings.
- Scene hazards – Injury risks can be quickly identified with an illuminated scene. Things like power lines, animals, in-ground pools and slip, trip and fall hazards.
- Firefighters – We wear reflective trim on almost every piece of protective equipment we have, and for good reason. Providing scene lighting can help you locate firefighters quicker and add an element to accountability.
Adequate lighting can assist in rescue operations by allowing identification of entrapment hazards, uneven topography and ideal equipment placement. For instance:
- Topography – Very few rescue incidents happen in ideal locations. On the side of a cliff, in swift water, or on the side of a highway. All of these scenarios present uneven and unstable locations with little to no lighting available. Being able to see changing conditions in dynamic situations is critical for firefighter safety.
- Entrapment hazards – Adequate illumination can help identify electrical wires, missing stairwells, unstable vehicles and hidden debris underwater.
- Equipment placement – When setting up at a technical rescue scene, lighting can assist in placing tools and equipment in an advantageous position for quick access and identification.
Hazardous materials incidents
Lighting a hazmat scene can be difficult, but it is necessary to carry out the delicate operations. Product and container identification, technical decontamination and control zones all require illumination. For example:
- Identification – Reading container numbers and product packaging is rarely possible from a distance at night. Hazmat personnel must enter the contaminated area with lighting or send in drones with lighting equipped to identify materials.
- Decontamination – When hazmat technicians exit the Hot Zone they must be decontaminated. Adequate lighting should be set up to ensure their equipment and gear are thoroughly cleaned.
- Control Zones – Because of the dangerous nature of hazardous material, clear entry and exit points must be identified and controlled. Lighting these areas will ensure no unauthorized personnel or civilians enter the scene by mistake.
As with all emergency-operation tasks, we typically have multiple choices on how we can execute them. Scene illumination is no different. Each department must look at their available lighting options and practices with them, just like any other piece of equipment, in order to become proficient at using them. Some departments may have a variety of options to choose from, while smaller departments may be more limited. Some of the available options are:
- Aerial or ladder tower lights – Can be used to assist with suppression and extinguishment, ventilation and occupant rescue. However, prior planning to position apparatus must be considered.
- Apparatus fixed-mounted lights (including lightbar) – Perimeter lighting can help firefighters operate around the vehicle and provide high visibility on roadway scenes. However, caution must be used so as not blind oncoming motorists.
- Mobile light towers (corded, generator powered) – This lighting source is very versatile and is great for providing illumination around accident scenes, inside structures during overhaul, or for lighting a command-post area. These can be used to light a landing zone for medical helicopters as well.
- Battery operated lights (hand lights) – From hand lights to helmet lights and jacket lights, these lights go where the user is and can be hands free. But make sure they are always operationally ready: charged/swapped batteries, corrosion free and clean.
- Vehicle headlights – You can use these initially to illuminate a vehicle accident or help navigate down unlit roadways. Just be sure to turn headlight flashers off.
- Aircraft/drones – In years past, only helicopters could provide aerial lighting of a scene or accident. Now, drones can provide lighting from multiple angles and even provide a means to investigate before sending personnel into an area.
As mentioned earlier, providing adequate scene lighting is a critical aspect of scene management. This means positioning apparatus, requesting mobile light units and assigning crews to set up lighting early in the incident. Think about the environment and respond accordingly.
Being prepared for anything is a basic requirement in fire and emergency services. It is only fitting that we evaluate our lighting capability and train with our equipment on a regular basis for night-time emergencies. Our safety and the safety of our citizens depends on it.
For more information, go to www.littlerock.gov