Operational crews attending incidents in the early stages face numerous challenges in stabilisation and monitoring a variety of risks. These risks may include unstable structures, high-sided vehicles and damaged infrastructure. Furthermore, the risks are made even more challenging due to lack of training and equipment carried only by specialist/tech rescue crews.
An appreciation of a first-responding officer’s role and responsibilities would be an ideal starting place for this issue, but additionally I would like to provide a very basic guide for any reader who does not possess a fire-service background. This could include equipment representatives, lawyers, firefighters’ families and anyone who has never faced the challenges and demands placed on crews when responding to incidents.
Incident command is a generic term for the management of incidents. Many articles have been published on this topic and no doubt many more will be published about this crucial part of search-and-rescue operations in the future. At its basic level incident command ensures arriving officers are not tasked with too many responsibilities, or ‘Spans of control’ as it is more commonly known.
Additionally, it is also designed to address all risks on the fireground by tasking specific individuals to specific risks, e.g. hazmats, welfare, water. One of these roles would be that of Safety Officer and stabilisation would come under this remit.
With all this in mind let’s look at the type of incident that crews attend. The list is not endless but could include road traffic collisions, house fires, large animal rescues and high-rise incidents.
The Incident Commander has a number of split-second decisions to make. Depending on incident location, crews could be on their own for hours in some areas. In most inner-city areas a technical response could be 25 to 30 mins away or on the doorstep, so timing plays a big part in not only how crews think during the early stages but how their fire appliances should be kitted out.
Stabilisation over the years
During my career I’ve seen many risks reduced not only from lessons learnt but by the provision of better equipment, personal protective clothing (PPE), training and procedures, making the fireground a much safer place than it was in the past.
Stabilisation risk has seen some improvement but it’s not comparable to other areas such as compartment firefighting, tactical ventilation, hazmats and line-rescue. This may be due to the number of incidents where firefighters are injured, but I feel this is a weak argument; anything that can protect our crews, however infrequently, should be standard kit/practice, and crews shouldn’t have to wait for backup.
One area that Stabilisation has improved is at road traffic collisions. Stabilisation is, or should be, a priority for first-responding crews. A stabilised vehicle will increase the prevention of further injury to the people trapped inside and will also provide a stable working platform for crews.
Most front-line fire appliances carry initial stabilisation in the form of wedges, chocks, ratchet straps etc. Some carry specialist struts that form a triangle: one contact on the floor, one on the vehicle and a strap linking the floor contact back to the vehicle. This is then tensioned, resulting in the car being pulled down into the strut, which works really well and creates a virtually immovable vehicle. Attention should be paid to the ground conditions, although these struts rarely move.
Prior to the use of struts, ladders can be used to improvise. This is much more primitive, but they will afford some protection in the absence of specialist equipment. Ladders are placed in the same way as the struts and if a ratchet strap is available then link this back to the vehicle from the base of the ladder and tighten. Care must be taken not to damage the ladder because ratchet straps offer massive forces that ladders are not designed to withstand. Alternatively, use a line and specialist tensioning knots.
On high-sided vehicles, prior to the arrival of the technical rescue crew, ratchet strap the cab down to a blocked front wheel. This is easily achieved by blocking from the wheel to underneath the cab and then ratcheting across the cab roof and down to the wheels. This will prevent the cab from moving. The seats can also be wedged and pressure reduced in the tyres to improve stability. However, tyre-pressure readings should be taken first to provide post-incident information for the police investigation.
A similar technique for crews with limited resources, or at an incident with multiple vehicles involved, is to place fire hose under the chassis and deflate tyres, which is all very old school but has worked for years. Manual stabilisation is also an alternative but with limited personnel nowadays this is rarely a viable option
Stabilisation covers vehicles moving forward or backward following a collision, something that gets overlooked on incidents. Chocking and struts are fine but crews must ensure the vehicle has no forward or backward movement. I once attended a heavy-goods incident involving a cyclists entrapped in the rear axle. On arrival two paramedics, the driver and two members of the public were underneath the vehicle, which was on a slight incline, the handbrake was off and no chocks were in place – simple to miss in the heat of a complicated and emotive entrapment – so chocks and handbrakes were applied, and the cyclist was released with minor injuries, thankfully. Had the vehicle been on a steeper incline then winches, tirfors and chains may have been used to provide initial stability.
Let’s look at some other incidents and methods I’ve witnessed over the years, and also experiences from some of my colleagues in other brigades, namely West Yorkshire, London and West Midlands, though I’m sure they will be similar across the UK. Buildings can become unstable for many reasons: fires, storms, collisions, earthquakes and floods. All will provide different challenges but all need to be assessed as part of the incident command plan. Firefighters work on a hierarchy of risk principle, i.e. they will take risk if lives are saveable. I’ll tell you first-hand that firefighters won’t even consider stability on the vast majority of incidents, if lives can be saved. Look at the heroics and bravery at Grenfell Tower as firefighters entered a severely compromised building without even some of the basics for high-rise firefighting, and all because there was a risk to life. I’ve personally spent hours overseas searching buildings following quakes, with aftershocks every 20 to 30 minutes, up to 7 hrs in some buildings, with only an improvised pit prop as a token gesture to crew safety.
That’s another challenge to overcome: educating crews, which is difficult when lives are at risk. So what options do crews have if a building’s stability is compromised for any of the reasons above? Specialist shoring and monitoring kit is needed but, speaking to colleagues and in my own experience, firefighters will use whatever they can get their hands on. A good friend of mine, who served nearly 40 years in London Fire Brigade, told me about the use of scaling ladders, an interlocking hardwood ladder 2m in length, strong as pit props and great for supporting columns, walls etc. Other examples include two short extension ladders underneath a roller shutter and a washing machine in-between floors on a pancake collapse following a quake in Turkey.
Cribbing is a fantastic, cheap and effective way of providing stability in all sorts of situations, and involves stacking wood in various configurations depending on the situation. So long as the material used isn’t rotten and a minimal overlap is built into the crib stack then cribbing can be very useful. A maximum distance governs the height of these crib stacks to prevent them falling over, but if built uniformly on stable ground, they provide a fantastic work platform.
For buildings, technical rescue crews will carry very expensive rescue struts, which are easy to use and very strong but which take up a lot of space. Hence they are stored on specialist trucks. Acrow props can provide an interim measure but are not rated for rescue.
Trench rescue is luckily a rare incident for attending crews but is one that possibly presents the greatest danger. Generally, a trench is an excavation deeper than it is wide, and presents all sorts of dangers. Crews will enter if lives are saveable, and low-pressure airbags, ladders, hydraulic rams and on-site plant can all be used to prevent further collapse but only in extreme circumstances. If the casualty is deceased or buried, then without a full trench rescue cell in place and monitored the justification for entry will be difficult.
I hope the above illustrates the possibilities to first-attending crews. They are limited, but with regular training actions can become second nature. In Manchester technical rescue teams regularly train alongside operational crews; they know what kit is available so can plan prior to arrival.
Monitoring the stability of all the risks crews can encounter is as vital as stabilising them in the first place and sometimes can be the only option. For example, large unsupported walls that could fail need monitoring if crews have no option but to work within the risk area. Monitoring gives an early indication to crews if the risk monitored is becoming more unstable. Unfortunately, and unbelievably, most crews still rely worldwide on a Safety Officer with a whistle.
Firefighters are brave, committed and professional individuals who will put their lives on the line for others. They will enter unsupported and unmonitored risk areas simply because they have done for nearly 200 years, but surely things need to change?
For more information, go to www.wasp-rescue.com