Firefighters and hospital staff train to fight multi-story blaze
■ Melissa Diaz Hernandez / Editor
A planned, joint emergency drill occurred at Hemet Valley Medical Center (HVMC) on Thursday, April 26. American Medical Response (AMR), the Hemet Fire Department (HFD), Riverside County Emergency Management Department (EMD), Cal Fire, Soboba Fire Department, the Hemet Police Department (HPD) and HVMC coordinated a drill that included smoke (fog machines), staged injured-patients, and a front-row seat for media.
According to Hemet’s Fire Chief Scott Brown, it has been a few years since first responders and the hospital have planned and staged an emergency response drill, stressing that operational planning is necessary when responding to emergencies at a six-story hospital that holds up to 300 patients. The planning for this drill started in the early part of this year.
The planning included a number of stakeholders including HVMC Vice President of Facilities Keith Garrison, HFD’s battalion chiefs, the emergency services coordinator, and AMR. Together, they worked steadily over the last several months on pulling the drill together.
Drills of this nature are necessary for the hospital’s accreditation. It is also necessary in order for the fire department to improve its emergency and special hazard operations, which requires a lot of resources, communication and a well-executed plan.
Garrison has done similar drills with his team at the hospital and this was Brown’s first time in his tenure with HFD putting all the components and plans into motion.
The plan utilized in this drill was created collectively by the fire chiefs in Riverside County, according to Brown. They all worked together to develop and improve operational plans. Due to its collaborative nature, the same plan would be used by the fire department in the city of Riverside. Executing the same plan ensures continuity among county-wide departments, making it easier to work together. If a large fire were to occur, it would require 100 firefighters with about 30 or more engine companies, a significant use of regional resources.
Backup from other departments
If HFD were to need to send four engines and one truck, it would strip the entire department, and retrieving additional resources from surrounding areas would be necessary. Brown stated that they could have to go deeper than that for resources depending on the severity of the fire and firefighters required to contain the fire. The main thing, said Brown, is that we want to test the department’s performance and ensure a clear set of objectives for coordinating a response to a fire at the hospital. It is also crucial to integrate the hospital staff into the plan. In development phase is a special-area hazard response plan.
Should a fire occur at the hospital, the doors of each floor will close to keep the fire as isolated to the region of origin as possible. A fire protection system is in place, and when the fire alarm is activated and confirmation of a fire has been received, then the doors (by code) are required to shut, said Brown. The doors are fire-rated and are designed to prevent the fire from spreading.
Dealing with smoke
The smoke, however, presents significant challenges in evacuating patients or sheltering in place. Firefighters are capable of entering and assessing the location of the fire and hospital patients and determining the best way to extinguish the flames.
Once firefighters have arrived on-scene, the captain meets with hospital staff for a quick report on where the fire is located. The captain begins the process of requesting additional resources, going to the fire control room and evaluating the incident’s structure.
The captain determines the best access to the fire. Firefighters then go to each floor and conduct a quick search.
As the incident commander takes charge—the fire chief and/or battalion chief—coverage for stations is initiated to ensure that five engines are covering the city of Hemet and that mutual aid goes through county dispatch and is executed by sending those resources to the stations for coverage.
AMR, integral part of the plan
AMR was on-scene outside to triage patients for injuries and provide immediate care. Brown said HFD benefits from its partnership with AMR, which plays a large role in EMS and in emergencies like this by providing medic support and some coverage within the city.
During the drill, once firefighters reached the origin of the staged fire on the third floor, they began searching for patients. The floor was filled with “smoke” from a couple of fog machines. Important to note is that this drill was done without the heat from a fire.
Limited air supplies
Firefighters have 30-minute air bottles, which can be used up faster when you add stress and the physical labor needed to climb six floors. Emergency lighting is installed but sometimes fails. High-rises are physically and logistically challenging to support. Established two floors below the fire floor is a staging area where firefighters start pushing equipment, relief personnel, air bottles, etc.
As the firefighters were inside “rescuing” patients, firefighters on the exterior, who were led by Brown and Battalion Chief Kevin Kuhlman running the incident command post, prepared the ladder truck for access.
Brown and Kuhlman ran the accountability board—a simple, non-technical way of tracking the location of all firefighters on-scene.
Role of the ladder truck
HFD’s ladder truck serves as a key piece of equipment in emergencies, particularly with multi-level structures like HVMC. The ladder truck may be used for physical rescues and to allow firefighters access to the roof so they can open the roof and ventilate smoke and heated gases if needed. Firefighters can cut a hole in the roof and clear the environment, allowing for better search and navigation. This also provides an additional egress for firefighters in the event the escape routes become blocked or unsafe for exit. Brown said firefighters try to have a minimum of two escape routes. “Firefighter safety is number one,” said Brown.
Hemet City Manager Allen Parker and City Councilman Russ Brown were also in attendance. Councilman Brown experienced the drill alongside media representatives. One of HFD’s firefighters, Peter Minton, led reporters and Brown through the drill to ensure everyone’s safety. Minton also provided information as the drill progressed, and answered any questions.
The Murrieta Fire Department sent an engine company to Hemet’s Fire Station 4 for coverage while HFD pulled resources for the drill. While Hemet’s entire fire department was committed to the drill, a reserve engine was utilized for the in-peak demand.