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Being on Scene – The Chief’s Desk

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Speaking of fire incidents, outside of wildland, what’s the longest you’ve ever been on scene? For me, it was a commercial fire that went to three alarms. Between fire suppression and investigation, I was on scene for around 14 hours.

CAFMA, Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority, Chief Scott Freitag, Chiefs Desk, From the Chief,

Most long-duration incidents (wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes) build an amazing incident resource network with everything you need. Consider the Crooks Fire; along with the Type 1 Incident Management Team (IMT) came a complete logistics section. Logistics include feeding hundreds of firefighters and support personnel, as well as making shower facilities, bathroom facilities, housing, etc. available.

As you’re well aware, that doesn’t necessarily happen in a typical fire incident. Last week Thursday, just before 1700hrs, a large plume of dark black smoke appeared just east of CARTA. Little did anyone know that the fire they were responding to would last three days.

Engine 540 was winding down for the day, pulling their gear from the engine, when they looked out the bay and noticed the fire. Apparently, it would’ve been very hard to miss. They immediately knew what was on fire – U-Pick-It. How would they know that so quickly? Because of the origin of the smoke and the fact that it’s not the first time we’ve had a fire at the yard. According to crew members, they figured Natalie was on fire again. For those who have not met Natalie, she’s the multi-million-dollar car shredder crusher thing U-Pick-It uses to convert cars and trucks into scrap metal.

This time, though, it was not Natalie’s fault; rather, it was a 30-40-foot-high pile of scrap. The cause of the fire is still under investigation at this time. What we do know from witness statements and security video is that there was a loud boom followed by billowing black smoke. The fire seems to have started somewhere deep in the pile, which created additional challenges.

According to Chief Doug Niemynski, he estimates we flowed a million-plus gallons of water in the initial hours of the fire and used almost our entire supply of foam. Doug served as the Incident Commander for the entire incident. After hours of fighting a losing battle against a deep-seated fire, and recognizing our water supply limitations, Doug made the call to let the fire burn and use water only to contain it to the pile of origin. He also took into consideration the size of the containment pond downstream and wanted to ensure we didn’t overflow the system which would lead to another complete set of headaches.

Ultimately, we had crews on scene for three days in total. The first day of initial attack created a lot of logistical issues that we had not run into before. On the second day, Doug dropped to a one-company-at-a-time rotation to staff the ladder and ensure the fire didn’t escape containment. By the third day, the pile had cooled enough to bring in the U-Pick-It heavy equipment operators to pull apart the stack so we could extinguish the final hot spots.

So, what were some of the logistical issues we faced and what have we learned? This is not meant to be an After-Action Review (AAR) as I was not there, and it is up to Chief Niemynski and Chief Feddema to work through the AAR with the crews involved. That said, there are some things I can discuss that created interesting logistical challenges, and opportunities.

Let’s start with the fact that we now know that the low fuel lights do work as intended on our engines and ladder. Because of your efforts, our apparatus never become low on fuel – okay, let’s be honest, it’s because C-Shift fills them in between the heroes of A and B-Shift being on duty. However, as a result of pumping operations and extended run times, we did get to see the bright glow of the warning lights that first night. A big shout-out to Engineer Gordon Dibble for staffing our fuel truck and shuttling fuel from the gas station to the scene over and over again. We’re fortunate that we have the fuel truck at CARTA; however, the tank on the fuel trunk is relatively small for shuttling that much fuel. Since that evening, I’ve learned that the county and the City of Prescott both have 100-gallon diesel fuel trailers that we can request in the future. We just need to reach out directly to the Sherriff’s office, through Emergency Management, or for Prescott, you can just call PRCC.

One more minor piece of insight regarding fuel shuttling – don’t use one single fuel card for all purchases on an incident like this. Switch it up and pull fuel cards from different apparatus. Unfortunately, when you use the same card for that much fuel and that many trips, it triggers a fraud alert and locks the card. Things we learn…

New diesels that require DEF are stupid – in my opinion. What we know is that if one of our apparatus runs out of DEF, it will send the unit into limp mode. Once in limp mode, and after filling the system with DEF, it will take some time for the computer in the apparatus to reset. Fortunately, we didn’t run out, but we did have to request a 55-gallon drum of DEF from the warehouse. Thank you to Jake Anglin for coming in and getting the DEF to the scene!

We didn’t have any food-related issues reported – go figure. Coffee, water, Gatorade, etc. are usually in pretty good supply on our incidents.

Use of technology is another area that was pretty cool on this incident. Engineer Russ Smith was leaving the Engineer’s Academy as the fire started. He launched his personal drone and caught some great footage. His battery was going dead so he interfaced with Chief Niemynski who ultimately called Captain Karl Postula and requested he bring out one of our CAFMA drones.

They were able to use the technology on the drone to identify fuel tanks situated behind the pile and then determine what, if anything, needed to be done to protect the tanks. Ultimately, he was able to show location and proximity to the pile, which relieved a number of concerns. He then used the drone to help direct water streams onto the active fire in the pile. As a result of the volume of smoke, the fire itself was not visible at times making it difficult to place an effective fire stream.

I have asked Karl to prepare a short presentation for the May Board meeting regarding our drone program, e.g. how the drones have been used and what opportunities exist for the drone program in the future. This includes potential investment in two new drones with better technology. I’d tell you what it is, but that would indicate that I understand what Karl was telling me – and that’s just not the case. That said, it all sounds necessary.

In the end, this was an interesting incident with a lot of learning opportunities. We addressed logistical issues we’ve never had to deal with in the past and we used technology to our advantage. With the little I know, I think Chief Niemynski made some good tactical decisions. Specifically, I think pulling back in an effort to contain the fire was a good move. Not wasting any additional resources, while at the same time being mindful of the potential environmental impact had we overflowed the containment pond, were critical decision points.

There were some interesting challenges with smoke that will be reviewed by the Safety Committee and discussed as part of the AAR. Ultimately, I asked Chief Feddema and Chief Niemynski to ensure everyone who was on the incident fills out an Exposure Report. Shifting winds moved smoke around erratically exposing everyone in the area. To that end, we want to ensure we have a paper trail just in case.

All in all, it was an interesting incident with a lot of takeaways. I do want to say thank you to Firefighters Chris Pena, and Adrian Kumpula, as well as Captain Brett Poliakon, for letting me play with the ladder – I mean go up in the bucket and assist with fire suppression operations – on Friday. I had a great time hanging out. Adrian, please thank your wife for the ice cream.

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