San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood separates large-scale emergencies into two categories: situations that keep him up at night and ones that don’t.
When asked about high-rise fires versus active-shooter incidents, Hood is quick to answer.
“High-rise (fires) are easy. Those don’t keep me up at night,” Hood said. “Orlando-type situations are what keep me up at night.”
Hood referenced the mass shooting at a gay nightclub where 49 people were shot and killed and many more were injured in the early hours of June 12.
As mass shootings such as the one in Orlando, Fla. become more common, fire fighters are increasingly confronted with situations in which risk management is key to both victim survival and first-responder safety.
Hood also referenced the 1999 Columbine High School massacre during which 13 victims died and 24 were injured. Investigations conducted in the wake of the shooting found that the police and EMS waited for hours to enter the school. Hours during which the injured, such as teacher Dave Sanders, bled out and died.
First responders in Orlando, too, are now under scrutiny for their decisions to wait for multiple hours before forcibly entering the building and killing the shooter.
But Hood said that should anything happen in San Antonio when the department is tested in such a way, personnel are trained in best practices.
“We are ahead of the curve,” Hood said. “A staffer just went and visited with the Orlando Fire Chief to talk about the shooting.”
The best way for emergency personnel to remain safe, but to also get out victims as quickly as possible, comes down to a unified command system, Hood said, especially when personnel are essentially entering a war zone.
“Police, fire and sheriffs need to share plans and strategies. So we’ve spent time working with the police,” Hood said. “Police commanders and the fire and EMS commanders have to all have those same hard conversations before something happens.”
Hood mentioned differences between the Paris attacks in November 2015 and the San Bernardino, Calif. attack, which occurred less than a month later.
“You look at the Paris attacks and the police and fire and EMS are working together,” hood said. “You look at San Bernardino and you see a lot of police cars with their doors open, blocking the means of egress for ambulances and equipment to get in.”
The fire department has also ordered ballistic gear, including vests and helmets, to ensure personnel is protected in the event of an active-shooter situation.
“Most (fire) departments don’t have that,” Hood said. “We have gear for the Medical Special Operations Unit, but the technical rescue and ladder rescue units will also get them. I was even fitted for them.”
But the Chief is quick to point out that this gear does not mean that fire and EMS will be entering dangerous situations first. Hood said that the police are still in charge of clearing buildings for entry, but this gear will allow fire and EMS personnel to enter more quickly behind them.
“We understand our lane,” Hood said. “But our lane has changed.”
The key to saving as many people as possible also comes down to equipment organization and efficiency of their movements once on-site.
“We have to focus on resiliency for our firefighters and EMS. They have to be physically fit and be ready to do a dangerous job everyday,” Hood said.
The department is currently studying how to stock even more medical equipment in trucks and how to carry it into buildings. In situations with multiple victims, this could include carrying tourniquets and supplies on top of pallets instead of inside small bags.
“If they are only carrying what’s in the truck and (on their person), they are going to run out really fast,” Hood said. “Lessons are learned every day.”
Active crime scenes, however, carry a different set of protocol, specified under the Violent Incident Staging policy. For instance, EMS and firefighters set up triage stations a block away from active situations so that victims can be efficiently assessed before going to the hospital.
Hood says that measures like these are in place because, in today’s world, “It’s not a question of if an incident like Orlando will happen, it’s when.”
But, Hood said, events like what happened in Orlando is why it is so important for resources to be available to first responders.
“There are peer groups, clinicians, physicals and mandatory critical stress debriefings that are automatic and proactive,” Hood said. “The process is very holistic so that personnel who are having a rough time at home … don’t go to work and suddenly break.”
This concern for all-encompassing health also comes into play with the type of situation that, while it might not keep the Chief up at night, is a source of concern for him.
High-rises, which are classified as human occupancy building standing over 75 feet tall, are particularly hard on the bodies of firefighters and EMS personnel.
“Ladders can only reach about 100 to 105 feet, or about seven or eight floors,” Hood said. “And many times with tall buildings the awnings or exterior design block the use of ladders.”
Hood also mentioned that the 9/11 terrorist attacks proved that parking fire trucks under buildings in what are called “collapse zones” can prove highly dangerous in the event of structural collapse or falling debris.
Because of these concerns and difficulties, the City and its fire department worked closely to introduce an ordinance in November 2015 that will require owners to retrofit older high-rise buildings with automatic sprinkler systems.
There are 219 high-rises in San Antonio, and between 30 and 50 of these do not currently have automatic sprinkler systems. The ordinance gave building owners 12 years to reach full compliance. Intent to comply letters by owners are due in November of this year. Many owners are concerned that the cost of retrofitting their buildings will prove prohibitively expensive.
“Sprinkler systems save lives,” Hood said. “We’ve added a high-rise inspector in the last budget who will monitor compliance.”
Hood said that the Wedgewood Senior Ling Condominiums fire in 2014 was a good example of how an automatic sprinkler system could have had a positive impact. The Wedgewood building was grandfathered in Castle Hill’s sprinkler system rules.
“For high-rises we have an automatic response in Bexar County, so we begin responding regardless,” Hood said. “We have faster-burning fires today because of synthetic materials, (so) we have to educate people in buildings and work with building owners.”
The fitness-level of firefighters and EMS is also crucial, Hood said. When a high-rise is on fire, personnel do not use elevators.
“They have to climb stairs and they have to carry all of their equipment up,” Hood said.
Hood said that one example of such a fire was the two-story Wolfson Building, which caught on fire in 2011 and quickly spread to the neighboring 21-story Riverview Towers. The bottom seven floors of the Riverview were affected, but Hood said that despite the high number of firefighters involved, there were no reported injuries. He credits this to his firefighters’ high fitness level and intense training for dangerous situations.
Despite long-standing tensions over union contracts with the City, Hood said that department morale is high.
“What happens away from the table is much more important to us,” Hood said. “Our people know that it is maintaining that morale that is going to carry us through.”
Top image: SAFD Chief Charles Hood recollects where he was on September 11, 2001. He was teaching a terrorism response class to 200 first responders. Photo by Scott Ball.
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