MERIDEN — Last Saturday afternoon, as city firefighters first arrived first at the scene of a heavy fire at 1060 Broad St., that crew of initial responders included not just those firefighters who would enter the building, conduct a search for trapped occupants and then begin fighting the blaze.
They were accompanied by a safety training officer. That officer entered the building with them, to assess conditions, and would later work alongside an incident commander and operations officer out of mobile command center in the back of an SUV, keeping an eye out for changing conditions. In particular, that person watched for scenarios that could jeopardize the lives of those on the front lines of the rescue and firefighting efforts.
It’s a relatively new position, having been introduced in the department 18 months ago. Meriden Deputy Fire Chief Ryan Dunn said the individual assigned to that role “is solely dedicated to making sure the people that are there are safe, and we know where they are. They hold accountability of the scene. And they are able to have a direct impact, keeping the injuries sustained to a minimum.”
So on Saturday, it was the safety officer who alerted other commanders that the wall of the building facing the street had become compromised later into the firefighting efforts. It was leaning. And bricks from the chimney were beginning to fall.
“He was able to accomplish that because he was constantly doing a 360 degree evaluation of that building,” Dunn said.
Before the fire department enacted the program, that responsibility would have fallen upon the incident commander, who would have had to leave their post unattended, Dunn said.
Dunn said the safety training officer is responsible not just for monitoring the overall firefighting conditions, but to watch for little things as well.
“They’re watching for people wearing gloves. They’re watching out for eye protection. They’re making sure that one person isn’t doing the job of three,” Dunn said.
Four firefighters suffered minor injuries during Saturday’s firefighting operations. A boy who was in the building at the time suffered critical injuries.
That victim is currently hospitalized, but in stable condition, officials said. Authorities have not released his age.‘Eyes and ears’
Since the Meriden Fire Department first implemented its Safety and Training Program, the program consisted of four officers, like Cristina Schoeck, who has since become a deputy chief in the department.
Schoeck, in her previous role, would have been deployed with the initial response to calls like the Broad Street fire. She was also responsible for conducting continuous training of firefighting crew members around safety protocols.
“It’s a huge responsibility — to be responsible for other people’s safety,” Schoeck said.
Schoeck, like Dunn, described the position as the “eyes and ears” of incident commanders.
“Where previously it was the incident commander was in charge of everything, both the strategy, tactics, and action plan, plus the safety and accountability, It’s now a shared responsibility by having a safety officer,” Schoeck said. “… We constantly monitor for changing conditions. We can’t have one person be able to monitor everything. The safety officer will go interior with groups to see the interior conditions, so we can report back what the conditions the crews are working in.”
Schoeck described accountability for monitoring personnel as one of the position’s roles during incidents.
“We will always monitor where everybody is and all of their assignments,” Schoeck said.
“It’s a completely different skill set that you have to learn to be able to manage and maneuver your way through,” Schoeck, a more than 20-year veteran in the fire department, said of the role. “But there’s a lot of things we learn when we help firefighters.”
Safety training officers must use all their senses, particularly during situations where visibility is low.
It is a change from former protocols, when incident commanders assumed all of those responsibilities. Captain level
The program itself also will be restructured, so that it has more direct leadership. The City Council recently approved elevating one of its current four lieutenants to a captain position. Dunn said interviews for the program’s captain will be conducted over the next week. A decision on that new assignment would be made shortly afterwards.
Dunn explained that when firefighters respond to a residential fire like Saturday’s they do so with the expectation that there are occupants inside, even if a building was previously deemed vacant.
There could be a child in that building, because it’s in their neighborhood, or a homeless individual taking shelter.
“Whether it’s a suspected vacant home, or a suspected occupied home, we’re searching. We’re looking, because you never know,” Dunn said. “We’re searching every building.”
Dunn said those operations are “physically demanding” and “mentally challenging.”
Firefighters “went above and beyond to make this happen on multiple fronts, from the interior to exterior,” Dunn said. Fewer injuries
The deputy chief said having a safety training officer is a “force multiplier.” WIth that person as the eyes and ears of safety, the incident commander is able to focus on firefighting strategies and tactics.
“By nature of the position, it will reduce injuries,” Dunn said.
According to fire department figures, lost time due to injuries are down since the program’s implementation.
For example, during the first six months of the 2021-2022 fiscal year, city firefighters experienced a loss of 6,851 hours in time due to injuries suffered on the job. A year later, during a similar six month span, those lost hours totals were reduced to 2,649.
That equated to a two-thirds reduction in lost injury time, Fire Chief Kenneth Morgan told City Councilors in December.
Injuries still occur — as firefighting in itself comes with high levels of risk — but those injuries now are less serious.
In addition, firefighting crews have other safety measures in place, including improved monitoring of the airpacks they wear when entering buildings engulfed in flames.
Those packs are bluetooth enabled, Dunn explained, meaning officers can more closely track the locations of individual firefighters. They also receive alerts as breathable air levels deplete, enabling firefighters to vacate structures before they run out of air. Commanders and safety receive those alerts as well.
Those packs send out alerts to on-scene commanders if a firefighter has been motionless for 30 seconds or more. ‘Model program’
Dunn said the Meriden Fire Department’s implementation of the training and safety program places the department on the cutting edge of improving occupational safety. Dunn described it as “a model program,” which he fully expects will become a standard for other departments to follow. For example, the New Britain Fire Department has taken Meriden’s lead and instituted its own program.
Dunn, a 25-year-veteran of the Meriden Fire Department who comes from a multi-generational firefighting family, said the evolving safety measures are a different ballgame from when he first became a firefighter.
“There are things we have today that are light years ahead of where they were when I started here, where my father was and where my grandfather was previously. It is amazing,” he said.
“To be honest with you, you’re never going to knock out every injury in the fire force. It’s a dangerous job. It’s arduous, it’s dirty. There are going to be times when things happen,” Dunn said.
Firefighters on Saturday, knowing they had an individual to rescue, “pushed the envelope,” Dunn said.
“I’m glad we did. There’s a young man alive because a member of this department pushed the envelope,” Dunn said.