DC Apartment Fire Sheds Light on Need for Unified Incident Command Systems

November 20th, 2018 by CHHS RAs

By CHHS Extern Alison Venable 

“Marines Rush Towards Burning Building to Save Residents.” Versions of this heartwarming headline were plastered all over local news sources throughout the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore region on the week of September 21st. A senior center apartment building caught fire on Thursday, September 20th, requiring the emergency escape of dozens of elderly citizens.

For the days following the fire, news outlets highlighted the heroic efforts of 100 marines who assisted firefighters in rescuing the senior residents. All involved were heralded as heroes. That is until the fifth day following the event. On September 24th workers searching the apartment building found a 74-year-old man inside his apartment on the second floor of the of the complex. The individual was taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.  News reports following the discovery stated that a jammed door had trapped the man in his apartment, but that he was in good spirits when found.

Mayor Muriel Bowser said that building management had called tenants after the fire and that each person was accounted for. Officials stated they used a list of tenants provided by the building’s management company as a checklist to ensure all residents made it out safely. Although it was later discovered that the individuals checking this list did not have visual verification of the gentleman who was left inside, and had instead relied on reports that he was seen by other individuals outside of the building.

Typically, when an emergency incident occurs, such as a building fire, the first responders rely on a coordination structure called Incident Command System (ICS). ICS is a primary function of all fire, police and EMS personnel. Once on the scene, first responders follow the orders of their incident commander and throughout the duration of the response every first responder operates within their assigned role. ICS was created as a response to studies that showed the most frequent mistakes in emergency response were a result of inadequate management more than anything else. The ICS structure has five functional areas: command, operations, planning, logistics, and finance and administration. Within this structure every functional area of the response has a devoted team of responders assigned to it. This structure ensures that no part of the incident is overlooked, because every responder knows who is responsible for what area of response and lines of duty do not get crossed.

Marines, however, do not follow the exact same ICS as the previously mentioned first responder categories. While there are many similarities between the two coordination structures, the Department of Defense follows a staff structure that focuses on mobilizing, deploying, and executing a mission with a separate chain of command. Additionally, Marines are not trained in ICS as thoroughly as domestic first responders because they do not generally respond to domestic emergencies.

While the command systems for Marines and for the first responders is substantially similar, the fire fighters responding to this apartment fire are likely not prepared to respond to emergencies alongside the U.S. Marines. Because of this, there may have been an added level of confusion surrounding the rescue efforts on September 20th that may have contributed to the oversight. This is not to say that the Marines should not have aided in the response efforts; however, EMS, police, and firefighters are trained to respond to emergencies in coordination with each other and that training is lacking between first responders and military personnel. So many Marines assisting in the rescue efforts may have resulted in a ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ situation where the eagerness of the Good Samaritans results in a poorly coordinated effort. Overall, the actions of the 100 marines were undoubtedly heroic and aided the rescue of the residents of the senior center, but this situation gives light to the idea that there may be more of a need for military personnel to and first responders to familiarize themselves with each other’s respective ICS structures, and possibly engage in trainings and drills side by side.

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