Retrospect of the 7th Fire Chief Forum

  17. December 2018

Even though the main topic of the 7th Fire Chief Forum of the International Fire Academy on 22nd and 23rd November in Basel was the Railway Tunnel Firefighting Procedure, issues of deployments in underground transport systems were addressed in 15 lectures and tactics sessions which were offered for the first time. The host Christian Brauner has summarised key impressions from the two intense days.

Rail incidents with many victims

Whether in tunnels or on the open track: In the case of rail incidents we have to expect many people affected. If one assumes events such as the train accident in Bad Aibling or emergency trainings such as at the new Nuremberg–Erfurt high-speed line, very quickly several hundred emergency personnel from fire, police, ambulance services and other organisations will have to be coordinated. For this, it is absolutely necessary to have sufficient command support. That's why with railway incidents the command personnel should immediately be increased to cope with the extremely high workload. This early escalation can be prepared ahead in the deployment planning and should also be practised. 

Bad communication as a stressor

In all seven Fire Chief Forums, the incident and training reports confirmed again and again: Communication plays a major role in all operations, but communication in underground transport systems is particularly difficult. Be it because of the great noise of the ventilation systems or because the radio coverage in the tunnel is patchy, or because of the large distances, i.e. the distance between the portals may make it difficult to gather all officers in one place for a joint meeting. Therefore, it should be urged that the radio communication works at its best. And also a must to practice discussing and deciding on complex issues in spite of spatial separation. It is imperative that the railway companies are involved in these "communication exercises", and if possible, also police, ambulance service, etc. 

Psychological stress

We have also learned that: In major events with many seriously injured people, we have no chance of getting away with it "psychologically unscathed". We will not be able to help everyone optimally. There are hard choices to be made, and some of them will turn out to be suboptimal or wrong in retrospect. Here only the debriefing helps, if necessary also several times and also with some time distance to the incident; because the operation can continue to have an effect for weeks and months. 

Suitability is more important than doing it right

Every underground transport system is different, and the fire services differ considerably in their personnel and technical possibilities. Therefore, there is little that is absolutely wrong or right. The experience report at the Fire Chief Forum shows clearly that every fire service has to develop a suitable solution for "their" tunnel, which often requires a lot of creativity. That is why again and again the suggestion stands: For new tunnels, the fire service must already be involved in the early phases of planning. Overall, "tunnel fire services" should exchange as intensively as possible to gain helpful suggestions for their situation from the experiences of others. 

Social Media

Somewhat helpless, according to the feedback gained at the 7th Fire Chief Forum, fire services face social media. On the one hand, we are all learning to use social media as a source of information for reconnaissance. On the other hand, many report about interference during operations by hobby reporters, who in addition often spread false information and/or disregard the personal rights of victims and emergency personnel.

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