By LANDON WOODROOF
The word seems simple enough. Someone who fights fires. Someone who gets a call, slides down one of those poles you see in all the movies, puts on a big yellow coat, jumps on a red truck and valiantly sprays a giant hose at a blazing inferno.
There is truth to that image. Firefighters do, of course, still put out fires. The number of fires they put out, however, and the raft of other tasks they perform on a regular basis has changed drastically.
More and more, firefighters are being asked and trained to undertake jobs that people don’t really associate with the popular image of men in red helmets going into a burning building. This is true nationally, and this is true in Brentwood.
This look at what the Brentwood Fire & Rescue department has in store for 2017 will focus on increasing changes in firefighters’ roles and also consider other challenges and developments that local firefighters will contend with as the year progresses. But we’ll start with fire.
There are way fewer fires today then there were in the past. Numbers from the National Fire Protection Association show that total fires have dropped in the United States from nearly 3 million in 1980 to around 1.3 million in 2015. Looking at just structure fires, those numbers have gone from just over 1 million structure fires in 1980 to around half a million in 2015.
“With improvements in fire codes and standards, with improvements in building construction and building codes, the more advanced we get in technology, the safer we get as a nation,” Brentwood Fire & Rescue Chief Brian Goss said. He added this “is especially true in Brentwood where our infrastructure is not that old.”
Naturally, this decrease in fire incidents annually has led firefighters to adopt new roles and target hazards other than fires in their daily work.
“We can no longer justify our existence based on structure fires,” Goss said.
The numbers show that about five percent of calls Brentwood firefighters go out on are fire-related. About 60 percent are medically related. The other 35 percent are “all the in-betweens,” as Goss put it — things like gas leaks, hazardous material spills, kids locked in cars.
“With such a small percentage of calls being fire related, we’re really responding to everything that doesn’t fall under the purview of another department,” Goss said. “Anything where people don’t know who to call, they call the fire department.”
This diminution of the importance of fire in fire departments’ operations has coincided in recent years with an increase in the national focus on terror-related threats. As a result, more and more fire departments, including Brentwood’s, have undergone training in how to respond to security threats.
The dovetailing of these two trends — less focus on fire, more focus on national security — has led Chief Goss to reimagine the very nature of Brentwood’s fire department.
“We’re moving from a fire department to a broad-based risk management agency,” he said.
Today, there are an abundance of opportunities for firefighters to receive training in emergency management and in how to respond to situations involving terrorism, active shooters or hazardous materials.
“We live in a different world than we did 10 years ago,” Goss said.
One particular subject of focus recently has been domestic terrorism, which Goss says could be anything from a lone-wolf-type ISIS attack to a citizen disgruntled about the presidential election.
“We’re doing a lot more training in that area and a lot more prep in that area,” Goss said.
The idea is not for firefighters to supplant law enforcement figures, but for them to become crucial allies in the fight against terror attacks and similar acts of violence.
“[We’re] looking for a coordinated approach with law enforcement to those types of incidents,” Goss said.
The fact that fires are down and that Brentwood features a lot of newer construction built in compliance with more advanced codes doesn’t mean that local firefighters have it easy. On the contrary, firefighters here face some special challenges related to changes in the way homes are built.
“Just as dangerous or more so as the old construction is the new lightweight construction,” Goss said.
It used to be, Goss said, that homes would be built using solid wood structural supports — full dimensional lumber like 2 x 4s, for instance, would be utilized to undergird roofs and floors. Beginning sometime in the late 1980s and picking up steam in the mid-1990s, many construction companies began to replace that solid lumber with cheaper, more efficient materials that resemble particle board with some strengthening components added, Goss said.
These newer materials “will support the weight of the home fine until the integrity is called into question under fire conditions,” Goss said.
The end product of these materials’ diminished ability to withstand fires is quicker destruction of homes and greater risk to firefighters if a blaze breaks out.
Goss said that older homes built with solid wood can generally withstand about 25 minutes of fire conditions before they start to fail structurally. He added that newer kinds of lightweight construction, however, can lead to structural collapse within 7 minutes of a fire breaking out.
“By the time it takes someone to call 911 and get the fire department there and establish water supply we’ve already got floors collapsing,” Goss said.
He mentioned the recent total loss fire in the Chenoweth subdivision as an example of a fire in a newer home that may have spread more quickly because of lightweight construction.
“We started to make entry shortly after arrival and the ceiling was already starting to come down,” he said.
To counterbalance the fire risk associated with this newer, cheaper style of home construction, Goss supports mandatory home sprinkler systems.
The NFPA agrees, stating the following in a recent report: “Home fire sprinklers significantly reduce the dangers posed by lightweight construction. Fitting a home with sprinklers reduces the chance of death by fire by 80 percent, and reduces property loss by 71 percent.”
Goss said that homes built in certain high risk areas of Brentwood are required to have home sprinklers, but that the city’s emphasis on autonomy for homeowners has forestalled making them mandatory citywide. The fire chief has no direct plans to raise the issue again next year, but it is something that is consistently on the department’s wish list.
“We always push residential sprinkler systems,” Goss said.
In many ways, Brentwood is an ideal place to be a firefighter. Not in all ways, though.
“We are very fortunate in Brentwood to be as financially stable as we are,” Goss said. “Really the biggest challenge we face is dealing with the projected increase in population.”
Brentwood has grown a lot in recent years and is continuing to grow at a quick clip. Although that can be good for the economy, it also means higher call volume and more traffic delays for the fire department.
“[It’s] a tremendously fast-growing area and with that comes people and traffic, and we are in the people and traffic business,” Goss said.
The department broke 3,000 calls for the first time in 2016, and if the trend continues that record will be broken again in 2017. Goss said that the department was averaging between a three and five percent increase in call volume each year.
“It can be challenging to respond, especially during rush hour traffic, especially given the sheer amount of volume in Brentwood,” he said.
Goss would not say whether this increase in volume was enough to make him request a bigger budget and more staff next year, instead stating, “We continue to evaluate our needs based on our numbers and types of responses and present a plan to the city manager annually to make sure that we’re able to continue to meet the needs and expectations of the community.”
Budget discussions will begin in the next couple of months.
A previous Home Page article looking back at Fire & Rescue’s 2016 mentioned the adoption of two new systems that will have a dramatic impact on the department next year. One is a new computer-aided dispatch system, and the other is a new 800 MHz radio system. The purchase and implementation of both were approved in 2016 by the Board of Commissioners.
The new TriTech CAD system, Goss said, “will enhance our ability to work more closely with our neighbors.”
A document presented to the Board of Commissioners about the CAD system described the problems with the old one: “Operating on separate CAD systems, separate call handling software and separate radio systems inherently slows emergency response across the County. For example, from January through May 2016, 569 calls to 9-1-1 were triaged by City of Brentwood dispatchers first for fire response, then transferred to Williamson County to start EMS responders – often resulting in a delay of 90 seconds or more because the same caller and situational information had to be gathered twice instead of being automatically transferred across CAD systems.”
For, Goss this state of affairs was clearly unacceptable. “Not only is that a lot of pressure on the caller who is also under a significant amount of distress,” he said, but having to transfer the emergency call to a different dispatcher runs the risk of losing the call.
Under the new system, this redundancy will be eliminated, and all of a caller’s information given to the Brentwood dispatch will automatically be transferred to the county dispatch.
As for the new 800 MHz radio system, Goss called it nothing less than “probably the most significant improvement in communication since the department was founded in 1986.”
“Right now Franklin is on 800 MHz, the county is on VHF and we’re on UHF,” Goss said. “[That’s] three different radio systems within Williamson County. In order to talk with each other we have to build patches … to communicate.”
The implementation of the new system is projected to cost $22.5 million in total, a little more than $4 million of which will be Brentwood’s share.
Goss thinks the cost is definitely worth it. He sees all sorts of ways in which the new system will improve the functioning of the fire department. He brings up automatic aid districts: areas of Franklin and Brentwood where both cities will send emergency responders. Without the new radio system, those responders from different cities could not communicate as easily. Soon, it’ll be a cinch.
Goss also thought back to the Gatlinburg fires and the firefighters from the area who were sent to battle them. The new radio system would have allowed Brentwood firefighters “to maintain constant communication…even when we [were] outside the patch area” to firefighters from different departments and cities.
There are other plans that Chief Goss has made for next year — other ways to try and make the fire department even better. But he’s not ready to give them up just now.
“We’ve got some things I’d love to talk about but can’t yet,” he said.