About This Episode: Assistant Chief Brandon Wade from Austin Fire Department, and Deputy Chief Chris Costamagna, from Sacramento Fire Department, join Chief Keys to discuss how their departments respond during recent protests and the growing civil unrest in their areas.
About Our Guests:
With over 22 years of experience with the Austin Fire Department (AFD), Assistant Chief Brandon Wade currently leads the Emergency Operations Division and Communication Division within the organization. Chief Wade has served on engine and truck companies throughout his career and spent years as an officer in the Special Operations Division serving on both Engine and Rescue Companies. Chief Wade has overseen numerous divisions through the years as a Chief Officer from Special Operations, Homeland Security, Training, Wildfire and Recruiting. In addition to his AFD fire service, Chief Wade has served with Texas Task Force 1, FEMA/State Urban Search and Rescue, since 2013.
Deputy Chief Chris Costamagna supervises Fleet, Facilities, Logistics, Information Technology, Communications and Support Services at Sacramento Fire Department. He’s currently a Urban Search and Rescue Task Force Representative, and educates fire departments on Nobody Gets Left Behind (NGLB), Ladder Operations, High Rise Operations and Searching, with thermal imaging cameras (TIC). Deputy Chief Costamagna served 8 years as a western representative to FEMA for all 28 national teams.
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Rapid Fire Episode Transcript:
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Rapid Fire, a podcast hosted by Fire-Dex, dedicated to sharing best practices and lessons learned in hopes of making firefighting a little bit safer. I'm your host, Bob Keys, a retired Battalion Chief from FDNY. We're fortunate to be joined today by Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, who is the Chief of Operations and Communications at the Austin Fire Department, along with Deputy Fire Chief Chris Costamagna, who is the Chief of Technical Services at Sacramento Fire Department.
How are you gentlemen doing today, Chris?
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:00:34] I'm doing very well today. Good to hear everybody out there.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:00:38] Brandon. How are you?
Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, Sacramento Fire Department: [00:00:40] Oh, doing great down here in Texas. Very happy to be on with the Chief Costamagna. And looking forward to this a great conversation here.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:00:48] Well, thank you both for your time. I really appreciate it. I realize that your department's both have some big demands of you both. I know that speaking for the rest of the firefighters across North America, we really appreciate the time that you're giving them to share what you guys have learned in hopes of making a difference in the challenges everybody's facing across the U.S. today.
So today we're going to discuss how fire departments in big cities, operate during times of civil unrest. Well, Sacramento and Austin are capital cities in two of the biggest states in America, both have seen many protests occur with some resulting in violence and arson fires in very hazardous environments.
This is a very hot topic. Before we get started, I’d like to ask each of our participants to take a minute or less to tell everyone listening an interesting fact about their firefighting career, Chief Costamagna?
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:01:38] For me, I guess I'll go back being a young firefighter, 9/11 happens. And like most people think everybody lives on the beach in California.
I was in Santa Cruz actually at the time, California with my parents and my young family. And we ended up responding that day to New York City. What's interesting about this is everybody knows about 9/11 and we're starting to teach it in schools now because it's become part of history. But, I set the tone for the rest of my life and the rest of my career, working with urban search and rescue teams, becoming a bigger part of that, responding to different disasters across the country from Katrina to super storm Sandy, and then Harvey and Puerto Rico.
Most recently last weekend, even got my brother out the door with the team to Hawaii. So that's become a big part of my career. Then I went to Harvard and NPS learning about managing crisis and then leadership and crisis. And that's just the second part of my career every day in the fire department, I'm a Deputy Chief I'm in charge of communications. Fleet services and logistics. So it's getting the stuff to the guys that need to do their job. But I guess that one big event kind of shaped my whole career.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:02:48] Well, thanks chief, if I hadn't said so before, thank you very much for the sacrifice, you and thousands, tens of thousands of firefighters across America made to come and give us a much needed hand.
Not only searching for survivors, but also being able to give dignified line of duty funerals by helping stand up the multiple events going on every single day. Thank you. Thank all of the, US&R teams that continue to do the great job that they do. Chief Wade, could you tell us some interesting facts about your firefighting career?
Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, Sacramento Fire Department: [00:03:15] Yeah, it, kinda leads into what Chief was just saying, and also the topic that we're, we're talking about today. So I can go back to when I first joined the fire department. And as we look at this, how things just open up and we don't know what we're in for, but you got to take advantage of the opportunities that come our way, you know, I'm, I'm born and raised a San Antonio boy.
And when I was first thinking about getting into fire department, even just considering it, not knowing what really it all entailed, I thought I would be in San Antonio, and my girlfriend at the time, wife now of over 20 years said, you know, it may be a little harder than you think to get in. You should go try some practice tests.
And I went up the road here to Austin, just thinking, I'd give a little practice test, to be able to go and try it with San Antonio and 22 years later, I'm in Austin still. You know, so it's like that practice test that you think you're going to do and just see what something is. It can turn into something really great.
And I am so fortunate that I have been able to be a part of this organization, which has led me to, you know, work from engine companies, to truck companies, to going into the special operations and then like chief serving on Texas Task Force One. I believe part of that organization, like the doors open and you got to take advantage of those opportunities and also adapt with the things that are coming.
You know, that's part of what we'll talk today about is how do you adapt in the new environment? And don't look at everything as just this worst challenge and what are we going to do? But it's an opportunity for us to improve not only our organization, but ourselves, and maybe make a really big difference in your local community or as a chief was saying, make a difference all the way across the country.
In many different aspects. So, I'm just blessed to be part of the fire service and definitely part of the Austin Fire Department.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:05:05] Awesome. Thank you for your service, not just to Austin, but serving on these US&R teams, making a difference in disasters across the world. It's great work that both of you are doing, and we're lucky to have you guys both here to share your experience with us.
Now let's get right into this challenge that you and many other cities are being faced with, how can you safely operate at a structure fire when there are active civil disturbances or even riots ongoing right in your area?
Chief Wade, can you start us off with some background regarding previous experiences with this challenge and how your department is taking precautions today.
Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, Sacramento Fire Department: [00:05:38] Being a capital city, a lot of times that can lead the central area in stage to, a protest or rallies happening at the capitol. You know, we've seen that here. It was about three years ago is when, I guess the elections were first happening, we started seeing quite a bit of rallies happening in protests around the capitol, and of course the city of Austin streets, around the state capitol. And it was at that time we looked at, you know, how do we face the challenges with it? We were very blessed to have a fusion center here in our Austin Regional Intelligence Center. And they do assessments on, on just various, you know, events of maybe threat assessments, just for, you know, for the safety of the people that are coming.
And when we started to look at that, we said, well, how do we keep people safe? How do we have the best response during these protests and rallies that can have thousands of people. So, we had been working with the Austin Police Department for a number of years before, and this type of civil disturbance and mainly with the rescue task force concept for active shooters.
And as we looked at these protests, we were not quite as concerned about large building fires as we were about maybe, a violent act that takes place or maybe some car fires or trash fires, and how do we get around in these crowds when a fire truck is hard to get in. So, when we sat down and talked about it, it was instead of waiting for the incident to occur.
Why don't we set up these kind of what we said was "pre-staged rescue task forces" for the potential of if violence occurs in these, these crowds that we can actually get in and provide medical care to citizens, to officers, to whoever needs it. So we started putting that together in those protests and we realized that not only was the training that we did beforehand, extremely beneficial, but just getting together and starting to run those first pre-stage rescue task forces, it really started building the relationship.
Let us start to fine tune. How would it really look like if an incident occurred? We were very fortunate. We didn't have any incidents occur during those protests, but we realized the concept work that we had a mobile force already together. We didn't have to wait for a staging for a command post to be set up. It was all already done. And as we've moved forward, we knew we have some large, special events here in Austin, and as you mentioned, South by Southwest, that we have had violence around it. So, we moved that concept of, for the protest, let's put it into this large scale event that happens with thousands of people and the streets are blocked off.
Fire trucks can move in there really easy, even though we have fires set up is just so many people. When we put that into play at South by Southwest, the first time, we ended up seeing a number of shootings. And we were able to deploy those pre-stage rescue task forces in the, almost the same environment of thousands of people, chaotic situation.
And they did direct patient care in one incident within 40 seconds of a multiple gunshot victims for tourniquets and dressings. And we realized that concept now truly worked. So when this occurred, when the civil disturbance that we're talking about today occurred, we already had the system in place and we were able to just kind of transition it to, as we saw fires occur around the country to say, okay, we have this team in place for violence, but now if a fire occurs, how do we coordinate that?
Thankfully, it was just working out smaller details because we've been working together now in this type of environment per se for almost three years. So it really set the platform for us.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:09:19] Thank you very much for sharing that interesting information. So Chief Costamagna, how does Sacramento fire pre-plan for potential riots and arson fires? And did you have any firsthand experiences in this past couple of months where you had to take extra precautions during fires?
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:09:36] Yeah, so we had much the same as Chief Wade has. We're a capital city. We have interesting protests every week and we also have a fusion center here in Sacramento. So, we work very closely hand in hand with the FBI.
We have, two captains that work as investigators for the FBI, they're actual marshals with the FBI. So at the upper level, we have the high end intelligence like Chief Wade was talking about, and we also crossover with PD who has much of the intelligence that we need to get the day to day intelligence on who's in town.
What's happening at the capitol. They keep us abreast. And over a year ago we had a shooting in Sacramento that had a lot of protests surrounding it, and we kept kind of refining what we were doing. But when we saw what was breaking out across the country, we kind of changed up. And it's actually an older model that I'll give credit to LA City for developing it back in the sixties (1960s) and in their rats during the sixties, they have a task force model different than the rescue task force.
It was more of a firefighting task force. And then we adjusted it again. It's comprised with two engines, one truck, and then LA City does it a little different, but we had two medic units to here in Sacramento, and then we develop what we call the box, the area of operation. Task force is assigned to that, and sometimes we had 2-3 task forces up when it was widespread.
And we did have several fires on about three nights that I'll come back to, talking about how we did that. But first of all, I'll talk about is, how we have a master mutual aid system in California. Our law enforcement here locally was tapped. It had been out for about a week and there's not enough police officers in Sacramento or sheriffs in Sacramento County.
So they plug into the master mutual aid system and they get sheriffs. They get law enforcement from all over the state to come in and back fill their typical job. And part of that was forced protection, for the firefighters. We were really in a support role to the Sacramento police department. They have their hands full protecting city hall, the state capital's protected by the California highway patrol, and then the sheriffs were protecting the, the jails, sheriff's in charge of the jails. So, everybody was kind of spread thin. We had actually law enforcement from California fire protecting our guys most nights. One other thing I'll add in is we have a ford observer for each task force, and it's somebody who knows the city well knows the back alleys, knows how to get close, but not too close. And they would get in and check, and one of those nights, I was doing that, and we had fires in opposing corners of a block, long building, five story building, and we were able to get in quick. Take a look at it, clear it for the task force and the task force was able to come in, knock down the fires.
But the key thing there, it's a big building that's stretched across an entire block, keeping the task force tight and close to the force protection law enforcement officers can protect those guys. Typically, we would spread out our operation a little more. We did it on these nights and we just knocked the fires down.
Where's the fire sprinklers in the building. One of the buildings was a sprinkler going where's the sprinklers. So, they could still be somewhat operational if they needed to be. We weren't taking the sprinkler system out and shutting it off. And we moved around like that for over a week, I guess, the best way to put it as we took something that worked in LA and worked well and modified it for Sacramento. And then we had our Tim's team on call as well. There were staged at a central location in the city that's tactical EMS team. And they were working hand in hand with law enforcement and our officers, they did take a beating. Then he made, they literally, we have a captain that got hit in the face with a clay ball.
We had all kinds of unique situations and we were dealing with protesters, most of these, but a handful of bad actors that were in town to do damage, to hurt people. And, in general, the Sacramento Police Department does an amazing job and the Sacramento Fire Department, we, we just we're there to support them.
And we had a few things that we had to deal with, some fires, a decent fire, and a big clothing store ,Macy's, and our plan, as it unfolded, we kind of refined it. The first night and the night's coming and it kept working. And in fact, this weekend, Saturday night, we had a popup protest with a bunch of, bad actors.
Again, a hundred people can do a lot of damage, but we were able to establish a task force. Battalion chief can establish it right away. They call back to dispatch and let them know that they're establishing a test task force. And then that battalion chief actually dispatches the task force within the box that we talked about, it's not the dispatch center doing it.
They call him on his radio and he makes it dispatch after he knows it's clear. One of the other things we did have that was very useful for us. And I think we're going to talk about it a little bit, we don't have a drone program in Sacramento, it's in its infancy, but we do have a broad web of traffic cameras that we can look 360 degrees at the intersections, so we were watching people move through the city and you'd see the groups of people pop up and we could take a look at them from our real time traffic center.
So we put an incident commander in the real time graphics center, so he could see firsthand the incident that we were running and what was going on, and he pulled the task force in place until he felt that safe or the forward observer gave an all clear. So it worked out really well for us. And we'll continue to refine that. There's always changes. We're always making changes to the task force concept.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:15:24] So chief, if I could ask you a quick question about a term you shared with me recently, "the bubble", how many police officers would you require before you would send a task force or send any one of your units into an area where there's a report of a fire?
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:15:39] We had a minimum of 4 to protect the task force the way we were convoying the task force. And that was two officers on each end of the task force, and keeping them close within, you know, if our city blocks were 300 feet long, the task force is smashed in within a hundred feet of each other on like the, what we would call the alpha bravo corner or the alpha delta corner.
So where we would take the block, and we laid that out in a briefing in the morning, we had law enforcement in early because they weren't Sacramento police officers who were familiar with our day to day operation. So, we did just in time with not only the officers, but our crews, we were a very transient department by nature. Our firefighters work on medic’s engines and trucks and 50% of their times on the medic and, 50% of their times on the other apparatus until they get enough seniority. So, we were briefing every morning at nine o'clock before the operations, which typically start in the evening, we had a curfew after curfew is when things would heat up a little bit, so to speak.
So that bubble was as little as four and as many as six officers, sometimes it was up to 15 officers to clear a street. But we still came in with our dedicated force protection, protecting agent, truck, and medics. And the other thing about the task force concept, the incident commander could say, Hey, I just need an engine and a medic to this incident to get personnel.
So we call that a light force, and again, that's an LA city term. And you're not splitting up the task force entirely, but you're splitting it up long enough to render care, but you don't leave the task force unmanned. It's still staffed with the truck, the other engine and medic. So, you're covering that whole area still, and you just handle it with a smaller group of people, easier to protect.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:17:40] That's excellent.
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:17:41] We're still operating that way today. Right now.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:17:44] And probably will be for the rest of the summer, at least, is that correct chief?
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:17:48] Yeah. Yeah.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:17:49] It seems that way.
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:17:50] We have more video and other shooting that happened the other day that was released yesterday and we expect in the coming days, we'll have protests overlap. So, we just continue to prepare and keep the citizens safe and protect our guys.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:18:07] Well, thanks for sharing that. Chief Wade, can you tell us about your department's use of drones and how they help with your responses?
Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, Sacramento Fire Department: [00:18:14] Yeah, absolutely. And I want to take a step back kind of what we were talking about. Chief was just talking about, we we've been fortunate not to have as many, like the building fires with it and, and we've heard of that concept, that task force concept, and we really like it.
We didn't end up having to move that direction, we did dedicate a unit downtown solely for that type of response, but we really do like that concept and seeing it work more than one place, lets us evaluate it and see how we implement that here. So, thanks for sharing that.
And then along with, like what we were talking about with, having those rescue task forces and working with the police, we have had a drone program. We call them our red team. It's a robotics emergency deployment team. We've had them. Working a lot with the wildfire arena, trying to help us out on some of the special operations calls for quite some time. And it's been hit or miss right, to try to get people to have the buy in of what can the drones do for you and your organization, or you as an incident commander?
Well, when these protests heard it happening and then again, as there were some violent offenders within that protest that was causing a lot of the issues. When that popped up, we thought we need that situational awareness because like many other places, the protest never just stayed in one place. It would start at our Austin police headquarters, which is right next to the major highway.
And the large group would either go up and block the major highway, or then they would move into the downtown streets and then go to the capitol, so it was a constant moving group and sometimes it would split. So, trying to keep track with it, that's where we had our drone team come in and start operating. In about 13 days, that team flew 1,785 flights. And that is constantly being in the air, landing, changing batteries. They did a tremendous job and that feed was able to go to the incident command post to the rescue group, supervisor location. It was able to go to the state command post. And this wasn't just the Austin Fire Department.
We have teamed up and trained with the Texas Department of Public Safety. Our highway patrol we've been training with them on it. The Sheriff's office, so it was a multi-agency effort to provide this feed and it gave so much situational awareness for us to be able to, to know where that crowd was moving. And as I was talking about our groups that were out there, that rescue task forces that we had moving kind of shadowing, we didn't want them to be in the middle of the protest, but we wanted them to be as close as possible in case something happened that we could have a positive effect. So we were able to let that team know where to move, where the crowd's moving.
And I gotta tell you it, it made a world of difference, not only for, I think the safety of the police officers, knowing when a group is moving, but also allowed folks to protect certain assets like the capitol. Like if you have a couple thousand people marching towards the Capitol, you know, the officers need to be ready for it when no one has been there for say three hours, but now they're headed that way.
So it was a tremendous program. They're still operating on these events. As chief just mentioned, we recently as well, had a video from a officer involved shooting release. So, there’s always some protests that come with that. So again, we'll be up and working again this weekend, but it was a huge coordinated effort that just showed the value of, having that aerial footage and the situational awareness that it brought.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:21:55] That's an awesome program. Chief, how many different drones or drone teams does it take to cover the whole city of Austin?
Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, Sacramento Fire Department: [00:22:02] It's like everything, it evolves. So, we have our team that has roughly about 10 members, 12 members, and their operations firefighters, or maybe on staff and we pull them off the trucks and then get them operating that. And then of course, with the sheriffs and then with the state, and we're all feeding into kind of one link. So, we can see each other's footage to help us out. We were working out of a central spot, but when protests kind of expanded out and showed up at different places, we did send them mobile. So, we just split that team up.
So at one time, I think we had three different sort of teams out there, but mainly we had to stay downtown because that's where most of ours have been focused. So we've been fortunate, that's been centralized, but we did end up sending them mobile, which was quite the adventure for that group trying to drive and then find the spot, set up, get the, the drone in the air.
And I got to say all the training and the coordination that did you know, it's not just, we weren't just looking internally. How do we do it? It was, how do we do it with other agencies, to where we can fly our drones while helicopter is flying right. While the Austin police helicopter flying. They have worked together enough to where they have that trust and we can operate in the same zone.
So quite impressive. We've got to hand it to that group. They're very impressive. F
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:23:23] Fantastic, thanks for sharing that info. I want to switch gears and talk a little bit about ballistic gear. I am sure that our listeners would be curious to know what your department's policies are for who wears what ballistic gear and what instances. Chief Costamagna, how do you work that out in Sacramento?
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:23:40] Currently Sacramento, the fire department does not employ ballistic gear. And we've done that through cooperation of our police department, whether it's our police department or CHP or the sheriff who's in town with master mutual aid, we have that incident commander and real time crime getting the all clear and they're watching the crowds around the area that we need to get into.
And we wait for the all clear and it takes a lot of training and reminding the company officers and their crews that this is not a normal situation. It's, it's unlike the day to day situation that we deal with. So, you're going to have to wait. You might see fire burning, or you might hear reports of fire in a building that, you know, it's in your first two, so high hazard building, and we're going to hold you out a little longer.
Until we get that all clear from the police department. So currently we don't employ any ballistic equivalent in the Sacramento fire department.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:24:37] Thanks Chief. Chief Wade, could you follow up on that ballistic gear question? Does anybody in Austin, get issued ballistic gear? And if so, who would be required to use it?
Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, Sacramento Fire Department: [00:24:49] Yeah, so like Sacramento, we currently do not issue it. We're a little different setup here. We have an Austin, Travis County EMS is a, the third public safety agency here. And that is separate from the fire department. They have ballistic gear that they utilize, but as the fire department, we don't issue standard ballistic gear.
We've tried to put those same things in places chief was talking about on any violent incidents. You know, the staging protocols. We really, really looked at it when we started building the active attack standard operating guidelines of the use, and lots of research and, and, time invested of, of looking at it.
And we just didn't move to that yet. However, as I mentioned with those pre-stage rescue task forces, when we started putting that in place, we knew that the staging protocols, were not going to really be as effective in that environment. And we knew we would be putting that group close to any protest or close to any violence.
So, we did work with Austin Police Department and those folks that do ride on the pre-stage rescue task force, cause sometimes they're on the ATVs. Which allows them to maneuver the streets and alleyways and get in and out of places really quick. They're kind of open. So, we did issue them a ballistic vest that they wear whenever they're assigned to one of the pre-stage rescue task forces.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:26:12] This concept of waiting until the scene is safe to be able to operate is a challenge for firefighters everywhere. We tend to rush in to help people without tremendous respect for our own safety. This current set of events definitely is making us revisit that and having to possibly stand back and as Chief Costamagna just said, knowing that you have a target building in your first two area that is on fire, the concept of not responding is totally alien to what we're trained to do and reminds me of back in the day and because I'm retired, I can say that back in the day, when I was a captain in Midtown Manhattan.
And how does unique with all the canyon of high-rise buildings, avenues run North and South, and are much wider and faster in traffic. Streets go East to West and are usually very congested with entire blocks of cars backed up. So, if you're trying to respond and sounding your air horn sirens, from backup on a side street, the people flying by on the avenues who have the green light, they can't hear those sirens.
So to try to force cars out into the avenue is only going to create a traffic accident and further delay your ability to respond. So often-times we would have to shut the siren off and stop and just wait for the traffic lights to cycle through so we could get through, very difficult in one specific instance I can remember, looking across town about six blocks away. There were flames blowing out of the 10th floor, window of an apartment building. And we had nothing but traffic between us and them, so I gave the signal on the radio that we had a working fire at 10 -76, but the dispatch had said, "Ladder 24, are you on the scene?" (I said) No, and our ETA is probably about five minutes out. Silence, then "10-4, 24 truck".
That ability to not go crazy and respond required a lot of personal restraint for me and for our team and for my driver. I am sure firefighters are facing that same challenge now, seeing the fire close in, but because of the civil unrest, it's just not safe for them to operate... unprecedented times. Thanks for indulging me. Enabling me to tell my stories, about being an old retired guy.
So Chief Costamagna, how do you educate your members to stay back when their instinct is to rush in?
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:28:33] You know, I think there is a lot of training that goes on every day. Right now, the instinct is to rush in, the education we give them is it's not the same fire ground you're used to your experience in a fire ground that you've heard of and stories of quote, unquote, "the warriors." Some of us work with those guys in the past, that experienced that, across the country. Now you have this generation of young firefighters who've maybe read about it, but they're experiencing it first-hand. And we just ask them first and foremost to slow down, watch what's happening, watch around you. Think about the problem in a 360-degree fashion.
What is all going on besides just the firefighting? You're really good at firefighting, but you have a law enforcement. You have a law enforcement component. You have a protest component going on. We have the streets and avenues as well. And when you're headed to a call, pay attention to what's in the alley, pay attention to what's going on a block away as you're driving out.
If there is a big group of people gathering in front of a place that you don't see a big group of people, something else is popping up. And we speak to them, every morning when we know that there's a, when we have intel on there, there is a protest going on. Are we bring them in and do a face to face repeat?
And you will see everybody from, the fire chief and his seconds, which are the deputies as I am one of, and then we have a shift commander in the meeting, whoever's shift is on. And we talk to all the battalion chiefs and all the crews that are going to be affected that day, and we have a central place to meet with them and we can just continue to meet with them.
And we also use a little technology. We review what happened in the last protest. When we put out what we call a "blue sheet", on any novel incidents during the protest. And most of them were novel for all of us. That's on target solutions, so it's there for everybody in the department to see our training division puts that out.
So we try and handle it with as many avenues of education as possible, and we try and make it interesting and selling it to that, these guys want to read it. If they were off on vacation, don't pick it up and want to read it cause it's coming to them next. And we've been pretty successful in that.
Now, we get lots of questions and a lot of the other great questions from the guys in the field that are experienced in first-hand things that you need, or, want to change. Some of the things we changed after the very first night was, we're used to stretching lines off the back of the engine and we used a lot more tank lines, pre connected lines in the nights following. Cause we could knock a fire down and get out of there fast, pilot back on the engine and get out. We would straighten out the hose. Normally you straighten out the hose and drain it in the gutter, we were straightening it out in the parking lot of the fire station when we got back. So just changing your normal operation to a new operation that you got to get used to.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:31:33] So Chief Wade, you talked about how your members responded at that shooting at South by Southwest, within 40 seconds after your patient was shot. Did any special preparations or protection, was there unusual police force there? And can you share with our listeners how you were able to accomplish such a great feat? Because we all hear these stories about patients bleeding out there during times of active shooter incidents.
Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, Sacramento Fire Department: [00:32:00] Yeah, absolutely. So it goes back to that initial piece of, it's way before the incident is, is when these things start and the training that we've been doing and working together now for years, that made us successful on that one.
And then many shootings since, unfortunately. What we do is those officers that are already on that unit with our firefighters. They are monitoring their police radio as the AFD firefighters are monitoring the fire side of it. And then we're all back at a command post kind of overstaying it. So, we've got traffic coming in from two sides. And as we're saying, everything sounds like you can go in, but that rescue task force, they can't move until the police that are with them, says we're comfortable taking you in. So, they were listening to their ear pieces as well, and listening to their officers who were on scene, because on that one that I was referring to, that one was an officer involved shooting on that incident.
So they're hearing about, you know, suspect's leaving and were able to keep moving and moving and moving as they're getting the good updates. Whereas if we were still hearing, you know, potentially gunshots or maybe the suspect was barricaded, they probably would've had to stop, but by us monitoring two different radios working together, and again, them having trust, they were able to just keep rolling in as they were hearing, you know, the stuff they needed to hear over the radio to move in and make such a fast kind of patient contact time. And now that's happened numerous times. We've had a, again, unfortunately, a number of shootings since the protest start all down in the area.
And we've used that same concept very successfully in which, just recently we had five individuals that were shot and number of them critically. And with that rescue task force concept, we had four of the shooting victims off the scene and under eight minutes, and that was with tourniquets and chest seals and stuff.
So it just it's amazing work, but it takes the trust. Whereas chief was talking about how do we make them slow down? Like in that incident we've worked together, and they were speeding up to go into this, but generally it is the let's slow down and make sure we're seeing what's happening. What the real incident is, what Chief Costamagna was talking about, and it comes back to, if you want to be able to help you, can't go into the incident and become a victim yourself. And, we kind of tested some of these ideas out, going back to the initial training for active shooter. We said, well, what if we have a unit that doesn't want to stage?
You know, we've heard that before. If there was a shooting at a school you want to go in and do something, we're not going to stage for 30 minutes. And we tested that out. We sent some firefighters, you know, and some of the exercises we were doing and the officers were using simulation, we said, hey, just go run into the scene and let's see what, what the officer's reactions. And it doesn't go well. It causes more confusion. The officers start focusing on our firefighters, trying to figure out what they're doing in the middle of an incident. While they're trying to clear a building or clear a block, and we're getting in their way of them being able to do their job, which once they complete it, we can do ours.
So it is tough, but as chief said, we've got to get the information out of, we're not operating in the same environment. Where we like to think everybody loves the fire service, not everybody does, you know, these are different times and some people can see the fire service is potentially part of a bigger problem of whatever they may be protesting.
And as we saw in one of the protests, our firefighters are under a bridge with a car fire in front of the police headquarters during some of the initial nights, and they're getting fireworks thrown at them, shot at them. And we had the same deal with, as chief said with their folks, it is you put as much water on it, knock it out as fast as possible. Throw your hose back on the truck and get out of there. You can take care of the rest of it when you get back to the firehouse, but it's everything you can do to get in and get out, which is kind of new concepts to us. But thankfully, our firefighters across the country, we have adapted to new challenges from day one.
You know, when we go back and look at the history of the fire service. So, this is just the new adaptation that our firefighters are doing, and they're doing a fantastic job at it. Not just here, not just in Sacramento, but across the country.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:36:21] Well said, thanks, chief. How about the complication of having to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and all of those challenges on top of the civil unrest problem? Does social distancing and wearing face masks have to take a back seat while fighting fires and trying to keep a safe zone? Chief Wade?
Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, Sacramento Fire Department: [00:36:39] It can't take a back seat, you know, as we just said, if we want to continue to be, you know, firefighters and go and solve people's problems, which is why we signed up, then we have to take care of ourselves. We have to continue to use the appropriate PPE on all of our calls and wearing the mask. We have to continue to protect ourselves inside the fire stations. I'm on a conference call with some of the other cities here in the state. And we're all sort of seeing the same thing of some of, our members that are getting exposed. It's coming from us. Maybe bring it into the firehouse, which is understandable, right?
Because we all still have to live our lives and go to a grocery store and what have you. So, we still have to protect ourselves and wear those masks. Even during this environment. I mean, I got to tell you, everybody else is saying 2020 is a, has been quite the year with what we've been trying to deal with. And, we're telling our firefighters, you have to even wear the mask, even during the protests, those, folks that are out there specifically working, wear the mask all the time, do what you can to protect yourself because it protects your family and it allows you hopefully, not to be quarantined due to an exposure. And then you're out of the game for 14 days. So yeah, it can't take a back seat to it. We still have to push that message even in these challenging times.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:37:57] So Chief Costamagna, I know that California has seen a spike in COVID-19 as a many, many states that we're starting to open up. Have you had a challenge making sure that your firefighters continue to focus on COVID-19 at the same time while trying to fight fires during civil unrest?
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:38:15] Well, yeah, just received a bunch of data from the state and they think it's a people from Texas vacation and in California. So, we have a barrel on the script state of Texas travel here now, but in all seriousness and to Chief Wade's comments, it can't take a back seat.
We have seen a huge spike in California. I think everybody let their guard down over the 4th of July weekend, the state had opened up. And when I say opened up, it was bars were open, restaurants were open, and indoor dining and it affected us right away. People thought it was over, it's summertime, it went away, and it didn't.
There's so many things to talk about. We have a little task force that takes care of watching every day, the departments. We're not the size of other departments, we're 700 on the floor, but we're still watching every day and doing contact tracing. If people feel sick at home, we're asking them not to come into contact. Roll call, and then roll call does the contact tracing, which makes us go back and check where they've been the last three tours. And we contacted everybody they were in contact with. So, it can take you out and it can take a whole platoon out in one night. And we just recently had a little scare that we sent 26 people home. One night we had it closed. We had the staffing issue. So, we closed three engines, which is very none-typical for us.
So we moved a bunch of people around to cover our holes in the city response districts. But we do some other things, too. We do some spraying with the oxychloride when we have a station that is affected, we hooked up a sprayer, and all this is a paint sprayer, hooks into an SCBA and we knock out the whole station and about an hour, and we let it sit and we come back and wipe it up and everybody's doing this stuff. This is kind of down in the weeds part of it, but we only had four positive pieces until after the 4th of July, and then we had a bit of an explosion. And I think we're up to 28 positive cases in the department.
The other thing we did was to reduce exposure to the guys is we just asked them, please think about how many people, how are you going to the store? How are you moving around your district? PPE is it's a must, it's not an exception. They're actually ordering groceries online. So, they're not going into the stores and one exposing the public or exposing themselves. So, they can have groceries delivered to the stations. And, you know, like every firefighter I talk about food sometime in a conversation, but it became a huge thing.
Because we were having faces with the public and stuff where they started paying attention to us being in the store where, before they didn't and it made us think again, we have to change. And I look at this 2020, like Chief Wade was thinking. I don't know if it's true or not, but it seems like we've seen more change in 2020 than we have the last 150 years. So, there's just been a lot of adapting to it. And there's been that roller coaster ride of the guys out on the line, whether or not they want to believe it or not.
We just had another incident the other night where we had one of our customers throwing rocks, the guys vehicles at a station and they went out in full gowns and masks, surrounded the person in a circle, got her to stop throwing rocks, and waited for PD to come, but they didn't make contact with that person.
Ultimately, she was not positive or anything, she was positive for methamphetamines, but nothing else. So, it's just always being aware and adapting to that situation. And I think our guys, wherever you go in the country, firefighters are good and adapting to the situation. They're always, we're the ones that get called when people run out of good ideas and our guys can adapt.
And then it's us as chief officers giving them the tools to adapt with and giving them the training and education. That's how we've been fighting COVID and the protests as well, constantly adopting.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:42:22] Thank you. How are you and your department addressing the mental health challenges that your members must be facing? I feel that my FDNY colleagues will have longer and more difficult challenges with having to do unprecedented things like pronouncing people dead. When working at the world trade center site, we could find a safe place at home, but now many firefighters don't feel safe to go home and risk contaminating their loved ones. Especially after a medical call where they did come in contact with somebody who tests positive or is likely to have tested positive.
And in FDNY why they were going on six or seven, CPR runs a day and we're not allowed to transport those people. We had never had our firefighters been asked to make a decision to discontinue CPR. It was always a throw and go incident if you had somebody that you couldn't get a pulse. So, for many weeks with hospitals, overcrowded, these firefighters were having to deal with decisions they never had to make in front of family members. I know that our counseling services unit is up and running and does a fantastic job and firsthand experience after 9/11, so many of my colleagues got tremendous help that they needed and are still getting it.
I'm curious as in your departments, how is that the counseling working out and what are your firefighters able to do when they're in need of some help, Chief Costamagna?
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:43:44] Yeah, thanks Chief. What we're doing, we started about five years ago, behavioral health. It's staffed by two captains and its part of the contact tracing as well. And recently we lost some funding for it, but we still continue, it is staffed by the members still as well. So what they do is anytime they're doing the contact tracing or anything, if somebody goes off on an injury, whether it be a back, a knee, a shoulder, they're following up with that person and checking in to what their needs are, have they checked in with, with the doctor? And they continue to follow up with them while they're on injury time, where they'd be at home alone with their family, wanting to come back to work on a modified duty schedule. That has in fact, I got an invitation this morning to another meeting of the unit and it's about 50 members strong right now.
And those people are available to us or to any member. There's a phone list out there and that's the first contact. After that, we have a system of clinicians and doctors that they can go see for whatever need they have, and it's helped us out a lot. This, this department saw some member suicides in the early two thousand, and we weren't taking care of ourselves. We weren't watching what was going on and it was nationwide. It was departments, Philadelphia, Chicago, I'm sure FDNY and any department in Texas can tell you about a story. And I have one, it's too depressing to tell, but if everybody's had that in their career and our goal is just to stop it, we don't want to see it happen again.
So we continue to manage it with the behavioral health unit and in the peers too, it happens below the Battalion Chief level, it's captains or firefighters that are making that contact. Cause we found that that was really important to the peers. They don't want a chief officer in their business, and if they contact the chief officer who was formally part of it, then we take care of it.
Then we get them taken care of the same way a captain or firefighter would. But we've been really successful with it. And we, again, that's when we keep adapting, keep adding to it, tweaking it, so to speak. So, it's what's right for the staff personnel.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:46:14] Great, thank you for sharing. Chief Wade, do you have any lessons learned or best practices in Austin that folks would like to hear about?
Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, Sacramento Fire Department: [00:46:21] Yeah, absolutely. You know, same type of stuff. We've had a couple of suicides over the years in our organization and we don't want anymore. We want to do everything we can to prevent that. So, for a few years now, we have had the peer support program just as Chief said, it is a it's truly the firefighters peers they do.
They can either reach out to our firefighters anytime they could have a, maybe a chief officer, a station officer, just a firefighter call and say, "Hey, you know, check in on somebody". Or our members can just call them. That has been very successful. It's amazing, once you start talking to them and you know, they'll never tell you specific cases, unless a firefighter wants that to be out, to help others.
But when you realize how many individuals they talk to and how many individuals contact them, it's pretty eye-opening. I believe you've talked to this Chief in San Antonio, Chief Brian Norris. We were talking not too long ago, and San Antonio did a deal where during this COVID, they had their peer support just reach out and call all of their members. Just reach out and just a phone call to say, "Hey, how are you doing, we're here for you". And when he expressed that the number of folks that either engaged in a really good conversation or ask them if they would like it, you could truly call them back. Like that was the opening that they just needed someone to reach out to them.
And it was through that effort that did it. So, you know, that's something I passed on to our peer support and said, you have the freedom to do this. You know, it worked in another really large organization, just a simple phone call. Yeah, it's time consuming, but, and a little bit of time who knows what the difference is.
So peer support is run out of our wellness center. Our Austin Public Safety Wellness Center, and we have a couple of doctors also on there. We call it the "checkup from the neck up", cause it's important. We realize you can't just be physically fit to do this job. You also have to be mentally prepared to do this job. And if we can touch people on the front end, great, and strengthen them to be able to deal with immense amount of things that we see and have to deal with on a daily basis as we come to work, but also after something occurs, whether it's at home or whether it's at work, we also have the support group to come in and talk with them and to start that conversation and get them to the right resources.
That's the thing, the peer support firefighters, that's just at the beginning, you know, and maybe that's enough, but maybe that's the person that starts to put them in contact with one of the doctors, maybe even more behavioral health or mental health or counseling, and we've really seen tremendous success stories out of it. So, we're trying to stay proactive. We're trying to continue to send stuff out during this COVID vent. That's such long lasting, just as reminders, hey, this team's here for you, hey, here's a good article. And we put that on our portal site that we have built internally for our members for the COVID response.
But it is a challenge and we set the example at this level, that it's okay to go and talk to somebody, and if you don't have that, that friend that you can always talk to, there's a peer support there to assist you. So, yep. We made that a focus as well during this time.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:49:36] Well, that's great information. I'm going to share a personal story that FDNY's counseling service unit had to expand, multiple, multiple times over again, post 9/11 and found a great resource in retirees. Many retirees really miss the firehouse camaraderie. They miss the re decor, and they just miss being able to talk to people who can understand how we all process tragedies.
We've taken many, many retirees and add them to regular teams that visit the fire stations. So, it's a win win. It's another person that's a senior firefighter that young firefighters are more willing to open up to is somebody who's not part of the department anymore. So, they don't feel that they'll get any retribution from official decision making, which definitely impedes firefighters from opening up to someone officially from in the department. They're afraid that they'll be put on light duty or taken out of the firehouse if they express a problem. So, these retirees became a real asset for our counseling services unit. And then following up on that, they also put together in many areas in the city and then outside the city, community monthly retiree breakfasts, where retirees can get together and just share their feelings, emotions, have a support group, be able to open up and deal with what's going on in their lives, post being part of the fire department.
So hopefully this message reaches out to folks who are looking for more staff for their counseling service unit, and they tap into that large resource of retirees who are really looking to stay connected with the fire department. So, in wrapping up, I believe firefighters are a special breed and are amazingly resilient and we'll be stronger from this experience.
I'd love to, in a couple of words, know what you each feel, how you think firefighting and the world will be different after this period of civil unrest, and the COVID-19 pandemic is over, because as much as it seems like it's never going to be over, I think we're all confident to know that life will become less stressful and there'll be less challenges on all of us once the pandemic is cured and then once we get back to a more normal way of life.
Starting out with Chief Wade, any final thoughts?
Assistant Chief Brandon Wade, Sacramento Fire Department: [00:51:45] Sure. I've had this discussion, I guess, in a number of firehouses now, just like anything at some point, it either comes to an end or maybe it's the new norm. Someone related to me, it's like the fire service, when we were doing medical calls and we started to wear gloves. That was way before my time, but you started to wear medical gloves with the pandemic. This may put our people on a path of using appropriate PPE, for incidents. Like anybody else, we probably didn't have people wearing in N95's on a lot of calls that we should have been. I think we're going to be stronger in protecting ourselves while we're helping patients and wearing the appropriate PPE.
Just as years ago, they started to finally wear gloves on medical calls. It's going to be, I think the same thing. So, we may start having that focus of that, of let's protect ourselves, on the calls. We wear our structural firefighting gears on fires, we wouldn't think anything of it. I think we're going to see a shift now in the future where it's just customary that we're putting the right stuff on.
And the calls during this interaction and the civil unrest. I mean, this is where maybe we think this, this is the first time. If you go back in history and we should always review it, history repeats itself. It's not the first time there's been civil disturbances. It's just, this is a new generation of firefighters that are witnessing it. And I think it may bring our firefighters up on that awareness level of you need to be paying attention to what is going on around you. That there's more than just fire that is showing from the storefront window. Be cognizant of, of what is happening, where is it happening. And I think our firefighters are really going to be coming out smarter, more aware, more in tuned with their skills.
Cause think of a, like chief said, you know, be efficient, put that fire out, get the job done and we'll, we'll load up, get out and put things, while our firefighters are going to be figuring out how do they become more efficient at firefighting then, and get the job done. So, I really think this is allowing us to hone our skills, adapt ourselves, and really see that we can face any challenges that come our way. As we just saw here in Texas, we not only have the COVID civil disturbance, but a hurricane. You know what, we did all. We sent members out to it and as I said earlier, our firefighters are amazing women and men and the things they do every day, sometimes we hear about it, and a lot of times we don't, they're going to come out better on the other end of this.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:54:21] Chief Costamagna, any final words?
Chief Chris Costamagna, Austin Fire Department: [00:54:24] Well, the first half of this year, we'd all like to kind of write off, but it's still coming at us. I got into this profession, this was a third generation for our family and this in this profession, but I didn't get into it because I wanted to be a firefighter. I wanted to be a history teacher and a baseball coach in high school. I got into it because I figured out after a little while that my dad had it figured out he was doing something that was really noble and it was, it was a heck, a lot of fun. And then there is an adrenaline rush. So, I got into firefighting and then it's morphed into this. We've seen so much, through our careers, through your career, chief, Chief Wade and Chief Keys, you've seen, we've seen many different things and it's led to our experiences that we have today to pass along.
I think we have new expectations. Like Chief Wade was talking about the, I think the masks will be a thing that lives along with the gloves and the gown. We're trying to manage that through communication center on the front end of the call. So, guys know, but I think they know now too, that if they see something, when they get on scene, like we always do, it changes from what we got on the dispatch report. They're aware, and it's that 360 degree thinking that I like to talk about a lot. They're always watching, they've learned, they've had experiences that we may or may not have had in our careers, the teaching to watch for certain things, there's tell-tales everywhere they go.
And hopefully this generation takes on and passes it on to the next generation. I think we're really good at doing that in the fire service. Just like, I think we're good at adapting. These last few months have made us adapt. Taught us all how to do different things. We take teams meetings now, electronic meetings every day.
We're still operating on the fire ground. Yeah, that hasn't changed, but it has changed for protests type events. And I want to go back to one other thing Chief Wade talked about, he talked about going in when PD is comfortable, we have to have that expanded view, us not having a drone program. We make our incident commander sit with PD, cause they're looking at it through their lens. We need to look at it through our lens of what's good for the firefighters. So, we're lucky in Sacramento, we have the incident commander and sitting next to PD's incident commander and. It's agreed on by the two of them when our guys are going to go in and that gives our guys the support, they need the confidence, they need somebody else's watching for them, and then they're reporting back.
I'm trying to kind of recap on a bunch of things that I missed on you guys, but that was huge for us and we learned that putting that incident commander in the PD's real time crime center was a huge advantage for us. We also, after the first couple of nights, I talked about master mutual aid in California, and I know Texas is a very resource rich state, much like California, you get down in the Gulf region, especially I've been down there for hurricanes before, and they have a really good mutual aid system in Texas. California is much the same way, we actually pulled out of the fire department, an incident management team. We pull from multiple fire departments, so we don't hit one really hard, and they were able to take part of the protest incidents, pulling the national guard at the same time, and we put the national guard in places like City Hall and county jail, the state capitol, and it relieved our police department to go out and be police officers again in the city.
That was something that we had to adjust in the middle of it, the incident, and I think that happened across the country, fire departments adjust, but the use of that incident management team was a big deal for us and the national guard and being able to talk to everybody. The management team pulls everybody together and gets that common operating picture offered to everybody.
And in the end, I'll close with this, the bad actors out there, and they know that they can use fire as a weapon, and we respond a certain way to it. I think we changed how we respond to it. They were using it as a tool in their tool bag, and we changed how we respond to it, which is making them change again.
So, in closing. I think it's just us always watching the future once you happen and not looking behind us, but not forgetting about history, you can't prepare for the last disaster, but you can prepare for the next one. And all this experience we've had in the first six months of the year is going to make it a whole generation of firefighters, a lot stronger, much more powerful incident commanders and chief officers.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:59:11] Awesome, thank you very much. On behalf of all the firefighters in North America, who will be listening to this podcast over the next couple of months, like the personally think Assistant Chief Brian Wade from Austin, and also Deputy Chief Chris Costamagna from Sacramento, on behalf of firefighters and on behalf of Fire-Dex, who produces these podcasts in an effort to share these best practices, lessons learned, and make firefighting a little bit safer, thank you to the Fire-Dex team, who's working behind the scenes to produce these. Stay safe everybody and thank you for listening.
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