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Vol. LXV, No. 19
September 13, 2013
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A Special Force
Firefighters of NIH Exceed the Norm

On the front page...

Master Firefighter Allen James in “Tower 751”

Master Firefighter Allen James in “Tower 751”

When most people see a towering inferno, they run away from it.

First responders run towards it.

On a recent Saturday morning, the NIH campus was vivid with lights and sirens, first responders in tactical dress and simulated victims. Law enforcement and emergency response teams were doing drills and testing the new mass notification system, soon to be deployed by floor, by building or even campus-wide. The goal is to spread the word quickly—about incoming tornadoes, for example. The system is still in test mode.

If you’ve visited the Transportation Services Office—our parking office—then you’ve probably noticed NIH police officers in the suite. Yet you may not know that NIH also has its own Fire Department housed in the northwest corner of campus.

Continued...

“A lot of folks look at us the way Hollywood does,” says Jonathan Mattingly, who has been with the Fire Department for 21 years and has served for 5 years as fire chief of the Division of Fire and Rescue Services (DFRS). His role is distinct from that of the NIH fire marshal, who manages programs for prevention—smoke detectors and other essentials—but not response.

“Our staff,” he continues, “has to do a lot more than what you see in the movies.”

Start with volume. DFRS, part of the Office of Research Services, responds to 3,600 calls for service annually—averaging 10 per day. Around 60 percent of those calls are on campus. The rest happen outside the fence, thanks to a mutual aid agreement with Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It’s a no-cost exchange of resources needed for larger scale events. We back each other up.

Capt. Ricky Blair with the explosion containment unit dubbed “the 8-ball” The NIH Fire Department is housed in Bldg. 51 in the northwest corner of the Bethesda campus.

Capt. Ricky Blair with the explosion containment unit dubbed “the 8-ball”

The NIH Fire Department is housed in Bldg. 51 in the northwest corner of the Bethesda campus.

And that’s a great thing. On a given day, our little city inside the fence has up to 20,000 employees, with many visitors, in 75 buildings over 300 acres. Then there’s the hospital in the 870,000-square-foot Clinical Research Center, with 240 inpatient beds and 82 day-hospital stations. Not to mention more than 6,000 scientists in the labs, some using chemical solvents like xylene, which can be both flammable and toxic.

This brings us to what’s special about NIH firefighters. “We do a lot of extra things,” says Mattingly.

Dials and gauges on the back of a pumper truck help firefighters battle flames.

Dials and gauges on the back of a pumper truck help firefighters battle flames.

Photos: Belle Waring

For instance, in the case of a chemical spill, they work with the researchers to tamp down the impact quickly and safely so that an experiment can proceed without disturbing the outcome.

“A community-based fire department might just shut it down,” he continues. “But we interact with the researchers to support their mission. You wouldn’t get that hand-in-hand support outside of NIH.”

If you smell smoke or a chemical odor, call 911 to reach the NIH emergency communications center, which does triage.

“Now we can add earthquake to the list,” says Mattingly, recalling the 5.8 magnitude temblor of Aug. 23, 2011. The list goes “from the nothing to the everything”: a false alarm; someone not feeling well; or a building collapse.

With a staff of 28 firefighters, plus 3 folks in supporting roles, DFRS can respond as needed via ladder truck, a smaller fire engine, an ambulance, a hazmat unit, a basic life support unit and an explosion containment unit dubbed “the 8-ball.”

DFRS staff also inspects and marks thousands of fire extinguishers across campus. They work with the Clinical Center’s code team and with the Office of Research Facilities to understand building layouts and any changing configurations, including confined spaces such as steam tunnel vaults.

“We also need to know the number of folks in those buildings and how many have disabilities,” the chief adds.

Tower 751 has a retractable ladder for reaching blazes on the upper stories of structures.

Tower 751 has a retractable ladder for reaching blazes on the upper stories of structures.

All firefighters must have basic life support training as EMTs, plus proficiency in hazmat techniques. As “firefighters,” everyone drills and cross-trains. As part of safety education, they do outreach with the kids in NIH day care centers. And they are trained to deal with an active shooter.

Alas, there’s no on-the-job dog, no firehouse Dalmatian. Still, the vehicles are the coolest on campus. The big pumper has a 500-horsepower diesel engine. In the cab is a video recorder used for training. Staff takes care of the equipment and does minor mechanical work (adjusting brakes, troubleshooting), jobbing out major repairs.

“Once we had a strange odor in the lab and called,” notes NHLBI’s Dr. Lena Diaw. “To our big surprise, the fire department came in full force and they nailed the problem, which was happening outside of the building. It was very impressive.”

NIH fire engine sports a patriotic look. Firefighters here average some 10 calls per day.

NIH fire engine sports a patriotic look. Firefighters here average some 10 calls per day.

We may take our first responders for granted—until we’re stuck in the elevator or we smell smoke. But consider that in 2011, FEMA counted 450,000 fires in the U.S. (both residential and non-residential), with over 2,500 deaths, 1,500 injuries and a loss of $9 billion.

That same year, on-duty firefighters suffered over 80 fatalities. In 2012, that number jumped to over 100, says Mattingly.

He and his team know the risks, which makes training so crucial. He has established a firefighter safety and training program that sets the standard for other federal fire departments in the region.

“The fact that NIH changes requires us to change and meet those challenges,” he says. “We are the community’s fire department.”


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