Hornell Fire Department trains for mass casualty incidents, focuses on cooperation

HORNELL — The datelines can and do come from every area of the U.S.: media reports of natural disasters, mass shootings, and multiple-casualty highway accidents.

For local emergency responders trained to deal with these situations, the next major incident could be just one 911 call away. The Hornell Fire Department trains extensively for the mass casualty emergency call that they hope and pray never comes, according to Chief Frank Brzozowski.

“We are constantly looking at the ‘What ifs?’ You can what if stuff to death, but you have to be prepared for it,” said Brzozowski, a veteran firefighter who became chief of the Maple City department earlier this year.

The Canisteo Valley and Southern Tier have experienced weather-related emergencies frequently in recent years, everything from wind storms to flooding to blizzards. The results have been power outages, road closures, and infrastructure damage. The emergency responses to these incidents have included establishing a centralized command and communication system and putting protocols in place to identify and get help to vulnerable populations, officials said.

“That was all a command post out of here that got those wheels turning, what we call a unified command,” Brzozowski said. “And we were ready to handle that situation because of that training.”

The fire department has gained experience and knowledge from these incidents, and they doggedly train for other eventualities, the fire chief said.

Experts who have had experience dealing with some of the most publicized mass casualty incidents, including the 2012 Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, have shared their knowledge with Hornell firefighters.

“We are constantly training, and we get the best of the best (to teach us),” Brzozowski said. “There are different companies that we deal with. They bring current events forward, from across the country. The say, ‘Hey, this happened to X, Y, Z fire company who happens to be the same size as you. And this happened. Don’t let this happen to you.’ We get that awareness piece and we bring it right back to our men as well as the public."

Volunteer firefighters, schools, law enforcement and hospitals study, train and drill for the emergencies as well.

Brzozowski said both the role of the department and its firefighters have transitioned over the years, and it is crucial that preparation and training have kept pace.

“The job has changed because the times have changed,” he said “We don’t have to worry about the amount of house fires so much, but we do have to worry about the mass shootings. We do have to worry about what if a natural disaster occurs here today. We have one of the biggest rail lines coming through here with all kinds of chemicals. What’s going to happen? How are we going to isolate this incident from getting too big and out of control? We practice these drills all the time.”

The fire chief points to the importance of forming and maintaining strong partnerships with other emergency response agencies. Going it alone won’t cut it, he said.

“I think we do a pretty good job between our relationships,” he said. “We have a great relationship with our (Hornell) police officers on the other side of the wall, with law enforcement in the valley, and with the volunteer (fire) companies on either side of us because it is going to take all hands on deck if one of those incidents happen."

That cooperation can be put into use at a moment’s notice and under the most stressful situations. According to New York State Police, a team of emergency and school officials carried out a coordinated response to the one-vehicle accident Saturday in the Town of Burns that claimed the lives of four teenagers and injured another youth. Authorities said the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Collision Reconstruction Unit, Dansville Central School District officials, the Canaseraga, Almond and Nunda fire companies, along with with Dansville and Hornell Advanced Life Support all assisted in the aftermath of the accident.

Teamwork, leadership and training. They all make a difference, Brzozowski believes.

He said, “You’re not going to be, ‘I’m the guy that is trained and I’m going to go in and take care of this incident.’ You’re are going to have lots of people, and it’s going to take somebody to do that structural command.”