The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) First Responders Group (FRG) relies on experienced emergency response and preparedness professionals to guide its research and development efforts. The First Responder Resource Group (FRRG) fills that role. An all-volunteer working group, the FRRG helps S&T maintain focus on the top-priority needs of responders across the nation. This series highlights several FRRG members, offering a glimpse into their daily responsibilities, as well as their ongoing support of S&T technology development.
There is never a “typical day” for Fire Chief Robert McLafferty, fire chief of the Herman Volunteer Fire Company (VFC) and 911 Coordinator for Butler County, Pennsylvania. In his view, every day presents different challenges and new opportunities.
Early in life, McLafferty was certain he would seek out a career in the private sector. However, his vision changed after he joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. It wasn’t long after completing basic training as an enlisted soldier that McLafferty enrolled in an emergency medical technician (EMT) class. While working closely with EMTs, he witnessed firsthand how first responders were gifted with a desire to better the lives of others. After coming to the realization that he wanted to do everything he could to help others, McLafferty became involved with many other facets of emergency services.
Eventually he landed a position as a coordinator for the trauma department of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where he served for over 15 years. McLafferty has spent the last 27 years in fire/rescue, emergency medical services, communications, and hospital responses, as well as becoming a nationally registered paramedic/instructor. He continues to remain active in a both patient care and educating future first responders.
He is no stranger to teaching and helping others outside of Pennsylvania, even on the other side of the globe. In 2011, he had the opportunity to journey to India to educate local emergency managers and medical personnel on post-disaster response.
“The folks in India treated us with incredible hospitality. We were invited by the United Nations and the Indian Institute of Emergency Medical Services,” He explained. While there, McLafferty presented Basic Disaster Life Support (BDLS) in the west coast state of Kerala and then flew east to Chennai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. At the Sri Ramachandra University, his team taught BDLS, Advanced Disaster Life Support (ADLS) and the International Trauma Life Support (ITLS) program, ITLS Access, which focuses on treatment and extrication of patients in motor vehicle crashes.
He explained further, “The really neat part was the BDLS, ADLS, and ITLS Access courses were the first ones ever taught in India. So we had the opportunity to ‘plant some seeds’ by teaching several groups of physicians and nurses who hopefully have continued to share the knowledge. After the education was complete, we spent our last day facilitating and evaluating a multiple agency/multiple hospital mass causality drill.”
Once he was back in the States, McLafferty was introduced to FRRG after lecturing at a conference in the Baltimore area. He was asked to review a wireless patient vital signs monitoring project. During the evaluation of this project, he met and worked for several days alongside several FRRG members. The commitment demonstrated by FRRG members, accompanied with his continued desire to help fellow responders, led McLafferty to submit an application for FRRG membership.
The annual FRRG Meeting is a venue for first responder subject matter experts to review and identify various capability gaps and the types of technology developments needed to close those gaps. He explained his impressions of the 2015 FRRG meeting, “The last FRRG meeting was held in the beautiful city of New Orleans, and I found it exceptionally rewarding. The teams were comprised of national field experts and were able to accomplish a tremendous amount of work. While several tasks and tech evaluations were completed via email after the event, the face-to-face time working through different issues was instrumental in accomplishing the goal.”
McLafferty found the FRRG meetings were truly an example of when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “Having an opportunity to work with these devoted individuals was truly a blessing.”
The breakout station about the future of first responder communication was a clear favorite. The opportunity to share concerns, solutions, and possible impacts to the responder was especially remarkable. Working collaboratively in a short time frame, his group identified first responder capability gaps and prioritized obtainable tech objectives. McLafferty believes the objectives will soon dramatically change the way information is communicated to and between responders.
“Having been born and raised in the Pittsburgh area provided me the opportunity to personally meet and learn from leaders and experts in the fields of emergency services. However, the FRRG provides a mechanism for us to meet, interact and work with leaders and experts from across the nation. Working together, the FRRG group will certainly improve the delivery of Emergency Services nationwide.”
McLafferty voiced his overall assessment of the meeting, “FRRG has helped to assist the fire service in general with equipment, standards, and education. As an individual, it has provided me the opportunity to learn from leading experts in the field. I would strongly recommend participation in the FRRG to responders who have a solid work ethic and are committed to positive change. The group is for those who are willing to share ideas, concerns, challenges, and are willing to work together for a better future.”
Time and funding are always two of the biggest challenges for a small volunteer fire company in rural Pennsylvania. Dedicated team members are full of compassion and drive to help others, but it is a struggle to balance the time commitment that it takes to run a volunteer fire company. The educational/training needs, funding needs and time physically spent on responses can be taxing to both responders and their families. Still, McLafferty and the Herman VFC have managed to make a big impact.
FRG turned to McLafferty and the Herman VFC to evaluate the Firefighter Accountability and Proximity (FFAP) system in January 2016. The FFAP beacon measures the approximate distance and elevation between beacons worn by firefighters or other first responder personnel during emergency situations. Eventually, FFAP devices will be integrated into SCBA equipment with the goal of helping firefighters carry out their work efficiently, while staying safe.
“The FFAP System has some great features, including the ability to tell us how long they (firefighters) have not been moving. Other firefighters or a Rapid Intervention Team may be able to use this device and help locate the down firefighter during that critical period of time,” McLafferty said.
Another example was when the Herman VFC took part in a 16-hour search for a missing person, using more than 100 rescuers, helicopters, canine teams, horse mounted teams, all-terrain vehicles, police teams, and fire rescue equipment. McLafferty fondly recalls the moment when he was able to tell a mother her missing son had been found alive and well, “Witnessing a mother’s tears of fear change to tears of joy was truly incredible. Watching our fire company personnel converse and entertain the child while they transported him to his family was an amazing experience.”
McLafferty knows every day comes with great responsibility, “It is truly an honor to serve as fire chief. The fact that our community entrusts us all in their time of need is a tremendous blessing. Our firefighters are more than capable of handling these emergencies and do so on a routine basis. As chief, I am humbled that this group of heroes and heroines entrust me to assist them in accomplishing that goal.”
Check back soon for additional FRRG member spotlights. For more information on how to become a member of the FRRG, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.