Command Post: Riding the Right-Front Seat – Part 8

This month, I pick up where I left off on the “What Have I Got” phase of operations in my September column. For those of you who will be riding the right-front seat on your fire department unit, these are the things you must understand if you are to perform safely and effectively as the person in that important position. The questions involving these matters can have life-and-death consequences.

In my previous column, I discussed the first four elements of the “What Have I Got” phase of fireground operations: weather, incident type, time issues and height factors. Let us now move on to an extremely critical operational area. Over the past few years, the number of firefighters being injured and killed by construction- and collapse-related causes has grown. There are those who call for a complete reevaluation of how we do business, but I am calling for something else.

Risk management and risk avoidance are two elements that must be added to the array of knowledge at every level of our organizations. This is particularly true for those who ride the right-front seat of our first-due units. Our decisions have a direct and instantaneous impact on the level of risk our people will face. Here are a few important thoughts on risk management that you should integrate into your thought processes.

  • Risk management requires you to:

• Identify risks

• Prioritize risks

• Eliminate the worst risks

• Move on and address the lesser risks

• Work to eliminate all risks from your operation

Good luck with that last one. What I am suggesting is that you look at what you are doing as a fire department, evaluate the risks and hazards, and then work to use the least hazardous ways of getting your job done. Keep in mind that much of what we are doing is inherently dangerous. If we can pick safer ways of doing things, then why not try it that way for a change?

Let us now take a look at another environmental element of our fireground size-up: construction.

If you and I are going to operate effectively in burning buildings, it is important for us to know how they are built. While the materials can vary greatly, the manner in which they are put together and the elements that hold up a building remain fairly constant.

The International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) suggests that “a building (should be) viewed as a system which provides an environment to enhance or support human activity.” To that end, fire officers must learn how fire can attack a building system in the same manner as a physician would diagnose a disease that is attacking the human body. It really is that critical.

Identify and understand the various types of construction in your operational area. Study all of the types that exist, but it is most important to be able to recognize and understand the types of structures you will encounter most often.

Let me make an important distinction here. What do you see most often?

• Old construction (pre-1980)

• New construction (1980-2000)

• Really new construction (2000-present)

The first three things to consider in any structure are size, type of construction materials used and methods used in building it. These distinctions are crucial. The age and construction of the structure have a direct impact on what you can do and how you can attack (or not attack) a fire.

There is a new development just behind my home. Over the months and years of its construction, I maintained a photo record of just how those buildings were built. Based on what I know about these structures, I might be hesitant to make an interior attack on a well-involved structure. The best part of my methodology is that I can provide a pictorial justification for my decisions. Similar knowledge exists about a number of housing developments in our response district.

My associates and I need to use that knowledge to keep the people in our fire department safe. That is how you must function in those situations where you are riding the right-front seat. Assess what types of construction exist and develop an understanding of how they will react under fire conditions. Acquire a building construction text and use it to develop a deep understanding of all of the construction issues you might encounter.

My next column will address three more elements of fireground size-up: occupancies, access and life safety.