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Basic Survival Skills and the Probationary Firefighter - Part 4

The fourth and final part of this series continues where we left off last time. We continue to discuss skills, techniques, and tactics that if implemented properly will keep us safe.

Skills and Techniques

PASS alarm: The firefighter’s PASS alarm is an excellent way of aiding in your rescue. After making the appropriate Mayday transmission, activate your PASS alarm. The PASS alarm has a feature whereby it activates if you don’t move after a limited time. The other feature it has is the manual feature that sounds the distress signal immediately. The moment you think you need help, transmit your Mayday and activate your PASS alarm manually! To aid your rescue, don’t roll onto the PASS alarm and muffle the sound. Position yourself so that the alarm will be heard. Make sure the batteries are always good in your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) by checking these features often.

Lost or disoriented: If you are lost or disoriented, remain calm! If you exert yourself, you’ll use your precious air supply…calm down, think clearly. You have two choices, you can attempt to escape or you can remain in place and slow your breathing down. Use your flashlight to attract attention and make sure your PASS alarm is sounding and not obstructed. Here you have two means of getting attention: visual and audible. If you choose to initiate a self-escape, stay low, crawl, and use your light to aid you in your escape. Stop periodically and turn your light off. Look and listen for other sounds and other lights. Remember to probe cautiously in front of you to prevent falling down a flight of stairs or into a shaft.

Endangered by fire conditions or building failure: You must seek to escape immediately. During your Mayday transmission, make a request for resources that can help you. If endangered by rapidly spreading fire conditions, call for a charged hoseline to your approximate location, request additional means of egress such as a ladder placed to a window, or a door forced to aid your escape. Whatever the circumstances, you can’t quit! Continue to fight for your survival. Use all the skills identified here plus anything else you have been taught; you can’t give up.

Wall breaching: Another way to escape from danger is to breach a wall and escape to the other side. The Halligan tool, a flathead ax, or a 6’ hook all allow for breaching a sheetrock wall. A masonry wall will require much more time and effort and it might be a lot easier to try a different wall. To breach a wall, plunge your tool through and make sure there isn’t a refrigerator or toilet bowl on the other side. Through this same hole you create, look to see if the room is heavily involved in fire. Make sure there is a room on the other side and you are not going to fall down a shaft or an outside wall.

Signal for help: Let’s say you made it to a window and you require a ladder for your escape. No one sees you or knows you’re at the window, so what do you do? Signal with your flashlight and your activated PASS alarm (audible and visual assistance) from your position. Be leery about throwing any of your personal protective equipment (PPE) to attract attention, you might need it!

Ladder bail out: This is a technique taught in survival programs that requires a firefighter to bail out of a window headfirst. The room is ready to flashover and the firefighter must stay as low to the windowsill as possible. This technique is a last ditch effort and requires previous training before you ever attempt it.

Rope bail out: Every firefighter should be equipped with the ability to escape from an upper floor. The alternative is not pleasant at all. This technique is an insurance policy. You hope you don’t need it, but it’s nice to have just in case. This technique requires planning on the part of the department and training on the part of its members!

Follow a hoseline to safety: This is an easy drill in the firehouse. Lay out 100 feet of hose and allow a firefighter with his or her vision obscured to flee in the direction of the engine outside. By feeling the coupling, a member with gloves on can determine which way is toward danger and which way heads outside (see Figure 1).

Entanglements: Never take off your SCBA unless failing to do so will result in your untimely death! If you are entangled, say a lightweight hanging ceiling has fallen on you, and you become encumbered in cable wires, fiber optics, and other wires, try backing up and removing the entanglement. Remember, you don’t want to remove your SCBA unless it’s the last resort. Stay calm, this is a serious situation, begin the process of calling for help immediately. Start to self-extricate. Keep your wire cutters readily accessible… this might be the time to use them. Make sure you don’t cut your SCBA airline, your finger, or an electric wire.

SCBA removal: There are two techniques taught in John Norman’s Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics 3rd edition (page 249 and 250). One involves the partial removal of the SCBA, thus allowing the user to negotiate a narrow space, and a second technique that is more involved. This second technique requires the removal of the SCBA (the face piece remains in place for both techniques). It allows the user to remove obstructions or permits the firefighter to flee an entanglement hazard (see Figure 2). These techniques are great training activities. Practice them in the station with full gear and vision obscured. Create an entanglement hazard in a safe non-IDLH setting. Members can stand around and watch and learn. Never create an entanglement hazard during a live burn or a smoke drill. That’s just looking for trouble and a good way to hurt somebody.

Make sure fire doesn’t get behind you: Periodically check the ceiling above you for fire extension. Start from areas of safety, such as from the doorway entrance/exit. If the ceiling were to come down, your safety is enhanced by being in the doorway and not in the middle of the room where the ceiling can fall in potentially one big piece. Also, always beware of the danger of backdraft explosions anytime you open up a void. Knowledge of fire behavior is critical to your survival! Remember that fire can travel up, down, left, right, forward, and back. Maintain situational awareness at all times to avoid being trapped by an advancing fire!

Use of a short length of rope: To prevent disorientation and getting lost, don’t forget the value of a short length of rope. Even searching a cluttered room off of a fire escape might require a guide to safety. A short length of rope in your pocket, 25 feet or so, will give you a lot of freedom and confidence. Use common sense and proper search techniques, but use the rope as an addition to your safety.

Buddy system: A good way to stay out of trouble is to always work with a partner. Two sets of eyes are better than one. If you get in trouble, you always have someone to aid you. Don’t work alone, maintain team integrity!

No freelancing: Freelancing is going off and doing what you want to do without any orders or anyone being aware of your location. This is really dangerous and foolish. Work within the incident command system.

Accountability: Regardless of the system your department uses, accountability dramatically aids in your safety. If your location is known, then help can be sent to you. If no one has a clue as to where you’re working, then you’re in real trouble!

Door chocks: Beware of doors closing on hoselines or locking behind you: By carrying a door chock, you can stop a door from closing on a hoseline and acting like a hose clamp. Also, by preventing a door from closing behind you, not only your safety, but also the safety of your colleagues is enhanced. Multiple means of egress allow for firefighters to flee rapidly.

Don’t bunch up: Try to avoid bunching up on the stairs or near the exit points. Firefighters needing to flee do not want to be hampered by members blocking the stairs and exits. Keep these areas clear all the time.

Keep an eye out: If you think a member is in danger, you can also initiate a Mayday transmission on the part of someone else. Give accurate information and make sure you know what you are talking about!

Lack of visibility: A good way to really ruin your day is falling down a flight of stairs or off the roof. If you can’t see your feet, you need to crawl. This applies on the roof as well! Don’t risk walking off a roof; don’t feel foolish for crawling when you are not inside the building. A change in wind direction may cause the smoke to completely disorient you. Always use your tool to probe in front of you, always check for a solid platform to move onto. Remember to always have two flashlights with you at all times.

Oncoming traffic: Most drivers are absolutely oblivious when it comes to seeing firefighters operating at the scene. The drivers become fixated on the apparatus lights and activity and fail to pay attention to where they’re going. To prevent being hit by a car, use the apparatus as a shield for you and your colleagues. When operating at a car fire on a busy thoroughfare, the apparatus chauffeur should place the apparatus to block oncoming traffic in one lane (or more depending on circumstances). This 15-ton barricade will do more to enhance your safety than any cones will ever do. Sure, the more visibility that you create the safer you are. Cones, flares (where appropriate), and adequate scene lighting are all great, but nothing is better than that heavy apparatus to protect you from some drunk.

Oncoming traffic (continued): As silly as it sounds, look both ways before getting out of the apparatus and before crossing the street! Remember what we said a moment ago, many drivers are completely oblivious to you. Not getting struck by a car is just as important as a well-executed escape from a dangerous fire situation.


This four-part series covered a lot of little things that can really add up to protecting you and your colleagues. Are there more points and techniques than are listed here? Of course! The point of this series is to give you, the probationary firefighter, a foundation to build on. Know your job! Never stop learning. Firefighter safety and survival is a broad and complex subject that requires constant training. We are dealing with perishable skills that must be exercised and evaluated periodically.

The probationary firefighter’s training doesn’t stop after the fire academy; rather, the training is just beginning. Every firefighter should be able to implement survival skills instantly the moment the need presents itself. Remember, another critical point, call for help the very moment you think you’re in trouble. Time is of the essence; there is no time to waste. Don’t worry about the potential for being embarrassed. Your goal is to make it home to your family.

ARMAND F. GUZZI JR. has been a member of the fire service since 1987.  He is a career fire lieutenant with the City of Long Branch, NJ, Fire Department and is the deputy director of the Monmouth County, NJ, Fire Academy where he has taught for over 20 years.  He has a masters degree in management and undergraduate degrees in fire science, education, and business administration. View all of Armand's articles here. He can be reached via e-mail at or