Basic Survival Skills and the Probationary Firefighter

Armand Guzzi looks at the basic skills of firefighter survival and shares lessons that all new firefighters should be taught and should be reinforced for veterans.

As a new member in your organization, set aside time to read these reports. If you read, say, one a week, you will begin to see patterns developing. These actual real-life incidents cost the lives of good people; people who never returned home to their families. Thus, there’s a strong incentive to learn everything you can, from every source you can access.

To enhance your background, take a look at the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) website and download their latest Fatality and Injury reports. You will be able to see how your counterparts are being injured and killed. These are more than just numbers. The findings are due to horrific incidents that have stricken people just like you. The Fatality and Injury reports can be found immediately below and the third link is entitled “Pattern of Firefighter Fireground Injuries.”

By reading the NIOSH after-action reports, the NFPA injury and fatality reports, and the flood of textbooks, magazines, and website articles that are available, we can see how to prevent these same experiences from happening to us. In addition, learn the technical aspects associated with the tools and equipment you use every day. Know the limitations, advantages, and disadvantages of your own personal equipment from your issued personal protective equipment (PPE) to your self -contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to the tools and equipment you rely on to complete your fireground tasks. Know the safe operating parameters of each item … your life depends on it!

Many of the injuries and deaths discussed in these reports are also attributed to extreme forms of fire behavior, such as flashover and backdraft, as well as building collapse. Because of today’s hazards, we are faced with enormous rates of heat release due to the synthetic furnishings and combustible interior finishes in the homes and businesses of our communities. In this climate of cost efficiency, many of the occupancies built within the past 20 years or more, as well as those going up all around us, are of lightweight construction. Such lack of mass can result in early failure; especially where heavy loads are imposed on these structural components and where sprinkler protection is absent.

Each of our firefighters must therefore make a conscious effort to learn from self-study and from in-service training everything they can about building construction and the behavior of fire. These are critical topics that must be mastered in the course of a fire service career. So many firefighters and fire officers have been killed and maimed because of buildings falling on them and so many have been horribly disfigured from burn injuries. We must make a concerted effort to prevent this.

Here are three great ways to learn about building construction and fire behavior:

  1. Self-study, college courses, and asking questions to the vast resources that are around you in the firehouse, most notably highly competent, well-read, and experienced firefighters and fire officers.
  2. In-service inspection and building familiarization conducted as part of the company-training program (see Figure 1).
  3. Critiques of fires. Valuable learning tidbits can be picked up after a fire has been extinguished. In a safe and systematic fashion, the probationary firefighter can learn a lot about building construction, especially after the building has been degraded and many of the structural components are exposed (see Figures 2 and 3). Under the watchful eye of their officer, the newest members’ knowledge can be enhanced dramatically.


Experience is a great teacher, but is also a very costly one! Learn from the many other sources as well and use these principles to guide you at your next building fire or emergency response. Firefighter safety and survival are more than just buzzwords or catch phrases. This is a very big topic to learn and one of the most important.

To make matters worse, your safety can be compromised in many more ways then just operating at fires. Such a case is the routine motor-vehicle accident with injuries; the threat of blood borne pathogens and other diseases is a very real threat to today’s first responders. In addition, you are responding to populations that may also be ill and could sicken you, and in turn, your families. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also has a wealth of information that first responders can use to protect themselves.