Expect the unexpected when doing truck company work. Los Angeles County, CA, firefighters attacked a fire in a garage under a two-story single-family dwelling, only to find that the home was overcrowded with occupants and the garage had been converted into a living space.
Truck company work is one of the most frequently overlooked of the tactical fireground functions, yet proficiency in all these functions is necessary if lives and property are to be saved. Your number-one priority is saving lives endangered by fire. To do this, however, you must see that your firefighters operate in a safe and organized manner. Not only is it potentially disastrous if firefighters become injured or lost, it also requires that additional firefighters be deployed to help their fallen comrades.
My first suggestion is very basic: Never forget that human life is your primary concern, starting with you and moving outward. Your first concern is with the safety of the firefighting crew entrusted to your care. Your next concern involves the endangered population of the burning structure. Lastly, you must have a concern for the general populace of the area surrounding the fire scene. You should not kill innocent citizens just because you want to drive fast or operate carelessly.
It is difficult to provide hard-and-fast rules about when to and, more important, when not to enter a burning building. In far too many cases, people are endangered in heroic, but foolhardy rescue attempts. There is no reason to waste your most important resource: your people.
Personnel safety is the fuel that powers the decision-making engine in life-and-death scenarios. This is not to say that an aggressive interior fire attack should be avoided. Training, experience and circumstances dictate when to make that "cavalry charge" up the front stairs of a burning building.
When evaluating life safety issues:
- Seek to save those most in danger
- Seek to save the lives of those most endangered first
- Those who yell the loudest are not necessarily in the greatest danger; it may be the unconscious person in the midst of a cloud of boiling smoke who needs your help first
- Forces may need to be diverted from other firefighting operations to save lives
- Generally, allocate a two-member search and rescue team for every 2,000 square feet of property to be searched
As the person riding the right-front seat on a truck company, you must constantly evaluate the need for your unit to position and raise ladders. Apparatus positioning is critical. Don't let yourself be boxed out. A well-equipped aerial ladder company does no one any good when it is parked around the corner or on the wrong side of the building.
Ensure that your people have easy access to the various pieces of specialized equipment available on a truck company. If conditions allow, raise an aerial to the roof of the fire building. Never challenge high-tension electrical lines for any air space in the vicinity of a burning building. There is no justification for slipping aerials through overhead electrical wires. This can have fatal consequences. I lost a friend who was operating near power lines.
Truck companies are called on to raise ladders to aid in search and rescue, ventilate, initiate fire attack and ensure that firefighters have good access to escape routes at all levels of the fire building.
Search and rescue are critical parts of your role as a truck company officer. Rule one is that at all times and in all places, no one goes in alone. At least one member of each team should have a portable radio. And all members should wear and use self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and personal alert safety system (PASS) devices. What good are you going to be to anyone if, as you are moving in alone, you are suddenly struck and knocked unconscious by a falling ceiling?
There are guidelines that tell us the minimum crew size for firefighting operations. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations require a four-person team be assembled before beginning interior structural firefighting. You may say that you are not an OSHA state. I suggest that you ignore this mandate at your own peril.
Rescue is very labor intensive. Many times, it takes two rescuers to rescue one victim. It has been my experience that two people are needed to properly search a room so that all parts of an area are covered.
It is essential that search and rescue operations be performed in a thorough, careful and methodical manner. Should you miss an area, people may die. Consider these important safety guidelines:
- Work in teams of at least two members
- Each team should have a radio
- Start at the door (outside and inside)
- Work toward the center of the building
- Stay along the walls, occasionally crisscrossing the hall or room you are in to check the center area for victims
- Check under tables, behind furniture, in bathrooms (tub and shower stalls), under beds and in closets
- Note escape routes, windows and doorways to other areas
- Vent as you go, when practical
- Continually communicate with your partner
- Stay within sight, touch or voice of your partner
- If you find a victim, consider the quickest way out, call help as needed and ensure that the search is completed
Once is never enough when it comes to searching for potentially trapped fire victims. Ensure that both primary and secondary searches are conducted. Be on the lookout for victims as soon as you enter. People might have passed out just short of the door or window. You can remove them quickly and return for more. Your portable radio can be used to get help or direct others to previously unsearched areas. Always consider the quickest way out for the victim — non-breathing victims have but a few moments before brain damage or death.
My next suggestion may seem obvious, but is often overlooked in the haste of an emergency scene: Always search in a definite pattern. There are a number of different patterns. It is critical to emphasize that your search must be conducted according to pre-determined guidelines. All floors that are involved in fire must be examined.
The most essential element in a search and rescue operation is time. The more time that the fire allows you, the more people you can save. Here are some things to remember:
- Be sure someone has a line working on the fire
- If you cannot see your feet, drop to your knees and proceed by moving forward on your hands and knees
- By using a tool to feel ahead of you, "sound" floors, halls and stairways before entering
- Completely search one room before moving to the next
- Start your search on an outside wall; you can ventilate as you move about the room
- Be sure to search under furniture; move it if you must
- Mentally note the location of emergency escape routes
- Search under beds, in bathtubs and shower stalls
- Periodically stop and listen; sometimes, you can hear people moaning or calling for help
- Report any fire extension
- If heat prevents you from entering a room, feel ahead through a door or window with your tool; maybe you can locate someone who is within easy reach
- Once you have removed a victim, place the individual in someone's care so he or she will not go back into the building
Have a means for marking an area once it has been searched. This is particularly important in larger occupancies, both residential and commercial. Some fire departments carry pre-printed tags. Others use chalk or other temporary marking devices. One of the old marking standbys involves turning a chair over near the entrance to the room or area.
During the course of a search and rescue operation, a firefighter may become disoriented or begin to lose his or her cool. The following are some further tips for completing your mission safely:
- If you start to feel lost or lose contact with your partner, get to a wall and follow it to a door or window
- Follow the hoseline; you will meet the attack team or find your way out
- If you can, get to a window or safe place and call for help
- Let your officer know your partner may be missing
Your responsibilities as the officer of a truck company are challenging indeed. I'll continue with this critical discussion in my next column.
HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, and a veteran of 47 years in the fire and emergency services. He is chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Howell Township Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. Dr. Carter has also been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company since 1971, serving as chief in 1991. He is a life member and past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and a life member of the National Fire Protection Association. Dr. Carter holds six degrees, with his terminal degree being a Ph.D. in organization and management, with a specialization in leadership, from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN, where he is an adjunct faculty member.