However, the use of a flexible approach when considering the use of fire curtains may provide the best outcomes and therefore sound officer judgment must always be exercised. For example, in certain cases too many windows may be venting on the pressurized side of a residence and the necessary number of curtains may not be available to effectively seal all windows. The use of water from handlines would then be the officer's first choice. In other cases, it may be beneficial to use a combination attack with water and the use of fire curtains. Fires in attic spaces, or those that may produce high radiant heat from the venting of an entire side of a structure, may preclude the use of a curtain without injury to firefighters. In these scenarios, while ensuring that no ventilation takes place on any side of the structure and that the front door vent point it is kept closed, use of multiple attack lines to quickly knock down the main body of fire on the venting side would be the first arriving officer's initial course of action.
Brackenridge, PA - 1991
During the 1991 fire in Brackenridge, PA, (see Photo 2) a steel floor joist which was being heated by burning flammable liquids in the basement and began to expand. However, since the ends rested securely on a concrete basement wall, preventing expansion, it twisted causing the first floor to collapse into the heavily involved basement. While manning a handline at the top of the first floor basement stairway to prevent vertical fire extension, an entire truck crew of 4 from the Hilltop Hose Company lost their lives.
Chesapeake. VA - 1996
In 1996 two Chesapeake, VA firefighters, who were making an interior attack from the Charlie side of a large enclosed commercial structure, were trapped and killed by the total collapse of a lightweight wooden truss roof assembly (see Photo 3.) Involved enclosed structures and spaces which can initially conceal smoke and fire are associated with, flashover, backdrafts, collapse of roofs and floors, and prolonged zero visibility conditions which lead to firefighter disorientation and fatalities.
Colerain Township, OH - 2008
In 2008, as moderate smoke was showing from a known basement fire and informed that occupants had escaped this two-story residence three Colerain Township, OH. firefighters initiated an offensive attack across the first floor and into the basement (see Photo 4.) During an evacuation, two firefighters became disoriented, fell through the fire weakened first floor and died. Photo 5 shows a view of the Charlie side and of a basement walk-out door. NIOSH noted that an incomplete 360-degree assessment was a contributing factor but it also appears that the extreme potential danger associated with basement fires was not understood by some of the responding companies and therefore did not result in use of safer tactics from the outset.
Through experience and research the fire service over time learns and benefits from knowledge about old and new signs of danger. No one can ever know how many fallen firefighters may have survived had they understood the importance of knowing what signs to look for during a 360-degree assessment, but things in the fire service are slowly changing for the better. Today's firefighters literally have access at their fingertips to specific and valuable tactical information provided by fatality investigations involving departments across the country. Additionally, valuable information determined by such studies as hazards of the wind have been significant in advancing safety on the fireground. But the insight and power of information, along with emerging technology, must be translated and taken to the drill ground and ultimately to the fireground to be of any value in the prevention of line-of-duty deaths.
Note: This article implements the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Everyone Goes Home Life Safety Initiatives 3: Integrate risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical and planning responsibilities and Life Safety Initiatives 8: Utilize available technology whenever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.
WILLIAM R. MORA, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a former Captain of the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department. William has done extensive research on the topic of firefighter disorientation including the analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities and is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001. You can reach William by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.