RESIDENTIAL SEARCH: Complacency & Priorities

When firefighters answer an alarm for a residential fire, many tasks and priorities must be addressed. Among the most important, yet frequently overlooked tactics are the various and multiple potential rescue scenarios that may confront the first-arriving...


When firefighters answer an alarm for a residential fire, many tasks and priorities must be addressed. Among the most important, yet frequently overlooked tactics are the various and multiple potential rescue scenarios that may confront the first-arriving company. The primary decision faced by...


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When firefighters answer an alarm for a residential fire, many tasks and priorities must be addressed. Among the most important, yet frequently overlooked tactics are the various and multiple potential rescue scenarios that may confront the first-arriving company.

The primary decision faced by the officer of the first-arriving company is whether to keep the balance of the alarm assignment responding in emergency mode, to slow them down or even cancel the balance of the first-alarm assignment. Many firefighters are familiar with the fire service axiom that states the first five minutes will decide the outcome of the entire incident. In spite of this truism, it is all too common to hear radio traffic that downgrades the response or even cancels the balance of the alarm assignment when the first company arrives on scene and finds nothing showing from the exterior of the structure. More times than not, this radio report is given before any firefighters are inside the occupancy. "Engine 1 is arriving at a 2½-story single-occupancy dwelling. There is nothing showing. All companies with the exception of Engine 1 can cancel."

This scenario repeats itself hundreds of times a day across the country. Activated residential alarms are a typical response for any fire department. And, with the proliferation of monitored residential alarms, this type of response is becoming all the more of a daily occurrence. Over 80% of these calls are false alarms that serve to create a lackadaisical attitude among firefighters. The tragedy is that 66% of all firefighter fatalities occur at residential fires that could have been controlled with one attack line and for which the initial size-up report was "nothing showing."

The correct and responsible tactical action for the company officer responding to activated residential fire alarms is to keep all responding companies coming in emergency mode until firefighters gain access to the occupancy, or at least visualize the interior and verify there is no emergency. Making tactical decisions from down the block, based on bystander information or basing actions on the last 20 false alarms, is irresponsible. Additionally, responding companies and officers must take in to account that they may not be in full possession of all the information that the dispatcher has gathered. Moreover, how unprofessional and irresponsible would it be for the first-arriving company officer to cancel the balance of the alarm assignment only to have the units dispatched again, usually in a very excited manner, two minutes later?

Responding companies can always be slowed down or even canceled after the alarm status is verified. Consider how outraged the public would be to see a police officer assess, then cancel a bank hold-up alarm from the parking lot without even entering the bank? Yet, this is what many fire companies are doing every day when they respond to residential fire alarms.

Keeping all dispatched companies responding in emergency mode may seem like a waste of time and resources to some, especially given the high percentage of false alarms in residential occupancies. However, of all the services provided by the fire department, seeing into the future is not one of them. Every alarm must be treated as an emergency until it can be verified as a false alarm. Therefore, it could be successfully argued that complacency is the largest contributing factor in many of the residential fires in which civilians and firefighters are killed.

Firefighters operating in an investigative mode at activated residential fire alarms must do so ready to go to work. That means members are wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), as well as carrying a full complement of hand tools that should include, at a minimum, a set of irons (eight-pound flat-head ax and Halligan bar), a pressurized 2½-gallon water extinguisher and a six-foot pike pole. Also, all members should be equipped with portable radios and flashlights.

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