The tragic event that unfolded in Charleston, SC, on June 18, 2007, marked the worst case of firefighter disorientation ever recorded in the United States. Since the details surrounding the deaths of nine firefighters have a direct and immediate impact on firefighter safety, Firefighters should never forget what transpired there. More importantly, firefighters must learn from this landmark incident and institute changes in order to avoid similar results from occurring in their department. Since new information has been collected over the years about these specific types of fatal structure fires, a discussion about the strategy and tactics used during this fire and others like it, is absolutely necessary.
Ineffectiveness Of The Current Approach
In general and based on the teachings and traditions of the fire service, firefighters nationwide currently manage structure fires in the same way. Depending on the initial size-up factors seen on arrival, and if relatively safe, firefighters will either quickly and aggressively attack the fire from the unburned side or when conditions are unsafe, a defensive, exterior attack will be utilized. This is an easy and highly logical method of operation and has served the fire service relatively well over the years. A problem with this method of operation however, has been identified and linked to line-of-duty deaths. While a fast and aggressive interior attack may be safe and effective to utilize on certain types of structures such as a small or moderate size residence without a basement, it is now known that an offensive strategy cannot be relied upon for safe and effective use on all structure fires. Since the problem structure has been identified, it must therefore be known by every active firefighter today and in the future.
The Enclosed Structure: Significance Of The Structural Design
One of several findings revealed by the U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study was that in 100 percent of the cases examined, the structures in which disorientation occurred had an enclosed structural design. And in conjunction with other findings, a clear understanding associated with enclosed structure fires concerning the loss of safety and ineffectiveness of the initial size-up, the strategy, the tactics and tasks were determined. Concerning the fundamental architectural design of a structure, it was found that an absence of an adequate number of openings such as windows and doors was shown to have major ramifications in the safety and effectiveness of firefighters who used traditional offensive strategies. And the reason this should be of serious concern to the active firefighter today is because today's firefighters have been trained, equipped and expected to initiate a fast and aggressive interior attack from the unburned side of a structure without factoring the extreme danger associated with an enclosed structural design and of the smoke and extreme fire behavior it is highly prone to produce. Additionally, according to the report, Analysis of Structural Firefighter Fatality Database, should the enclosed structure not be protected by an operable sprinkler system, that crew and subsequent crews entering the structure have a 77 percent chance of being exposed to life threatening hazards that may disorient and take their lives and a staggering 84 percent chance of being victims of a multiple firefighter fatality event. The reality is that all of these findings pertained to the Charleston incident and to many previous structure fires which were large in size, and which also had an enclosed design.
The Firefighter Disorientation Sequence
In any occupation involving a serious injury or fatality, a chain of events leading to the unfavorable outcome can be identified. If one link in the chain can be broken, the injury or fatality can be prevented. One such chain identified with interior structural firefighting is the Firefighter Disorientation Sequence, also uncovered during the disorientation study. It typically involves safe but uninformed firefighters quickly executing established strategies and tactics cited in their standard operating procedures. In general, the steps in the sequence include: