When conditions inside a fire building change rapidly, the conventional methods to exit a window can be hampered by heat, window size and the firefighters profile.
Your crew is performing a primary search of the floor above the fire when you hear the evacuation tones over your portable radio. Turning to exit down the stairway, you unexpectedly realize that your crew is cut off from the stairs by rapidly spreading fire conditions. Luckily, you remember hearing the rapid intervention team (RIT) announce that they proactively set a ladder to a second floor window on the "Bravo" side of the structure and you recall just seeing it as you marked your orientation as you passed a window in your search pattern. Conditions are worsening and the heat is driving you and your crew lower to the floor. Are your crew members properly prepared to safely exit?
Looking back from 2007 to 2002, we have averaged 112 line of duty deaths each year. Out of those 112, an annual average of 35 can be attributed to actual activities taking place on the fireground. An average of 26 percent, or 9, of those per year can be linked to firefighters getting caught or trapped on the fireground (see Figure 1).
The best way to overcome this problem is to focus on the key areas of our job to prevent us from getting into trouble on the fireground. This includes command personnel as well as the people on the line. A lack of recognition of key aspects related to fire behavior continues to be one of the top five reasons firefighters get killed or into trouble on the fire ground. Everyone working on the fireground needs to be aware of the conditions that can create the need for emergency escape and prevent them from occurring.
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Conditions in a structure fire can change very rapidly. These conditions can prevent a firefighter from being able to stand up and exit a window in a conventional manner. Small windows or a firefighter's profile with an SCBA in place may also not allow them to exit onto the ladder in a conventional manner.
The only way that a firefighter may be able to escape is to exit the window head first onto the ladder. The techniques to accomplish this have been the subject of much undeserved controversy in the fire service community. Unfortunately, firefighters have been injured and in one case even suffered fatal injuries in training while performing these maneuvers. Because of this, many chiefs and training officers will not allow their members to train on techniques such as this which, in the opinion of this writer is more of a disservice. These techniques have been proven to make a difference by saving countless firefighter's lives on the fireground and if trained on with the proper safety measures taken, they can be accomplished relatively safe.
Training Increases Abilities
Training is the one and only time that we have control over the conditions and environment that we work in. Safety parameters for training in these techniques include the use of a rated safety line that is attached to a rated safety harness worn on the firefighter. This line shall be belayed in order to prevent any accidents that may be caused due to loss of handholds on the ladder or falling. This safety line shall be set up and operated at all times by a member properly trained to do so. Safety lines shall also be checked prior to each and every participant taking their turn. The ladder shall always be secured from movement at all times when training on these techniques.
Proper Ladder Placement
Our RIT teams should be trained and allowed to operate in a proactive manner on the fireground as long as it does not prohibit them from being ready and available for deployment at a moments notice. This proactive behavior includes placing ladders to upper floor windows around a structure to provide an alternate means of egress for interior companies. An exterior team should also make certain that a ladder is properly heeled if they hear that firefighters will be making a rapid egress (see Figure 2).