A Time to Change

If the strategy and tactics you depend on with your lives are as safe as you think they are, why then do so many traumatic fatalities continue at incidents where the same tactics were used?

A data analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities, occurring over a 16-year time span and provided by the U.S. Fire Data Center, uncovered one major underlying explanation for the trend. It was revealed that the safety offered by an offensive strategy, also known as a quick and aggressive interior attack, applied mostly to certain types of structures but not all of them. This newly recognized class of extremely dangerous structures in which a quick and aggressive interior attack does not always work has been identified. However, due to the very difficult task of reaching every firefighter, the vast majority of officers and firefighters today are totally unaware of them. Since firefighters are unknowingly relying on strategy and tactics that are potentially unsafe if used at enclosed structure fires, this issue represents a true fire service emergency in need of immediate attention.

As the name implies, enclosed structures have an enclosed design that lack readily penetrable means of egress through windows or doors for ventilation and emergency evacuation. They include basements, high rise hallways and stairwells. These specific structures and spaces can also be of any type of construction, occupancy, size or age. They can also be occupied, unoccupied or vacant during a fire.

Enclosed structures are extremely dangerous during a fire because they contain smoke and heat in a diminishing oxygen environment. This causes prolonged zero visibility conditions and extreme fire behavior to occur when air is introduced. This condition coupled with a firefighter's inability to quickly ventilate, to see and evacuate due to the structures' enclosed design, often causes exposure to life threatening hazards leading to firefighter disorientation and line of duty deaths.

Offensive Strategy Not Always Safe and Effective at Enclosed Structure Fires
The offensive strategy philosophy utilized by virtually every department in the nation, emphasizes that in order to create a safer environment and minimize loss at the scene of a structure fire, firefighters must quickly initiate ventilation and advance handlines into the structure from the unburned side, to locate, attack and extinguish the fire. As firefighters know, doing so will stop the fire from weakening the structure thereby reducing damage and danger to firefighters. This strategy also creates safer conditions for firefighters to quickly conduct a primary search, which is of course, the number one tactical priority.

Study of this widely used strategy, has found, that in fact, an offensive strategy is relatively sound and in the vast majority of cases works well in opened structures. Opened structures are structures of small to moderate size, built on concrete slab foundations, having an adequate number of readily penetrable windows and doors for prompt ventilation and emergency evacuation.

However, the analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities has confirmed earlier findings of the U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001. (Mora 2003). The disorientation study found that in 100% of 17 cases examined, 23 firefighter fatalities, numerous injuries and narrow escapes were caused by disorientation following deteriorating conditions and aggressive interior attacks into enclosed structures.

The more recent report, Analysis of Structural Firefighter Fatality Database, (Mora 2007) arrived at a similar conclusion. The analysis showed that a fast and aggressive interior attack was not always safe and effective to use at the scene of enclosed structure fires.

In fact, a fast attack resulted in a disproportionate number of deaths. Of the 444 firefighter fatalities taking place while on the scene of structure fires, 123 structure fires resulted in 176 traumatic firefighter fatalities during an aggressive interior attack. Of the 176 fatalities: 135 or 77% occurred in enclosed structure fires while 41 or 23% occurred in an opened structure fire. The analysis also determined that operations utilizing an aggressive interior attack resulted in greater multiple firefighter fatalities in enclosed structure fires than in opened structure fires.

Of the 38 multiple firefighter fatality fires identified, 32 or 84% involved an enclosed structure while 6 or 16% involved an opened structure. The following photos provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are only a few that serve as examples of past enclosed structure fires that have taken the lives of dedicated firefighters after aggressive interior attacks were initiated. Review the reports and learn to identify these extremely dangerous types of structures so that safer and more calculating tactics can be implemented to avoid their associated risks.

Fatal Enclosed Structure Fires Linked to a Fast and Aggressive Interior Attack
See related photos at right.

  • F 2006-26: As an interior attack was underway, one of two firefighters lost his life after conducting a primary search and falling through the fire weakened floor into the involved basement. This opened structure with a basement involved a residence.
  • F-2004-14: Heavy smoke was showing on arrival as firefighters initiated a fast interior attack. As conditions deteriorated, one firefighter failed to exit this enclosed structure involving a night club.
  • F-2004-04: While searching for the seat of the fire, a firefighter died after becoming disoriented in zero visibility conditions. The unoccupied enclosed structure involved a mattress warehouse. At this structure, burglar bars covered the windows along the A side, the rear door was heavily secured with steel bars and the front door had a locked pull-down gate securing the structure. The B, C and D walls were constructed of solid brick and masonry.
  • F-2003-18 Two firefighters died while searching for the seat of the fire in this unoccupied enclosed commercial structure. This fire exposed firefighters to a backdraft, partial roof collapse and prolonged zero visibility. The B, C and D sides were of masonry block. As in many other large and fatal enclosed structure fires, the A side which enclosed the structure with commercial grade glass, contained the smoke to produce extremely dangerous prolonged zero visibility conditions.
  • F-2003-10: One firefighter died at this unoccupied enclosed commercial structure fire after firefighters made an interior attack. The A side wall was of concrete block while the B, C and D sides were wood-framed covered with aluminum and sheet metal siding. All windows and doors were covered with burglar bars.
  • F-2002-02: Two firefighters died of smoke inhalation after becoming disoriented in this vacant 2 story enclosed commercial structure. Windows were enclosed with Plexi-glass or sealed substantially with heavy wood boards. Both front doors were pad locked with a wrought iron gate while a metal gate secured the overhead door on the C- side trapping another firefighter. The B- side wall was of solid brick and masonry construction.
  • F-99-48: The first arriving officer lost his life 52 minutes after arrival. He became disoriented in zero visibility conditions during interior operations at this large enclosed structure paper warehouse fire.
  • F-99-47: Six firefighters died using offensive strategy and tactics at this six story enclosed structure involving a vacant cold storage warehouse. The sudden onset of Prolonged Zero Visibility Conditions blinded the firefighters causing them to become disoriented.

The repeated fatal outcomes at enclosed structure fires both past and unfortunately those in the future will serve as proof that operational change is urgently needed in the fire service. The key to preventing these line-of-duty deaths is in knowing the type of structure most likely to kill firefighters and eliminating the risk by training and using technology, risk management statements which define the risk firefighters may take and by use of different strategy and tactics.

It is achievable. Do not be the department who suffers the next enclosed structure fatality. Prevent it by studying the issue and by modifying your method of operation. Although significant adjustment in the way the job is performed does not happen very often in the fire service, the overwhelming mountain of documented evidence is telling us that now is definitely the time to change.

Note: This article implements the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Life Safety Initiative 9: Thoroughly Investigate All Firefighter Fatalities, Injuries, and Near Misses

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William R. Mora has dedicated 32 years to the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department as a firefighter, engineer, paramedic and training officer. Captain Mora is currently assigned to the firefighting division. He serves on technical advisory boards for the University of Kentucky, Lexington and has studied educational methodology and hazardous materials in depth at the National Fire Academy.

Captain William Mora is a fire consultant with an interest in firefighter safety, strategy and tactics, standard operating guideline development and firefighter disorientation. Captain Mora has advanced new firefighting terminology, tactics and concepts to help firefighters recognize, manage and avoid the risk at structure fires. He has been published on the topic of firefighter disorientation and enclosed structure tactics in Firehouse.com, Fire Chief Magazine, and Fire Engineering Magazine, as well as in the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Everyone Goes Home Newsletter. He has given presentations on the prevention of firefighter disorientation for the Fire Department Instructors' Conference, Texas Volunteer Fire Departments and for the Maryland State Firemen's Association.

The firefighter disorientation problem has compelled Captain Mora to provide assistance to fire officials, safety educators, grant writers, and fire industry professionals with valuable researched information. He has been active in the effort to prevent firefighter disorientation and traumatic structural firefighter fatalities. Working towards that goal, Captain Mora conducted an analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities, identifying a large percentage of line-of-duty deaths occurring at enclosed structure fires where offensive strategies were used. He served as a participant at the 2004 and 2007 National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Life Safety Summits and currently serves as an advocate for the Everyone Goes Home Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Program for the state of Texas. Captain Mora is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001 which appears in the United States Fire Administration's annual report: Firefighter Fatalities in the U.S. in 2003, 2004 and 2005. You can contact William by e-mail at: capmora@aol.com.

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