To Breathe or Not to Breathe; It Shouldn't Be a Question

There is an abundance of material written and spoken about the things firefighters do wrong. We are bombarded daily about omissions, corrections that need to be made to our behavior/culture and truckloads of Monday-morning quarterbacks second-guessing...


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There is an abundance of material written and spoken about the things firefighters do wrong. We are bombarded daily about omissions, corrections that need to be made to our behavior/culture and truckloads of Monday-morning quarterbacks second-guessing every action. That material should continue to receive considerable attention because the outcomes usually end up in hospital emergency rooms or funeral homes.

But there is another method we should consider; borrowing from military history. Military strategists don't just pore over what went wrong at battles and campaigns; they also surgically dissect what went right. They don't just look at the "dumb luck" of events; they study the decisions made and resulting outcomes that won the battle and preserved soldiers' lives.

The astute strategist recognizes the value of establishing and reinforcing best practices. Then instruction is developed that focuses more on the proper read of the topography, placement of troops and effect of critical support functions. This is a lesson the fire service needs to devote more time and attention to - the study of favorable outcomes that result from doing the right thing.

Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Near-Miss Tool Box. The vision of this quarterly column is to provide two reports from the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System that focus or emphasize the value of using best practices. We're borrowing a page from the great military academies' playbooks. By focusing on the positive outcomes that result from following best practices and highlighting the repeated theme in lessons learned (to follow best practices), we hope to buttress the case for using those practices to improve firefighter health and safety.

This first edition's focus is the benefit of using self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) during overhaul. Extending the time a firefighter stays on SCBA at any fire situation is a reasonable step to take, given the data and information emerging about the acute and long-term toxicity of the post-fire environment. The first report, number 08-287, takes us to the second floor of a single-family dwelling where first-floor crews have extinguished a fire and second-floor crews are checking for extension and beginning overhaul.

"...(Unit number deleted) advanced a dry line to the second floor in case fire was found. Upon entering the second floor, a TIC (thermal imaging camera) revealed no excessive heat or active fire from the top of the stairs. (Unit number deleted) crew made their way to the front area of the second floor and began opening the knee walls along side D. Fire was found on the inside of the knee walls at the eave line extending midway down the D side from the A/D corner. Vertical ventilation was completed by the tower and (unit number deleted) crew took out the A-side window. Smoke conditions improved greatly, allowing (unit number deleted) crew to walk around the area, moving furniture/debris and extinguishing the last remains of fire in the knee walls. The crew was still on SCBA, but had no heat and good visibility. The 2nd floor was divided into three rooms with the front room being 8x10 in size. The wall dividing the front room from the middle room had a closet.

"During the extinguishment and overhaul phase on the second floor, flames began coming from the top of the closet wall. Another crew member stated there were flames coming from the middle room extending into the hall towards the engine crew. The hoseline was directed to the flames in the closet and then to the hallway. Immediately following this action, conditions rapidly deteriorated. Thick black smoke and rapidly increasing high-heat conditions occurred resulting in the immediate order to evacuate through the Division A window."

The second report, number 06-476, is dispatched as a brushfire, but the crews find a fully involved vehicle fire in a field. The firefighters advance on the fire in full personal protective equipment (PPE) and attack from a distance. The scene picks up with the transition from extinguishment to overhaul just getting underway.

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