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Eight years ago, I was a member of a panel of four response chiefs teaching a two-day battalion chiefs training program at a fire service conference. We had just finished an overview of a structure fire where a firefighter died of smoke inhalation after getting lost and running out of air. One student raised his hand and asked the best question that's ever been asked at any conference. He said, "Two months ago, I was promoted to the rank of battalion chief. There are over 40 buildings in my first-due area that look exactly like the building you just showed us. I haven't ever received any formal training in how a battalion chief is supposed to run a fire. How do I manage fires in a way where my guys don't end up getting killed?"
I patiently waited my turn as each of my counterparts took a shot at answering his question. When the West Coast guy made the statement, "I order all of my chief officers to wear full protective gear when they command fires because it sends a positive safety message to the troops," I couldn't help myself any longer.
I ignored the really good question and went after what my associate had just said. I blurted out, "Where does your department normally position their incident commander?" He replied, "In the front seat of their response vehicle."
Sensing the lunacy of where this was headed, I asked, "Do they wear their SCBA?" He looked at me like I had lost my mind and said, "No. How in the world would a person who's sitting in the front seat of an SUV wear an SCBA?"
For the next couple of minutes, the two of us argued, only to be interrupted by the third instructor throwing in his two cents. This finally ended when the lead instructor shouted over the three of us that it was time to take a break. The young chief never got his question answered and should have received a full refund of his registration fee.
I would like to thank FirehouseÂ® Magazine for giving me the opportunity to answer the man's question eight years later.
The whole thing boils down to where we perform our job. The work we do at the scene of structure fires is unique, to say the least. Firefighters operate inside burning buildings. No other workforce operates in an environment loaded with combustible and toxic fire gases, has oxygen levels that won't sustain life, is full of blinding and combustible smoke, can go from tenable to almost 2,000 degrees in the blink of an eye, and in a building that is about 15 minutes from falling down. This is our world.
Our task-level workers (i.e., firefighters) wear protective envelopes that encase their entire bodies. In many instances, the only thing keeping them alive is the finite air supply they wear on their backs. It wasn't until the last decade or so since our service has started to pay more attention and incorporate the limits of our personal protective gear into the way we manage ourselves at the scene of structure fires.
In the good old days, Incident Action Plans (IAPs) for structure fires were designed around fire flow. Once you estimated the size of the fire, you could attach a required gallons-per-minute amount to it and start ordering lines to be laid and nozzles to flow water. Today's IAP also have to include firefighter safety. Any IAP that includes the safety of the hazard-zone workers must be designed around a roundtrip ticket for firefighters. This "ticket" is based on the 18-20-minute working time of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).
Managing our air supply is one of the foundations of firefighter safety. It's something firefighters must train on and our hazard-zone standard operating procedures (SOPs) and management systems have got to be tailored around firefighters not running out of air. When we base our structural fire attacks around air, it will affect the actions we take. Stretching an attack line over 200 feet inside a building hosting an out-of-control fire takes on a very dismal safety outcome when you factor in the true working time SCBA provide. The consequences of running out of air in a burning building are dire.