Two Salisbury, NC, firefighters were killed after an attack was initiated in the basement of this large unprotected and unoccupied enclosed structure.
Photo credit: Courtesy WSOC-TV
Two FDNY firefighters died after heavy smoke caused them to become disoriented in this unprotected and unoccupied high-rise building. During the incident, 49 calls for Mayday were transmitted.
Photo credit: Photo by William R. Mora
Two Boston firefighters, disoriented by the fire of a backdraft, lost their lives during this unprotected enclosed structure fire.
Nine Charleston, SC, firefighters, disoriented by blinding smoke, died in this large unprotected enclosed structure when an aggressive interior attack was waged.
Photo credit: Photo Courtesy of Steward English
The latest number of line of duty deaths occurring at structure fires is not encouraging. In fact, as fatalities are concerned, it sadly appears that the U.S. Fire Service is once again heading to another record breaking year. If one were to observe and compare the actions that were taken during several of the more recent structure fires, a similar chain of events, which lead to fatalities, can be clearly seen. But the encouraging aspect of this situation is that fatalities can be prevented if firefighters were only made aware of the problem.
In response, immediate action must be taken to ensure that the loss of firefighters does not occur in your department. No one else can do this, only you.
There are many risk management strategies that may be used to reduce the risk on the fireground. One commonly cited in firefighter fatality investigation reports is the need to follow standard operating procedures or guidelines (SOPs/SOGs). Another risk management strategy involves solutions proposed by the US Firefighter Disorientation Study published in 2003. The study determined that in several fatality cases the very SOPs that were in use at the time and at specific types of structures and spaces, were actually ineffective, unsafe and needed operational revision.
When findings of case study analysis exist, firefighters must consider their use in practical ways to prevent the traumatic fatalities that are occurring across the country today. Before departments can get to that point firefighters must know about the type of structure determined to have the greatest chance of taking their life and about the degree of safety their tactics provide.
What's Going On?
It has been definitively determined that structures and spaces with an enclosed structural design are directly linked to firefighter disorientation which typically leads to serious injury, fatality or narrow escapes.
The disorientation study, which examined 17 structure fires nationwide over a 22 year time period, determined that, in cases when a fast and aggressive interior attack was initiated into an enclosed structure, firefighter disorientation resulted 100 percent of the time. Additionally, the study noted that a review of the United States Fire Administration's (USFA) 2002 Firefighter Fatality Retrospective Study showed that there were also approximately 27 past cases of firefighter disorientation which took place at the scene of enclosed structure fires.
The most recent examination of structural firefighter fatalities, involving one of the largest numbers of cases to date, determined the degree of risk associated with opened and enclosed structure fires. The degree of safety associated with the tactics used during these fires was also determined.
The study involved traumatic structural fatalities that took place nationally over a 16 year time span, January 1, 1990 through December 31, 2006. The Analysis of Structural Firefighter Fatality Database 2007 (Mora) examined 444 traumatic firefighter fatalities which occurred at the scene of structure fires. There were 123 structure fires which resulted in 176 traumatic firefighter fatalities during an aggressive interior attack. Of 176 firefighter fatalities, 135 (77 percent) occurred in an enclosed structure fire while 41 (23 percent) occurred in an opened structure fire. The multiple firefighter fatality rate was found to be even more disproportionate. Of 38 multiple firefighter fatality structure fires, 32 (84 percent) occurred in an enclosed structure fire while six (16 percent) occurred in an opened structure. In light of these significant findings and at a minimum, chief, training and safety officers should consider the future safety of their current strategy and tactics at enclosed structure fires.
What Do We Do Now?
Firefighters should recognize and immediately take action to correct the problem. This should involve training in the identification of opened and enclosed structures and an understanding of their associated risks. Also, a change in strategy and tactics must be made when enclosed structures are encountered.
Enclosed structure tactics utilize a more cautious and calculated approach as opposed to the fast and aggressive interior attacks which are linked to LODDs. A critical step in the prevention of LODDs is in knowing when an enclosed structure is involved.
There are two settings in which enclosed structures may be identified. One is during the initial size-up process at the time of the alarm. But a second and more accurate way involves simply identifying an unprotected enclosed structure during pre-fire planning activities. The disorientation study revealed that in 100 percent of the cases studied, firefighters became disoriented in enclosed structures resulting in 23 firefighter fatalities. In 88 percent of those cases the structure had no operable sprinkler system. These two findings alone represent valuable information that, if used correctly, may very well prevent exposure to the life threatening hazards that cause disorientation and LODDs.
A simple approach to reduce stress and tremendously increase the level of safety on the fireground involves special pre-planning to identify the location of extremely dangerous enclosed structures in your first-due area. Of course, the goal is to obtain this information uniformly across a departments' jurisdiction. During this pre-plan activity, specific information is sought and collected.
In this process, officers should concentrate on every structure within their area to initially identify enclosed structures and secondly to determine if they are protected by an operable sprinkler system. This means that when protected enclosed structures are found, officers must ensure that the sprinkler system is pressurized. When they are not, efforts to return the system back into working condition must be made immediately. When unprotected enclosed structures are located, and because this is the specific type of structure that has been taking the lives of aggressive firefighters for decades, the address should be entered onto an unprotected enclosed structure reference list.
Officers may also note if the enclosed structure is large in size (100-by-100 feet or greater), as these are linked to multiple firefighter fatalities. In addition, and to guard against the disorientation and fatalities which occur as a result of early collapses of truss roof or floor construction, obtaining this particular information can also be included and would be especially beneficial to know during a working enclosed structure fire where smoke conditions would make it difficult to determine the presence of trusses.
Once the alphabetized list is completed, it can be forwarded to the dispatch office for use as reference. As structure fires are reported, individual addresses on the enclosed structure list, which may have been entered into computer assisted dispatch systems (CADS), will appear as messages on mobile data terminals (MDTs) when an emergency call is transmitted. If no CAD system is available, dispatchers only have to take a few seconds to refer to the list and provide verbal notification indicating for example that, "A large unprotected enclosed structure is involved and that the structure has a lightweight wooden truss roof system."
Additionally and when the collected information has indicated the presence of a basement, this information will also be included in the transmitted message. These advance notifications will not only serve as a warning that an extremely dangerous enclosed structure is involved but that enclosed structure tactics or SOGs should be utilized if conditions warrant.
In addition to this effort, a revision of the sprinkler code for the installation of sprinklers at new and existing large enclosed structures should be considered in every community. Although not an easy endeavor, this measure would have a tremendous long term impact in the reduction of the risk to firefighters and citizens alike where incidents like the Charleston Sofa Store fire and the Memphis Family Dollar Store fire, serve as vivid reminders.
Although time will be needed for every firefighter to thoroughly learn all aspects of enclosed structure fires and why they are extremely dangerous, in the meantime, special pre-planning of all protected and unprotected enclosed structures in your district can be one of the most valuable non-emergency activities that can take place immediately to help ensure everyone goes home.
Note: This article implements the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Life Safety Initiatives (LSI), including LSI 3: Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities, LSI 9: Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries, and near misses and LSI 15: Strengthen advocacy for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers.
- Enclosed Structure Standard Operating Guideline (SOG) (PDF)
- U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study, 1979-2001 (PDF)
- Analysis of Structural Firefighter Fatality Database (PDF)
- U.S. Fire Administration Firefighter Fatalities Homepage
- Charleston Phase II Report
WILLIAM R. MORA, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a Captain in the firefighting division of the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department. William has done extensive research on the topic of firefighter disorientation including the analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities and is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001. To read William's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach William by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.