Online Exclusive

The Firefighter Disorientation Challenge

type='node' cid='35873' />This article tries to help you confront the challenge by learning from the lessons of others and prevent disasters from happening in your department.

In spite of all the training, technology and adequate staffing provided to safely manage structure fires today, interior structure firefighting is still a hazardous activity that far too often results in the serious injury or fatality of excellent firefighters. And things are not improving.

According to data provided by the U.S. Fire Administrations' (USFA) National Fire Data Center, "For a ten year period, 1997-2006, 23.5% of on duty firefighter fatalities occurred at the scene of structure fires." Of concern is that 47 of 118 who lost their lives at structure fires in 2007 is representative of a 17 percent increase over the preceding ten year time span.

Although not a trend, a greater concern is that losses in several of the fatal structural fires experienced in 2007 were a part of a preventable trend and associated with life threatening hazards in enclosed structures determined to repeatedly cause firefighter disorientation, serious injuries and line of duty deaths (LODDs). Departments and communities suffering losses during enclosed structure fires in 2007 included: Upland, Indiana, Hwy 58 Volunteer Fire Department, Inc., Tennessee, Prince William County, Virginia, Boston, Massachusetts, Manhattan, New York, and Charleston, South Carolina. It is also important to note that these specific types of preventable fatalities continued into 2008 and will continue into 2009 if a change in the way Firefighters approach these extremely dangerous types of structure fires does not occur.

The "U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001" defines firefighter disorientation as "the loss of direction due to the lack of vision in a structure fire." Additionally and like some of the 2007 incidents which occurred in larger enclosed structures, it frequently leads to multiple firefighter fatalities. Key figures in the management of danger on the fireground, such as informed command and safety officers, and prepared rapid intervention teams however, can play a vital role in the prevention of LODDs occurring during enclosed structure fires in their jurisdictions.

Worcester 1999
A classic enclosed structure fire occurred in Worcester, MA in 1999. John R. Anderson, an investigator of the Worcester incident, noted several lessons learned which are as valid today as they were 10 years ago. According to the seventh lesson learned in the 1999 USFA Technical Report 134, "Abandoned Cold Storage Warehouse Multiple Firefighter Fatality Fire," Anderson asserts: "The fire service should initiate life safety activities early on at the fire scene. The concept of a Rapid Intervention Team was known to the Worcester Fire Department and was being implemented before the Worcester Cold Storage Fire, but it was not put into place until the 5th alarm on December 3rd. Firefighters had entered an unknown structure over one hour before the team was assigned. It is now standard procedure in Worcester to assign a RIT at the onset of each structure fire. The first radio transmission by the Safety Officer was 10 minutes after the RIT was assigned. For control and monitoring of personnel, structural integrity, and other safety concerns, this position should also be filled early on. Anderson goes on to point out that: In an ideal fire scene, the Safety Officer and RIT would be in place before the first firefighters enter the building. Command should strive to have these jobs filled as early as possible even if doing so escalates the event to a higher alarm level to provide sufficient personnel."

Mr. Anderson was correct with his position, however, the vast majority of departments have not translated his words into safe action on the fireground and the fatalities continue. Within investigative reports conducted by the USFA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a primary safety issue concerned the fact that the building was abandoned. However, there is more with reference to the fundamental danger associated with the six-story structure and thousands of others like it, to be aware of.

Although at the time, investigations of the Worcester tragedy pointed to the danger associated with abandoned structures such as the cold storage warehouse, it has since been determined that structures and spaces having an enclosed structural design are also at the root of the fatality problem to this day. Furthermore, findings show that enclosed structures and spaces are significantly more dangerous to the safety of firefighters who use an aggressive interior attack.

In fact, according to the report: "Analysis of Structural Firefighter Fatality Database 2007", over a 16-year time span, 1990-2006, enclosed structures, which have an insufficient numbers of windows and doors, were found to take the lives of firefighters at a disproportionate rate of 77 percent when compared to structures with an opened design. Opened structures are those having adequate numbers of windows and doors for ventilation and emergency evacuation. This distinction in the architectural design of a structure has been shown to have major ramifications in the safety of firefighters. Additionally, the rate of multiple firefighter fatality events was even more disproportionate occurring at a staggering 84 percent at enclosed structure fires where an aggressive interior attack was utilized.

Charleston 2007
In 1999, Worcester firefighters conducted an initial size-up and implemented an aggressive interior attack based on an incorrect interpretation of the light smoke conditions showing from the large warehouse on arrival. During the incident, disoriented Worcester Firefighters, who ran out of air trying to reach the safety of a stairwell, became unknowing participants in a fatal disorientation sequence or chain of events which lead to multiple firefighter fatalities.

Eight years later history repeated itself. In a large enclosed structure fire in Charleston, SC, with light smoke showing on the interior and in fulfillment of established standard operating procedures, nine firefighters died after initiating an aggressive interior attack. As blinding smoke gradually filled the structure, those firefighters who were not on a handline, to serve as a life line, ran out of air before they could find their way to a means of egress. As in the Worcester incident, the disorientation sequence tragically unfolded in Charleston taking the lives of firefighters who used a strategy they felt would safely extinguish the fire to enable them all to return back home.

Confronting The Challenge
Enclosed structures without the protection of an operable sprinkler system were involved in 88 percent of the enclosed structure fires which took the lives of 23 firefighters who made a fast and aggressive interior attack. Based on analysis of all the evidence, one thing is crystal clear: Fatal fires will continue to occur in these specific types of structures and spaces if firefighters continue to use a fast and aggressive interior attack at the outset.

To prevent fatalities attributable to disorientation in structures with enclosed designs will require a different tactical approach. The use of a flexible "Enclosed Structure Standard Operating Guideline," programmed to avoid the risk associated with enclosed structures and spaces, such as basements, is highly recommended to protect firefighters against the extreme potential danger associated with enclosed structure fires. Do not wait to "design your SOG by disaster." Confront the challenge, learn from the lessons of others and prevent disaster from happening in your department.

Related Links

WILLIAM R. MORA, a 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