The Firefighter Disorientation Challenge

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...


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.

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