Documented experiences of some of the nations' finest and most progressive departments objectively illustrate how ineffective and unsafe traditional strategy and tactics were when used at enclosed structure fires.
This series of articles are based on analysis of The United States Firefighter Disorientation Study and implements The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Firefighter Life Safety Initiative 3. This initiative calls for "focusing greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities."
The magnitude of the firefighter fatality problem in the United States can only be described as tremendous. According to analysis of the latest information from the U.S. Fire Administration's National Fire Data Center, "There have been 444 firefighter fatalities from Jan. 1, 1990 through Dec. 31, 2006, while on the scene of structure fires." Of these, 176 were traumatic firefighter fatalities. Of even greater significance, 135 of these fatalities or 77% occurred in enclosed structure fires where a quick and aggressive interior attack was utilized.
In light of the large percentage of deaths occurring in enclosed structure fires and with a greater understanding of their causes, a different approach to prevent future fatalities must seriously be considered. Although the basic philosophy used in managing an enclosed structure fire is the same regardless of the type of enclosed structure involved, the focus here will be on the tactics to consider for larger enclosed structures defined as those measuring 100-foot by 100-foot or greater in size.
Universal Sign of Danger
To help prevent fatalities, firefighters must learn a new universal sign of firefighting danger during the initial size up and based on a structures' appearance. If, according to the disorientation study, line-of-duty deaths, serious injuries and narrow escapes are directly linked to an enclosed structural design and use of traditional tactics, then an enclosed design should serve as a warning to avoid traditional tactics if unfavorable outcomes are to be avoided. This recommendation is based on what has been learned concerning the safety and effectiveness of traditional strategy and tactics when used at opened and enclosed structure fires.
For example, while a fire in an opened structure, which is one having a sufficient number of windows and doors for ventilation and emergency evacuation, can in the vast majority of cases be safely and effectively extinguished using traditional strategy and tactics, this is not always true in the case of an enclosed structure fire. In fact, analysis shows that quickly and aggressively advancing an attack line to search for the seat of the fire, although traditional, logical and well intentioned, is an approach which does not always yield the expected results at enclosed structure fires.
During past enclosed structure fires, traditional tactics would work but only if conditions were right. For instance, if the seat of the fire was visible and located near the point of entry, firefighters would quickly and aggressively advance a handline to the fire and simply put it out. In other instances, firefighters in zero visibility conditions may have advanced deep into the structure, located and extinguished the fire, luckily, without running out of air or encountering any of a number of hazards that were present.
However, when conditions were right for disaster, unsuspecting firefighters would instinctively, confidently and aggressively execute the same standard operating procedure, which had never let them down before, only to become involved in a sequence of events which resulted in disorientation, serious injuries, fatalities and defensive operations. The problem is; it continues today. Substantial evidence of the use of this tactic resulting in unfavorable outcomes at enclosed structure fires is supported by historical and current data available from The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH , the United States Fire Administration, USFA, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).