If smoke or fire from a basement is detected, everyone on the fireground and enroute must immediately be advised by radio or on arrival and no one should be allowed to enter the structure at the outset or thereafter if the floor has been determined to be unstable. For safety, the assumption must also be made that the floor is about to collapse until proven otherwise.
Firefighters must also bear in mind that although a lightweight wooden truss will collapse suddenly at any time after the trusses have been exposed to fire, any wooden beam of any dimension supporting the floor will also eventually burn through and cause the floor and furnishings to collapse when exposed to fire for a sufficient amount of time. And that time may have transpired well before your arrival.
Since the traditional, quick and aggressive interior attack does not always work in these types of structures and in fact repeatedly result in tragic outcomes, integrate risk management into your operations. Train your firefighters in the use of safe enclosed structure tactics which include basements and learn to conduct primary searches in such a way that specifically avoids the risk associated with these high-risk, high-frequency types of structure fires linked to firefighter fatalities.
Integrating Risk Management by Using Warranted Defensive Attacks
A second way to address the structural fatality problem is by using sound officer judgment at every structure fire. The reasoning during the emergency must be based on the danger encountered and knowledge of the safe and acceptable tactics to utilize for a specific situation. In addition to the tactics discussed in the caption for NIOSH F2006-26 (see right), a defensive or exterior attack should also be utilized on structures that are fully involved and where there is nothing left to save. Similarly, a primary search in these types of involved areas should not be initiated.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) directs firefighters during these challenging fireground situations. According to NFPA 555 - Guide on Methods for Evaluating Potential for Room Flashover, a flashover is defined as: "A stage in the development of a confined fire in which all exposed surfaces reach ignition temperatures more or less simultaneously and fire spreads rapidly throughout the space." The guide goes on to state that "the occurrence of flashover within a room is the ultimate signal of untenable conditions within the room of fire origin as well as a sign of greatly increased risk to other rooms within the building."
This guide, used for safety-based decision making, must also be applied when encountering structures which may be partially or well involved but that are abandoned, vacant or dilapidated. In these specific situations and where life safety is not an issue, first arriving officers must integrate risk management with incident management by communicating to all companies that a more reasonable defensive attack will be utilized.
Not For a Piece of Property
Firefighters traditionally serve communities very well by saving lives and structures that can be saved, however, firefighters can no longer needlessly place their lives in extreme danger. Across the country today, firefighters are receiving excellent training in the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Everyone Goes Home Courage to be Safe Program. Within the cultural safety portion of this presentation, FEMA Director and former USFA Administrator, R. David Paulison provides firefighters with a simple, yet significant message which takes only 13 seconds to deliver, but if applied nationally, could save lives on the fireground. Paulison states:
"What we're trying to do is change the culture of the fire service. It's no longer acceptable to put your life on the line for a piece of property. Yes, we're going to save lives and we're going to put our lives on the line if we have to save somebody else. But stop and think what you're doing before you go into a burning building." To prevent the tragic loss of firefighters, the safety culture must change. In this effort, Firefighters must understand that they are not required to sacrifice their lives to save any structure, regardless of the type of occupancy encountered, including but not limited to: residences, churches, restaurants or even a high rise building.