Preventing Firefighter Disorientation In Large Enclosed Structures - Part 1

William Mora discusses the dangers of firefighter disorientation in part one of this series.


Editor's note: The author is a Texas state advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's Everyone Goes Home Life Safety Initiatives Project. This article implements Initiative 3 -- Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels...


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Editor's note: The author is a Texas state advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's Everyone Goes Home Life Safety Initiatives Project. This article implements Initiative 3 -- Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical and planning responsibilities; Initiative 8 -- Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety; and Initiative 9 -- Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries and near misses.

Firefighter disorientation -- loss of direction due to the lack of vision in a structure fire -- is one of the oldest, least understood and deadliest hazards of interior firefighting. However, with training, it can be prevented.

United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001, which I published in 2003, examined 17 fires that occurred across the country. It revealed that in every case, disorientation occurred when firefighters conducted fast and aggressive interior attacks into enclosed structures and spaces. These actions resulted in the deaths of 23 firefighters. It is my contention that by understanding what happened at these fires, the disorientation problem in the fire service can be eliminated. This can be accomplished partly by grouping and managing enclosed structures, much as we categorize hazardous materials, and by using new tactics and new and existing terminologies. Additionally, properly trained first-arriving officers will be able to identify enclosed structures during initial size-up and know when to use a different approach to safely and effectively manage these incidents.

Opened vs. Enclosed Structures

An "enclosed structure" has few readily penetrable windows or doors for prompt ventilation and emergency evacuation. These structures can be of any type of occupancy, any type of construction, any size, age or configuration and can be occupied, unoccupied or vacant during a fire. They include enclosed spaces such as basements and high-rise hallways. But the single common identifiable thread is that they are enclosed. These structures exist in every community and will be a major structural firefighting problem for decades to come.

A certain type of firefighter disorientation also occasionally occurs in what are referred to as "opened structures." This typically involved disorientation caused by the blinding effects of a flashover. Opened structures are small to moderate in size, built on a concrete slab foundation having an adequate number of readily penetrable windows and doors for prompt ventilation and emergency evacuation. Opened structures should be considered dangerous to firefighters, meaning occasionally fatal, while enclosed structures should be considered extremely dangerous because of their record of disorienting and repeatedly claiming the lives of firefighters. Although firefighters already know that any structure on fire is dangerous, they can also know which specific type of identifiable structure is extremely dangerous -- and why. When routinely applied on the scene, this fact alone can provide firefighters with a simple early warning that can prevent fatalities.

Disorientation Sequence

In any tragedy, there will be a chain of events that leads to an unfavorable outcome. If, however, a link in the chain can be broken, a loss such as a fatality can be prevented. In structural firefighting, one such chain is the firefighter disorientation sequence. Since the sequence frequently leads to the killing of one or even multiple firefighters at single events, it should clearly be understood by every firefighter.

The steps of the sequence are:

  1. Fire in an enclosed structure with smoke showing.
  2. A quick and aggressive interior attack.
  3. Deteriorating conditions.
  4. Handline separation or entangled handlines encountered.
  5. Disorientation.
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