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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Although the sequence is straightforward, firefighters must also be aware that on occasion it can unfold fatally "out of sequence." For example, handline separation taking place as a result of firefighter failure to maintain contact with a handline, regardless of the reason, can occur before conditions within an enclosed structure begin to deteriorate. Once conditions deteriorate, with development of prolonged zero visibility conditions, for instance, the sequence is completed. Therefore, although the sequence is not in chronological order, it will have equally fatal results -- a sequence that occurs in a 1-2-3-4-5 progression is just as deadly as one that occurs in a 1-2-4-3-5 arrangement. This phenomenon played out at large enclosed structure fires in Worcester, MA, Chicago, IL, Kansas City, MO, and most recently in Charleston, SC.

It is important for firefighters to realize that disorientation is, in fact, only an interim step that may or may not lead to fatality. Many factors play into whether a firefighter fatality occurs in an enclosed structure; here are just a few: Should a disoriented firefighter who is not deep in the interior of a structure call a Mayday and receive assistance in a timely manner, chances are the firefighter will survive. If, however, a disoriented firefighter is unable to obtain immediate and invasive help or fails to self evacuate prior to depleting the air supply, the firefighter will die. The same holds true for a firefighter engulfed in a flashover or a backdraft. If the firefighter is unable to quickly locate a means of egress through the blinding and painful exposure to fire, the distressed and disoriented firefighter will also perish. One can see that the same fate holds true if the firefighter drops through a fire-weakened floor and into an involved basement (enclosed space) or is pinned down by a collapse of a roof. When these associated structural failures blind firefighters, separate firefighters from handlines and expose firefighters to life-threatening danger, the result will also be the same. Therefore, for safety, the best alternative to take during enclosed structure fires is to use a tactical plan carefully designed to avoid the danger.

Losing Visibility

The ways in which firefighters lose visibility in structure fires represents one of the more complex aspects of firefighter disorientation. Although it is easy to understand that heavy smoke can cause the blindness that results in disorientation during fires in enclosed structures and enclosed spaces, firefighters in the study lost visibility five different ways. The resulting disorientation occurred following exposure to life-threatening hazards, some of which rapidly engulfed or exposed attacking or evacuating firefighters, while others deviously and fatally developed gradually.

The five types of firefighter disorientation identified include:

  1. Disorientation secondary to flashover.
  2. Disorientation secondary to backdraft.
  3. Disorientation secondary to prolonged zero-visibility conditions.
  4. Disorientation secondary to collapse.
  5. Disorientation secondary to conversion steam development.

Experienced firefighters understand that strenuous work must often be accomplished in periods of zero visibility. Zero visibility occurring in opened structures is dangerous, but usually does not result in sustained disorientation and death. This is because, as defined, opened structures provide windows and doors that are adequate in number and large enough for all firefighters to bail out of while dressed in full turnout gear. These windows and doors are critical because they let firefighters promptly ventilate and evacuate should interior conditions rapidly deteriorate. Zero-visibility conditions are defined as those that cause blinding conditions for 15 minutes or less. This corresponds to the effective breathing time a 30-minute-rated air tank will provide a working firefighter.

Although a firefighter may become disoriented in an opened structure, such disorientation is usually temporary, lasting until effective ventilation allows visibility to be regained within the interior of the structure. Due to the smaller size of the structure and the availability of walls to assist in exiting and with availability of penetrable windows and doors, firefighters are more capable of reaching a means of egress. The opposite, however, is true of enclosed structures and that is why they are extremely dangerous.

Since very few windows or doors that are readily penetrable exist in an enclosed structure, zero-visibility conditions become and remain prolonged. Once visibility in an enclosed structure drops to zero, any firefighter in the structure or who enters the structure will be operating in a sustained zero-visibility environment for the duration of the fire. This is an extremely dangerous, unfamiliar and, at times, terrorizing condition for the unsuspecting firefighter to experience, usually leading to panic, accelerated rate of respiration, rapid depletion of air supply, calls for Maydays and death by asphyxiation.