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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Prolonged zero-visibility conditions are blinding smoke conditions that last 15 minutes or greater. More simply, it can be regarded as a time span that exceeds a firefighter's breathing capability while in a structure. Prolonged zero visibility must be recognized by the fire service as a life-threatening condition that can develop at different rates of speed to deviously endanger even veteran firefighters.

Life Lines and Misread Size-Up Factors

With history as evidence, firefighters cannot continue to use an offensive strategy at an enclosed-structure fire and expect to survive. The tactics simply may not work. In addition, the need to maintain close proximity to, or constant contact with, a handline, in particular, cannot be emphasized enough when working in the interior of an enclosed structure. This issue is so serious that the use of a hand-line at enclosed-structure fires to serve as a "life line" out of the building should be mandatory in every fire department. The concern that adequate numbers of handlines are not available to allow every engine and truck company to have one is not valid, as evolutions currently exist that routinely provide all companies with protection with 1¾-inch handlines against rapidly changing conditions or to serve as life lines whenever needed.

Another complex aspect that leads to disorientation is that handline separation may also occur in various ways and related to the effects of a flashover, a backdraft, or a collapse of a floor or roof. Handlines have also been inadvertently removed from structures prior to conducting personnel accountability reports (PARs). It can also innocently occur at the start of an incident. This often occurs due to misreading of initial size-up factors. Firefighters, accustomed to opened-structure tactics, have mistakenly thought that use of a handline as a life line was not necessary when they entered an enclosed structure because light smoke conditions observed at the beginning of the incident did not translate into an extremely dangerous condition. However, when conditions deteriorated, the lack of a handline completed a disorientation sequence that resulted in fatality. Similar misinterpretation of initial size-up factors also gave officers the wrong signal to initiate aggressive interior attacks that, in many cases, turned out to be fatal.

In the future, although firefighters must continue to consider the same traditional initial size-up factors when arriving at the scene of any structure fire, firefighters must remember that light, moderate or heavy smoke showing from an enclosed structure or space should be regarded as a sign of extreme danger.

Next: Enclosed-Structure Tactics and Guidelines

WILLIAM R. MORA retired as a captain after a 33-year career with the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department. He is a fire safety consultant concentrating in strategy and tactics and prevention of firefighter disorientation. He is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001 and Analysis of Structural Firefighter Fatality Database 2007. Mora can be reached at capmora@aol.com.