Of utmost importance to the safety of firefighters concerns the need to understand that with the exception of the officer using a thermal imager (TIC), the remaining crew members may initially or at some point during the incident, be operating in zero visibility conditions for the duration of the enclosed structure incident. Therefore, for safety, firefighters are to use the buddy system and maintain company integrity using physical or verbal means to communicate.
Firefighters must also maintain proximity to or continuous contact with a handline. A handline, which serves as a life line to the exterior, should be used by all firefighters when entering, operating in, or exiting the structure. This safety procedure must be strictly followed and enforced and pertains to all firefighters who enter the structure, including but not limited to, members of engine companies, rapid intervention teams, truck companies, chief officers, sector officers, training officers or safety officers.
It is also important that handlines advanced into the structure remain in place during an evacuation to ensure all firefighters have a means to escape. In addition and for any reason, should a firefighter from a company need to exit the structure, the entire company must exit at the same time and command must be informed. When an entire crew does not exit together, company integrity, which is the firefighter's safety net is lost.
Implementation of Standard Operating Guideline
A large enclosed structure Standard Operating Guideline (SOG) should be implemented when arriving companies encounter the following conditions:
- An enclosed structure measuring 100 feet by x 100 feet or greater in size
- Smoke showing on arrival
- The location of the seat of the fire is unknown
- There is no life hazard present.
For discussion, we'll use the example of light smoke showing on arrival from an enclosed structure measuring 200 feet by 200 feet and 25 feet high. The response will consist of four engines, two trucks, one command officer, one safety officer and one emergency medical unit. The planned response in your department, however, will be tailored to personal preference based on the hazards of construction, hazards of contents, available staffing and equipment and when necessary, should include resources from mutual or automatic aid departments to help achieve the goal of preventing firefighter disorientation, serious injuries and line-of-duty deaths.
When a primary search is not required, the first arriving officer implements the SOG which involves a more cautious approach. A firefighter, with a TIC, then conducts a 360-degree walk around in search of fire, noting the location of pre-existing enclosed windows or doors which may serve as a means of access or evacuation and for the signs of a basement. During this walk around however and typical of fatal enclosed structure incidents, fire indicating the location of the fire will not be visible even with use of a thermal imager.
An attack on a concealed fire may be safely made only when the seat of the fire is located and conditions assessed. In this effort, the officer on the first arriving engine company will lead the crew in conducting a cautious interior assessment from a selected point of entry. This will be accomplished with assistance of a thermal imager as the crew gradually advances a charged hand line into the structure. Generally, firefighters involved in the assessment will eventually encounter the seat of the fire in one of five areas of the structure. For example, the fire may be located either:
- Near the initial point of entry (the A side for instance)
- in the concealed attic space
- in the area along the C wall
- in the center of the structure
- in the basement
Once the fire is located the assessing officer will make one of three safety based decisions. The decision is ultimately determined by assessing safety concerns with the existing hazards including but not limited to: