When It’s Time To Go: Emergency Escape Techniques

When was the last time you faced an emergency situation on the fireground? Have you ever experienced a personal emergency on the fireground (out of air, trapped with no immediate exit, disoriented, lost, entangled)? For many firefighters the answers are: never and no. When was the last time...


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When was the last time you faced an emergency situation on the fireground? Have you ever experienced a personal emergency on the fireground (out of air, trapped with no immediate exit, disoriented, lost, entangled)? For many firefighters the answers are: never and no.

When was the last time you reviewed and practiced rapidly locating an alternative exit (and exiting) during interior fireground operations? Preparation and training are the keys to success and survival when it comes to getting out alive when conditions change drastically. Preparation includes acknowledging that things can go wrong and training includes practicing the skills and techniques that will help you solve the problem when it occurs.

This article will review two emergency escape methods that may help you get out alive if your primary escape is cut off by rapidly deteriorating conditions or some other fireground event. The first method involves rapid location of a door or window and what to do when you find it. The second method involves making your own exit. In the event that conditions don’t allow any time to search for a door or window, or you’re unable to find one, breaching a wall into another area may provide you with an exit into a safe (or at least safer) area that will buy enough time to come up with another plan.

An awareness and recognition of potential problems is the first step to surviving a fireground emergency. When arriving on the fireground consider the current and expected conditions:

  • Fireground conditions. Upon arrival, take a look at the fire and smoke conditions. What is the intensity, volume, and location of the fire. How about the smoke? Remember the signs indicating flashover and/or backdraft.

    What are the operating crews doing? Are they advancing or is the fire holding them back. If crews are operating inside, and have been prior to your arrival, get a report on their progress. Are interior conditions better or worse than when they began?

  • Structural conditions. What do you know about the building? Is there any preplan information indicating potential problems such as collapse or other hazards? What affect is the fire having on the structure? Don’t forget to factor in the type of construction and the potential affects of fire during an extended firefight.

  • Interior conditions. Recognizing the interior conditions when entering the structure, and during interior operations, is extremely important. Failure to recognize any changes – for better or worse – could result in having to perform an emergency escape.

    Even with a constant awareness and recognition of the fireground, things can still go wrong. This is when prior training gives you an advantage.

Here are two possible techniques that may help you get out alive if interior conditions force you to make an emergency escape.

1. Rapid location and escape from a door or first-floor window. Locating a door or window, rapidly, begins with a constant awareness of your location in the structure. What floor are you on? Are you on an inside, or outside, wall? How far back is the last window or door?

If you’re not in contact with a wall, rapidly move and sweep in front of you until you contact one. Once you contact a wall, choose a direction and go. Remember, sweep high enough on the wall to feel a window. Failure to do this may cause you to pass by a potential exit.

  • Door escape. If you encounter a door, it may lead to safety. If the door doesn’t lead into a closet then proceed through door and shut it. Shutting the door separates you from the fire and will buy you a little time to consider your next move. If no door is present (only an open doorframe), then continue searching until you find another door or window. Without a door, you can’t separate yourself from the fire.

  • First-floor window escape. When encountering a window during your search, you’ll have to break out the glass and clear the window. Remember, if you’re being chased out of an area due to deteriorating conditions, then you’ll have to remain low while doing this.

    Once you’ve cleared the window, straddle the sill and maintain control of your body by hooking one arm and leg inside the window. Next, while continuing to maintain control, reach down for the ground with your outside arm or leg and lower yourself out the window onto the ground. Don’t throw yourself out the window and make a special effort not to land on your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinder. This can be avoided by maintaining control during your escape. This technique can also be used when escaping conditions on upper floors.

2. Breaching a wall. If you’re unable to locate a door or window, or conditions don’t allow time, a wall breach may be the only way to get out of the immediate area. It’s important to know what kind of construction you’re dealing with.

When breaching a wall in frame construction with drywall or plaster and lathe, choose a location to breach and use a tool to break through the wall. Penetrate all the way through the wall to ensure there is nothing blocking the other side (failure to check this will result in a lot of wasted energy). Once you’ve cleared an opening large enough to get through, check the environment on the opposite side (including the floor) and make your way through the opening. Getting through the opening may require a reduced profile maneuver with your SCBA. Once you’re through, continue your escape from the area.

  • Breaching without a tool. If you must breach through a wall and you don’t have a tool, consider the mule kick. This technique basically involves facing away from the wall on your hands and knees and kicking the wall at the breach location. Once an opening is made it can be expanded and the escape continued.

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Photo By Jim McCormack


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Photo By Jim McCormack

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Photo By Jim McCormack

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Photo By Jim McCormack
Once you have located a door and made sure that it does not lead into a closet, proceed through the door and close it. The door separates you from the fire and buys you time to prepare for your next move.

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Photo By Jim McCormack


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Photo By Jim McCormack

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Photo By Jim McCormack


When performing an emergency escape from a first-floor window, make sure to maintain body control at all times. Hooking an arm and leg inside the window allows you to lower yourself and “roll” out the window.
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Photo By Jim McCormack


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Photo By Jim McCormack

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Photo By Jim McCormack

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Photo By Jim McCormack
Once you have located a door and made sure that it does not lead into a closet, proceed through the door and close it. The door separates you from the fire and buys you time to prepare for your next move.

Jim McCormack has been a firefighter for 15 years and is currently with the Indianapolis Fire Department. He is the founder and president of the Fire Department Training Network, a membership network dedicated to firefighter training, and author of the books Firefighter Survival and Firefighter Rescue and Rapid Intervention Teams.

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