Recently, while commanding a basement fire incident in a four-story commercial building, I once again found myself teaching a young fire officer one of the many survival tricks I’ve learned during my firefighting career. I had assigned a lieutenant and his truck company to search and ventilate...
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Recently, while commanding a basement fire incident in a four-story commercial building, I once again found myself teaching a young fire officer one of the many survival tricks I’ve learned during my firefighting career. I had assigned a lieutenant and his truck company to search and ventilate the upper floors of the four-story building. The lieutenant contacted me over the tactical channel of my radio to provide feedback on the progress of his crew’s assignment. His report was that they had searched and ventilated the lower floors and they now were on the third floor, where they had been able to further ventilate the building via the roof access door.
While listening to his progress report over my radio, I looked up at the building and once again counted the above-ground floors. There were four. My response to the officer was that if he had completed his assignment, then he was to report to me at the command table for another mission.
Minutes later, the lieutenant was standing beside me at the command post, waiting to be reassigned. I took the time to point out his error in the numbering of the floors in the building. I told him that I would teach him a valuable lesson that one day may save his life or that of his crew.
The lesson was as follows: Before entering any building, become familiar with its layout and features. It takes only a few seconds and it can save your life. When arriving at the scene of an emergency incident, take the time to size-up the situation. Even if you are not the first-arriving unit or the incident commander, capture a mental image of what is in front of you. Where is the fire or the smoke? How many levels does the building have? Is it attached to another structure? Does it have a fire escape or balconies? Where are the entrances and exits? If the building is built on a slope or a grade, this can lead to confusion for teams who enter by the front door, only to find that at the rear or at the side of the building they will be exiting on a different level.
This vital information, which takes only seconds to gather and then to fix in your memory, might just save your life. For example, should you ever become lost or disorientated while working inside a building, you will want to know that the “2 Side” is attached to “Sector 2” by a firewall and therefore has no exterior windows or exits. This information will help you to orient yourself and then direct you toward an exit or one of the balconies or fire escapes that you know are present from your initial size-up.
Another trick that could save your life or, at the very least, protect you from serious injuries is to learn how to crawl again. In the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) “Learn Not to Burn” program, youngsters are taught how to stay low and crawl under smoke in order to reach safety. As firefighters, we were taught to crawl under the smoke and heat layers in order to reach the seat of the fire. We were taught that the visibility is better and that the heat is always more tolerable when we are close to the floor.
When you search for fallen victims in a smoke condition, you crawl in order to be able to better identify and avoid hidden obstacles and also to be able to cover a larger search area. Crawling along a floor in zero visibility also improves your chances against falling into a hole or other unseen opening. By crawling, you have better distributed your weight and lowered your center of gravity.
Today’s improved turnout gear, Nomex hoods and fire-resistant gloves all insulate us from the heat of a fire and permit us to go farther into a building with less discomfort. The downside of this super-protective equipment is that it works so well that we do not feel the rise in ambient temperature until, in some cases, it is too late. What usually follows a sudden increase of temperature is a rollover or a flashover of a room’s contents. If you are standing up during a flashover or a rollover, your chances of surviving or escaping without serious burns are slim. If you are crawling on your hands and knees, then you have increased your chances of survival many times over. You would be under the tremendous heat wave and might have a chance to be able to reach an exit without serious injuries.