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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I learned this valuable lesson the hard way. I was caught in a flashover while crawling on my hands and knees and was able to reach an exit safely, receiving only minor burns – and a good scare. Since that experience, I always enter a smoky, hot, zero-visibility atmosphere on my hands and knees. I have been ridiculed many times by others for it, but once burned, twice shy. Stay low to stay safe.
The best tip that I can give you that can save your life or save you from a very serious injury is to respect and use your safety equipment wisely and to its fullest advantage. Look around at the other fire departments in your area. Chances are most members do not wear their protective fire hoods or gloves except in the cold weather. While these hoods may protect you from cold and wind, their primary function is to protect your neck, upper chest and parts of your face from heat or flames. They, along with approved firefighting gloves, must be worn at all times in order to protect you from fireground dangers.
All firefighting helmets are designed by their manufacturers to be worn securely upon the wearer’s head. This means that the chin strap of the helmet must be worn securely under the chin. This insures maximum protection and prevents the loss of the helmet in the event that it must deflect falling objects. The same advice goes for helmets with ear protectors. They are not just for the cold. They are meant to protect the ears and neck from heat and fire. When properly used, they are also designed as a securing method that will hold the helmet firmly in place on the wearer’s head. By not wearing your safety equipment properly, you are an accident waiting to happen.
Public education programs offered by the fire service teach adults and children alike to plan an escape route from their homes and to always know where a second exit is located. The same advice applies to all firefighters. No matter where you are in a building, be aware of your surroundings. One of an officer’s responsibilities is to make sure that the crew or team is operating in the safest manner possible. That means having a second route planned out in the eventuality that the primary exit is blocked and that the firefighters have to escape rapidly from the building. This second exit should be pointed out to all of the team members before it is ever needed. Each firefighter should know what the escape plan is and where the team is to meet up or regroup in the case of an emergency.
An escape plan also applies when fighting a fire in a defensive mode outside of a building. Exterior wall or building collapse zones are usually defined as the height of the building plus one-half or one-third of that height. Even this calculation can sometimes put us in a very dangerous situation. You may be at the proper collapse zone distance while fighting the fire only to find yourself backed up against a building wall located on the opposite side of the street. In the event of a collapse you would become pinned in your position. Once again, prepare and plan a second escape route from your position. It may mean having to force open a door to the building behind you. This way, in the event of the fire building or one of its walls were to collapse, you would be able to back into the building behind you towards safety. The same rule could apply in an alley with a fence behind you. You would have to breach the fence in order to create an escape route. Believe me, this trick can save lives.
In March 2003, Firehouse® pub-lished the article “Truck Company Tips: What’s In Your Pockets?” about the different kinds of hand tools many firefighters carry in their turnout coats. There are many hand tools out there that are not issued by the fire department, but that may save your life. Many items can help a trapped firefighter initiate a self-escape or self-rescue. Something as simple as a spare disposable flashlight can get you out of a dark place if your department-issued light should fail to function. Cutting tools or wire cutters can help you cut your way to freedom if you should become tangled in false-ceiling support wires or communication cables while exploring in zero visibility.