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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More complicated, but real life savers, are lengths of personal-escape or bail-out ropes. Some firefighters wear webbing or escape harnesses under their turnout coats – when a length of rope is attached to a solid and secure anchoring point, these devices can help the firefighters rappel to safety. Note that this method is not for every firefighter. Practice, skill and knowledge of rappelling are a must in order to use this equipment safely.
One trick that I know has saved my life is one that all police departments teach their members. Whenever I have to force a door open, I stand to one side once I have completed the task. The police are trained to stand to one side whenever they force open a door in order not to be in the direct line of fire. This also applies to our trade. We regularly have to make forcible entries in order to search for and rescue possible victims and also to be able to gain direct access to the fire or emergency location.
There are several good reasons why you should learn to stand to one side whenever you force entry. The most important is the possibility of an explosion of heated gases in the form of a backdraft. If heated gases expand or flame over upon breaching an opening such as a door, then whoever is standing in the doorway entrance would be at great risk.
Another reason to stay clear of the door opening, once that it has been forced, is that if any pets are trapped inside of the building and if that building is filled with smoke or heat, then chances are that they will make a mad dash toward safety and the fresh outside air. I have seen this happen many times and when the pet happens to be a large dog then it will leap at whoever is in its way in order to get past them. If you have ever had a large dog leap at you when it is frightened and desperate, then you know what a danger this can present, especially if you are standing on a balcony or at the top of a stairway.
Another, but less common event that could put your life in danger when forcing entry is the police department’s reason for standing to one side – that of being in the line of fire from a loaded firearm or weapon. It happened to me many years ago, when I was assigned to evacuate and search a fire building late at night. It was a three-story residential building with the fire on the first floor at the rear. My team evacuated the second floor and proceeded to the third level to complete our evacuation of the building’s tenants. We knocked loudly on an apartment door and identified ourselves as the fire department by yelling several times, “Fire department, everyone must evacuate, there is a fire in the building!”
After several attempts and no response from inside of the third-floor apartment, I put my size-11 boot to the door latch and forced open the door. As the door swung open, I saw a male tenant standing just inside of his apartment holding a hunting rifle aimed toward my midsection. I do not know which one of us was more shocked or afraid. If the tenant had reacted to my action of kicking in his door without hesitation, I would not be writing these words today. He later explained to me that he had been burglarized the week before and thought that it was happening again.
Firearms more and more are being encountered by emergency responders trying to gain quick access to victims and to fireground incidents. The next time you must force open a door during an emergency situation, remember that danger may be just on the other side.
Answering an emergency call in buildings that have an elevator service is a common occurrence in densely populated areas. We all know that when a fire is suspected or has been confirmed on the upper floors of a high-rise building, there are safety rules that we must obey when using the elevators. For example, always use an elevator that has been approved for fire service use during an emergency. Another rule is always exit the elevator at least two floors below the fire floor.
When using an elevator to approach a fire, there are several tricks that you should keep in mind. First, never overload the elevator with more than four firefighters and their equipment. Firefighters carrying hand tools, hosepacks and extra air bottles take up more space and weight than the average citizen riding the same elevator. Hence, the total capacity rating in weight and bodies for that elevator car would not apply to firefighters. More than four firefighters and their equipment would mean that in the event of an emergency while inside of the elevator car, such as the car becoming trapped between floors, there would be a very limited space in which the firefighters could maneuver.