Tricks That Can Save Your Life

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.

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.

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.

The most important trick is when using an elevator to verify a report of smoke or of a fire in a building is to always have your breathing mask secured on your face and ready to use once the elevator doors open. This means having your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottle opened, your facepiece strapped and sealed in position on your face, and your breathing tube ready to be screwed or connected to your pressure regulator. Being in this ready position before the doors open can save your life. In the event that the elevator doors open onto a smoke-filled corridor, you will be able to have your SCBA protecting you in mere seconds. This trick can allow you to either exit the elevator car and proceed with your attack instantly or give you time to escape this hazardous environment.

Imagine the elevator doors opening onto this same situation with more than four firefighters and their equipment jammed together in the elevator car. There would be no time or sufficient room in the car for the firefighters to don their SCBA. Several breaths of this superheated toxic smoke would be sure to incapacitate one or more of the firefighters.

Safety on the fireground takes foresight and caution. The safety of every individual firefighter must start with that individual.


Ron Baran is a battalion chief and 29-year veteran with the City of Montreal Fire Safety Service. He is a certified Fire Prevention Technician and has taught and lectured on various fire fighting subjects nationally and internationally. Baran has developed numerous fire and safety programs, public education videos and training courses. He is also a member of several national and international firefighting organizations and has served on the board of directors of an international fire training service. Baran is also a media specialist for his fire service.

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