When I was writing my previous article, “What They DIDN’T Teach You in Fire School” (March), I made a list of the different tricks that I wanted to share with Firehouse® readers. The more that I thought about the subject, the longer the list became. I soon realized that I would not be able to...
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The “Odds Factor”
Another lesson that is not taught in fire schools is the “Odds Factor.” If you respond to the same address often for false or nuisance alarms, the odds are increased that the next call will be the real thing. Complacency kills. It happens to all of us at some time or other. We become complacent with the routine calls. Listen to your fellow firefighters as they respond to a known address and you will hear them mumbling something like “it’s going to be another false alarm” or “it’s food on the stove again.”
Every call should be considered and treated as the “Big One” until proven otherwise. One of the best training aids on this subject is the American Heat Video Magazine, Volume 9, October 1994, titled, “750 Adams Street.” In this video, a “routine” alarm at this known address suddenly turns into a living hell and ends tragically for several members of the Memphis Fire Department. It teaches us to never take anything for granted.
Routine, or “nuisance,” calls are not all false alarms. Usually, a valid reason can be found for the fire department being sent out of quarters. Some can be honest misinterpretations by neighbors about a fellow tenant’s cooking habits. Many are caused by defective fire alarms or sprinkler systems. Others can be justified only after a long and meticulous investigation.
Few smaller or older buildings have alarm panels that indicate the cause of an alarm or even its exact location. Therefore, a search of the entire building must be done to look for any fire or smoke. Fire is not always visible, nor will we see or smell smoke every time. Occasionally, we will return to the firehouse and list the call as having been a false or defective alarm, only to be called back later and be met with a fire in its full stage of growth.
A trick that I often share with my fellow firefighters when seeking the cause of a fire alarm that has activated mysteriously is to properly search the different areas of the building. First, if there is no zone or any specific floor indicated on the alarm panel, then all levels must be verified. Second, all doors are to be felt for heat by hand. If they are locked, the searching firefighters should apply pressure to the door and sniff between the door and doorframe. Many doors are airtight and smoke can remain inside of an apartment or office undetected by those in the hallway. Nearly all doors have a fraction of an inch of play when they are pressed against, and that could be just enough to let us smell any smoke that may be on the other side.
That lesson was learned after a call to a residential building for “a fire alarm in operation.” When firefighters arrived, the fire alarm bell was ringing. While they verified the zone indicated on the alarm panel, the bell was suddenly silenced and the panel showed only a trouble signal in the original zone. When the firefighters saw the trouble light, they stopped their search and returned to quarters, concluding that the detection system was defective. The next day, a tenant was found dead in an apartment. He had died of asphyxiation in his sleep. Later, it was learned that a heat detector inside one apartment had activated the alarm due to a sofa fire. As the fire burned itself out, the ambient temperature in the apartment decreased. The heat detector then reset itself and silenced the alarm bell, leaving only the trouble light flashing. The search should have continued after the alarm bell had fallen silent, and all the doors should have been verified for the presence of heat or smoke. Perhaps then, the outcome of that call would have been different.
Not everything can be learned from a textbook or taught in the classroom. Certain smells, sounds or conditions can only be recognized firsthand. They can never be accurately described in words.
Experience is personal and it is gained over time. However, experience must be shared if we wish to advance our profession. Remember, “Experience comes before the lesson.”