What They DIDN’T Teach You In Fire School

Ron Baran discusses the importance of learning to be flexible and able to adapt to any situation, as textbook maneuvers are just a guide.


Many years ago, on the last day of training at rookie firefighter school, one of our instructors gathered the class together for a last-minute pep talk. This instructor was the youngest of our six teachers and he was the one that we most related to. He sat on a desk in front of the class and told us...


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Innovation cannot be taught at a fire school, but it can be encouraged by those who recognize the skills. Veteran firefighters must be encouraged to share their experience and their techniques with inexperienced rookies. Years of hands-on problem solving cannot be taught as well as it can be shared or demonstrated by the “old guys on the job.”

There are other things that we were never taught in fire school, like how to observe the signs at a fire. Sure, they teach us what the different colors of flames and smoke mean. However, are these the only signs that we encounter at fires?

It is 4 A.M. and we arrive at a building with smoke showing from the upper-floor windows. We know that our intervention is necessary. From the color and volume of smoke showing we can probably determine the intensity and type of the fire involved. There probably are other signs present that may help us with this situation. If it is a residential building, are there any signs of habitation, or is the building boarded up and abandoned? Do we notice signs of children’s items like toys, play sets or bicycles? Are there clothes on a clothesline? These signs can probably tell us about the possible victims.

If the smoke is coming from a commercial or industrial building, there could be a different set of signs available. Is there a company sign or identification on the outside of the building that can give us a clue as to what type of business is involved? This can tell us what dangers may be waiting for us on the inside. It may give us a hint as to which type of chemicals, combustibles or other dangerous goods are being used in a manufacturing process. The dangers in a company called “Acme Paints” will be very different from the dangers found in a company called “Acme Stone Cutting.” Also, if sprinkler or standpipe connections are visible, this will help us in establishing our strategy and tactics.

There may also be very subtle signs that can be of great help to us at a fire. Signs of a break-in or open doors may tell us that this is a suspicious fire and that an accelerant may have been used to fuel it. Construction equipment or large waste containers can tell us that the building is under renovation and therefore may be dangerous to enter. Cracks in a brick or stone facade can tell us about a building’s age, stability or condition.

Signs of a previous fire in the building mean there are possibly holes in the floors, walls, ceilings and the roof area. These exploration or ventilation holes will present a danger to life safety and probably allow for a rapid spread of heat and flames. Taking the time to read the signs can help us to make strategic decisions and can also save lives, possibly your own.

Search and rescue is taught in every fire school and re-taught in drills over and over again. Every firefighter will be called upon to make the effort to locate missing victims. You may have already experienced the situation where the hysterical victims of a fire greet us upon arrival with screams that their baby is still trapped inside of the burning building. After several gallant efforts to locate the baby, we come out empty handed only to learn that the “baby” in question is the family pet.

When faced with this type of situation and before entering the building, take the time to ask several vital questions. What is the missing person’s name? If it is Rover or Fluffy you will know immediately that their “baby” is a pet. When you know the names of the people you are searching for, use the names to call out to them and ask for them to guide you to their location. Small children will most often come out from their hiding places when the searcher calls out their name.

Asking the age of a missing victim will help determine where to search. If a missing child is two months old, chances are that he or she will be found in a crib or bedroom. A child who is four years old may be hiding under a bed or in a closet. An older child may have tried to get out by using a secondary escape route or may have already succeeded in exiting. Young or elderly persons may have taken refuge in the bathroom. The bathroom is usually the only interior room with a lock on the door and a place where they may feel safe and secure. Do not forget to inquire as to where the missing victim was last seen or located. If the person’s bedroom is in the basement, starting your search in the upstairs bedrooms will probably be a waste of valuable time.