The major causes of the deaths of firefighters in the United States have not changed over the past 100 years. In fact, years ago, Chief Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix Fire Department classified firefighter line-of-duty fatalities in six categories:
- Heart attack
- Driving and riding to or from an incident
- Structural collapse
- Getting lost in a structure
- Toxic inhalation (running out of air)
- Thermal insult
To assist in the management of these consistent killers and reduce their frequency, it is recommended that fire departments develop standard operating procedures (SOPs), strong training, risk-management plans and strong, smart command systems. This article will focus on the training aspect for individual firefighters and company officers.
Following the fireground death of Phoenix Firefighter Bret Tarver on March 14, 2001, the Phoenix Fire Department developed a training program incorporating the “75%/25%” concept – 75% on staying out of trouble and 25% on getting out of trouble.
The 75% focuses on strong firefighting skills that will allow firefighters to be safe and successful while operating on the fireground. These skills are a cut above basic firefighting skills. The three original training modules include Air Management, Self Survival (before getting in trouble) and Communications. Each module incorporates classroom instruction, practice sessions and a drill.
On the flip side, the 25% focuses on skills used once a firefighter is in trouble. Classroom instruction and drills include portions on self-survival and rapid intervention team operations. The problem is, once you’re in the 25% range when on the fireground, your chances of survival are low. During all of these drills, a large amount of experience and data was gained. Lessons learned, data compiled and experiences gained will be reinforced through future battalion training modules.
Consistently for the past 30 years, heart attacks have caused nearly half of all firefighters deaths. Recently, the International Association of Fire Chief (IAFC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) formed the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness/Fitness Initiative. This initiative focuses on wellness and physical fitness programs for the fire service.
For more information on this program, contact the IAFF or the IAFC.
A large number of accidents involving fire department vehicles occur at intersections. Clearly stated SOPs for emergency and non-emergency driving are a necessity. The following basic list provides basic guidelines for driving and riding in apparatus:
- Mandatory seatbelts
- All personnel remain seated while responding
- Control speed, a maximum of 10 mph over posted speed limit
- Stop at all red lights, stop signs and negative right of ways
- In opposing traffic a maximum of 20 mph
- Obey the posted speed limits in intersections
Air management and lost firefighter emergencies generally occur in large open-space occupancies. Traditionally, as far as air management goes, we’ve said that we will leave the building (mostly residential occupancies) when our low-air alarm is activated. The truth is, we usually leave when we are almost completely out of air or the mask is sucking our face. While we are generally successful (and lucky) with this method of air management, there is no margin for error.
Through research we have found that the average Phoenix Fire firefighter uses approximately 160 psi of air per minute. With a 3,000-psi bottle, the average amount of available air is 18 minutes of total time. Individual firefighters, company officers, sector officers and the incident commander must assist with air management at each level of the incident management system (IMS). Proper air management must be a priority for everybody on the fireground.
Air consumption rates will vary drastically from person to person depending on a variety of variables. Each firefighter should have a strong understanding of his or her air consumption (i.e. time, consumption rate, low-air alarm, etc.). During interior operations, firefighters must always maintain an awareness of their time on air, location, exit distances and safety margins. Company officers and sector officers must maintain an awareness of their companies, location, exits and air supplies. Close supervision is always needed and companies should be removed as their air supplies are diminished.
The incident commander must think in terms of work cycles: time to get in, time to get out, safety reserve and the remainder is work time. With an average 18-minute total work cycle, the incident commander must predict the need to rotate companies and assign them to critical positions before operating companies begin to run out of air.
On arrival on the fireground, each firefighter must complete an initial size-up that includes a “roundtrip ticket.” This roundtrip ticket not only gets us into a building for the initial offensive attack, but also identifies an exit plan.
In residential occupancies, we typically begin our initial attack through the front door. The primary exit plan is through that same door with the assistance of the hoseline. In the event of an emergency, multiple secondary exits are available and should also be identified before making entry (i.e., windows in every room, rear doors, garages and walls).
In commercial occupancies, we again generally make our initial attacks through the front door. The increased hazard within commercial occupancies is that if a firefighter becomes lost, the additional exits are usually extremely limited. In large commercial buildings, the hoseline we entered on is also the primary exit plan. It is critical to maintain an awareness (don’t leave the line) of your attack hoseline in these large structures with limited egress.
Every member of the fire service should have a strong working knowledge of building construction. The way buildings are constructed, a proper initial and ongoing size-up of the structure, and the effects of fire on the structure should be included in this initial look.
The Phoenix Fire Department Safety Section has assisted in the development of a number of training curriculums and studies in connection with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), centering on building construction and the needs of the fire service. These programs are delivered to all members of the department from the newest recruit through all command officers.
When discussing fire behavior, there are number of terms and definitions that are important for all firefighters to understand. For our recent training we chose to describe the rapid buildup of heat and smoke simply as thermal insult. Whatever you call it, it becomes real hot, real fast! Thermal insult on firefighters generally occurs in small compartmentalized occupancies. In these small compartments there’s plenty of material to burn and a limited amount of space for the heat to dissipate.
Recently, a Phoenix firefighter experienced a near miss during an incident in a small residential duplex. The firefighter suffered second- and third-degree burns to his shoulders and back shortly after an initial attack line was deployed. The probable cause was a flashover in the attic space and the loss of the ceiling.
While most air management problems occur in large open structures and later into the incidents, thermal insult events usually occur early on in an incident and in smaller rooms within structures. These small rooms, closed up tightly and with increased fire loads, are a flashover waiting to happen.
Some firefighters have said, “We’re overprotected in today’s space- age turnouts” or “The turnout gear won’t let me feel the heat.” Today’s fires and structures are different from those of 20 or 25 years ago, before the development of hoods and higher thermal protective equipment. Buildings today are insulated to keep the weather out, the inside comfortable, and the costs of heating and cooling the structure low. Single-pane windows have been replaced with double- or triple-thermopane windows. Years ago, the single-pane would heat up and break out, ventilating the structure. Today’s multiple-pane windows still heat up, but only crack, keeping heat and smoke inside. This sets the structure up with heavy thick smoke and high heat just looking for oxygen to flashover. Also, the BTU of today’s furniture has doubled if not tripled from previous years. This increase in BTU with the combination of changes in construction materials has made these improvements in protective equipment necessary for everyday operations.
During an incident, we want operating crews to “prevent the event.” First, all firefighters must complete a basic scene size-up of the incident. When considering thermal insult, the initial view from the exterior of the building is vital for firefighter safety and survival. The following basic questions should always be considered when sizing up thermal insult:
- Where is the fire?
- What stage is the fire in?
- Where is the smoke coming from?
- What are the volume, velocity, density and color of the smoke?
Once signs of flashover are present, crews should take the following necessary steps to “prevent the event”:
- Ventilation – Horizontal, vertical or hydraulic ventilation completed by engine and ladders company crews can eliminate this danger.
- Cool the atmosphere – Engine companies operating on the interior need to quickly cool the interior atmosphere when the signs of pending flashover are present. The fastest method of doing this is to apply water to the ceiling above the firefighters.
Historically, firefighters were taught never to apply water to smoke. They were told, “Don’t open the nozzle until you see fire.” That was then. In today’s flashover conditions of high heat and zero visibility we need to cool the atmosphere. Any property in these rooms is ruined. If we don’t cool the room, flashover will occur. Protective clothing can only offer protection for a short time.
- If interior conditions cannot be modified, leave the building.
For firefighters to remain safe and survive in today’s fireground environment they must operate consistently in the 75% range of firefighter safety. Training is now beginning to focus on ways to operate and manage within this concept and keep firefighters safe.
Todd Harms has 22 years of fire service experience, the last 16 years as a member of the Phoe-nix Fire Department. He is assigned as a battalion chief in Battalion 2.