Why Are We Dying?

It's with a real heavy heart that I continue to review the stream of line-of-duty-death notifications that pass through my computer. My review of the statistics indicates that more than 50 firefighters died during the first six months of 2001. The list...


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During my seminar at the 2000 National TRADE Conference at the National Fire Academy last November, I outlined some thoughts as to why our people are dying in fires. I am of the opinion that there are a number of problems in the training arena that frequently translate into deaths or serious injury on the fireground. These I also shared with the students in my seminar session:

  • Training is not a priority consideration in far too many fire departments.
  • We are not providing sufficient training for our officers.
  • We are not providing enough training for our apparatus operators.
  • We are not training on the basics.
  • There are too many people in positions of authority who think that they know it all, and are threatened by people in pursuit of knowledge.

We have lost our way. Our focus has been diffused by the wide range of tasks that the fire service has been forced to assume over the past several years. There is only so much time available, so we tend to prioritize our efforts. Since the incidence of fires has been on the downswing, and EMS responses have gone through the roof, priorities have been skewed by the operational realities of our daily lives. While this explains what is happening, it does not excuse the fact that we are leaving the most dangerous and least controlled component of our operational aspect to chance.

My generation combined book knowledge with frequent firefighting episodes. Much of what my associates and I know was learned by rote repetition. In my 1998 text, Firefighting Strategy and Tactics - The Eight Step Method, I devote much of the early chapters to some very simple operational rules, concerns and operational hints. I am of the opinion that it is the simple things, or ignorance of them, that is killing our people.

Let me share a few of my clues for safe fireground operation with you:

  1. Human life is your primary concern.
  2. BIG FIRE - BIG WATER.
  3. Make sure you have an adequate source of water.
  4. Never pass a fire.
  5. Engine companies must work as a team.
  6. Do not shoot water at smoke.
  7. Vent high, vent low, vent often.
  8. No one goes in alone!

While these may seem like simple little hints that everybody already knows, trust me, they are frequently overlooked. It is my opinion that much of our institutional knowledge in the critical area of fireground operations is not being passed on from generation to generation.

Far too many officers assume that everyone knows what they know. What a ridiculous thought. Imagine how much worse off the fire service would be if Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn had adopted that approach to structural collapse. Think of how little we would know if he had chosen to assume that everyone possessed his encyclopedic knowledge of this life-and-death topic. How many more people would have been crushed to death in building collapses if my friend Frank Brannigan had not taken up the banner of building construction problems? It is rare for me to pass a building in New Jersey that has been marked, posted and registered for its truss floors and roofs, and not think of Frank.

We all need to become concerned with learning as much as we can about structural firefighting. We must then become zealous in our sharing of knowledge. Let me offer a few questions to stimulate your thinking processes.

  1. As you roll up in front of a burning three-story building, you see smoke coming from all three floors. Where is the fire probably located?
  2. As your company is moving an attack hoseline into a burning structure, you feel the flow of air come rushing in behind you. What is about to occur?
  3. As your company is moving into the deep, murky depths of a smoky dwelling fire, the temperature of the area suddenly spikes up. What may happen?
  4. As you approach the front of a building where there is an obviously heavy smoke condition, you note that the color of the smoke is a deep, dark, mustard color. Is this an important clue?
  5. Your sector commander has ordered your company out of the building. You think that you have a shot at darkening down the fire, and think that he is a bit of a scaredy cat anyway, so you ignore him. Is this a smart thing to do?
  6. It is the policy of your fire department to attack cellar fires by means of a direct attack down the rear stairs of an involved structure. You do not like this and decide to adopt a policy of your own that says to attack down the front stairs. Is this a dangerous thing to do?
  7. You note that there is a heavy body of fire blowing out of the second-floor windows in a suburban home. As your company moves into the first floor and approaches the stairway to the second floor, knowing you have a great shot at the fire, you note a small fire in the living room to the right of the stairway. You do not want to lose your shot at the raging fire on the second floor, so you direct a short burst at the first floor fire and then charge up to where the real fire is. Should you be surprised when you are later cut off and trapped above the first-floor fire?