Firefighter Survival

A concerted effort to reduce firefighter deaths over the past 20 years has seen some successes deaths have dropped from the highs of the 140 deaths per year during the 1970s to around 100 deaths per year in the 1990s. Still, a disturbing trend can be detected emerging in the remaining deaths, a trend toward firefighters dying from exposure to fire and products of combustion while trapped within the fire building.

According to one survey by FDNY Deputy Chief and Firehouse® Contributing Editor Vincent Dunn, out of 173 firefighters who died on the fireground during one recent 10-year period, 113 were caught or trapped and subsequently died from products of combustion. There are many reasons for these deaths: reduced manning, increasing amounts of flammable fuels in buildings, the building construction and sealing problems, and possibly overconfidence among firefighters, stemming from state-of-the-art protective equipment, to name just a few. All of these items require addressing to resolve their long-term implications. The immediate problem is how to keep our current generation of firefighters alive while these solutions are being developed.

Three steps which can be taken to reduce firefighter injury and mortality rates immediately are:

  1. Improve hazard awareness.
  2. Provide emergency escape or self-rescue ability.
  3. Provide rescue capability: rapid intervention teams.

In this day and age when we are forced to sit through all sorts of mandated training, much of it superfluous to the line firefighter, it is past time that each and every firefighter be trained in firefighter survival. The following are among the topics which should be included in such a firefighter survival course, a sample "course outline," if you will.

Photo by Martin Nate Rawner
A survey made by FDNY Deputy Chief and Firehouse® Contributing Editor Vincent Dunn found that of 173 firefighters who died in the line of duty during one recent 10-year period, 113 were caught or trapped and subsequently died from exposure to products of combustion.

Hazard awareness training. Firefighters must be trained to recognize the dangers that they face and the actions needed to protect themselves before they get in trouble. They also need to be taught the proper attitude to avoid trouble. Hazard awareness is developed as part of each firefighter's size-up.

The six-question Firefighters' Survival Survey is an information-gathering thought process designed to focus a firefighter's attention on doing his or her job as efficiently as possible and maximizing the chances of going home in one piece. As soon as possible, each firefighter who arrives on the fireground should determine the answers to each of these questions:

1. What is the occupancy? Fires in certain occupancies pose similar risks to firefighters. We should expect to encounter certain dangers in certain occupancies, i.e., bowstring truss roofs in bowling alleys, supermarkets and auto dealerships. Firefight-ers responding to alarms in these occupancies should expect early collapse and take defensive positions. The occupancy can also tell us about other dangers, such as hazardous chemicals in an exterminator's shop or a garden supply business. More importantly, the occupancy should tell us what our attitude should be at that particular alarm. Each of these occupancies has the potential of being a large spectacular fire and each one has a very small civilian life hazard (more people die in car fires each year than in store fires), yet each also poses a severe danger to firefighters conducting an aggressive interior attack.

2. Where are the occupants? The greatest loss of civilian life each year occurs fire in one- and two-family dwellings. Firefighters might be required to take some actions at these fires that they should not take at a dry cleaner store, for example.

In an attempt to rescue trapped occupants, we may have to pass or go above fire. Once the danger to occupants is removed, however, we should slow the pace of our activities and weigh the consequences of our actions. Remember, you swore to protect life and property but it's life first (including your own), then property.

A thorough search of all fire premises should always be done but if the homeowner meets you outside and tells you no one else is inside, you should not get killed doing a primary search. Similarly, if your primary is complete and fire conditions are worsening, get to a safe area and await fire control before conducting a secondary search.

3. Where is the fire? Fires in cellars, attics and windowless areas create great difficulties and dangers for firefighters. Cellars and attics have similar difficulties in limited access and ventilation. Also, many of these areas are unfinished, exposing structural members to fire, leading to early collapse. Cellars have the additional danger of fire extension into wall voids which can surround and cut off escape routes for unsuspecting firefighters. Pay attention!

Photo by Mark W. Hamblin
The immediate problem is how to keep our current generation of firefighters alive.

4. How do we get in? Fire-fighters should survey the building for the entry route that will take them to the particular part of the structure that they have to go to. Not everyone should be going through the front door. If your job is to get above the fire floor, the fastest, safest method may be to use a ladder to reach a window.

5. How do we get out (when things are going wrong)? More important than getting into a building is getting out when you're in trouble. Most caught or trapped firefighters became disoriented or lost prior to getting trapped. Maintaining contact with a partner, a wall, a hoseline or a search rope is a must.

Every firefighter must be taught to include the survey of windows in the pre-entry size-up. Recognize casement windows, security gates and bars on windows from the outside before entry, not from the inside with fire chasing you.

Norman's three rules of survival are: never put yourself in a position where you are depending on anyone else to come and get you; always know where your escape route is; and always know where your second escape route is. You might violate one of these rules and survive but if you break all three, your chances of survival plummet.

6. What is happening to the building? The Survival Survey must include an up-to-the-minute evaluation of conditions within the building. Is there a potential for a backdraft occurring, either upon entry or from within a concealed space when a ceiling is pulled to check for extension? Are heat conditions escalating to the point where flashover may occur? In this regard, the height of commercial buildings' ceilings must be considered. High ceilings may hinder firefighters' recognition of potential flashover.

Is the fire spreading out around you in concealed spaces: walls, cocklofts or raised floors, threatening to cut off your escape route? Also, what effect is the fire having on the structural stability? Will the building fall down around you if you stay where you are? What progress is the hoseline making? If the answer to any of these questions indicates potential trouble, you'd better make sure your escape routes are clear and that you will be able to reach a safe area in time to avoid trouble.

Escape training. Even the most careful of us have found ourselves caught up by rapidly changing conditions. Let just one single aerosol can of hair spray or insect killer BLEVE as you pass a room and you can find yourself cut off by fire. The actions taken next are likely to determine your survival or demise, whether you are injured or get off scot-free.

If you are cut off by extending fire, you will have limited options but some of the simplest are sometimes overlooked. First, try to find an area of refuge, even if temporary, and close as many doors between you and the fire as possible. Second, call for help by radio, PASS alarm, even by voice if necessary. Third, begin seeking your own salvation, another escape route or area of refuge. Locate any doors or windows that will get you someplace that is better than where you are.

If a ladder can be placed to a window, you are halfway home but climbing out onto a ladder with fire rolling over your head is no easy task. An emergency descent (see "Get Out Alive," February 1996) may be your only option. It is a fairly difficult task and needs practice to accomplish safely. Similarly, an emergency bailout on a length of personal rope may be advisable if no ladder is available.

If no rope or ladder is available, you are in trouble. If you are on the second floor of a dwelling, you may survive a leap from the window but many have not, while others survived but were severely injured. A better way would be to get out over the window ledge and hang on as long as possible with only one arm and one leg exposed on the sill. If help in the form of a hose stream or ladder does not arrive in time, unhook the leg first, trying to hang feet first for a drop that is now at least shorted by your height.

Another avenue of escape may be to kick your way out through a wall or locked door. Lay down on your back/side as the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) allows and kick violently with both feet through the wall in front of you. Sheetrock walls are easily penetrated in this fashion. While wood lath and plaster takes a great deal more effort, it too can be breached in this fashion. Of course the presence of nearly any common firefighting tool simplifies this task but at times the heat condition may be such that you cannot rise up off of the floor high enough to use it.

Entanglements are a serious fireground hazard. Everyone who puts on SCBA should know how to take it off blindfolded and with gloves on while maintaining the facepiece in place and supplying air. At times, this emergency escape maneuver may be needed to disentangle the SCBA from dangling electric or cable TV wires but this is not all that common.

Usually, the best thing to do when entangled is simply to back up, get down lower and then proceed, since the entanglement is usually between the cylinder and the wearer's back. Removing the SCBA from the back will most often be needed if the breaching of a wall is attempted, in order to permit the member to pass between the wall studs.

All of these evolutions are difficult, last-ditch efforts that must be practiced if they are to even occur to a firefighter who is approaching panic, let alone be successful in helping the firefighter to escape.

Under less severe conditions where the firefighter is not in danger of being overrun by fire but is merely lost, a slightly different approach may be better. In this case, it may well be better to initially avoid unnecessary exertion, in order to conserve air.

The first action should be to call for help, again by radio (try all channels), PASS device and voice (there could be other firefighters nearby who don't hear the radio request or recognize how close they are, and we know how most people don't react to PASS alarms initially). Stay calm and stay put to avoid wandering farther away from help. (In hiking they teach kids to hug a tree if lost. Of course, this is only good if the grizzly bear fire or running out of air is not about to eat you.)

While sitting still, conserving air, hold your breath every few seconds and listen. You may be able to regain your bearings. Of course, such basic actions as laying your face right down on the floor and turning off all your lights so that you may see other light sources may help as well. If your air situation is critical, or you are unable to contact assistance, you must go through the same actions listed above for those cut off by fire, window bailouts, wall breaching or moving to other less hostile areas.

Whatever you do, do not give up, use any and every means at your disposal to attract attention to your plight. Call continuously on the radio, call the dispatcher on any working phone you find. (The "O" button is bottom center on most push-button phones, the "9" is one row up on the right, the "1" is top left.) And if it's the last-ditch effort anyway, go ahead and throw your helmet out the window. Aim near someone who can help you, if you can still aim. Hopefully, it's got your name in it so somebody outside knows who to look for. But do not go gentle into that good night…

Editor's note: The topics discussed here are a part of the "Saving Our Own: Techniques for Firefighter Rescue" course given by the Illinois Fire Service Institute, for which John Norman is an instructor. Next column: Rapid Intervention Teams.

John Norman, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a captain with the FDNY, assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also an instructor at the Nassau County, NY, Fire Service Academy and lectures nationally on fire and rescue topics. Norman is the author of Fire Officer's Handbook of Tactics, which may be ordered by calling 800-752-9768.