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...


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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.

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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.

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