Truck Company Operations - Rescue: The First Priority

Rescue the saving of human life is the most important operation on the fireground. When you consider the priority of all truck company operations, rescue is first! All other operations, truck and engine, must support and enhance the priority operation rescue.

Photo by Jay L. Heath
A firefighter from FDNY Ladder Company 120 gets out just in time after conducting a search of an apartment building in Brooklyn on Feb. 24, 1997. People who are trapped in a burning building must be removed quickly, and this should be done as safely as possible with the personnel and equipment available.

The engine accomplishes this by the proper placement of hoselines. Engine tactics call for the first hoseline to be placed between the fire and any trapped occupants and/or the occupants' means of escape. This not only protects the occupants but allows for aggressive search and removal of victims.

Life Hazard

  1. Visible or known.
  2. Suspected.

When a truck company arrives at a fire and observes numerous people at the windows in a state of panic, your first thoughts may be as to how you will deal with this visible life hazard. But many people visible on the outside of the building may indicate a much more serious condition on the inside. People still inside the building who are in the fire area and on the floors above have less survival time and must be located and removed quickly.

Dealing with the visible life hazard and still paying attention to interior operations requires judgment, skill and discipline. A visual assessment must be made as to the degree of danger the occupants are in.

Trapped Or Distressed Occupants

Trapped. Occupants who are in the fire area (i.e., the apartment or rooms on fire or adjacent to the fire) may be considered to be in great danger and must be removed immediately. Occupants who are directly above and in-line with the fire may also be considered to be trapped.

Points to consider:

  1. Victims' physical or mental state.
  2. Volume of fire, heat and smoke.
  3. Location of victims in relation to the fire, heat and smoke.
  4. Height.
  5. Access to victims.
  6. Number of victims.
  7. Construction of the involved structure.

Distressed. Many times, occupants of the building will go to windows when they are unable to get out. These occupants are in relative safety where they are but are distressed at not being able to get out at this time. In fact, their danger may be increased by trying to remove them.

Distressed occupants generally are remote from the fire area and firefighters should encourage them to stay where they are until conditions improve or a firefighter can gain access to them, assure them and keep them in place.

Finally, the decision to remove an occupant and the priority of who is rescued first should be based on NEED and not NOISE. A victim who is in a window and is screaming in a loud voice and waving his or her arms is probably in less danger than a person who has been overcome by smoke and is slumped over the window sill or a person who has climbed OVER the window sill to escape the heat of the approaching fire.

Many times, victims at windows may not be seen due to heavy smoke but their voices may be heard and their locations known. Other times, a person is located at a window but then disappears from it. This may be due to being overcome by smoke and falling down to the floor near the window. Sometimes, people will move to seek another way out and may become disoriented and move deeper into the building. These situations will complicate the removal operation.

Removing Occupants

Gaining access to the victim is only one part of the job. Safely removing the victim or, in some situations, remaining with the victim and removing them after conditions improve, will complete the operation.

When removing a victim, ask him or her whether anyone else is there and always make a quick search of the area for other victims. When an unconscious adult victim is found, ALWAYS search under and near them for children. Parents tend to gather up and hold their children in times of danger and when the parent becomes unconscious, they may fall on the child.


  1. Interior Stairs-Most Preferred
  2. Horizontal Exits
  3. Fire Escapes
  4. Ladders
  5. Life Saving Rope-Least Preferred

People who are trapped in a burning building must be removed quickly, and this should be done as safely as possible with the personnel and equipment available:

  • Interior stairs. The interior stairs are the safest and quickest way to remove people, and using the interior stairs generally requires less manpower but interior stairs many times become heavily charged with heat and smoke and may be too bad to use. Aggressive ventilation of stairways and placement of hoselines to protect the stairs must always be a major tactic at building fires.
  • Horizontal exits. Moving people laterally may be accomplished when their primary way out (the stairs) is unusable. Examples of this are the following:
  1. Moving victims down or across a hallway to a means of egress, or to an area of refuge on the same floor.
  2. Moving people out of a window onto a porch roof or setback. This is a common operation at private dwelling fires.
  3. Breaching a wall from an adjoining apartment, and removing occupants, may be used at multiple-dwelling fires.

Lives In The Balance

Most rescue operation at structure fires are accomplished by the aggressive operation of the interior teams. Rapid replacement of the first hoseline to keep the fire from extending and aggressive action by the forcible entry teams is how most lives are saved.

Most rescue operations at structure fires are highly charged emotional events because human lives hang in the balance. The outcome will rely on your actions and the actions of others. Your training, experience and physical ability will allow you to do the right thing.

Robert R. Morris, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is captain of FDNY Ladder Company 28. His article, "Truck Company Operations: The Total Concept," was published in the January 1997 issue.