Getting Out Alive - A Quick Confidence Builder

Planning and running a good drill requires forethought and energy. Occasionally, due to alarms and other supervisory duties, we get caught behind the eight ball and don't have a drill prepared. Well, here's one that is simple and a springboard for a whole realm of discussion.

Photo by Mark McLees
Becoming trapped at an upper-floor window while working in a burning structure is a frightening prospect for firefighters. This training scenario teaches you how to escape and gives you the confidence of knowing that you can. Here, two members practice exiting in rapid succession.

All too often, we see dramatic photos of fellow firefighters in second-floor windows with flames blowing out over their heads. While these pictures are appealing to the news media, we need to remember that this is an unenviable and untenable position. Even in those cases where there is a ground ladder present, climbing out onto the ladder places the firefighter into the path of the blowtorch effect.

The following drill is meant to be a confidence builder. It is meant to teach members about each one's center of gravity. It is meant to give you an experience that can be stored in your brain for future reference. And, more than anything else, it will generate tremendous discussion among your members.

  • First, you need to find a vacant structure. The primary reason for this is to have a second story window that has already been "cleaned out."
  • Throw an 18-foot or 20-foot straight ladder to a second-floor window. What you are trying to achieve is a gradual slide to begin the drill. You want the ground ladder to be at about a 40-45-degree angle. Depending on the actual window sill height, you may need an extension ladder.
  • Have two members foot the ladder and prepare to "catch" the sliding members.
  • In full turnouts and without self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), have each member slowly come out the second-floor window head-first onto the ladder.
  • To avoid jamming your thumbs, run your hands along the rails (see photo on page 70).
  • Use your boots as the braking mechanism to control your descent (see photo 2).
  • After all members have slid, have them don their SCBA and go "on air" to simulate a more realistic situation of how they will be working inside.
  • Again, have all members slowly slide the ladder at the low angle (see photo 3).
  • Now, throw up an extension ladder, preferably the one that would normally be used at a fire.
  • Place it into the window with the number of rungs extended just like it would probably be found at a working fire. Follow your department standard operating procedures (SOPs).
  • Again, have each member slowly slide the steep ladder (proper climbing angle) without their SCBA (see photo 5).
  • Finally, have each member don their SCBA and slide. (see photo 6). When you are all done, critique the drill by laughing at all the items that fell out of the senior member's pockets.

Rationale For Practicing

It is hoped that you never get caught in a room that flashes over. It is hoped that if this does happen to you, that you are on the second floor AND that there is a ladder thrown to the window you plan on leaping through. And it is hoped that you won't be afraid to go head-first because you remembered how you did it once before at a drill.

Photo by Mark McLees
Photo 1: Slide your hands on the rails on the descent. Do not attempt to use the rungs, as you will surely jam your fingers.

Photo by Mark McLees
Photo 3: Slide the ladder wearing full turnouts and SCBA at the gradual angle "to get the feel" of the head first move.

Photo by Mark McLees
Photo 2: Use your feet as the braking mechanism.

Photo by Mark McLees
Photo 4: Depending on the height of the window, you may need to throw an extension ladder for the gradual slide.

Photo by Mark McLees
Photo 5: Once the ladder is repositioned to your fire department's standard climbing angle, the slide becomes quicker. The tendency is to slide in a position with your hands attempting to do a "push up." It also keeps your low pressure breathing tube of your SCBA from getting caught in the rungs.

Photo by Mark McLees
Photo 6: The final slide is done wearing full turnout gear and being "on air."

Photo by Mark McLees
Photo 7: The "pros" and "cons" of wearing your helmet strap are accentuated during a drill such as this one.

Photo by Mark McLees
Photo 8: Always have two "spotters" at the base of the ladder during the drill to slow down the slider. Remember, these conditions are ideal. In reality, your gloves will be wet, and there won't be anyone there to catch you.

You can spice up the drill by having two members come out the window in rapid succession. Don't forget your partner is behind you burning up while you are exiting first. Always have members footing the ladder during the drill to avoid injuries.

Some members attempt a flying acrobat act and grab the rungs and flip themselves over halfway down. In reality, there may be no one at the bottom to catch you.

Without a doubt, there will be skeptics who frown on this type of behavior. To them I say this is a confidence builder. For those of you who do go inside burning buildings, I hope you never get caught in a window that lights off over your head.

I wish to acknowledge Captain Michael Lombardo of the Buffalo, NY, Fire Department for giving me the idea for this drill.

Mark McLees is captain of the Syracuse, NY, Fire Department Rescue Company.