Loss Control In Structural Firefighting

The term "quality service" probably means different things to different people. However, in structural firefighting, one of the key elements that defines a fire department's commitment to quality service is its approach to the concept of "loss control."

The purpose of loss control is to reduce or eliminate certain areas of loss and damage experienced by the customer during and following fires and other types of incidents. Loss control is a customer-oriented component of a service-delivery system that is intended to provide "added value" to the performance of our firefighting craft. (As you know, firefighting is a craft when done properly.) Most of our offensive structural fires are ripe with loss-control opportunities.

Integrating Loss Control

In Phoenix, AZ, we are in the process of integrating loss control, which will replace property conservation (salvage), into our tactical priorities. Loss control is much more inclusive of customer needs than is the narrow area of property conservation. In the future, our tactical priorities will be:

Priority Benchmark or Completion
1. Rescue All Clear
2. Fire Control Fire Under Control
3. Loss Control Loss Stopped

Providing for the accountability, safety and survival of firefighters is addressed continually within each of the tactical priorities throughout the incident.

Loss control may operate either as a sector or as a branch at major incidents. Operating as a branch, loss control may have salvage as one area (sector) within its responsibilities. If loss control were assigned as a branch in the command structure, other sectors such as overhaul, occupant services, critique and other sectors/liaisons would report within loss control.

Loss Control Efforts

Fires cause many damage-oriented problems for the customer. Some problems charring, structural damage, contents damage, and other damage associated with water and smoke are obvious. Fires also cause other problems for the customer that are perhaps more subtle but that are just as devastating. Some of these include the customers' psychological and emotional injuries that accompany the death or injuries of loved ones (including pets); customers having property that is left unsecured from nature or vandals; and customers losing material items that are not replaceable.

Photo courtesy of IFSTA
A firefighter offers emotional support.

Loss control efforts revolve around minimizing damage and loss. Two types of damage occur at a structural fire: primary damage and secondary damage. Primary damage is caused by the fire and secondary damage is caused by the fire fight. Not all secondary damage is avoidable. Many times, the firefighters performing appropriate secondary damage, such as forcible entry or ventilation, reduce the overall loss. However, firefighters should be willing to personally "sign off" on any secondary damage due, which provides a personal guarantee that it was necessary. Kicking in unlocked doors, breaking $1,000 doors instead of $100 windows (when there is a choice), breaking windows that would have easily opened or walking on the customer's personal items rather than salvaging them, as well as other similar acts, do not typically fall into the category of "necessary" secondary damage. Overall, loss can be reduced if firefighters perform the "craft" of firefighting more effectively and with loss control as a priority.

Planning For Loss Control

In planning for the development of loss control as a concept, we spoke to several previous customers about our performance. Our customers had high praise for us, as you would expect. However, when we asked our customers to describe the most devastating aspects they experienced from having a fire, we gained valuable insight into ways to improve our performance.

We also spoke to a few of the contractors that repair and restore the structures in which we fight our fires. The contractors provided guidance in developing our loss control efforts and gave us a perspective to our "craft" that we had never really looked at before. These sources, together with the input of our firefighters and officers, form the meat of our loss control program components, which I discuss in this article.

Program Components

Loss control efforts begin when we set foot on the property of the customer. An important aspect of performance is to consider the various options available that will minimize damage and other effects of the fire. Certain elements of loss might require hand and power tools or perhaps a mind-set that we currently do not have. In other words, it is change and our people might have to warm up to it.

Diagram courtesy of IFSTA
Prevent additional smoke damage during smoke removal by closing off unaffected rooms.

From a systems standpoint, loss control should be a key element of the incident commander's plan. The incident commander should integrate loss control functions early within his or her structured plan and evaluate these considerations throughout the fire. Some specific firefighting activities, such as extinguishing the fire, forcible entry, ventilation, access to concealed spaces and overhaul operations tend to minimize primary and secondary damage.

Extinguishing the fire. One of the most important elements of loss control is to put the fire out! When this is accomplished, the main source of primary damage is eliminated. However, there can be considerable, unnecessary damage incurred by the customer if the fire is not attacked from the unburned portion whenever possible. "Ya Hoo" tactics that employ the candle-moth approach are usually "bush league firefighting" and are not typically recognized as a class act when the damage is tallied. Blowing heat, smoke and perhaps even fire through a structure when other options are available are easily detected by the trained evaluator. It also increases the overall dollar loss associated with the fire (to say nothing of the potential life hazard it can create for customers who might still be inside or for firefighters trying to get into an appropriate attack position).

Forcible entry. There are times when we have options in how we force entry. We shouldn't burn a building down while we try to pick locks to get in but we shouldn't be kicking in unlocked doors either. When we have choices, we should select the method that is most effective and produces the least amount of secondary damage. As I mentioned previously, firefighters performing their "craft" are sensitive and alert to the issue of unnecessary secondary damage.

Photo courtesy of IFSTA
Residents pack salvaged personal belongings in boxes provided by the fire department.

Ventilation. Unnecessary damage is created by breaking out windows that are easily opened or by not being alert to the depth of cuts in the roof if using vertical ventilation. It can cost up to 10 times more to repair a poorly cut ventilation hole than one that is cut appropriately. Even on a typical house, this can be the difference between a $2,000 repair or a $200 repair, and we get to decide.

Access To Concealed Spaces. Techniques used to gain access to concealed spaces can provide other opportunities to minimize loss. For example, people who repair our work indicate that a ceiling pulled closer than 12 to 15 inches to a wall can create the need to not only replace the ceiling but also a portion of the wall in some types of construction.

Don't get me wrong I'm not suggesting we allow fire to extend into concealed spaces while we measure the distance between the wall and where we should pull the ceiling! What I am saying is that when we have realistic and doable choices that will reduce the loss associated with the fire, we should make the choice that minimizes loss and best serves the customer. These considerations are easily integrated into our training, which, in time, will improve our performance.

Overhaul Operations. Overhaul operations are full of opportunities to apply loss control concepts. We typically have a lot more time to consider options and exercise sound judgments at this stage of the event.

Enhanced Loss Control

Other areas of firefighting lend themselves to the loss control concepts that have been discussed, as you will discover when your department further explores the opportunities presented in loss control. Three specific (and obvious) areas that should get particular attention are water usage, smoke removal and dealing with carpet and flooring. There are other areas, but the following provide a good start for enhancing loss control.

Photo courtesy of IFSTA
When operating at a structural fire, act like the place is yours and that the people are your loved ones. This will guide you in the right direction throughout the incident.

Water usage. We should control the use of water. Twenty-five years ago, my captains made a big deal out of interior fire fights that used more water than was necessary. Nozzles were stored at appropriate settings and opened only as necessary to do the job at hand. If your department has gotten away from this as a performance issue, perhaps it should be revisited.

Couplings that are inside the structure should not be allowed to leak and cause damage throughout the incident. One of our firefighters suggested that the forward length of the hose on pre-connected attack lines should be 100 feet in length so that it would be rare that a coupling was even inside the structure; perhaps this is a pretty good idea. In the meantime, though, tighten, repair or when possible shut down leaking couplings on the interior of the building.

Water left standing on tables and countertops for a few hours will either seriously damage or ruin the surface. Simply wiping up standing water from these areas might significantly reduce the water damage and it can be done very quickly.

Couches, chairs and other furniture become sponges when allowed to remain on wet floors or carpet. Small styrofoam blocks placed under the corners of each piece of furniture may prevent significant damage or the total loss of those particular pieces. It's cheap and it works!

When a lot of water has been used in the attic area, but when most of the underside of the ceiling and rooms are not significantly damaged, holes can be drilled in the ceiling to drain the water. Not doing so can cause a ceiling to sag over a period of a few hours, thus requiring that it can be completely replaced.

Smoke removal. Positive-pressure ventilation is an effective technique for use in structural firefighting. However, when used for smoke removal after fire control has been achieved, consider how to prevent smoke from being pushed into areas of the structure that were previously smoke-free. Many times, this can be accomplished by simply opening or closing certain interior doors and other openings during the ventilation process. Smoldering materials should be taken outside so that they will not continue to smoke up the interior of the structure.

In most of the fire situations we encounter, the building's mechanical ventilation system should be shut down to avoid smoke contamination of the unit. If it were contaminated because we were using it to remove smoke, the financial loss could be significant.

Carpet and flooring. Salvage covers, plastic and hall runners are excellent tools for controlling damage to carpet and flooring during a fire. They should be used regularly and as early into the incident as possible. If they are not used to protect the carpet and flooring, water left standing on flooring or carpet for several hours may ruin the material and cause it to have to be replaced. Also, if soot and glass are ground into the flooring or carpet by firefighter traffic, the material may be significantly damaged and its replacement required.

Building Packaging

Just as we package patients for transportation to a medical facility, we package the building for loss control "building package." When we complete an offensive structural fire fight, the minimum elements of building packaging that firefighters should address are as follows:

  • Each room in the structure has received whatever ventilation was required.
  • The furniture and other contents that were or might become exposed to damage are covered in compliance with salvage SOPs.
  • Furniture in areas that are already wet or might become wet are blocked-up off the floor.
  • Valuables are boxed with the contents listed on the outside of each box so that the owners/occupants can transport them. The fire department logo and name can be clearly displayed on each box. It's a nice thing to do.
  • Excessive debris in rooms is cleared and the floors in the rooms are cleaned to an appropriate extent.
  • Access holes (vent holes, pulled ceiling, walls, etc.) are squared-up on structural members except when a potential health/environment hazard, such as asbestos, is (or is suspected to be) present.
  • Ventilation holes, broken windows or other similar openings we created are covered with plastic or some other appropriate material so that further damage does not occur due to the weather.
  • Whenever possible, outside piles of debris (primarily damaged contents) are covered with plastic anchored in place so that it stays in place.
  • The building is secured or security needs are being addressed by a responsible party. Some of the special service-oriented actions the fire department takes to address loss control activities may be the most significant efforts taken at many fires for minimizing the overall loss associated with the incident. A few other special things to keep in mind that are extremely effective include:
  • Provide the owner/ occupant with a walk-through if it is safe to do so. Give a full explanation of the fire fight during this review.
  • Coordinate loss control activities with the investigators when an active fire investigation is taking place or pending. This will avoid interference with the investigation and the destruction of evidence. Fire companies may be required to return to the scene to complete loss control after the investigation has been completed.
  • Select appropriate locations for outside piles of debris. It is psychologically and emotionally hurtful to the owners of the debris to have to walk over or around it to gain access to the structure. This psychological/emotional pain can be easily avoided or minimized. Anything that firefighters can do to make the scene appear less devastating will help the customers cope with their loss.
  • Providing an "extra touch" to our service can sometimes cause some inconvenience to firefighters. We should think hard before we let our own comfort levels get in the way of delivering quality service. Also, if a firefighter is having a bad day, he or she should never take it out on the customer. The customers don't need your bad day they're having one of their own!
  • Pay attention to how our actions can be misinterpreted as uncaring by the customers watching us. Water fights or "high fives" to celebrate a good stop and other similar horseplay can be misread and can send an ugly message to our audience. We simply need to manage our conduct at the scene appropriately and help each other with it.
  • Manage pets appropriately because they are very important family members to many people. Take care of them whether they are uninjured, injured or dead.
  • Provide a full range of salvage services as a standard practice at any incident where it can protect the contents of the structure from damage.
  • Provide "After the Fire" brochures to guide the customer through the initial recovery from the event. If your department does not have such a document, produce one (perhaps even in Spanish) it would make a good customer service project.
  • Use the Red Cross and social service agencies to provide assistance.
  • Rotate firefighters so that loss control receives the full attention and effort it deserves.

Loss control won't just happen without commitment and direction from throughout the organization. As you can see, it is so far-reaching that it could receive attention for several years and only tap the surface of its potential for improved service. It's good stuff because it makes a difference.

In summary, I'll leave you with a few final thoughts about loss control to consider:

  • Train and fight fires with loss control in mind.
  • Develop and extend loss control SOPs and associated ongoing training programs.
  • Provide tools as needed. The examples I've given in this article are not expensive.
  • When operating at a structural fire, act like the place is yours and that the people are your loved ones. This will guide you in the right direction throughout the incident.
  • Be willing to "autograph" secondary damage as your own personal guarantee that it was necessary to conduct effective rescue and fire control operations. If you don't want to be held accountable for it, don't do it.
  • Command incidents with loss control as a tactical priority. Call additional resources/alarms for loss control, if necessary, just as you would for rescue, fire control or firefighter safety.
  • Include an evaluation of loss control in every critique of structural fires. If this is done all the time, you'll be amazed how quickly it gets the attention it deserves and catches on as an organizational expectation.

We should apply the concepts of loss control not only to offensive structural fires but to as many of our incidents, including EMS, as we possibly can. Loss control is "Total Quality" (TQ) customer service, enhanced performance and value-added service delivery rolled into one package. No matter how good we think we are, we can always do better. That's a good idea and an active loss control program can help us move in the direction of achieving it.

Dennis Compton has been a member of the Phoenix, AZ, Fire Department since 1971. He currently holds the rank of assistant fire chief and manages the Operations Division. Compton also chairs the Executive Board of International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA). This article originally was published by IFSTA.