Firefighter Rescue and Survival

The primary goal of every firefighter and fire officer is to respond. We train, maintain equipment, study for promotions or elect our leaders, with the ultimate goal of responding. That is what we do, we respond to fires and other emergencies. The fire service is the traditional and initial emergency response force of our nation. With this in mind, our actions, protecting the life and property of our neighbors, must also include the safety and survival of our responding force.

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Firefighters have always operated in a can-do mode. Our motto should be "Semper Gumby!"- Always flexible! Historically we have been able to do much with little. This can be a good or bad thing. The ability to adapt and overcome is admirable. The long-standing tradition of not changing, the "we don't need anything, why change anything" position, is a disservice at best and a danger at worst. I often think, if it were up to the firemen we would still be using leather hose with brass rivets, because we always did. Far fetched? Look around you. Do you see any dinosaurs? I occasionally catch a glimpse of one in my mirror.

Several years ago while serving as an assistant chief in my volunteer department, I served on a committee that worked out the procedures our battalion would use to provide rapid intervention teams on a mutual aid basis. While at these meetings, which were filled with serious, dedicated and efficient chief officers, it slowly became apparent to me that we were putting the cart before the horse.

The chiefs were eager to supply each other with crews that would provide an added protection for operating firefighters during a working fire. This is a good thing. During these discussions my mind began to fill with questions as to how effective these rapid intervention firefighters would actually be.

After polling the chiefs I found out that most of the departments present did not have a written "May-Day" procedure. I then asked how many of their members had been trained in basic firefighter rescue and removal techniques. Again the numbers were low.

My department had a long-standing May-Day procedure, in fairness, ours was established after a line-of-duty death years before. We learned the hard way. I recommended that we continue planning to supply RIT, but we all had better tighten up our own fire ground procedures, training and equipment needs.

Personal research began to show that departments across the nation also faced these same problems. The fire magazines began to fill with articles about techniques, procedures and tools needed by RIT teams. Photos of stern looking bunker clad fire fighters standing on tarps surrounded by a vast array of tools accompanied many stories. Some of the articles were excellent. Others were awful. Most were rewrites of previous articles. The number of experts began to grow.

One thing left out of most of the articles however, was when the smoke hits the fan many of the favored techniques are nearly impossible to implement. Basics should be just that- Basic.

You have to go back to the beginning and build from there. Take your highly priced, brightly colored RIT tarp and fold it carefully. It will not help you rescue any firefighters. Sure it helps keep tools in one place, but did we get our radios and radio procedures worked out yet? Does every firefighter on the fire ground have a radio and know what to say if they get trapped or see someone get trapped?

The real trick to firefighter rescue is to be prepared prior to responding. Everyone in the department should be able to understand and react to a call for help made by a trapped or lost firefighter. We have to step away from the old theories. "Don't teach the new guys that yet. Let them learn the basics first, then we'll teach them the advanced stuff." Well nothing is more basic than going home alive after a fire response.

I have worked with guys, both paid and volunteer who did not believe a new guy should be able to operate an aerial ladder- that was the driver's responsibility. Ask a firefighter trapped in a window with fire filling the room behind him, is it necessary that the person lowering the ladder to save his life be a senior member. Far fetched? Look around.

Set your goals and objectives. Prioritize them and implement them. The most important thing to do is establish radio protocol and stick with it. Can your department provide a radio to every operating member? Few can. But what is said into those radios, and how it is interpreted can save a life. A firefighters life.

Start with basic terminology

  • Exposure nomenclature is vital. Numbered or lettered references are the easiest to decipher. The north, south, east and west system is only effective in structure fires when members are provided with a compass.

  • Mayday- reported when a firefighter is unconscious or suffering a life threatening injury. A firefighter is trapped. A firefighter is missing. Indication of imminent collapse. Structural collapse has occurred.

  • Urgent- emergency messages less serious than Mayday. Firefighter suffers serious but not life threatening injury. Loss of water. Discontinue of interior fire attack. Discovery of structural problem. Serious fire extension. Incident Commander wishes to gain control of radio.

This is merely starting a play-book for your department. Football teams would never think of playing without a predetermined plan. Sure, once in awhile an audible is called at the line, but the game plan is implemented because then everyone on the team knows what to do in each situation. Formalize your radio procedures. Agree to terminology; firefighters don't collapse- buildings collapse. If a firefighter is down and the only word the Incident Commander heard clearly from a report was "collapse" what would he think and how would he react?

In the meantime gather information and work out a simple and flexible plan that will allow your operating forces to send clear concise messages and to quickly call for help when they need it.