Firefighter Survival Tactics

One of the most effective ways to survive the hostile and dangerous conditions encountered at interior structural fire operations is to prevent yourself from getting into a serious life threatening predicament in the first place. Obviously there are many actions we can take or choose not to take that will have an impact on our survivability.

Just thinking about what you're doing and why you're doing it can have tremendous positive effect on most fireground operations. Not thinking about what you are doing, but just performing certain tasks because you've been instructed to, is a dangerous way to go through your firefighting career.

If you don't know why you're performing a function or tactic and you run into trouble or are otherwise unable to complete the job, you won't know what the consequences are to yourself or the other firefighters on the scene.

Every action you take, every tactic you employ and every move you make on the fireground should be well thought out and understood. If you know what to do but don't know why, ask.

There are literally hundreds of activities going on at working structural fires. Every firefighter whether working in an engine company, ladder company, squad or rescue will each be performing several tactics that are specific to their units goals . Engine company firefighters will be stretching hoselines, laying supply lines, operating master streams and advancing and extinguishing interior fires.

Ladder company firefighters will be performing forcible entry, search and rescue, ventilation and overhaul. Rescue and squad firefighters may be assisting with or performing any or all of the already stated tactics or they may be assigned special duties or functions by the incident commander. Firefighters performing any of these specific duties can find themselves in sudden dangerous situations at any time.

There are some tactics that all firefighters can take at all fire operations to reduce their chances of being injured in sudden dangerous occurrences or getting into situation that they cannot escape from. There are five basic tactics that if performed at every interior structural fire operation will dramatically increase a firefighters chances of surviving the operation.

These tactics are so basic that most of them are taught to entry level firefighters during basic training and are considered no-brainers to most firefighters. The problem is that many of these basic tactics are not being performed by today's firefighters. The reasons are many but the results are the problem, firefighters are being seriously injured and killed in situations that historically would have resulted in either minor or no injuries.

Lets take at look at these five tactics.

I. Staying Oriented

Simply put, this means knowing where you are, where you came from, where you're going and how to get out rapidly at any moment. Many of the firefighters killed inside structural fires just got lost. They may run out of air frantically searching for a way out, they may panic and rip the their own SCBA facepiece off or they may fall into a shaft or out of a wall opening, but the real reason that they died was that they were lost. Instilling in firefighters the importance of knowing exactly where they are inside a burning structure is paramount in assuring their survival when things go bad.

There are several levels of orientation that need to be understood before a firefighter can truly know where they are at any one moment. The first is the general location within the fire building. For example, if there is a fire on the second floor of a four story structure and a ladder company search team is assigned to operate on the floor above the fire, they will often climb the stairs until the reach the fire floor, which is where they can see the engine companies hoseline stretched and a smoke condition emanating from the fire area.

From this point they will climb one more floor to the floor above the fire. The question is what floor are they on ? They should be on the third floor but in the heat of battle they might just not remember "third floor". Add to the heat of the battle a sudden , dangerous and maybe even painful experience and their chances of remembering that they are on the third floor is lessened even more. Even if they do remember that they're on the third floor, do you think they know if they are in the front or rear of that floor?

Remember, we're talking about a firefighter who is in a life threatening situation. You must know what floor and where on that floor you are.

The second level of orientation that must be understood is the particular room layout of the occupancy that the firefighter is operating in. After entering an apartment or level inside a structure the firefighters must make it their business to determine what type room they are in, a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, hallway or living room. Depending on the type of construction and occupancy the rooms may be laid out in a familiar or routine fashion or they could be renovated and unlike any other building.

Some buildings have rooms that connect to each other directly through doors or openings and others require that you leave the room and travel down a hallway to enter the adjoining room. What the arrangement is the firefighter operating in this area must determine the room layout and must keep track of what room is being entered and exited.

The third level of orientation a firefighter must realize is their exact position in the room. Building on the two previous pieces of orientation information, that is the level or floor of the building and the room or occupancy layout, the firefighter must now determine and remain aware of their exact position inside this room or area and the location and position of all of the other objects and furnishings inside that room. This includes the furniture and more importantly any doors or windows encountered while operating in the room.

Knowing that you have entered a room and turned to the right, following the wall with your right hand, passing a long couch followed by an end table with a window behind it may be the most important information you posses if you are suddenly confronted with a dangerous or deadly condition such as dramatic heat increase or rapid flame spread that causes you to decide to rapidly evacuate this area.

Knowing the location of any doors or windows that will lead you out of a particular room or area is an extremely important survival skill that every interior structural firefighter must have. When conditions take a turn for the worse during fire suppression operations they more often than not turn rapidly.

This rapid deterioration of conditions usually happens without any warning and a firefighters chances for survival may depend on if they bothered to locate and mentally map the room they are in. Imagine a firefighter conducting a search of a bedroom on the second floor of a private house. After quickly ascending to that second floor to begin a search the firefighter instinctively but without much conscious thought makes a right turn at the top of the stairs and immediately finds and passes through a door.

Figuring that this is probably a small bedroom the firefighter rapidly moves into the room without any real plan or concern for keeping himself orientated. What this firefighter doesn't know is that the fire heavily involves the room directly beneath the room he is now in. Quickly moving from chairs to a bed to a dresser the firefighter searches all of the areas that victims could possibly be trapped. Not keeping track of the door from which he entered and without ever sweeping the wall for a window the firefighter suddenly begins to feel painful heat through his turnout coat and the backs of his gloves.

Knowing he has only seconds to escape from this room he darts for the area where he believes the entrance door to be. He is wrong and after hitting the wall pretty hard he pulls himself up and finds the door. When he opens the door the hall is a sea of orange flame and smoke and he quickly closes the door. Retreating back into the room the firefighter begins to search for a window, hoping that one is somewhere.

After 25-35 seconds the room flashes over and the firefighter screams as he blindly passes a window that he does not know is there.

This scenario has happened and will happen again as long as firefighters continue to bravely but blindly charge into burning structures without giving any thought to the possibility that something so severe and dangerous could occur to them that they might have just seconds to find and exit and use it to survive.

II. Staying Low

This means what it says, stay LOW. One of the biggest mistakes made by firefighters today is not getting down on the floor when operating at fires. Whether preparing to advance a hoseline into an occupancy or building or entering an area to begin a search and rescue operation, firefighters operating inside structural fires are much safer when they take a position close to the floor.

As all firefighters know, the most severe heat and smoke conditions exist at the highest levels within a burning room . Common sense should tell you to stay as low as possible to operate in the most tenable atmosphere where the heat and smoke conditions will be at their lowest levels.

An added advantage to remaining low is the visibility should be at it's best in that area and finally, any victims found inside burning buildings are found either laying down on furniture such as beds or couches or on the floor. Few fire victims found at structural fires are discovered standing up in the room.

In addition to the routine advantages of staying low while operating at structural fires there are several reasons related to firefighter survival that should make staying low a requisite. A firefighter that is suddenly exposed to high heat or flame spread in the room or area where they are operating will have those few extra seconds to think and react to escape from their predicament if they are down at floor level when this occurs.

That same firefighter negotiating through an area standing up will be severely exposed and probably burned if the upper atmosphere of the room they are in suddenly ignites. This sudden ,unexpected and painful experience will in all probability cause the firefighter to panic which could result in any number of irrational and reactionary responses including running, removing the SCBA facepiece or simply collapsing to the floor to take cover.

All of these reactions are bad ones and will result in the severe injury and possible death of the firefighter, since none of them will remove the firefighter from the danger area.

III. Monitoring Conditions

Many firefighters who are injured or killed at interior structural fire operations were never aware of the dangerous conditions they were in until it was too late to escape. Some of these same firefighters would have otherwise been able to react positively and save themselves had they known what was going on around them.

Being aware of the conditions around you while operating inside a building that is being attacked and consumed by fire is vital to a firefighters survival. This awareness of surrounding conditions is not simply taking note of the obvious happenings but it is the deliberate monitoring of every possible condition that could suddenly increase such as heat, or decrease such as visibility that may signal a dangerous change in the fires development ,direction of travel or intensity.

This monitoring of conditions is not a part time job that can be done intermittently or infrequently just to satisfy an SOP. It must be done continuously and with vigor so that the advancing fire never gets the chance to suddenly overtake the operating firefighter. Many firefighters don't disagree with this principle of monitoring conditions while operating, but many relegate this task to a second string position in their minds thinking that any really dangerous conditions will become obvious to them so they can instead direct all of their attention to performing the manual tactics such as search and rescue and hoseline advancement.

They are partially correct, the dangerous condition probably will become obvious to them even if they are not actively monitoring conditions, but it will be too late for them to do anything about it at that point. Teaching firefighters why it is so important to perform this vital function and how to do it will greatly increase the chances that they will do it.

The actual monitoring of conditions begins upon arrival at the fire scene. Unlike the classical size-up which includes information received prior to arrival, monitoring conditions is limited to the visual, audible and tangible stimuli at the scene that are actually occurring.

This monitoring of conditions is a very localized tactic that may vary from floor to floor or even room to room inside a structure. For this reason, every individual or team of firefighters must be continuously performing this tactic while operating inside a structure. The conditions on the floor above a fire may be deteriorating in general, but the conditions in a particular room may be getting dramatically worse than anywhere else on that floor, hence an individual firefighter cannot totally rely on the reports of firefighters in nearby areas and must constantly evaluate their own specific area of operations.

The tactics that must be employed in order to adequately monitor conditions around the firefighter are many. Some are simply observations of smoke behavior, density and direction coupled with the firefighters understanding of what these conditions might indicate while other tactics may be the act of physically reaching up into the area above the crawling firefighter to detect heat levels. At a minimum the following tactics can be used to monitor conditions:

  • A. Visually keep track of the smoke density and fire. This means that you should be aware of the level of visibility immediately upon entering the fire area or structure and keep track of whether it is improving, remaining the same or worsening. If smoke conditions are lightening up we are making headway and the fires advancement is being checked. This indicates a reduction or lessening of the hazard level within the building and may even allow operating firefighters to begin moving about in a crouching or even upright walking position.

    If conditions are remaining the same as you advance toward the fire or into your area of operations, you can continue advancing and monitoring . If you evaluated those conditions prior to entering and found them acceptable for entry, then they should pose no problem for you at this time. If as you're advancing into position the smoke conditions are becoming more severe you must begin the consider other factors such as heat levels and the direction that the smoke and heat are coming from. Often at fires the smoke conditions do deteriorate between the time that firefighters enter the building and when they begin actual extinguishment.

    This scenario often accounts for the increase in the smoke conditions but that should not be assumed to be the case and further actions are warranted.

    Being aware of and keeping track of the location of the actual fire within the building or your area of operations is also imperative to the safety and survival of interior structural firefighters. If you're operating on the fire floor you may have an idea where the main body of fire is burning but you could have bad or old information.

    Fire constantly travels. If a fire is reported in the rear storage room of a retail shoe store on Main Street you probably won't have a fire on the second floor or basement, but you could encounter that fire just a few feet into the front entrance since it has been burning and extending toward the front of the store for several minutes since it was reported. Keep in mind the fact that fire grows and travels very quickly.

    Even with just a moderate smoke condition overhead, fire can be traveling above, hidden by the layer of smoke below. If you're advancing blindly, looking at the floor and not monitoring conditions around you, you could end up with fire in front of you, over you and behind you, without ever knowing it was happening.

    Many firefighters have been injured and killed by fires that extended undetected into areas where they were operating and they could not escape in time or the fire now involved their path of retreat. Being aware of both the location and extent of the fire and the status of the smoke conditions is vital to your safety while operating at a structural fire.

  • B. Tactilely monitoring heat conditions. This second tactic like the first should be initiated immediately after entering the fire area. Knowing just how hot it is will not only help us decide whether or not to enter an area but it will be a deciding factor in when we may have to evacuate or retreat from an area.

    Firefighters are accustomed to operating in relatively high heat conditions at structural fires and our protective equipment does a tremendous job of insulating and protecting us from that heat, but we must still find a way to monitor that heat for our own personal evaluation of conditions.

    Several methods that do work but may not be embraced by safety and standards people are the partial removal of a firefighters glove while holding that hand high in the air above them or the pulling back of the wristlet of the turnout coat and reaching into the area above to feel for heat.

    Both of these methods expose a small amount of skin to the heat that is several feet above the firefighters head and can be a very quick way to monitor that situation. Nowhere in any standards are we allowed to partially remove protective equipment while operating, but this minor safety infraction just might save your life if it prompts you to retreat or back out of an area that is about to flash over or rapidly ignite.

    Another less accurate but more compliant method is to reach up into the area overhead and make a very tight fist with the gloved hand. This action compresses the back of the glove against the back of the hand and the knuckles and allows the heat to penetrate to some degree onto the firefighters hand.

    This action will also give the firefighter an indication of the heat levels just above their heads. Whatever method you use is your own decision, but you must monitor the heat conditions that you are operating in and under in order to give yourself those few extra seconds to retreat to an area of safety.

IV. Monitoring the Radio

If you carry a radio into every fire you respond to you will find this information very interesting. If you don't carry a radio, you'll wish you did. Lets look at the benefits that those firefighters who are radio equipped derive from this equipment. Portable radios when worn by firefighters at interior structural operations give that member a direct audible connection to every other member on the fireground that also has a radio.

This fireground "network" allows firefighters to transmit important information from their area of operations to other firefighters in other areas or the chief in command. One of the major benefits of radio usage is that firefighters operating in remote areas can make tactical decisions with the input of other firefighters who are reporting conditions from other areas. For example, several firefighters are about to climb into a rear second floor window off of a portable ladder into a bedroom of a private dwelling when they hear the officer of the engine company reporting to the chief that they have lost water in their hoseline and the fire is extending.

Without the radio these firefighters might enter that area thinking that the attack hoseline was in position and moving in on the fire below when in fact they may now be entering an extremely hazardous area. With a radio, these firefighters would benefit from this communication between the engine officer and the chief simply by listening in on the fireground "network" to a transmission that was not even directed at them. This same benefit is derived by every radio equipped member on the fire scene as they monitor the radio that they carry.

From a survival point a radio may well be the piece of equipment that makes the difference between the life and death of a trapped or disorientated firefighter. Even firefighters working in teams of two or more can become isolated or separated from each other while operating under extreme conditions. If a firefighter operating inside a burning building becomes lost or is suddenly confronted with a dangerous condition they can immediately call for assistance if they are radio equipped. The more firefighters that are carrying radios the more effective this process becomes since more on-scene people will hear this transmission and be able to render assistance to the member in distress.

Add to this the fact that the chief in command or other firefighters assigned to rescue this firefighter can now ascertain from the member in distress what floor they are on, whether in the front, side or rear, and what their problem is. If the member is able to communicate they can give them instructions or keep them calm while they attempt to locate or rescue them.

If a firefighter working in a room down the hall from the firefighter calling for help hears the transmission he is now in a position to provide almost immediate assistance the that member. If this same firefighter did not have a radio and therefore did not hear the nearby firefighter calling for help he could unknowingly be completing a search directly across the hall from the room where a firefighter is dying.

V. Staying Calm

This is a tactic that most firefighters believe cannot be learned. And although it is difficult to change a persons automatic response to emergency situations, they can be conditioned through training to react more calmly and thoughtfully. There are as many different types of people in the fire service as there are in every other walk of life. Some firefighters react excitedly simply by hearing about or being assigned to respond to a working fire.

These are the same firefighters that practically scream into the radio when arriving at a structural fire. Being this excited while responding to and operating at routine, non eventful operations gives a pretty good indication of the probable response this same firefighter would have to a sudden dangerous situation inside a burning building. Mastering all of these other tactics such as staying low, staying orientated, monitoring conditions and monitoring the radio will do nothing for the firefighter who panics.

A firefighter that panics when suddenly confronted with dangerous life threatening conditions will not be able to remember the important steps that must be taken to escape that situation. Instead, their mind will be racing through hundreds of different thoughts in rapid succession with none being thought out to its conclusion. Imagine viewing a 30 minute television sitcom, including commercials, in fast motion. The rapid-fire change of images and scenes is what is taking place in the mind of a panicking firefighter.

All of the thoughts are probably good ones recalled from training and previous experience but they are being presented and replaced so quickly by the next thought that no one idea is ever acted upon.

What we as firefighters need to do is to be prepared to insert ourselves into ongoing and escalating emergency situations with an eye towards regaining control of the situation.

At most structural fires the occupants are already in a state of panic and are depending on the fire department to solve their problem. If firefighters arriving on the scene are more excited than the occupants it will be difficult to bring the s ituation around to a successful conclusion.

If instead the members of the fire department arrive with a calm professional attitude they will be better prepared to operate effectively and safely. When this attitude is displayed constantly at every type of emergency response, it will become a conditioned response and will be demonstrated not only at routine operations but it will be the automatic response that firefighters will fall back on when confronted with sudden hostile conditions.

This scenario, the firefighter calmly facing horrific situations and operating thoughtfully and professionally is what will most assist the people we are charged with protecting and more importantly will condition every firefighter to act and react in a way that will assure our survival on the fireground.