Prior to responding to any working residential structure fire, firefighters must be prepared to safely manage any condition that may be found on arrival. This “unknown” aspect is probably the most challenging and, at the same time, the most stressful part of firefighting. Get it right the first time and everyone gets to go home, but get it wrong and serious injuries or line-of-duty deaths can occur. One of the most urgent and dangerous conditions responders will encounter on arrival is a structure fire in which people are trapped and are trying to get out.
In these life or death scenarios, something must be done and done quickly to give occupants a chance to survive. During this urgent and often emotional time frame, however, there is simply not enough time to conduct a drawn out analysis of all the factors surrounding the incident and to develop an incident action plan that is not only effective but safe. In these cases, as in other working fire events, firefighters simply do their very best with the information and staff they have at the time.
For this very reason, and when the required numbers of firefighting companies are not yet at the scene, inaccurate decisions have been made in the past that resulted in firefighter and civilian fatalities. One common thread associated with many of these tragic events involved the decision not to attack the fire, but rather to position handlines in order to hold the fire while a primary search was conducted. In other cases, an attack on the fire never took place or a continuous attack on the seat of the fire did not occur in favor of conducting a quick primary search of the structure.
Objectively speaking, one explanation why rescue scenarios are one of the most dangerous for firefighters to be involved with is due to the fact that primary searches with confirmed occupants are rare. Firefighters can serve for entire careers and never be involved in a primary search for confirmed occupants during a structure fire and specifically when they are first to arrive at the scene. Because of this lack of unique and valuable rescue experience, the type of safe and effective decision making that could be drawn upon from the past and used during todays’ incidents simply does not exist. Another explanation for the recurring loss of firefighters during rescue scenarios involves the lack of staffing at the earliest, most critical, time of the fire.
When no capability exists to initiate a simultaneous attack on the fire and a primary search, officers typically decide on quickly initiating a primary search in spite of the fact that the fire may quickly transition to the flashover stage. So, what can firefighters do to prevent these types of tragic fireground events from taking place in the future?
Approaches to Prevent Loss of Life
One approach to prevent the loss of lives during primary searches involves the development of a rigid primary search standard operating procedure (SOP). Working within the extinguishment limitations of the hose evolution used and staffing available, the SOP would require that in every case occupant survival is possible, and where an incident involves a situation where there is active burning within a part of a structure while occupants are above or in an adjacent part of the structure, firefighters must first attack the seat of the fire and do so continuously until the main body of fire has been significantly knocked down or extinguished. Thereafter, attention must be placed on removing occupants from the building as quickly as possible.