Creating a Safe Environment for Firefighters, Civilians

William Mora looks at the need for establishing rescue and thermal imaging operating policies to prevent unfavorable outcomes at fire scenes.

In addition, firefighters should clearly understand that this operation will most likely take place during zero visibility conditions generated by heavy smoke or conversion steam as additional help may not yet be on the scene to begin ventilation efforts. Therefore, following extinguishment for safety and effectiveness, the action taken by the limited number of firefighters in the structure must be coordinated and one that ensures that company integrity and communication is maintained.  During the rescue operation, and whenever possible, it may be faster if the occupant is removed from the residence by means of available windows rather than negotiating through longer pathways out of the front or rear doorway. The involved firefighters should also consider exiting through the same window to remove themselves from the dangerous smoke conditions that may be present during the operation. 

A second approach to prevent fatalities during primary searches also involves the development of another simple, but rigid, thermal imaging camera (TIC) SOP.  When equipped, the SOP would require that the officer assigned to each apparatus ensure that a TIC is immediately taken into the structure and used, within limitations, for the purposes of interior size up, locating the seat of the fire, facilitating a more effective primary search for occupants and preventing the disorientation of interior firefighters.

Exceptions Understood

There certainly will be exceptions to the SOP and as officers know, factors surrounding incidents must be taken on a case-by-case basis with sound judgment exercised. For example, and with wind not a factor, firefighters may arrive at a large residence with fire showing on the Charlie side, but with occupants known to be sleeping in a bedroom at the Alpha-Bravo corner. In this type of scenario, the occupants could likely be removed from the structure safely without first attacking the fire.  However, this is not the norm in tragic firefighting scenarios. If firefighting involved only simple problems, there would be no civilian or firefighter fatalities and property loss would be minimal. The reality is that firefighters typically encounter rescue situations that are practically impossible to successfully achieve and, on many occasions, unfortunately cannot be achieved. But, whenever there is a chance for survival and because they will try, firefighters will pull every tactic out of the hat to make it happen, even though excessive risk and inaccurate decisions may be involved.  If firefighters, on the other hand, are given guidance for managing these scenarios with an approved tactic that has been closely examined to avoid the risk in advance, and provided within words of a Primary Search and TIC SOP, safer and more effective results may one day become a reality.


In conclusion, there really is no one who can force firefighters to make changes in order to achieve safety on the fireground. This is because what firefighters do on the scene of working structure fires is their decision, based on traditional tactics and because they are the ones who are ultimately taking the risk. But, in the spirit of achieving greater safety for all firefighters and because live rescues are in fact so rare, chief, training, company and safety officers should seriously consider implementing a rescue and TIC SOP that prevents the physical and emotional suffering that are caused by predictably unsuccessful primary search attempts.

Note: This article implements the National Fallen Fire Fighters (NFFF) Firefighter Life Safety Initiative (LSI) # 3: Focus greater attention on the Integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical and planning responsibilities. And LSI #8: Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.

Related Content:

When Primary Searches Kill

Completing the 360 Degree Size Up

The Dangers of Wind –Driven Residential Fires

Are Staffing, Training and Equipment the Answer?

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WILLIAM R. MORA, a Contributing Editor, is a former Captain of the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department. William has done extensive research on the topic of firefighter disorientation including the analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities and is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001. You can reach William by e-mail at