In 1999, three firefighters and three children perished during a tragic rescue attempt in this home in Keokuk, IA.
Photo credit: National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health
In 2008, this two-story duplex fire disoriented and took the lives of one Pennsylvania volunteer firefighter, one civilian and injured another disoriented volunteer officer.
Photo credit: National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health
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.
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.
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.
When Primary Searches Kill
Completing the 360 Degree Size Up
The Dangers of Wind –Driven Residential Fires
Are Staffing, Training and Equipment the Answer?
- NIOSH Report for Iowa (F-2000-04)
- NIOSH Report for Pennsylvania (F-2008-06)
- 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives
- U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study, 1979-2001
WILLIAM R. MORA, a Firehouse.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.