How to Assess and Treat Injured Firefighters

Literature on the topic of rapid intervention, like many other subjects, began as individual articles, grew into larger chapters and has now evolved into entire textbooks.

It is such an important topic, in part, because the larger concept of overall incident safety has become much more of a priority than in the past. This area, again like any other, will continue to evolve. The purpose of this article is to start with the subject of rapid intervention and build on it, taking the discussion in a new direction.

Consider this scenario: At a house fire, where all departmental rules are followed and all of the firefighters act appropriately, a firefighter falls through a weakened area in the floor and radios for help using the LUNAR format (L-Location, U-Unit, N-Name, A-Assignment and Air Supply, R-Resources Needed). A rapid intervention team (RIT), already staged, enters the home and with the help of other firefighters successfully removes the injured colleague. The RIT members are successful because rapid intervention has been covered in numerous texts and training programs and the team has the proper training and equipment to complete the task. The injured firefighter is brought outside to a safe area. Rapid intervention is now complete, and all those involved in the rescue are accounted for and directed to the rehab area.

While the body of literature addressing how to remove a firefighter from a hazardous materials “hot zone” has grown exponentially, there seems to be a gap concerning the care of the injured firefighter once he’s successfully removed from a building. This gap is the focus of this article – managing an injured firefighter after a successful rescue.

Removing the firefighting ensemble

There are established practices for rescuing an injured firefighter through a window or down a ladder. However, once the firefighter is brought out of the house and medical care is initiated, a new set of questions is raised. For example, how should he be positioned? Can he be immobilized while in full protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)? Is it faster and/or safer to cut off his turnout gear and SCBA or remove it in the normal fashion?

There are published procedures for the removal of a motorcycle helmet or the pads and helmet of a football player, but no established practices exist concerning a firefighter. Yet, in comparison, football gear does not fully envelop the player and weighs less than 30 pounds, while a full firefighting ensemble does encapsulate the firefighter and can weigh up to 75 pounds (50 pounds of turnout gear plus 25 pounds for SCBA). Therefore, some type of rapid, systematic approach is needed for removing a full protective firefighting ensemble from the firefighter/patient to ensure any existing injuries are not aggravated and new ones are not created.

The rescued firefighter will present in one of three categories:

  1. Cardiac arrest
  2. Breathing, but unconscious
  3. Unconscious

We could create more detailed subcategories. For example, under category 1, the firefighter could be in respiratory arrest only, or under category 3, there could be varying levels of consciousness. Whatever the circumstances, as this patient is assessed and treated the integrity of the spine and the patency of the airway both need to be protected. Just as in the management of a football player or any helmeted and/or protected patient, a system is needed.

To explore this area more thoroughly, discussions were held with firefighters and paramedics. Practice scenarios were conducted to find the best method of beginning patient assessment and treatment, while removing the turnout gear and maintaining the integrity of the airway and spine. The scenarios were meant to begin with a rapid intervention setting and evolve from there.

The first point of discussion was the initial presentation of the patient, which would represent the conclusion of the rapid intervention process. It was found that a conscious and oriented firefighter, with minor injuries, could walk out of a building, alone or with assistance, and then assume a position of comfort while he doffed his gear or was assisted in doing so. The patient who is seriously injured or unconscious, or whose mental status is decreased, however, would be carried, dragged or lowered out of a building. In this scenario, it was noted that almost inevitably the rescuing firefighters would lay the patient supine, but tilted to one side because of the air cylinder. Consequently, this is probably the most common position in which rescued firefighters would present.

Assessment of the ABCs (airway-breathing-circulation) can begin immediately, with the turnout gear still on. It is not an accurate assessment until the facepiece is removed, but if the patient is breathing adequately this will be heard through the mask. Slow or shallow breathing may also be heard, depending on the actual rate and quality. However, one of the first actions, as soon as the patient is out of the Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) atmosphere, is to disconnect the regulator from the mask. Assessing the ABCs of the conscious patient will clearly be easier and further he will be able to state the location of his pain or injuries.

A cervical injury should be suspected; depending on the method used to rescue the firefighter – for example, the firefighter’s carry or inward ladder method – the spine may or may not be stabilized. So, as with other patients, this must be started simultaneously to the ABCs by holding the head on the sides, similar to the initial stabilization of a driver of a vehicle. Removal of the turnouts should then be thought of in three steps: head and neck, upper body and lower body, with the speed of each step and the method chosen (cutting vs. loosening) dependent on the severity of the patient’s injuries.

The head of a firefighter is protected by three items: a helmet, protective hood and facepiece. While the head is still being held from the sides, the helmet must be unstrapped and removed. Next, the front neck area of the hood should be cut straight down from the face opening to the bottom, and pulled to the sides (Photo 1). The head should now be stabilized with one hand on the mandible and another at the back of the head, similar to the initial hand position on a motorcycle helmet. This allows the hood to be pulled completely to the back (Photo 2). The mask straps are now exposed and can be either loosened or cut, and the mask pulled out of the way. The facepiece and hood are being held in place only by the provider’s hands. Stabilization of the head is now transferred to the sides again, giving access to the back. With the hood and mask completely separated, all items are removed from the head and neck.

At this point, the patient is still supine, lying on the harness and cylinder, and a provider is maintaining cervical stabilization from the sides. Since the waist strap has an accessible buckle, it can be easily removed. Due to its thickness, don’t bother trying to cut this strap. But if an upper-chest strap is in place, it should be cut, because it is thinner and can be tighter. The shoulder straps should also be cut, at the lower adjustable section (Photo 3), again to reduce patient movement. However, do not remove the SCBA yet. Instead, unfasten the turnout coat and cut the sleeve that is facing up, starting at the wrist and proceeding up the arm. Instead of continuing to the thicker or bulkier collar, turn near the armpit and continue cutting straight across the chest to the opening of the coat. Turn the patient so he is completely recumbent. While the patient is in this position, the SCBA may be completely removed, the coat pushed to the ground, and the suspenders and streetclothes or uniform cut so the back can be assessed and a backboard potentially placed against the back. The patient can now be laid flat and the uncut side of the coat pulled off. The head, neck, torso and arms should all be exposed now, and the patient should be correctly placed on a board. A cervical collar can now be applied. With the airway properly managed and the spine protected, the final section – the lower body – can be addressed.

At this point, the patient is supine on a backboard and wearing only turnout pants and boots. Because of their construction, and the body area they protect, it is recommended the boots be carefully pulled off in a normal fashion. However, the pants should be cut, due to the fact that the lower body has not yet been assessed and blood loss in the thighs and in the pelvis can be massive. Immediately after the turnout pants are cut, the patient’s regular pant legs should be cut as well. Now completely exposed, the patient can be fully assessed and immobilized. n


International Fire Service Training Association. (2008). Essentials of fire fighting. Stillwater, OK: Fire Protection Publications.
Jakubowski, G., & Morton, M. (2001). Rapid intervention teams. Stillwater, OK: Fire Protection Publications.
Mason, M.R., & Pindelski, J.S. (2006). Rapid intervention company operations. Clifton Park, NY: Thompson Delmar Learning.
National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. (2011). Prehospital trauma life support. St. Louis, MO: Mosby JEMS Elsevier.