What They DIDN’T Teach You In Fire School

March 1, 2004
Ron Baran discusses the importance of learning to be flexible and able to adapt to any situation, as textbook maneuvers are just a guide.
Many years ago, on the last day of training at rookie firefighter school, one of our instructors gathered the class together for a last-minute pep talk. This instructor was the youngest of our six teachers and he was the one that we most related to. He sat on a desk in front of the class and told us that our training was now over and that we would receive our first station assignments by the end of the day. He told us that he wanted to have a straight talk with us before we went off into the real world of firefighting.

The instructor said that for the previous three months, we had learned almost everything that had been written about the art of becoming a firefighter. We had practiced and drilled countless different methods and techniques until we performed them like mindless robots, and now that we were about to start practicing our trade, he was going to give us the best advice that we could ever get.

What he said next not only shocked us, but it left us totally confused: “Forget everything that we taught you in the last several months and just learn how to innovate.”

Two weeks later, I finally understood his advice. While at a call for a sofa fire, I was the fifth man, or can man, on the engine. The nozzle man and I were crawling into the smoke-filled apartment behind our officer when he turned and gave us two orders. The first was to hit the burning sofa with the can and the second was to prepare a pre-connect line.

Now, I was confused. Operating the can was my responsibility and the preparation of a pre-connect was also part of my responsibility, along with that of the pump operator, the nozzle man and the hydrant man. We had been drilled at fire school that we all had specific tasks to perform in a pre-connect maneuver. I stayed with the can and hoped that the others would be able to get a line on the fire without me.

Back at the firehouse I explained to my officer how confused I was. He set me straight and then reinforced what I had been told on my last day of rookie training. Textbook maneuvers are just a guide. What is important is to be flexible and to be able to adapt to any situation. If we could learn to innovate, then we would be able to beat almost any problem that was thrown at us. Many years later, I am still teaching this bizarre principle to all who will listen.

In all of my years of firefighting, I have never been to the perfect textbook fire. Every incident is different and therefore each one presents its own individual challenges. Each problem or situation also requires its own unique solution.

Becoming a good innovator does not require a great deal of skill, but it does require some imagination. The hard part is learning to be flexible and to be able to look at a problem with an abstract point of view.

You can learn everything about forcible entry and master every cutting and prying tool available, but you will still come across the door that just won’t let you in. It could be a two-inch-thick solid oak door with the best anti-theft locks on it. Given enough time and patience we will get past this door. The firefighter who is a skilled innovator will be able to solve this problem with almost no effort. By standing back and thinking out the problem, he or she might decide on one of several different methods of getting through this locked door. The firefighter’s decision might be to attack the weak side of the door, the hinge side, rather than the locks. Or maybe he or she will dismantle the frame from around the door. Many times, the door with the best hardware is supported by the flimsiest frame. If none of this is possible, perhaps the fastest way past this door is by breaching the adjacent wall. Whichever solution succeeds, you can be sure that it will be the result of abstract problem solving and innovating.

Innovation cannot be taught at a fire school, but it can be encouraged by those who recognize the skills. Veteran firefighters must be encouraged to share their experience and their techniques with inexperienced rookies. Years of hands-on problem solving cannot be taught as well as it can be shared or demonstrated by the “old guys on the job.”

There are other things that we were never taught in fire school, like how to observe the signs at a fire. Sure, they teach us what the different colors of flames and smoke mean. However, are these the only signs that we encounter at fires?

It is 4 A.M. and we arrive at a building with smoke showing from the upper-floor windows. We know that our intervention is necessary. From the color and volume of smoke showing we can probably determine the intensity and type of the fire involved. There probably are other signs present that may help us with this situation. If it is a residential building, are there any signs of habitation, or is the building boarded up and abandoned? Do we notice signs of children’s items like toys, play sets or bicycles? Are there clothes on a clothesline? These signs can probably tell us about the possible victims.

If the smoke is coming from a commercial or industrial building, there could be a different set of signs available. Is there a company sign or identification on the outside of the building that can give us a clue as to what type of business is involved? This can tell us what dangers may be waiting for us on the inside. It may give us a hint as to which type of chemicals, combustibles or other dangerous goods are being used in a manufacturing process. The dangers in a company called “Acme Paints” will be very different from the dangers found in a company called “Acme Stone Cutting.” Also, if sprinkler or standpipe connections are visible, this will help us in establishing our strategy and tactics.

There may also be very subtle signs that can be of great help to us at a fire. Signs of a break-in or open doors may tell us that this is a suspicious fire and that an accelerant may have been used to fuel it. Construction equipment or large waste containers can tell us that the building is under renovation and therefore may be dangerous to enter. Cracks in a brick or stone facade can tell us about a building’s age, stability or condition.

Signs of a previous fire in the building mean there are possibly holes in the floors, walls, ceilings and the roof area. These exploration or ventilation holes will present a danger to life safety and probably allow for a rapid spread of heat and flames. Taking the time to read the signs can help us to make strategic decisions and can also save lives, possibly your own.

Search and rescue is taught in every fire school and re-taught in drills over and over again. Every firefighter will be called upon to make the effort to locate missing victims. You may have already experienced the situation where the hysterical victims of a fire greet us upon arrival with screams that their baby is still trapped inside of the burning building. After several gallant efforts to locate the baby, we come out empty handed only to learn that the “baby” in question is the family pet.

When faced with this type of situation and before entering the building, take the time to ask several vital questions. What is the missing person’s name? If it is Rover or Fluffy you will know immediately that their “baby” is a pet. When you know the names of the people you are searching for, use the names to call out to them and ask for them to guide you to their location. Small children will most often come out from their hiding places when the searcher calls out their name.

Asking the age of a missing victim will help determine where to search. If a missing child is two months old, chances are that he or she will be found in a crib or bedroom. A child who is four years old may be hiding under a bed or in a closet. An older child may have tried to get out by using a secondary escape route or may have already succeeded in exiting. Young or elderly persons may have taken refuge in the bathroom. The bathroom is usually the only interior room with a lock on the door and a place where they may feel safe and secure. Do not forget to inquire as to where the missing victim was last seen or located. If the person’s bedroom is in the basement, starting your search in the upstairs bedrooms will probably be a waste of valuable time.

When helpful neighbors claim that there is nobody inside the fire building, that the residents are at work or at school, do a primary search anyway. They can be wrong. People stay home from work or from school when they are not feeling well. There may be overnight guests or visitors that the neighbors are not aware of. Many victims have been found when “There is no one home.”

“Unnecessary” Damage?

Years ago, salvage or protection companies were started up by insurance companies that wanted to lower the monetary losses being suffered by policyholders due to excessive fire or water damage. This mentality was also present in the fire service. Our first mission is to save and to protect lives and then to try to save or to protect their property and possessions. We have all been taught that, whenever possible, not to make any unnecessary damage such as holes or openings in the structure, to remove or to open screens and windows without breaking them when the situation permits it. Unnecessary damage is frowned upon.

Today, new construction is often lightweight and quickly assembled for the economic benefits. The use of trusses and prefabricated building components are the most common methods of saving time and building costs. Whenever we are faced with a fire in a building’s structure that we suspect has lightweight or prefabricated building components, then we are justified in making “unnecessary” damage.

Damage in the form of exploration or observation holes is a must. To determine what the structure of the fire building is composed of, we must expose its skeleton. By removing the plasterboard and the insulation, if any, we will have a clear view of the building’s structural components. These exploration holes must be made in a smoke-free area when possible, where the visibility will be at its best.

Upon entering a fire building that we suspect was built with pre-fabricated components, we should open up an entrance hallway or foyer ceiling. This will enable us to gather vital information about the building’s construction before advancing farther toward any possible dangers. This information will help us to determine the strategy and the tactics that will be used in fighting this fire. By knowing that pre-fabricated floor/ceiling trusses are employed in the construction, we will now be aware of any sudden collapse dangers before deciding to venture into a zero visibility area. The damage caused by these observation holes is minimal in monetary costs, but will pay enormous dividends in accident prevention and life safety.

When combating a structural fire, the stripping of the plasterboard or gypsum board is a necessary tactic in order for us to expose and then to extinguish the advancing fire. The concept of just how much to remove and when to stop removing plasterboard is something that most young firefighters are not properly taught. Either too much plasterboard is removed, creating excessive damage, or not enough of the buildings internal structure is exposed, thus allowing the fire to spread unchecked.

The argument that is most often encountered is, that since the ceiling has been already ruined, why not continue and to remove all of the ceiling’s plasterboard? This argument can be countered with, why waste valuable physical energy and time doing a redundant chore? Why must we increase our risk of having an accident happen by creating a cluttered and hazardous work environment?

There are proper methods to employ when opening up walls, ceilings or floors to extinguish a fire or to stop its advance. The most efficient is to remove the plasterboard, wall paneling or any other decorative finish covering the structure to expose wooden framework. The stripping of walls, floors or ceilings must continue until there is no longer any evidence of visible fire, charred wood or heat-affected areas. Wall coverings must be stripped back to at least three feet past the last point of charring or heat staining to assure that the fire has not spread beyond this point. Only after an area of natural wood has been exposed can we safely stop the stripping of the wall or ceiling coverings.

A different method may be employed when opening up walls or ceilings to verify whether the fire has spread into an adjoining room or area. Since we are just doing exploration or verification in the wall or ceiling, a much-smaller opening is required. One-foot-by-one-foot observation holes made in the plasterboard at strategic intervals will let us see whether the heat or fire has reached this area. The benefits of this method are that it is quick, it does not require much time or effort, and these observation holes limit the damage made to the building.

Rookie fire school classes teach the basics. They give students a foundation of knowledge that they will need on the job. Once the students have completed their basic fire training, they are now considered to be “qualified” to fight fires alongside seasoned firefighters.

The completion of basic training only signals the beginning of a new learning process, often called “on-the-job training.” This is a never-ending formal and, at most times, informal process of developing “know how” or necessary job skills. These skills can be learned only by observation and “hands-on experience.” To gain this experience we must be open and ready to learn from every call, from every situation and, most of all, from everyone with whom we work.

Ron Baran is a battalion chief and 29-year veteran with the City of Montreal Fire Safety Service. He is a certified Fire Prevention Technician and has taught and lectured on various fire fighting subjects nationally and internationally. Baran has developed numerous fire and safety programs, public education videos and training courses. He is also a member of several national and international firefighting organizations and has served on the board of directors of an international fire training service. Baran is also a media specialist for his fire service.


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