Fire Studies: Applying Wildland Fire Safety to Structural Fires

Oct. 18, 2021
James P. Smith explains why directives regarding wildland fires can be applied to fires at structures.

In the late 1980s, the NFPA developed NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program, which is a consensus standard for firefighter safety. (It sometimes is referred to as the “OSHA for the fire service.”) The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has made recommendations to enhance the safety of firefighters. Numerous other organizations, including the IAFF and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, have done the same.

Wildland firefighters are issued the “Incident Response Pocket Guide.” It provides direction for the application of the incident command system (ICS), wildland fire management and structure assessment checklists. An excellent feature of the book is the so-called “Wildland Fire 10’s and 18’s,” which were developed to assist in firefighter safety at wildland fires.

How did the 10’s and 18’s come about? In the 1950s, a task force was created to study the circumstances that surround firefighter injuries and fatalities that occurred during wildland firefighting operations. The task force’s goal was to provide information on how to prevent these tragic events at future wildland fire incidents. They found 10 common themes in firefighter injuries and deaths. This led to the creation of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders to help firefighters work safely in hazardous environments. Orders 1, 2 and 3 are fire behavior; Orders 4, 5 and 6 are fire line safety; Orders 7, 8 and 9 are organizational control; and Order 10 happens if Orders 1 through 9 are followed.

In addition to the 10 firefighting orders, it was believed that there was a need for more emphasis to be placed on safety. During the 1960s, 13 “Situations That Shout Watch Out” were developed. The 13 were increased to 18 in 1987 to what now is known as the “18 Watch Out Situations.” They expand on the 10’s and are meant to be more specific and cautionary.

It stands to reason that if firefighters follow the 10’s and keep the cautionary 18’s in mind as they make decisions, risks can be mitigated, and bad situations, hopefully, can be avoided.

Do these 10’s and 18’s only apply to wildland firefighting? The obvious answer is no. Can these factors assist in other fire situations? Easily.

Here, I tried to list just one or two relationships to structural and nonwildland fires. I challenge you to do the same. In fact, it would make for an interesting firehouse kitchen table training exercise. Discuss injuries or close calls for what one of the 10’s or 18’s would apply. Decide whether the outcome at an incident could have had a safer conclusion had these safety recommendations been utilized.

The Wildland Fire 10

1. Keep informed of fire weather conditions and forecasts. Recognize ice and rain’s effect on response time and the consequences that wind and humidity can have on fire and smoke.

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times. Have you prepared for the possibility of changing conditions? Have you prepared for fire extending past the original room, to other floors, to exposures? Do you have sufficient resources on scene or responding? Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.

3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire. Where and how the fire can be stopped are responsibilities of the fireground incident commander. You must consider how the fire will react with the resources that are on scene and the available water supply.

4. Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known. Firefighters preach that home evacuation plans must consider “two ways out.” In the same vein, firefighters must plan on a second means of egress should conditions require an emergency exit from a fire building. Prior to entering, size up the structure to see additional ways of exiting from multiple levels. Upon entering, verify those secondary exits.

5. Post lookouts when there is possible danger. Although “lookouts” translates more readily to wildland firefighting, structural firefighting can utilize a safety officer and an assistant safety officer (ASO) to observe potentially dangerous conditions and possibly use a transit to monitor the stability of walls, roofs and floors. ASOs can perform numerous roles at structural fires, specialized operations, hazmat incidents, etc.

6. Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively. It’s been said many times that firefighters are the solution to the problems at incident scenes. Your actions should indicate clearly your professionalism (i.e., alertness, calmness, decisiveness and professional demeanor). In other words, maintain efficiency and don’t become part of the problem.

7. Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor and adjoining forces. Clear communications up and down the chain of command as well as laterally between divisions and groups ensure coordination and control over operations.

8. Give clear instructions and be sure that they are understood. An order not acknowledged is an order not received. Likewise, an order not understood can be a recipe for disaster, because the outcome that’s expected by the giver and by the receiver can be drastically different. If an order isn’t confirmed with a full understanding by the receiver, the latter will implement the order in the way that he/she believes that it should be performed, which might be contrary to the order giver’s intention.

9. Maintain control of your forces at all times. Leadership means leading. This can be accomplished best by command and control. Implement ICS and utilize the positions that are required to achieve your objectives. Leadership entails having a plan in place and giving out that plan to those who will carry it out. Once delegated, ensure that the plan is being accomplished by those people. Control means monitoring conditions and making adjustments if/when those conditions change.

10. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first. Aggressive firefighters will accomplish their goals by applying their training to the problems that are encountered at an incident scene. However, aggression without safety is unacceptable. The fire service, unlike the military, doesn’t have acceptable losses.

18 “Watch Outs”

1. Fire not scouted and sized up. A preplan might exist on a fire building, which can be accessed en route to the fire. Once on scene, size-up should be accomplished by a 360-degree walk-around of the fire building to see problems that exist on the exterior prior to entering the fire building. Once on the interior, the fire officer can lead the firefighters to the observed fire area to initiate an interior attack.

2. In country not seen in daylight. Nighttime fires can hide telltale signs. The benefit that structural firefighters have is the ability to utilize apparatus or portable lighting on the exterior and interior to create a safer work environment.

3. Safety zones and escape routes not identified. As mentioned earlier, know your secondary escape routes and share that information with all of your crew.

4. Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior. A sudden storm, tornado or a hurricane in progress could disrupt fireground operations.

5. Uninformed on strategy, tactics and hazards. Unless you are the initial arriving company, you shouldn’t instigate actions without orders. Coordination is essential. Ensure that you receive, understand and confirm your orders prior to initiating your actions. Make sure that your personnel understand what you are attempting to accomplish and receive their feedback to assist in the overall operation.

6. Instructions and assignments not clear. Clarification of orders is essential. Without it, confusion, freelancing and independent actions can destroy the overall unity that’s needed to accomplish assignments.

7. No communication link with crewmembers or supervisor. Reliance on radio communications is essential. Many departments issue portable radios to every member. With this comes a responsibility that the firefighter knows how to operate the radio and that it’s properly charged. It also requires that the radio be turned on, be on the correct channel and be monitored.

8. Constructing line without safe anchor point. An anchor point in wildland firefighting refers to a location where there is a barrier to fire spread. In structural firefighting, we look at points where a fire can be stopped from spreading to exposures. That structural anchor point might be a wide street or a field that adjoins a fire building.

9. Building fire line downhill with fire below. This refers to building a fire line or fire stop when fire is directly below where you are operating. In structural firefighting, we can view working on a floor above a fire without the protection of a hoseline on the floor(s) below as a similarly hazardous situation.

10. Attempting frontal assault on fire. This can be seen as an attempt to enter the original fire building with the first hoseline when the fire already has extended to adjacent exposures.

11. Unburned fuel between you and fire. Entering a burning building requires a proper size-up along with applying your experience and training to determine safe operating methods of attacking a fire. In many cases, hitting the fire from the front door prior to entering the structure can be just as effective as entering the room and then opening the nozzle to hit the fire.

12. Cannot see main fire; not in contact with someone who can. A building that’s fully charged with smoke might not give an indication of the fire’s location. Safe operating practices must be followed to properly ventilate the building to find the hidden fire. This should occur while establishing life safety of occupants, minimizing flow paths and reducing the possibility of a backdraft. This requires close coordination between interior crews and the exterior personnel who are performing ventilation.

13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below. Is it possible that a fire is located in the basement without your knowledge, and you’re operating on the floor(s) above that fire? Could fire be on any floor while you are on a floor above and there are no hoselines attacking/controlling the lower-floor fire?

14. Weather becoming hotter and drier. Weather effect can cause a variety of problems at structure fires. Extreme temperatures will limit a crew’s endurance and working time, requiring more frequent rotation. Ensure that there are enough firefighters on scene to effectively rehab personnel.

15. Wind increases and/or changes direction. Have you read about and trained your personnel on the life-­threatening situations that wind-driven fires can cause? Have you read the NIOSH reports on firefighter fatalities at wind-driven fires? Training creates preparedness. Preparedness helps you to avoid injuries and to minimize the seriousness of injuries that occur.

16. Getting frequent spot fires across line. At large fires, is there the potential of flying embers to cause extension of fire to exposed buildings? It can be problematic on some types of large fires (i.e., lumberyards, warehouses, etc.) to have numerous extensions of fire to other properties. Do you have ember patrols set up?

17. Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult. Are you fighting a fire in a refinery or fuel storage area? Are you dealing with hazardous materials? An over-the-road fuel tanker? Were Hot, Warm and Cold Zones established? Are you cognizant of what’s burning? What safety problems would rapid acceleration present? Preplans can help to identify building contents and to prepare you for handling an incident.

18. Taking a nap near fire line. This would seem like an area where a major difference could be said to exist between structural and wildfire assignments. Yet a firefighter who takes a break could be injured if the individual does it in or near a designated collapse zone or under an overhead electrical wire that fire is impinging on, etc. The key thought should be situational awareness. Know what hazards exist and how to avoid them.

Not so wild

The Wildland 10’s and 18’s were created because of specific fire line situations that led to entrapments, injuries or fatalities in wildfire history. That said, the association with structural and other nonwildland firefighting is obvious. 

About the Author

James P. Smith

JAMES P. SMITH, who is a Firehouse contributing editor, is a retired deputy chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department. He is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the author of the fourth edition of the book "Strategic and Tactical Considerations on the Fireground," which was published by Brady/Pearson.

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