EMS Runs: Saving a Firefighter's Life

Sept. 21, 2010
“Station and units respond for a reported structure fire. We are receiving multiple calls of flames showing.”

“Station and units respond for a reported structure fire. We are receiving multiple calls of flames showing.”

This is a call all of us who pull on our boots and rush out the doors listen for each and every day of our career. However, this call is going to be a little different. It’s different because it’s a house that is, or should be, very familiar. It is the home of a person with multiple medical problems who has called for help many times. You have been in this house dozens of times, but the question is, do remember the interior layout and all the potential hazards?

This is a question we should ask ourselves on every medical run we make. What better chance to look for hidden dangers inside someone’s house or at a multi-family dwelling? Most times, patient care only takes a few minutes. Instead of getting back on your rig and rushing back to the station, take the time to look around for some ins and outs of the house or apartment complex. Open your eyes and take mental notes of your surroundings, then review them once back at the station. Ask others what they may have noticed. They may have picked up on something you might have missed, or vice versa. EMS calls are by far the most frequent type of run that we make. It’s time to take the tunnel vision goggles off, and put our pre-fire planning glasses on!

My department is probably not much different than others around the country. We average approximately 85 to 90 percent EMS runs annually. Our engines run the EMS First Responder calls as well. This puts three to four firefighters on the scene of a medical emergency within minutes. With that being said, the majority of these EMS calls can be handled in a few minutes by two firefighters. This frees up two of us to look around and gather patient information. Does this give us the permission to go snooping in someone’s closet? Of course not! But, it does mean that we can glance around at the interior layout of the house.

When was the last time you responded to a single-family home that was converted into a multi-family dwelling with multiple apartments? I recall responding to a call to what I thought was a townhouse-style apartment. Once inside, I was shocked to find a small staircase leading into another apartment! It had one way in and out and no windows. The door to the downstairs apartment was in the living room of the upstairs apartment! What if that downstairs apartment caught on fire? What if they reported people trapped? I would venture to say that at least now, having seen this set-up, I would feel a little more comfortable knowing where that door is.

Interior Layouts

Many of today’s houses are built with the same layout or blueprints. Once you visit one, you can image the layout of most of the others. However, here is one problem with that thought. Over the lifespan of a structure each person who lives there has different tastes and preferences on layout and design. How many times have you run into a house that once had an attached garage, but it now has been converted into a living space? This can be a problem because the construction of the interior of the converted garage could feature many different layouts. Is it a bedroom or possibly two or more rooms? This can prove to be a problem if you are to enter the structure with low visibility. EMS is the best time to notice the new layout. While tending to the sick or injured patient and maneuvering the stretcher into the house, look around and ask questions if you find something out of the ordinary. Moving a six-foot stretcher through someone’s house can give anyone a perspective on layouts.

Hidden Dangers Exposed

While inside our patient’s house, take the time to notice other small danger potentials. One example of this is permanently mounted, large-window air conditioners. These large-window units, which get bolted into the window seal, can be a formidable challenge if you need to remove a victim out of that window. Often houses that have multiple medical runs will have patients on home oxygen. While attending to these patients, notice the storage locations and the amount of cylinders. It would be a great idea to find out where and how they are stored. Make a note of the storage locations for possible explosion potential in the event of a fire. Blocked interior doors are another example of hidden dangers. The best part about finding any one or all of these dangers is the potential to correct the issues before a fire happens. We are not there to inspect the building, but friendly reminders from your fire department can be made to make everyone safer.

Vacant Structures

In today’s society, it seems vacant structures are appearing everywhere. What better time to make note of these structures than when you are either making a run or driving back from a call. Many times vacant structures attract homeless people looking for a place to stay. This will often lead to not only fire calls, but also medical runs. Once again, a pre-plan of the vacant structure is essential. Some other considerations or adjustments to vacant structures can be overall structural stability, possible holes in the floors, and boarded up means of egress. Heat sources inside these structures can be troublesome. Most vacant buildings don’t have power, so homeless people inside may start small fires inside for light and heat. Noticing burn marks or trash piles while inside can provide a clue should a fire happen to occur. Now, once your EMS run is over, how about stopping on the way back to the station to look around a vacant house. Pull the rig over, get out and do a walk around making notes of what you find.


These are a few points to get you thinking. While EMS runs are an everyday requirement of today’s fire service, they are also a great chance to educate ourselves to the conditions of the buildings to which we respond. From multi-family dwellings to a single-family detached house, we can learn a lot while providing top-notch emergency medical service. Patient care always comes first, but the secondary product of these runs is definitely the looking around aspect. While on your next run, open your eyes and take note of your surroundings. Heck, next time you run that same high rise, ask the ladder to meet you and set up just see where you can reach. These are all good ideas to make your next fire safer for you and your crew. Be safe everyone and the next time the bells goes off for an EMS run, remember, what you see could save your life!

RYAN PENNINGTON, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic with the Charleston, WV, Fire Department. He is currently assigned to Station 7 and a member of the West Virginia Task Force 1 USAR team. He has over 15 years of combined fire, rescue and EMS experience. Ryan is currently a West Virginia State Instructor 2, Hazmat Technician, and Certified Fire Officer 2. Ryan was a guest on the Engine Company Operations in Today's Buildings podcast. View all of Ryan's artices, blogs and podcasts here. You can reach Ryan by e-mail at [email protected].

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