Are Staffing, Training and Equipment the Answer?

July 7, 2008
A fire department can have more than adequate numbers of firefighters on the scene of a structure fire, but staffing in and of itself does not guarantee safety.

In order to achieve safe and effective results on the fireground, an important point must be clearly understood. There must be an adequate number of trained and properly equipped firefighters on hand to simultaneously or sequentially carry out required emergency tasks to safely and ultimately extinguish the fire.

How many times have you heard that? Although it sounds good should you really believe it? Actually, the statement is not entirely correct, because if it were, the fire service would not be experiencing record numbers of traumatic fatalities at operations where trained, equipped and adequate numbers of firefighters were on hand.

A fire department can have more than adequate numbers of firefighters on the scene of a structure fire, but staffing in and of itself does not guarantee safety and effectiveness. One prime example of this involved the 2007 Charleston Super Sofa Store Fire. At the height of the fire, 16 firefighters were searching for or attempting to fight the fire in the interior of the massive furniture store, when interior conditions drastically deteriorated resulting in prolonged zero visibility conditions. Nine firefighters who were blinded by the thick smoke, for a sustained period of time, and separated from their handline were unable to reach the safety of the exterior prior to running out of air.

In 1998, at an auto repair shop in Chicago, 10 fully bunkered firefighters, who were searching for the seat of the fire, under the guidance of an incident commander working from a fixed command post, were exposed to a violent backdraft which knocked them off their handline. These firefighters were in a repair area located at the rear of the structure along with more than 20 tightly packed automobiles, when they instantaneously became disoriented by the blinding and engulfing fire and smoke generated by the blast. Two firefighters died in this fire when amazingly all 10 could have died.

In Seattle in 1995, numerous firefighters battled a fire in the basement level of the Mary Pang Building, unknown to the incident commander positioned in a fixed command post. However, four firefighters who had entered the structure on the first floor to search for the fire, on the opposite side of the structure, fatally fell through the fire weakened floor and into the involved basement.

In 2002, even with the advantage of adequate numbers of properly equipped firefighters, disaster still struck. A company of fully bunkered FDNY firefighters who were together on a handline and equipped with a thermal imaging camera (TIC), searched for the seat of the fire on the second floor of a mattress warehouse. As conditions rapidly deteriorated, the TIC "whited out" resulting in loss of company integrity, ultimately disorienting and taking the life of one firefighter who was later located only 30 feet from the point of entry.

The extensive training provided to firefighters by even the most progressive departments in the nation does not seem to be enough to avoid tragic outcomes. One example involves a grocery store fire which occurred in Phoenix, in 2001. Several firefighters initiating an aggressive interior attack and working under the incident command system became disoriented when the store began to deteriorate as it filled with thick, blinding smoke. Twelve calls for Mayday were transmitted during the course of this hellish fire, in the end resulting in the loss of one firefighter who became disoriented due to the prolonged zero visibility conditions that were generated.

It Takes Correct Staffing, Training and Resources for Safety
Staffing, training and equipment are all needed to prevent fatalities and to provide effective and excellent services and it occurs every day when applied at the scene of opened structure fires. These structures are small to medium in size, built on a concrete slab foundation and have an adequate number of windows and doors which allow for prompt ventilation and the emergency evacuation of firefighters.

On the other hand, studies has shown that it takes the correct amount of staffing, the correct type of training and the correct equipment, used within limitations, to avoid the risk when safely managing the scene of extremely dangerous enclosed structure fires. This was the common thread involved in each of the cited fires. They involved enclosed structures in which a quick and aggressive interior attack from the unburned side was initiated when only light smoke was showing on arrival in many cases.

For safety, implementation of enclosed structure tactics is urgently needed in the fire service today. In general, these tactics run counter to teachings of the traditional offensive strategy in which firefighters have been taught to quickly, blindly and aggressively search for and extinguish the seat of the fire or to conduct a primary search. However, when examined nationally and historically, the traditional approach has on numerous occasions, resulted in fatal and serious injuries to many of the dedicated firefighters. An offensive strategy simply does not always work at an enclosed structure fire.

So when does it work? A fast and aggressive interior attack works at enclosed structure fires only when the seat of the fire is visible to the naked eye, near the point of entry. It has also worked when companies have advanced deeply into an enclosed structure, extinguished the fire, and safely and luckily exited, even though they were surrounded by life threatening hazards and dangerous distances, any of which could have easily caused fatality.

In the final analysis, firefighters today have two options. They can continue to use traditional tactics and hope they luckily encounter only enclosed structure fires in which the seat of the fire is visible from the point of entry. The second option is to permanently ensure the safety of their firefighters by adopting an Enclosed Structure Standard Operating Guideline (SOG) unique to the resources available to their department.

Learn from Captain Mora Live: Captain Mora will be teaching "Preventing Firefighter Disorientation in Large Enclosed Structures" at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore on July 26, 2008.

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WILLIAM R. MORA, a Contributing Editor, is a Captain in the firefighting division 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. To read William's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach William by e-mail at [email protected].

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