By John B. Tippett Jr.
Published Sunday, July 15, 2012
The report of a structure fire with people trapped provokes the strongest reaction from firefighters, and rightfully so. People trapped by fire are helpless to escape their situation; therefore, they are totally reliant on crews of well-trained firefighters to arrive, make the right decisions and remove them from their predicament.
From a firefighter’s perspective, thoughts of how smoke poisons the innocent and fire ravages the skin drives them to push their limits of endurance if/when they need to make a rescue.
But the rescue is a high-risk/low-frequency event for the fire service in general. There are scores of firefighters that have never pulled a victim from a structure fire, or even responded to a structure fire where a victim was reported trapped. Smoke alarms, 24/7 lifestyles and monitored alarm systems have greatly reduced the occurrence of people actually being trapped by fire. However, as long as human beings exist, fire will also exist; therefore, there will always be a need for firefighters to risk everything for a savable life.
With the shrinking number of actual working incidents, as well as the small number of incidents where people are trapped by fire, it’s become even more imperative that we remain prepared for the call. Since we can’t truly replicate every aspect of a structure fire with a person (or people) trapped, we need to seek other methods of preparing ourselves for the moment that we’re dispatched to such an incident.
One method of preparation includes searching and reviewing the Near-Miss Reporting System for similar incidents. A keyword search returned 46 reports of near misses at structure fires with people trapped. A review of the reports reveals a variety of near misses, many resulting from advancing fire conditions or disorientation. Following are three examples.
“We responded to a structure fire. While en route and when arriving on scene, we were getting reports of people trapped on the upper floors. We arrived on scene and size-up revealed a working fire in a 2½-story wood-frame structure … An officer and a firefighter went up to the second floor to conduct a primary search … While the officer was conducting a search, he got turned around. The officer found the wall and started looking for an exit, not being able to find a window (one covered by sheet rock, the other a small kitchen window). He continued to try and find a means of egress, then started to become disoriented, at which time he began to deplete the cylinder on his SCBA. He declared a mayday and then completely depleted his air cylinder …”
“… responding to a confirmed structure fire with parties trapped. Upon arrival, I was informed that two people were still inside the structure. The structure was a small single-family home with heavy smoke and fire showing on the ‘A’ side … As soon as the fire was knocked down, I left the handline to assist with the search. As I began to search a bedroom, I heard other firefighters outside yelling that the fire in the living room was growing in intensity. This was a huge problem, as this was our only means of egress. I returned to the front room and resumed firefighting operations while my partner continued searching. Ultimately, the fire was kept in check and both victims were removed.”
“Assigned as a lieutenant on a ladder company, I was dispatched to a dwelling fire with a child trapped … On scene, there was fire across the Alpha side of the dwelling and a mother in the front yard pointing to a second-floor window where a child was. The truck had three people. The truck firefighter and myself went to the rear, Charlie side for entry, search, etc. We got in real easy and found moderate smoke, no heat; we were able to keep standing from the front of the house to the stairs. At the top of the stairs, we go right to the room where mom says the child is. Search is negative. We keep going right to finish that end of the hallway; still negative. Get back to the stairs, still standing. The other firefighter states he’ll get the last room and tells me to anchor at the stairs. While waiting, I notice a smoke line, a very dark one, moving down the wall and fire brands shooting up the stairs. I can hear the line working downstairs but things aren’t getting better. I call for the firefighter from the truck to get back to me because we need to get out. He gets back as the battalion chief on scene calls for an evacuation at same time. My partner and I go downstairs … the room turns orange. The engine lieutenant still in hallway with the line immediately soaks us. That knocks my helmet off, because I was stupid and didn’t have it on right …We were three feet from the door when we came in, but now we couldn’t see it. But we could see the strobes on the engine out front now that the door had burned off. I grabbed my partner and crawled as fast as I could to the front door. I dove across the front porch, still on fire, and was followed by my firefighter and the engine company lieutenant. The investigation showed we were in the building approximately 7.5 minutes.”
One thing we can always count on in firefighting: not knowing when a maximum-risk incident (person or people trapped) will be presented to us. Hours of time in the station and on the street perfecting our craft can become monotonous. And if we lose sight of the fact that a maximum-risk incident could literally occur in the next minute, we get sucked into complacency. We’re continuously challenged to prepare and stay on guard for the moment that we go from complete rest to maximum effort.
To ensure that we’re prepared for the next maximum-risk event, we must:
- Look at every structure encountered, and ask yourself, how would I locate and remove victims if this structure was on fire? Fire victims who are aware of what’s happening generally head for two locations: familiar egress pathways away from the fire or areas of refuge that they think will shelter them from the heat and smoke. This means your search, in the absence of confirmed location information, should begin along the egress pathways of the structure or at a potential refuge location away from the point of origin. In practical terms, get to the normal exit pathway out of the building, because people are creatures of habit. If the normal exit pathway is cut off by fire, assess where the areas of refuge might be (e.g., upper-floor bedrooms) and begin your search there.
- Properly wear your PPE on as many calls as warranted. Shortchanging opportunities to wear PPE robs the user of occasions to improve performance. As the reporter in #05-367 notes, improper PPE use needlessly exposes the wearer to harm.
- Study fire behavior, and go beyond the basics. Study the newer combustion process information being published on smoke composition, smoke movement, fuel packaging and flame propagation.
- Work through scenarios with your colleagues. Review the video links provided [below] as part of your preparation to pick up some tips on protecting yourself and getting to the victim quickly.
- Keep yourself in top physical condition. The energy exerted in a rescue will be the greatest exertion of your career. You’re going to need strength, stamina and mental clarity to successfully extract a victim from a fire scenario.
Ready to Rescue?
Eliminating all risk from a structure fire rescue is near to impossible. Managing the risks associated with making a rescue at a structure fire is more realistic. Successful rescue outcomes require:
- The application of search and rescue skills developed through constant practice and incident anticipation;
- Full confidence in your PPE and knowledge of its performance and limitations;
- Comprehensive awareness of reading smoke, and the impacts of fuel packaging on fire development; and
- An understanding of fire-related human behaviors.
If you meet all of the above requirements, you’re ready to make a rescue. If you have any doubts or shortcomings related to any of the four points above, it’s time to give your preparation plan a jump start. If you wait until the next time the dispatcher announces “people trapped” to start thinking about preparation, it will be far too late for regrets.
Sidebar: Related Article & Video Links
Article: A Safer Search: Mastering the firefighter-oriented search method by Lieutenant Victoria Quick http://my.firefighternation.com/profiles/blogs/a-safer-search-mastering-the
- Two-person oriented search: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUFSI17nKak
- Three-person oriented search: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBBS3OVhgbU&feature=relmfu
- Firefighter caught in flashover during search: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yv8L2_riGnI&feature=related
- Glouster City LODD: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fVWzNNMQPU&feature=related
- Firefighters rescue trapped victim: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E6WIZ36E2s
Comment Now: Post Your Thoughts & Comments on This Story