Risk Analysis at Normally Occupied Structure Incidents

by Jeff Goins

In our industry, one of the most difficult challenges firefighters will face is the rapid search and safe removal of trapped occupants in a burning building.

Normally occupied structures can be defined as apartment buildings, single family buildings, townhouses, duplexes, traditional taxpayers with living quarters above a business, hospitals, prisons, hotels, motels, and assisted living facilities. I use this terminology to describe places where humans live and sleep.

Many factors come into play when a team of firefighters have been given this assignment. The first factor is being mentally and physically prepared to execute such a tall order. This preparation must begin prior to your scheduled tour of duty and is an ongoing process. On my way to work, I remind myself of my duties and responsibilities. I mentally burn down a building that I find interesting or feel would give us unusual challenges. In other words, I allow myself to think about my chosen profession well before the bell rings. We could call this process mental preplanning.

Distractions in our personal lives can have a great bearing on our mental preplanning, but they cannot have an effect on our actions, inactions, and decision making on the fireground. We must be on our "A game" when we go to work as firefighters, placing our personal stressors on the back burner. You must be as mentally tough as you are physically tough.

Much justifiably has been written about physical conditioning for firefighters because our job is very physically demanding. Indeed, firefighting has been identified as one of the most physically challenging activities known to mankind. Given this and the fact that heart attack is the leading cause of death among U.S. firefighters, it goes without saying that regular exercise and a healthy diet are paramount to a long successful career, as well as the ability to perform search and rescue assignments.

I believe that stress alone plays a larger part in our industry for the high percentages of heart attacks than lack of exercise or poor diet. Obviously, waking up in the middle of the night to a loud sounding bell or warning device and traveling at a high rate of speed to a residential structure fire is extremely stressful. This is compounded by the fact that it's likely the occupants of the "normally occupied structure" are sleeping, just as you were.

Seventy percent of all U.S. fires deaths occur at single-family dwellings. This death rate is directly related to various factors. A major cause is the lack of smoke detectors or ones that have not been properly maintained. My company makes it a practice to carry nine-volt batteries on our rigs and replace them on medical or other type of alarms when we hear the all too familiar chirping. Often, residents have developed a tolerance for the chirping and chosen not to address it. History has shown that the dwellings occupied by residents not maintaining their detectors are more prone to the ravages of fire.

Another factor for the high death rate in single-family dwellings is the percentage of time spent there as opposed to time at work, in vehicles, time spent shopping, and so forth. The most important factor is that occupants sleep in their homes at all hours of day or night.

Carelessness in the home also contributes to many fires as well. Unattended cooking and failure to maintain equipment are major fire risks.

It should be noted that the death rate at multifamily or institution-type dwellings is much lower, in part because these structures usual have many more warning devices, including a greater number of eyes and ears, and residents awake at various hours.

Given this information about fires in normally occupied structures, we must be prepared to perform search operations in some form at every working fire. This is something agreed upon industry-wide, Life safety is the number one strategic consideration at all fires, and it's even more important at normally occupied structures.

Life safety can be described, first, as the life and safety of our brothers and sisters, and second, the life and safety of the citizens we're sworn to protect. Some may consider this a cold or uncaring statement, but in reality it's a factual statement describing how professional firefighters conduct business.

It simply means that we didn't start our tour of duty with the intention of committing suicide, but we will do everything humanly possible to remove known or perceived victims from a burning building. If we overextend ourselves or choose the wrong tactics, we will be of no assistance to those in need of our help. This is when we begin the risk analysis process--where the ax hits the grindstone.

On arrival at all working fires, it is every firefighter's responsibility to do everything possible to locate and account for the occupants. It's not every firefighter's assignment to search for victims, but it is your duty to ask questions of every civilian in sight. Let me of offer some advice at this point: Many times I've searched structures aggressively on reports that someone was confirmed trapped only to find out later they had been already accounted for. We can't always think that we need to see sheet ropes hanging from windows or screaming mothers in the front yard toperform aggressive searches. We must always be thinking to search and act accordingly based on the information we quickly gather.

Ask civilians pointed and closed end questions. "Is this your house? Is anyone still inside?" An answer of "Yes, this is my house and everyone is out" changes the strategic urgency to search the structure aggressively. If it's a neighbor you're questioning, ask if that person has seen the occupants. If the answer is yes, ask where they're located. Usually this type questioning will produce more accurate information than just asking a neighbor if everyone is out. The neighbor may not want to take responsibility for the possibility that someone may be still inside. so if the neighbor is unsure, he'll probably give an answer that will lead us to believe someone is still inside and we'll go looking. This puts the responsibility in the hands of the professionals if someone dies and clears the conscious of the informing civilian. Trust me, this is their thought process.

We also see cases in which parents cannot account for their children. The parents all too often leave small children home alone, and that in and of itself is a recipe for disaster.

Nonetheless, if we cannot confirm that occupants are safely out of the building, we have to believe they're inside and act accordingly. This is where the adage for risk analysis at fire scenes comes into play.

We say we will risk a lot to save a lot. We will risk a little to save a little, and we will risk nothing to save nothing.

Risking a lot means we will risk our well-being to save the life of a citizen, using our training, developed skills, instincts, experience, tools, and personal protective equipment if we have reason to believe survivable victims can be rescued.

This includes an aggressive interior fire attack with the intention of either completely extinguishing the fire or holding it from spreading while members complete a primary search. In this situation, the victims still have a very small window of survivability because of the deadly toxins present in smoke. The decision to search has to be made immediately on arrival after a thorough size-up of the building and conditions have been completed.

Risking a little means we have every reason to believe that no human could survive the fire and we will cautiously attack the fire either though an interior attack or an outside defensive attack. We will conduct primary and secondary searches when conditions have been made tenable for firefighters. This is the dreaded gray area and one of the most difficult decisions an incident commander will have to make: concluding that survivability is very poor and choosing to not conduct an aggressive primary search because of heavy fire and smoke conditions. Incident command should transmit that searches will be delayed or not initiated.

Risking nothing means we will not attempt any type of entry because there is nothing to save. Neither life nor property are worth risking injury with this thought process. This would be the case where large amounts of fire and deadly smoke would have already claimed the lives of those inside and the amount of fire would prevent any type of interior fire attack. This would be a defensive mode of operation and should be transmitted as such by the incident commander.

Every situation is different, but a quick decision must be made to search a structure if we have reason to believe victims are still alive inside a structure. Every action on the fireground must support this decision. If we have areas of the structure such as bedrooms that are uninvolved in fire, we must make an effort to search those rooms and give the occupants every chance of survival.

This can be done in several ways. The first is to enter the structure through a door if fire conditions allow it, while being supported by a handline. This handline more often than not will be a preconnected 1¾-inch. This line is more than capable of controlling one or two rooms involved in fire with the 500-gallon booster tank water while a positive water supply is being established. This gives search teams time to get in and safely search.

It is standard practice in our industry to place a hoseline between the fire and the trapped occupants to protect both them and searching firefighters. As the Fire Department of New York's Deputy Chief of Special Operations John Norman said, "The best rescue is effective fire control." What the chief is also saying is that if you simply extinguish the fire, most of your problems have been eliminated in all situations.

The second method to search is called Vent, Enter, and Search (VES). With this method we are going directly to a part of the building to enter and remove victims based on credible information, or fire, smoke, and building conditions. This is normally an entry through exterior windows into bedrooms or other living quarters with the intention of bringing the victim out the same window. Extreme caution should be used with this method. Although it sounds much safer than crawling down a smoke charged hallway to enter a bedroom, venting can draw the fire and smoke directly to the firefighters and the victims.

VES should be performed in the same manner as a primary search is conducted: you start as close to the fire as possible and work your way away from the fire. Bear in mind that by taking a window to enter, there's a high probability of drawing fire to the room if the door to the room is not closed, which is often the case. A charged hoseline is highly recommended to have as the VES is conducted. If you started VES from a distant location, you could draw fire all the way to your location and cause unnecessary structural damage and most certainly death of the occupants between you and the fire. The hoseline could quickly control the fire and protect occupants and rescuers.

A third method is to enter one area of the building and remove the victims and yourself from another. This can happen by default even if aggressive firefighting is taking place or it can be done intentionally to quickly exit the building. Firefighters have protective clothing and the occupants do not. What would only be slight discomfort to us would be traumatic for an occupant. Thus we go in, locate the victims, advise command of our findings, and take the victims out a window or some other exterior opening to ensure we do no further harm.

Again, every fire and situation is different and must be treated as such. It would be nearly impossible to place risk analysis in a standard operating guide format because of the varying dynamics. Good risk analysis only comes from experience, a thorough knowledge of building construction, an awareness of staff capabilities and limitations, knowledge of fire travel, the ability to read smoke, and the information presented on arrival at the scene of a fire.

The job of a firefighter has always been very challenging, and deciding whether or not too enter a building for a rescue can be the most risky yet most rewarding assignment in an already challenging job.

Jeff Goins is a captain in Dekalb County (GA) Fire Rescue and has 17 years. of fire service experience. He has extensive background in haz mat, and his guideline on strategy and tactics for high-rise firefighting has been taught to over 800 department members.

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