Fireground Search: How Do you Know?

By Jerry Knapp

Firefighters take house fires for granted, but I'm not sure why. House and residential fires in America account for a death rate (on average) of one every three hours or about eight per day. Residential fires account of an annual loss of about $6 billion, which is about half of all property lost to fire in the United States. It is difficult to understand a billion dollars, so in different terms, about $200 per second is lost.  Clearly, especially one- and two-family house fires are a huge problem, a violent killer of civilians and firefighters. Maybe the reason we don't take house fires as seriously as we should: in our local area, our first-due area, our town, our that they are pretty rare. Examined from a nationwide view, eight Americans per day is a huge loss of life. But the fatal house fire that occurred in Butte, Montana, never made our local papers or national news. Experience shows that folks die in houses one or two at a time. It is one of the fire service's dirty little secrets. House fires usually make only local headlines.

Here is a local headline that caught my eye recently: Five Cops Hurt in Fire. The byline and the article described the house fire, "Officers attempt rescue at house, but woman is already outside." The article continues: "A rescue attempt led five local police officers to break into a smoldering home Thursday morning, searching for a woman who was thought to be trapped in the basement. The unidentified woman, a mother of two, turned out to be safe and sound outside, officials said, but the officers suffered smoke inhalation and minor cuts." Source: Journal News, 6 Jan 2012.

You may view the police officers' actions as: (A) brave and heroic, (B) completely stupid and dangerous, (C) just doing their duty to protect civilians, or (D) somewhere in between these choices. What you think about their action is not important and is not the point.

The critical point is this: Here we go again risking emergency responders' lives for people whom it is impossible to save BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT TRAPPED! It may look as if I'm picking on the cops here, but you and I are no different. We get a report of a person or people trapped, and we are going, full bore, right now, as hard and as fast as we can. If the report says a child missing, get out of the way before cops, firefirefighter, and even EMS trample you along the way.

We have all done it. Afterward, we think about it a bit more, saying things like, "Maybe I should not have done this or that." In our defense, saving a life while risking ours is how we operate. It is what we train for. We train for this scenario from our first probie class and repeatedly over our years in the fire service. Don't get me wrong. We should do this; it is our duty to take manageable risks to save life and property. The real question is, what is a manageable risk? In this case, five lives were risked for one. In this case, were five risked for one or for zero possibility of gain? The victim was out of the building.

Let's think about this in another way: Why do we take civilians at their word if they say someone is trapped?  Do our brains at that point short-circuit, taking us directly--without passing Go and collecting anything like a reasonable thought--into maximum-effort, search-and-rescue mode?

Why don't we take them at their word if they say everyone is out? The standard answer is that they may have forgotten someone. Does this happen? Sure, in the mental stress of the fire in their home they may not be thinking clearly, so we search anyway. Justifiable and manageable risk? That is up to you to decide on a case-by-case basis. But as Frank Brannigan used to say, "I just landed from Mars. Does this make any sense?"


How do we minimize the risk at a house fire when someone tells us a person or people are trapped? Three things should come to mind immediately:

1. Just because it comes from someone at the scene, is it really reliable information? I remember running down a residential street to photograph a house fire when a guy came out of a neighboring house and swore there was a person living in the fully involved attic of the fire building--and he knew the guy was at home. Both items were completely false.

2. In my career, I have done or been part of eight primary searches with "reliable reports" of persons or people trapped. Six, or 75-percent, of these reports were 100-percent false. What has your experience been? What is the national fire experience specific to this question? You are familiar with your experience, but as far as I know, this statistic is not kept on a national level.

3. You can minimize the risk by questioning the source of what you think is reliable information by asking him this simple question, "How do you know?" In the case of the police officers at the house fire noted above, the newspaper stated:  "The homeowner who called 911 thought the woman was still inside because her car was parked at the house." If one of the police officers quickly questioned the source by asking how they knew this to be true and the caller stated, "I assume she is home because the car is there," would that have changed their actions at all? Maybe it would have made them take a bit less of a risk? Granted, that may not be a 100-percent tactical change, but it may have caused other questions leading to a better answer. Could one of the five officers have found the caller that was on scene and questioned her? I wonder if the "missing person" and the caller were standing together outside after the initial 911 call? Imagine how ironic it would have been if the house flashed over, killing or injuring the five officers.

Am I suggesting we should change our traditional role of taking reasonable risks to save lives? No, not at all. "Managing the risk" is easy to say. One way to reduce the risk to firefighters is to further define and evaluate the risk (if it even exists) to reported people trapped. If they are not trapped, there is no risk. What I am suggesting is that we take a look at our fireground decision making and processes with an open mind to help reduce injuries and deaths to firefighters taking unreasonable risks for zero potential gain.

Jerry Knapp - Suburban FirefightingJERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 35-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the former plans officer for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.




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