Engine Company, Fire EMS, Firefighting

Tactical Safety: Last Firefighter Standing

By Ray McCormack

With a lot of “Tactical Safety” titles, what you initially think the article is about may not hold true. This piece travels in two different directions, so the odds of your guessing correctly have just increased.

When firefighters perform fire attack, we are usually crouched down or contort into some form of a kneeling stance to keep ourselves out of the high heat and heavy smoke layer that exists above. There are many traps that can affect a standing firefighter, such as holes, steps, and debris. Crawling firefighters are similarly subjected to these hazards however the fall distance is less. So is it prudent to stand during or just prior to fire attack?

We know that heat rises, and we know the higher we are the hotter it is. We know that heat levels provide hints to direction and fire location as well as proximity to the fire. A firefighter explained to me that he likes to stand while searching for the fire because the heat level is more readily detectable when you are standing. He went on to say that as you get closer and the heat intensifies, you will end up in a crouching position suitable for fire attack.

Where do you stand or when do you stand? Is there a middle ground or stance? I believe there is. Just make sure if you’re standing and trying to locate the fire by feeling the heat with your head and shoulders you don’t end up getting burned by the answer when it flashes over you.


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A progressive fire department is seen as having few fires to extinguish. There are many factors that decrease and lessen the need for firefighting on a regular basis (regular being a key factor). Fire prevention, increased code performance, societal changes–they all work toward firefighter elimination. The bulldozing of neighborhoods in an effort to curb vacant building fires is becoming more common, impacting firefighting at the community level.

With less fire activity, the fire service for many departments is built around providing emergency medical care, routine emergencies runs, and good-faith assistance calls. Yet the ability of a fire department to fight fire is the single most important function they will be called upon to do. Every fire department that handles a structural fire needs to get it right in spite of the operational burden of low frequency. Our core mission is fire extinguishment. Excellence assisted by frequency is great, but we must be able to achieve excellence even at low frequency. The biggest problem with a lack of fires is that other tasks become more pressing, derailing our thought track regarding fire duty.

There will always be fires where people live, work, and shop. The big question is: who will be interceding to save lives and property? Will there be any firefighters left? Current trends in fire service activity are not a reliable indicator of future events. Maintain your tactical safety. Your next fire is coming.

Next Tactical Safety: Don’t Blame College Kids

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RAY McCORMACK is a 30-year veteran and a lieutenant with FDNY. He is the publisher and editor of Urban Firefighter Magazine. He delivered the keynote address at FDIC in 2009 and he is on the Editorial Board of Fire Engineering Magazine.