B.L.A.S.T. the Fire

BY GRANT SCHWALBE

It is said that the actions taken in the first five minutes determine the outcome of a fire-a tremendous amount of pressure for the first-arriving officer. How do you teach a new officer how to take all he has learned and quickly look at a fire and set the plan in motion?

There are numerous size-up point memory aids, such as COAL WAS WEALTH, IDEAL, WALLACE WAS HOT, RECEO VS, and others. Although these acronyms include very important information, they are difficult to remember unless you have a tactical worksheet in front of you. As a young officer, it can be overwhelming and dizzying trying to find a way to put all of this into a practical, usable template.

A simple acronym, B.L.A.S.T., allows you to systematically size up an incident and quickly establish the initial incident action plan (IAP). Size-up is divided into five main groups. Within each group there are several simple observations the officer must make and questions he must ask. Based on those observations and questions, the officer can then choose his strategy and priorities. Once that plan is set in motion, he can go to work either with his crew or as the incident commander (IC), with the goal that if they “B.L.A.S.T.” the incident for the first 10 to 15 minutes, the problem will go away. If it doesn’t, then it is time to change strategy.

The five critical groupings are as follows: Building, Life, Attack Fire, Smoke, and Trouble. In each area, you must observe and ask a few key questions to make the IAP more clear (Figure 1).

Figure 1. B.L.A.S.T. Incident Worksheet

fig. 1

BUILDING

Knowledge of building construction is critical. One of the best resources for that information is Building Construction for the Fire Service by Francis L. Brannigan. But how do you recall 600-plus pages of information when you arrive on the fire scene? What from those 600 pages is important right now in determining your actions? You need to have a good understanding of building construction as a whole; most importantly, you need to know the types of buildings in your response zone, how they are constructed, and what dangers they present.

I work in Florida where we don’t have basements, so it would be foolish of me to spend a lot time learning about basements. Instead, I focus on the types of homes and buildings to which I usually respond (Type III, ordinary construction with lightweight trusses or Type V, wood-frame construction, both built on a slab). I focus on these buildings’ construction characteristics, how they will react under fire conditions for the first 15 minutes, and which tactics will and will not be effective. I also need to know what features of the building can fool me or kill me.

Following are four observations to make and some questions to ask regarding the building.

Structure type: Single family, multifamily, or commercial? Most fire deaths in the United States occur in residential buildings. This can be attributed to two main factors: (1) Residential buildings have less stringent fire protection codes and systems, and (2) people sleep in residential buildings. If a person were awake and there was a fire, he would simply exit the building. Therefore, search may not be that high up on the priority list of a commercial structure. Whether a residential building is multifamily or single-family is important because a multifamily offers different compartmentation in the living areas as well as in the attic.

Construction: New or old? The hazards of new construction relate mostly to the lightweight building materials, engineered wood I-beams, and truss systems used. They do not hold up well under fire.1 We can expect that a lightweight truss will fail between five and seven minutes in fire conditions. Older construction will give crews more time to operate before failure. Older buildings were constructed using dimensional lumber, solid timber, and roof systems constructed with ridge beams and 2 × 6s rather than gusset plates and 2 × 4s. Generally, older buildings are those built before 1980 and are characterized by a boxy look, a simple roof style, and often less square footage.

Roof: Is it concealing a fire in the attic, or will it make vertical ventilation difficult? One of the most overlooked items in size-up is examining the roof covering. The three main roof types in my district are shingle, metal, and barrel tile. Our concern here is whether the roof covering will hide fire involvement in the attic. Both metal and barrel tile hold the heat in and will show very little signs of an impending collapse. For a good drill, have your crew look at videos of different house fires available on the Internet. Pay attention to the roof types and the signs they show or fail to show as the fires progress.

Barrel tile, metal, and steeply pitched roofs can take longer and be more difficult to open up. If ventilation is needed quickly, you need to take this into account. All three types can present footing problems for the roof team and may even require the use of an aerial device. Barrel tiles must be removed to expose the area to be cut, and metal roofs may require using a rotary saw rather than the classic chainsaw. Depending on the fire location, a gable roof may allow you to vent at the gable end rather than putting people on the roof, whereas a hip-style roof will not allow this option. The weight of barrel tile is important, too. A single barrel tile can weigh as much as nine to 10 pounds, which means interior crews have a significant roof load above their heads.

Unusual: Is there anything out of the ordinary here that might be deadly or present a problem? My response zone varies from smaller homes with burglar bars to large “McMansions” with hurricane shutters. A lot of the homes we respond to use hurricane shutters as blinds. Often, in such an occupied structure, these hurricane shutters are closed/in place on the B, C, and D sides of the structure. This presents an obvious problem for firefighters operating inside a structure. In such a situation, a proactive rapid intervention team (RIT) is paramount. Also consider any other odd features such as power lines, overgrown vegetation, and multigrade structures with “walk-out” basements (i.e., two stories on the A side but three on the C side-photo 1).

(1) Building: This is a single-family residential, new construction, metal hip-style roof with gable over garage; no unusual problems are visible. (Photos by Charlie Robbins.)
(1) Building: This is a single-family residential, new construction, metal hip-style roof with gable over garage; no unusual problems are visible. (Photos by Charlie Robbins.)

LIFE

Our primary concern when arriving on scene is to determine if there is anyone inside and, if so, to bring them out to safety. Although much is written on survivability profiling, we can make it really simple: Is there or could there be anyone inside? Assuming there are people inside, are there any rooms where there is no chance of finding life? If so, write them off and search the others in the following order: those presenting the greatest danger to victims to those presenting the least danger, beginning with those rooms with the greatest likelihood that a victim will be found inside-e.g., bedrooms at night.

Determine the fastest and most efficient way to search those survivable areas. If your child were inside, how would you want the crew to get to your child? I believe traditional search is too slow and ineffective. My two favorite search methods are oriented man and vent-enter-search (VES). If the search team has good access and can enter through a main means of egress, as long as visibility is good enough to enable the team to navigate to the critical search areas quickly, then this is your best option. But consider a situation in which you are met by a homeowner who states, “My daughter is still in her room.” He can take you right to her window and point, “She’s in there!” The quickest means to get her out would be VES because you do not have to navigate through the house to discover which room is hers. Crews should train on VES before attempting to use this method. Using VES without an understanding of how it relates to ventilation and the flow path could be fatal. VES may also be a useful tactic for searching a house prior to going into defensive operation because it minimizes how far in a firefighter gets (never more than 12 to 14 feet from an exit).

Regarding search, ask the following:

  • Are any victims reported to be inside? If so, where?
  • Is there a chance that anyone is inside?
  • Is there a savable life? If so, where?
  • What is the fastest way to get in and get to the victim-oriented man, VES, traditional, or large-area search (photo 2)?
(2) Life: Although no victims were reported inside, there is always a chance that someone is inside. Any savable life is likely on Division 1, and since the front door is open and visibility looks good, then an oriented man could be a good search tactic to use.
(2) Life: Although no victims were reported inside, there is always a chance that someone is inside. Any savable life is likely on Division 1, and since the front door is open and visibility looks good, then an oriented man could be a good search tactic to use.

ATTACK FIRE

The fire officer must look at the amount of fire present and make a couple of determinations: Will this be an offensive, a defensive, or a transitional attack? Do we have sufficient water for the chosen strategy? He also must determine the size line he will use and how he will make access to attack this fire. The fire officer must know that the 1¾-inch line will flow on average 150 gallons per minute (gpm), while the 2½-inch will flow 250 gpm. Based on those flow rates, how much fire can he put out with each?

Do not be fooled if you arrive to “nothing showing.” The latest research indicates that many of the fires we are going to are “ventilation limited.” This means that the fire has progressed through all the growth stages, has run out of oxygen, and remains in a decay state until we arrive and make entry. Just look at some of the fire videos available on the Internet with this in mind and see how quickly the fires intensify once the firefighters arrive and begin working. Many of the tests show the fire will progress to flashover within 60 to 120 seconds. One recommendation is to force the front door and wait to see what the fire will do. This is a perfect amount of time for the crew to mask up, bleed the line, and chase kinks. Anticipate that the fire will grow quickly once you make entry.

Once you know where the fire is, line placement is vital. We have always been told, “Attack from the unburned side.” But two things bring this strategy into question. The latest National Institute of Standards and Technology study brings into question the myth of pushing fire with a straight stream nozzle pattern. The research shows that the direction of fire travel has more to do with flow paths and the fire’s producing high pressure seeking to exit to a low-pressure area than it does with hose streams. Another thing to consider is what we learn about fire behavior in fire school but fail to translate tactically, that the fire doubles in size every 30 seconds. If it takes an extra 60 seconds to take the line around back and through the house to the fire in the front, hasn’t the fire just quadrupled in size? Keep these things in mind when deciding line placement. Get water on the fire quickly and from the safest point.

The last consideration is whether exposures are in danger now or within close proximity of danger. If so, then exposure protection moves up the priority list, because one of our big three goals is to “confine.” The Attack Fire questions you must ask are as follows:

  • Attack: Offensive, defensive, or transitional?
  • Hoseline: What size will we pull? Where is the best placement?
  • Exposures: Do we have or will we have exposure problems? If so, what are they (photo 3)?
(3) Attack Fire: A lot of fire is here. A crew could go offensive and attack the fire with a 2½-inch line from the driveway. Once the fire is knocked down, a second crew could stretch a 1¾-inch line inside, between the fire and potential victims, while a search can be completed.
(3) Attack Fire: A lot of fire is here. A crew could go offensive and attack the fire with a 2½-inch line from the driveway. Once the fire is knocked down, a second crew could stretch a 1¾-inch line inside, between the fire and potential victims, while a search can be completed.

SMOKE

A lot can be learned from observing what the smoke is doing; with some practice, you can reasonably predict what will happen next. When you “read” the smoke coming from a building, look at volume, velocity, color, and density. They can tell you where the fire is, how far along it is, and what will happen next.

Officers must decide where on the priority list ventilation will occur. Is it safe, based on the conditions that you see, to have firefighters inside with the smoke condition as it is unvented? Has the fire already vented itself? The officer also needs to consider what method of ventilation to use based on those conditions. The options are as follows:

  • No ventilation needed-fire and smoke have already vented.
  • Horizontal ventilation, based on the speed and the location of the fire.
    -Hydraulic?
    -Positive pressure?
    -Outside vent man?
  • Vertical ventilation-fire is in topmost floor, attic, or cockloft.
    -Can we vertically vent from this roof?
    -Can we take out a gable vent instead and accomplish the same thing (photo 4)?
(4) Smoke: Although this fire appears to have vented out the back, dark, dense smoke is coming from the front and is gradually increasing in velocity. Do not send firefighters inside this structure without first ventilating. Does this fire appear to be adequately vented? If not, what is your strategy to vent it?
(4) Smoke: Although this fire appears to have vented out the back, dark, dense smoke is coming from the front and is gradually increasing in velocity. Do not send firefighters inside this structure without first ventilating. Does this fire appear to be adequately vented? If not, what is your strategy to vent it?

TROUBLE

The last major item to look at involves the simple question: “If I am inside and get into trouble AT THIS INCIDENT, do I want a backup team protecting me or a RIT?” You will find strong opinions on both sides if you research this, but step away from your initial reaction and apply it to some practice scenarios. In most of the scenarios, the answer is obvious.

If I am the attack team on a two-story, single-family residence with fire on division 2, I would prefer to have a backup team at the bottom of the stairs with a charged hoseline protecting my egress. But, if I am in a one-story residence with hurricane shutters and performing search or attack inside and I get into trouble, I would prefer to have a proactive RIT that already began to remove the shutters before I got into trouble (photo 5).

(5) Trouble: If we have a fire in this structure, I would likely assign a RIT before a backup team so it can begin to remove the hurricane shutters. Note also the tile roof and its effect on any roof ventilation.
(5) Trouble: If we have a fire in this structure, I would likely assign a RIT before a backup team so it can begin to remove the hurricane shutters. Note also the tile roof and its effect on any roof ventilation.

As each officer arrives on scene, he should do his own B.L.A.S.T. assessment to make sure conditions haven’t changed since receiving the original assignment.

PRACTICE

You can practice B.L.A.S.T. using magazine covers, photos, and videos and on every run. We play a game on all our calls (70 percent are EMS calls) by running each other through the B.L.A.S.T. size-up. If you practice it on all your calls, it will become habit.

Building: Single family, multifamily, or commercial; new or old; and roof style and covering? Anything unusual that may cause problems?

Life: The reported victim is wherever your EMS patient is found. Select the method of search you would use if you were met by a bystander directing you to that location. You can also use the actual time of day for the call to discuss where victims would likely be found.

Attack: One crew member will state where the fire is while en route. The officer selects the access based on what he sees when he gets there-e.g., is the front door open, is the garage door open or closed?

Smoke: We need to make this up while en route, too. The building layout will determine what action needs to happen for vent.

Trouble: Based on the above and the actions you plan to take, are you going to assign a backup team or RIT first?

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

B.L.A.S.T. is a systematic way to look at the building on fire and get a good idea of where you are and what you need to do, not unlike the ABCs of EMS. Although Estero (FL) Fire Rescue has a standard play called for the typical house fire response outlined in our standard operating procedures/guidelines, we needed a way to call an audible at the line of scrimmage just as a National Football League quarterback does when he walks up to the line and reads the defense.

In a sense, the first-due officer becomes the quarterback reading the defense and adjusting the play from what he sees. B.L.A.S.T. offers him a systematic way to read the incident in easily grouped areas before committing to his IAP.

Once you B.L.A.S.T. the incident, you can apply the obvious resulting priorities to your first-alarm assignment. I get three engines and one ladder on a working first alarm assignment. This will likely allow me to make four assignments. I will do this in priority order from the highest to the lowest based on the results of my B.L.A.S.T. If I find that I have more than four priorities, I call a second alarm.

It is important that we teach our young officers how to read a fire and stress the areas of concern that must be addressed. The B.L.A.S.T. size-up method does this. We need to let them know there is more than one correct way to fight a fire, but the chosen tactic must be based on logic. Instead of just reading them the books, we must show them where the library is so that, as their careers progress, they, too, can get the most up-to-date information and make logic-based tactical decisions on the fireground.

ENDNOTE

1. For a good article that explains this further, see John Mittendorf’s “Ventilation Operations on Lightweight Roofs: A Viable Operation?” Fire Engineering, December 2011, 57-64.

GRANT SCHWALBE is a 15-year veteran of the fire service. He began his career in Ohio and is now a lieutenant/medic assigned to Engine 43 with Estero (FL) Fire Rescue. Schwalbe is an instructor at the Fort Myers Fire Academy and has an associate degree in fire science from Edison State College and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Hodges University.

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