After the Fire: Advanced Salvage for Firefighters

BY KEVIN PARKER

What happens when the fire’s out and the mopup is over? Often, fire victims are left with not only mountains of damaged personal belongings but also the following questions:

  • What can be saved, restored, or repaired?
  • How do I begin cleaning this up?
  • Who can help with the cleanup?
  • What losses does insurance cover?
  • How do I protect precious items from theft or further damage?

After learning more about what fire and water damage restoration companies do, I am now better prepared to answer these types of questions. As professional firefighters, we must think of how we can provide basic guidance and support to victims after the incident, whether the incident is large or small.

A course I have created, “Advanced Salvage for Fire Fighters,” educates firefighters about the importance of assisting and guiding fire victims following fire and water losses. Additionally, by learning what can be saved and the importance of timing following a loss, firefighters can now focus on a more advanced methodology for saving victims’ belongings.

In the Advanced Salvage course, we discuss the fundamental human needs in life that must be met to progress to the next level. For example, if we can’t meet our basic needs (e.g., food, water), we can’t move to the next level, which is feeling safe and secure. When a fire occurs, our most basic needs are often destroyed, which critically affects the rest of our human needs. This is just the beginning of a very bad day (and often weeks and months) for those to whom we are responding.

WHAT CAN BE SAVED?

With today’s technology, many items damaged in a fire that were once unsalvageable can now be saved. In the Advanced Salvage course, we help firefighters understand what can be saved. Here are some examples:

Precious items. Through freeze-drying techniques, items such as Bibles and photographs can now be saved from water damage. However, it is important to quickly stop the damage that moisture can do to these types of items. The best technique is to immediately place these items in a freezer. In a restoration process called sublimation, the moisture “ice” is removed from the item without ever returning to its liquid state.

Irreplaceable items. Many homeowners are concerned about special items such as baby blankets and teddy bears for their children. If not charred from a fire, these items can often be fully restored. A number of techniques, technologies, and machinery are available to clean items. Soft items like those mentioned above can be placed in a special washing machine that is also used for cleaning and deodorizing sports and firefighter personal protective equipment. The process forces a number of solutions through the items by hydraulic action. When these items are finished being cleaned, they are of food-grade quality.

Hardwood floors. Many people assume that hardwood floors that crown and cup from water penetration are permanently damaged. Through a vacuum-packing process, hardwood floors can be dried and returned to their normal state if intervention occurs early enough. Essentially, dry air is forced through the grooves in the wood, which allows the wood to constrict back to its original state (photo 1).

(1) Photos by Paul Davis Restoration of Louisville.

TIMING IS CRITICAL

Smoke and water attack the structure and its contents within minutes after they are introduced. For example, within minutes, water begins wicking up drywall. In the Advanced Salvage class, we place a small piece of drywall in water. Within an hour, students can see how the water wicks up the drywall, often as much as three to four inches, demonstrating how quickly water can damage a structure.

Mold also begins forming within a short time if proper drying techniques are not applied. The damage to structure and contents increases exponentially with time, and firefighters should underscore this danger to victims of water damage.

Also, within hours after a fire, acidic smoke residues will stain grout, fiberglass fixtures, and laminate countertops. Additionally, appliances begin to yellow, furniture finishes discolor, and metals corrode. Fires involving proteins (e.g., meat and chicken) produce a smoke that is difficult to visually detect. However, they do have a strong odor, so homeowners will immediately know they are present.

Wiping surfaces with normal household cleaning supplies will often set the stains and smoke molecules in, creating permanent damage.

SMOKE CAN BE REMOVED

I have heard many firefighters throughout my career in the fire service say that the odor of smoke can never be removed from a structure after a fire. As it turns out, this is generally not true. As a fire grows in intensity, the volume of air in a structure doubles for approximately every 10°F increase in temperature, expanding surfaces and forcing smoke molecules into many nooks and crannies in a structure. Once we cool the structure down through fire suppression, these surfaces close back up, thereby trapping these smoke molecules.

Restoration companies remove the smoke odor by essentially mimicking the same process using a thermal fogger (photo 2). This gasoline-powered machine generates an oil-based fog that is heated sufficiently to allow the smoke-affected surfaces to reopen, allowing the fogging agent to attack and destroy the smoke molecules. The agent used is not a masking agent. It actually seeks out and destroys the smoke molecules. Fire departments should be aware that during this process, the fog used to deodorize a structure oftentimes looks like smoke and is many times mistaken for smoke.

(2)

GUIDING VICTIMS

In Advanced Salvage, I explain to firefighters that fire suppression is Chapter 1 for a fire victim. The cleanup, recovery, restoration, and rebuilding are Chapter 2 and are often more painful and difficult for the fire victim than the initial fire. Consequently, the more guidance and direction we can provide to the fire victims, the better those we serve will perceive us. Below are some suggestions we can provide for fire victims:

  • Immediately notify the insurance company of the loss.
  • Use caution in the structure, as the fire may have caused structural damage. Roofs and floors may have been damaged and may be subject to collapse. In most areas, buildings are evaluated after a fire to determine the integrity of the structure and whether it is safe for a homeowner to reenter. When in doubt, fire department personnel should restrict access until the building can be determined safe.
  • Do not consume food, beverages, and medicine exposed to heat, smoke, soot, and water.
  • Inform the local police department that the structure will be unoccupied.
  • Protect the structure by boarding up openings or contacting a company to do this.
  • Save receipts for all items purchased to replace lost items to provide to the insurance company and to verify losses claimed on income taxes.
  • If it is safe to do so, try to locate the following items:
    —Identification (e.g., driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, passports).
    —Insurance policies.
    —Medication information (e.g., prescriptions).
    —Eyeglasses, hearing aids, and other prosthetic devices.
    —Valuables such as credit cards, bankbooks, cash, and jewelry.
  • Do not throw away damaged goods until after taking an inventory for an insurance claim. 

FIREFIGHTER SAFETY

I discovered some very important safety considerations after discussing the mitigation process with the restoration professionals. When they enter a structure to begin the mitigation work, they don full personal protective equipment, including full-face respirators. This intrigued me since it seems common in the fire service to remove self-contained breathing apparatus once safety officers have determined carbon monoxide levels are safe. Ironically, the professionals are coming in after we have finished and are putting gear on!

Smoke molecules remain airborne for quite some time, according to these professionals, evidenced by the tiny particles you might sometimes see floating through the air in the sunlight entering a building after a fire. Additionally, the smoke molecules that have entered surfaces are being released during any type of demolition, especially overhaul work.

The professionals also cite mold as another reason to be aware. Mold is commonly found in places that are not often seen, including behind drywall. When a wall or ceiling is pulled, mold spores become airborne, along with any lead present in older buildings, and animal urine and feces are often found in attics. I now keep an N95 respirator in my turnout gear.

The days of haphazardly tossing contents and destroying structures are over. With the advent of the thermal imaging camera, we can now find hot spots much more readily; as a result, we can be more diligent and strategic in our overhaul techniques. Of course, we can never let down our guard, and we should always take the extra measures and commit the time and resources to identify any potential hidden fires.

Understanding what can be saved, the impact of acidic smoke residues and water on items and structures, and the potential dangers facing us after a fire are critical to our success as service providers. In this era, the fire service should be more than just the people who come in and “put the wet stuff on the red stuff.” We owe it to our community and ourselves.

KEVIN PARKER, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with South Oldham Fire Department in Crestwood, Kentucky, and a private consultant.

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