Approaches to air management: another perspective

I respectfully submit the following comments relative to Assistant Chief Gary P. Morris’ Letter to the Editor in the October 2008 issue.

Morris writes that when he asks audiences in his classes, “What does our SCBA training tell you as to when to leave a building?” the answer he consistently receives is, “When my low-air warning activates.” This, Morris said, indicates a serious cultural and training failure.

I would argue just the opposite—that this is an indication of a success. When this safety feature activates, the firefighters are heeding its warning and taking action. If the low-air warning is set at a level that does not allow enough time to exit, that is a National Fire Protection Association standard issue.

I agree that maybe there should be a separate low-air warning level for larger buildings. The firefighter could choose two different pressure settings for the warning alarm, depending on direction from the company officer, the incident commander, or the preplan.

To recommend leaving the fire before the low-pressure alarm activates may severely limit a firefighter’s ability to serve the customer. From an efficiency perspective, the more time you spend in the fire building, the better chance of extinguishing the fire and finding any possible overcome victims.

Every firefighter’s life is valuable, but we all joined knowing that we may be asked to perform tasks that are risky. There is a reason everyone else is leaving when we go in. The loss of the Phoenix, Arizona, captain is truly tragic; however, one incident should not drive a blanket change in a safety practice for all firefighters. As I recall, there were other contributing factors in this case.

When you talk about giving the firefighter more time to exit, it is not just a matter of the quantity of compressed air remaining. I have written the following in Fire & Emergency Service Administration (Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2006), page 123:

Firefighters who regularly exercise aerobically are able to more efficiently use their air supplies, allowing them to spend more time on air. The improvement will vary depending on how out of shape aerobically the individuals are when they start an exercise program. If the body is trained to average levels of aerobic conditioning, it has the ability to use oxygen more efficiently.
A firefighter in good aerobic conditioning can operate for a longer period of time with an SCBA than a firefighter who is in poor aerobic condition. Firefighters in good physical condition will have a more efficient use of their air from the SCBA, which will allow them to work for longer periods of time in a hostile atmosphere. This becomes critical when a firefighter with a poor aerobic capacity has to leave after his low-air alarm activates, requiring the withdrawal of the team.

Chuck Smeby
Battalion Chief (Ret.)
Prince George’s County (MD) Fire Department

Issue provides “hot” instructional topics

Thanks to Fire Engineering for a great November 2008 issue. Most of the issues are good, but this hits a lot of hot topics for our Industrial Fire School here in Canada’s “Chemical Valley.”

We will be conducting several incident command courses during our 2009 training season and have obtained permission to include Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini’s “I Know It When I See It” Rules of Engagement column in our IMS training manual. Each year we typically train about 100 emergency response personnel who may be in charge of industrial emergencies at their places of employment. This column emphasizes the point we try to make about choosing Command over Action.

Doug Scale, CRSP
Professor, Lambton College
Fire and Emergency Response Training Centre
Sarnia, Ontario, Canada

Pointers from a “seasoned fire officer”

My father retired as a deputy chief from the Fire Department of New York in 1980, and I came on the job as a probie in 1982. My father’s appointment to the fire department was in 1942, and his military service years (sergeant, Army/Air Force) counted toward his promotion to fire lieutenant in the late 1940s.

In his late 1970s, my father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. On 9/11/01, my father’s memory was totally shot, and he could not communicate; but, strangely enough, while watching the burning of the World Trade Center towers on television, he loudly, and in an agitated manner, asked my mother, “Where’s Eddie?” My father had been in a catatonic state for months and, all of a sudden, the sight of the burning towers sparked his concern for my safety and health. I shed a tear when my mother relayed the story. My father died four months later, on 1/9/02.

When I was promoted to fire captain in 2003, my mother suggested that I go down to headquarters and see if I could get Dad’s captain badge (a unique number identifying this badge). On arrival at the Badge Desk at headquarters, I told the clerk of my intentions, and she said she didn’t foresee any problem and that it would take about 10 to 15 minutes. Ten minutes later, she returned and said, “Sorry, Captain, no can do. Your father’s badge was awarded posthumously to a lieutenant killed in the collapse on 9/11/01.” I thought about it for a second, and I realized that my father would have been proud to have his badge passed on and retired in this manner.

As a seasoned fire officer, my father had valuable advice to pass down to his son 26 years ago. One valuable tidbit that stands out after all these years is, “Don’t try to be a hero!”

I believe what he meant was, do your job, be safe, but don’t let your ego take over. Since fire is a force of Nature, he also stated, “God forgives, but Nature is unforgiving.”

Another saying from old-time firefighters who came on the job in the ’50s and early ’60s was, “Calm down, kid; you didn’t start the fire.” The purpose of this saying was to slow me down so I wouldn’t get ahead of myself. Pacing yourself in a fire situation is critical to survival on the fireground.

The following important points were also passed down; they are not meant to circumvent your department’s policies but to share some ideas:

  • Civilian help. Take what civilians tell you at a fire with a grain of salt. Don’t write them off completely, but remember that their priorities and intentions can be much different from yours. They are usually thinking with their emotions; we are trained to think with our heads.
  • Commitment. Don’t commit too many firefighters to an area until the boundaries of the fire and the stability of the building are fully known.
  • Attic fires. Because the usable living area is so small, realize that there is a high probability that the fire may have started in a ceiling or wall below the attic. (Have the floor below checked out, have a hoseline and hooks available.)
  • Standpipes. If you can’t get water out of a standpipe within the first five minutes after arrival at the operating location and you know that a pumper is supplying the system, get an alternate hoseline right away (stretched outside of the building). Considering this delay, don’t commit too many firefighters up to this location. Remember, water supply delay and personnel accountability are in a race against time if the fire should go south.

Don’t have first- or second-alarm units try to fix a standpipe problem; however, you can have third- or fourth-alarm units troubleshoot standpipe problems, if necessary. Time is of the essence.

  • Fight the fire incrementally. In other words, take one step at a time. When the first step has been sized up and found safe, go on to the second step. Don’t charge in like a bull in a china shop. If at any step something doesn’t seem right, you will be ready to back up one step or back out of the building to a safe area.

Remember to use the personnel sparingly; it helps with accountability, rescue team designation, and relief.

  • If you are a chief officer, make your presence known. Be loud and authoritative (but do not yell or scream). Firefighters like to know that someone is in charge and running the show.

Eddie Morrissey
Fire Department of New York

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