Drill Of The Week: Disentanglement

By Captains Jim Nagle and Jeff Edmonds, Everett (WA) Fire Department Training Division

Today’s buildings are as dangerous as ever for firefighters. A typical dropped ceiling full of electrical wire, flexible ducting, television cable, etc. is over your head and out of sight on the way in. But on your way out, it’s now a virtual fisherman’s net, and you’re caught in it with maybe a half bottle. This booby trap has killed firefighters, and will probably kill more. Prepare for it.

Our department recently conducted a disentanglement drill. But what it really turned out to be was a communication and team-work-building drill, as both are vital to surviving this kind of obstacle in a fire. For the prop, we used a commercial building slated for demolition. We contacted local hardware stores and construction sites and gathered a lot of scrap wire, ducting, strapping, etc. Next, we created two rooms full of “spaghetti,” with only the bottom two feet of the wall the only “void space” for escape. We strung the wire from wall to wall at different levels, and then sent in two companies at a time on opposite walls. This was not a search and rescue drill, it was an exit drill-crews were told simply to exit the structure. They were blacked-out to simulate heavy smoke conditions. The idea was not to get through fast, but to use a full bottle to maximize disentanglement practice time, and to practice communicating while low air alarms were activating. If crews were not getting themselves snagged, we were helping them to. They were not allowed to cut with personal wire cutters, although this is certainly the preferred way through a jungle of wire.

We found several commonalities among crews most successful at getting through before running totally out of air: They stayed closely bunched. This enabled team members to untangle each other, and aided communication. Those that became spread out were less effective because they had to duplicate effort, and work on their own. In addition, crews who created a low profile by putting their air bottles in the corner, and basically inching through on their backs, found greater success. Those that stuck to the typical crawl on hands and knees became entangled time and again.

Things we learned, and emphasized were:

  1. Call for a Mayday as soon as your egress is compromised. Don’t wait for your low-air alarm to go off. That may be too late. Stay close, work together as a team. Communication will be a challenge.
  2. If equipment, such as a personal escape rope, is consistently becoming entangled, consider relocating it on your person, or ensure that it will break-free with low force.
  3. Each member should carry a pair of wire cutters.
  4. When a fellow firefighter is entangled, and needs help, first do a good sweep of his/her bottle since this is the most likely snagged area. Communicate with the entangled firefighter, asking where he feels the restriction.
  5. Consider activating your PASS if trapped and waiting for the RIT.
  6. Consider taking off a glove, or both gloves if able, for better manual dexterity.
  7. Stay calm, and avoid twisting when snagged. This conserves air, and reduces the likelihood that you will just get yourself more entangled.
  8. Consider removing your SCBA to free yourself, or your team member.
  9. Second only to wire cutters, bring cardio endurance with you to the fire.
  10. Constantly sweep the wall for doors and windows for escape, and consider breeching a wall to get away from the wires. Call for help.

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