Dunn’s Dispatch: Evacuating a Burning Building

By Vincent Dunn

There are several strategies for evacuating a burning building: (1) Remove occupants while simultaneously fighting the fire; (2) Remove occupants without fighting the fire; and (3) “Defend-in-place”–fight the fire while the occupants remain in the burning building.

Evacuating the building and fighting the fire


During a fire, if resources are available, the chief’s strategy may be to fight the fire and remove the people from the burning building at the same time. Only a large fire department would be able to fight the fire and evacuate the building at the same time. Engine company firefighters stretch the hose and extinguish the fire while ladder company firefighters perform rescue and evacuation. This strategy may be used when the burning structure is a low-rise building and the number of people to be removed is not large. The occupants are removed from the proximity of the fire during the initial stages of the fire. If the fire is not extinguished, all the occupants may have to be removed from the building during the firefighting operation. A building of ordinary brick-and-joist or wood construction is combustible and cannot be depended on to stop spreading flame or smoke.

Evacuating the building and not fighting the fire


If the chief of a small rural department does not have the resources, he cannot remove people from the fire building and at the same time extinguish the fire. Consider a small rural department responding with a single pumper staffed by two or three firefighters in an area with no hydrant system. On arrival at a structure fire beyond the control of a single hoseline, the strategy may be to remove people without fighting the fire until reinforcements arrive.

Fighting the fire and not evacuating the building

A high-rise is generally defined as a building that is more than 75 feet high. During a high-rise building fire, people cannot be removed from the burning building. This is because (1) there are too many people in the high-rise building, and (2) removing all the occupants of a high-rise building could take several hours. So the chief at a burning high-rise building must use a defend-in-place strategy in which firefighters fight the fire without evacuating the structure. In a high-rise office building, the fire service uses a partial defend-in-place strategy; in a high-rise residence, firefighters use a total defend-in-place strategy. The high-rise structure must be of fire-resistive construction and the occupants must comply with the chief’s instructions to remain in place for this strategy to be effective.

For more information on this subject, go to vincentdunn.com or Google search “evacuating a burning building.” Chief Dunn can be reached at 1-800-231-3388 or via e-mail at vincentdunn@earthlink.net.

Deputy Chief Dunn (Ret., Fire Department of New York) is the author of a number of textbooks, including the new Strategy of Firefighting (Fire Engineering, 2007), Collapse of Burning Buildings (Fire Engineering, 1988), Safety and Survival on the Fireground (Fire Engineering, 1992), and Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies (Fire Engineering, 1999).

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