Firefighter Safety and Survival: A Holistic Approach

By Thomas N. Warren

Over the last decade, the concept of safety and survival has gained prominence in the fire service. Firefighters no longer operate in the same manner as they once did and the equipment used by modern firefighters has improved dramatically. Training programs around the country feature both classroom courses and hands-on instruction in a variety of techniques that can be quickly and effectively used on the fireground to rescue firefighters. Fire Engineering itself sponsors one of the world’s largest firefighting and training conference and exhibition; the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC).

Firefighters, fire officers, and chief officers all have an interest in safety and survival, however too often each group will see the concept of safety and survival in a compartmentalized way. Each group operates with their own sense of responsibility without considering safety and survival as the sum of many parts. An effective safety and survival program is more than a successful extrication of a firefighter from a building collapse or locating a disoriented firefighter. It is a cultural change that brings together the best practices based on comprehensive training, coordination of skills, motivated people, and communication. It is part of a firefighter’s everyday activities from firehouse duties (cleaning an oil spot on the apparatus floor) to complex technical rescues. The goal is incorporating safety and survival into the mindset of every firefighter.

An effective safety-and-survival program will have at its root a training component for every person in the fire department that ties together everyone’s role in the organization. This training program will teach techniques that identify specific hazards and dangerous conditions which arise that must be addressed. Equally importantly, a training component must be included that can target and develop critical thinking to quickly analyze the problems presented and how best to mitigate them with all participants cognizant of what is required of everyone on the fireground/emergency scene and the firehouse itself. Coordinating skills and people is often more difficult than technical training. Firefighters as a group are very eager to learn the technical skills required for executing successful rescue operations. The greater challenge is coordination, accountability and expanding the safety and survival concept beyond the fireground/emergency scene.

Training programs for new recruits must integrate this safety-and-survival concept into every drill, evolution, and class. The paradigm shift begins there. As for the more seasoned members of your department, the safety-and-survival training programs will include at a minimum the following:

Training Division

  • Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) that emphasize safety as well as the technical and procedural aspects of firefighting;
  • Regularly exercise operational procedures for all firefighters;
  • Research and recommend new equipment;
  • Practice emergency vehicle operations;
  • Review case studies and significant historical fires studies;
  • Review hazardous materials, confined space, and technical rescue operations and considerations;
  • Conduct rapid intervention team (RIT) training for all members of the department;
  • Integrate a safety component into the everyday life of firefighters;
  • Consider firefighter fitness and health as part of your purview.*


  • Know and understand the fire service vernacular;
  • Maintain situational awareness;
  • Maintain radio discipline;
  • Coordinate use of multiple radio channels/frequencies;
  • Have complete knowledge of Standard Operational Procedures;
  • Have previous fireground/emergency scene experience.

Chief Officers

  • Develop and maintain situational awareness;
  • Establish a RIT at all fires and emergencies;
  • Maintain radio and communication discipline;
  • Maintain personnel accountability and control;
  • Rehabilitate and rotate operating crews;
  • Manage Mayday situations, drilling frequently on the subject;
  • Oversee comprehensive air management training;
  • Understand fire behavior and building construction;
  • Oversee fire service employee assistance programs;
  • Have complete knowledge of department SOPs;
  • Establish a “safety sector” at all emergency operations;
  • Encourage firefighter fitness and health.*

Fire Officers

  • Understand proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and tools;
  • Conduct safe apparatus operations and responses;
  • Complete an effective size-up;
  • Oversee comprehensive air management training;
  • Have complete knowledge of department SOPs;
  • Have complete understanding of the responsibilities of the RIT;
  • Encourage firefighter fitness and health.*


  • Understand proper use of PPE and tools;
  • Understand proper use of self-contained breathing apparatus;
  • Have complete familiarity with the tools and techniques required of a RIT;
  • Maintain fitness and health.*

*Firefighter fitness and health is everyone’s personal responsibility. Furthermore, everyone is accountable to everyone else in the department to be ready and capable to perform any number of evolutions on emergency scenes.

The skills and responsibilities attributed to each group above must be mastered by everyone in their respective group. It is equally important that each member of the fire department organization knows what is expected of the members of the other groups. A firefighter is not expected to have a high level of expertise in the skill set of the other groups, but a thorough knowledge of the responsibilities of every group is necessary for continuity and safety.

How does the safety-and-survival culture look at the scene of a building fire? For example, let’s look at a typical fire in a three-story wood frame building with balloon frame construction, which is typical in most areas of the United States.

A building fire is reported on Main Street. Dispatch sends out a full complement of three engines, two ladders, a chief, and a heavy rescue, and assigns an operating channel. The first engine arrives and reports that there is a working fire on the second floor with a heavy smoke condition. Dispatch immediately sends an additional ladder company to act as the RIT. All responding companies begin to operate according to department SOPs. The first engine reports that it is stretching a line to the second floor quadrant A; the first ladder is raising its aerial device to ventilate the roof and forcing entry; the second engine is connecting to a hydrant and laying a feeder line to the first engine; the second ladder is raising ground ladders; the heavy rescue is beginning the search operations; the third engine is stretching a backup line to the second floor and upon establishing the water supply; the second engine stretches a line to the floor above the fire. The chief assumes command and all companies are now operating under the chief as the incident commander (IC). The RIT ladder company arrives and gathers their prescribed equipment and reports to the command post. The chief believes everything is progressing normally when suddenly a “Mayday” is heard over the radio: a firefighter has fallen through a floor.

Fortunately, the department has adopted a “Mayday” SOP that allows for immediate deployment of the RIT, continuation of fire extinguishment, radio discipline, accountability, transmitting an additional alarm, dispatching an additional chief for the Mayday operation, discontinuing all non emergency radio traffic, preparation of essential tools and equipment, and EMS support. Dispatch will notify the IC that the radio identification number for the Mayday call came from the second-due engine operating on the third floor. The IC immediately attempts to establish communications with the firefighter in distress, establishes the location and nature of the Mayday, and attempts to determine if additional resources are needed. If communication cannot be established, a roll call of all operating companies is necessary. The RIT is simultaneously deployed to the location of the distressed firefighter. All firefighters not involved in the Mayday continue to carry out their operational assignments while monitoring the radio communications and preparing to assist, if positioned to do so. The additional alarm sent when the Mayday was transmitted will provide additional rescue or suppression resources. The second chief will assume command of the Mayday operation upon arrival and be identified as the “rescue sector,” which can use a different radio channel (or use the operating channel, depending on the severity of the distress call.)

The RIT makes its way to the third floor and finds a firefighter who has one foot wedged in a hole in the floor caused by the fire burning below. The RIT reports the situation, removes the firefighter from the floor, and evacuates the firefighter to the EMS unit standing by.

This fireground narrative illustrates how a safety-and-survival culture can be smoothly integrated into our bread-and-butter operations. Every firefighter is well-trained and knows their responsibilities, there is an established SOP that has been implemented, tools and equipment are ready, dispatch controls radio traffic while monitoring the situation, and resources are deployed as prescribed in the SOP. The key element is that every firefighter on the fireground (as well as dispatch) knows exactly what is happening and what each firefighter is doing to mitigate the Mayday situation and control fire spread. Everyone has a role in the resolution of the Mayday and everyone is carrying out their prescribed responsibilities. This type of operation is at the core of a safety-and-survival culture that brings everyone into the resolution and draws from combined expertise and experience. This type of culture can transcend the fireground and emergency experiences and extend to every aspect of fire department operations, expanding the traditional idea that safety and survival is only practiced on the fireground; when in fact it is part of all our everyday fire service responsibilities.


Thomas N. WarrenTHOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.



No posts to display