The Big Three

Firefighters at the window are enveloped in smoke on the training ground.

(Photo by Tony Greco)

Article by David DeStefano

While conducting interior operations, firefighters must consider a myriad of possible dangers while they focus on the task at hand. However, no matter the task, three factors must remain at the forefront of each member’s thoughts as they stretch hose, perform a search, or conduct other activities. These factors are expressed here in the form of questions that each firefighter must continually ask themselves.  

Where Am I?

Members engaged in a firefight must always be cognizant of their location in the building. Know how to efficiently express your location as a Mayday transmission or when providing a situational report. This level of awareness applies to all members regardless of rank. Company officers may be injured or firefighters may become separated. No matter the scenario, orientation is everyone’s responsibility. In addition to their physical location in the structure, firefighters need to know their location as it relates to the reported/confirmed location of the fire. Companies operating above the fire (that includes the roof) may be in the most danger. Those conducting searches closest to the fire must also know the location and avenue of attack undertaken by the engine company.

How Much Air Do I Have?

With the advent of heads-up display in the self-contained breathing apparatus mask, it has become easier to monitor air supply on a continuing basis. But access to this technology doesn’t necessarily mean firefighters will use it to their advantage. Continual training under realistic conditions is necessary to develop the discipline to both monitor air supply and correlate it’s limitations to the situation at hand. Awareness must not end with the level on an indicator. Firefighters must be able to gauge at what point they must make egress based on their location within a building. The duration of their working air supply will be based on their level of physical and mental conditioning as well as the nature of the task they are assigned and their proximity of a point of egress.    

How Do I Get Out?

Firefighters must not make the mistake of assuming that their entry and egress points will always be the same. While conducting searches, advancing hoselines, or engaging in any other interior operations, members must always know where they are in relation to a way out. In most instances, the best egress option will change as members move around and fire conditions improve or worsen. Firefighters must also be constantly aware of new egress points created by exterior companies placing ladders, removing window covers, and forcing doors. All members of the interior companies must communicate these new options within their team and keep an ear to the radio for progress reports on new access made from the outside.

What If I Don’t Like the Answer?

Ask yourself each of the three questions we have discussed. What happens when we are not sure of our location, or think we might not have adequate air supply to exit the building, or don’t know a way out? The first step is to transmit a Mayday! Whether you have just realized that you are separated from your company, or the entire unit is together without proper orientation or air supply, the step that will provide the best possibility for a successful outcome is to let command know you need help. Once the Mayday has been transmitted, the firefighter(s) may then take steps to self-rescue as appropriate for the situation.

The purpose of “big three” awareness is to maintain orientation, air supply, and point of egress on a constant basis to avoid a Mayday situation. If members can remember the three simple questions and make sure the answers are fulfilled safely, many of the most common reasons for fireground casualties can be greatly reduced.    

David DeStefanoDavid DeStefano is a 26-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as captain of Ladder Co. 1. He was previously assigned as a Lieutenant in Ladder 1 and Engine 3 and a firefighter in Ladder 1. He has a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in fire science. He is an instructor/coordinator for the Rhode Island Fire Academy and teaches a variety of fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He can be reached at


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