BY DAVID C. COMSTOCK JR. AND SCOTT MAXWELL
Despite scientific, technical, and safety code advances over many years and despite a decline in the number of structural fires, firefighters today are dying inside structure fires at a rate that parallels the line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) of decades ago.1 In an effort to reduce firefighter fatalities, there has been significant debate over the root cause of these LODDs. Experts in fire suppression and safety focus on three distinct functions—task, operations, and strategic decision making—to point out where fatal errors occur.
However, a review of the LODDs over the past decade has proven that individual firefighters, company officers, and chief officers are all responsible for the injuries and deaths that occur on the fireground, and therefore all firefighters must work collectively to reduce the risks that the fire service faces at each incident.
This article focuses on those behaviors and actions of firefighters operating on the fireground that will likely increase the risk of injury and death and those actions that they can take to improve their chance of survival at an emergency incident. Specifically, there are 10 recurring firefighter actions or omissions—”sins”—that result in unwelcome ceremonies and fanfare.
1. NOT WEARING A SEAT BELT
If a firefighter wants to increase his risk of dying in the line of duty, nothing could be easier than getting into a motor vehicle. In the past decade, motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) were responsible for 20 to 25 percent of all firefighter fatalities. (1) Although a fatality resulting from an MVA does not technically count as a “fireground death,” the impact on those already operating on the emergency scene can be significant and often results in redirected resources to the accident scene, which can place both civilian and firefighter lives in further jeopardy.
To commit the first deadly sin, a firefighter need only to ignore the apparatus or automobile seat belt, which was installed for his safety. Nearly one-fourth of all firefighters who died in MVAs were ejected from the vehicle. This is especially true for firefighters who respond in privately owned vehicles, which accounts for one-fourth of all the MVA fatalities.
Firefighters who want to further increase their own risk of death can also ignore safety at intersections by failing to approach with caution, not coming to a complete stop at a red light, and proceeding through the intersection without checking to see whether the intersection is clear of opposing traffic. Firefighters who drive recklessly and without wearing seat belts commit the first deadly sin and place not only their own lives but also those of passengers, other motorists, and the firefighters and civilians already on the fireground at increased risk of injury or death.
2. IGNORING SIZE-UP
Firefighters who do arrive safely on the fireground without having worn a seat belt while en route still have many opportunities to commit deadly sins. A firefighter subconsciously determined to become an annual LODD statistic can do so by ignoring an initial size-up. Of course, a proper fire size-up begins with the receipt of the fire alarm and continues until the last rig leaves the scene. The fireground sinner will forget about factors that he might already be aware of at the time of the call or while en route and how they may affect fire operations. Such factors include the time of day, weather conditions, and previous fires that have occurred within the structure.
Once at the emergency scene, the firefighter will ignore the type of occupancy involved and its type of construction—fire-resistive, noncombustible, ordinary, heavy timber, or wood frame. He will not have learned or will have forgotten the fire spread or collapse risk of each type. Likewise, he will not know, or will not want to know, the type of roof system of the structure. After all, lightweight truss roofs only collapse on other firefighters. A firefighter may simply ignore the age of a structure, which may indicate deterioration of structural members, or the presence of modern construction techniques and their inherent dangers. The firefighter will ignore the length of time that the fire has been burning and its effect on structural integrity. After all, truss roofs or wooden I-beam floor supports always collapse after a significant period of fire involvement!
3. FAILING TO STUDY AND UNDERSTAND BUILDING CONSTRUCTION
All firefighters sin when they fail to study and understand building construction. Although referenced briefly in the prior section, it is worth reemphasizing that firefighters sin when they fail to understand construction elements and the fire conditions under which they are likely to fail. If there is any sin of omission that has been repeated through decades of modern firefighting, it is the fire commanders’ and firefighters’ failure to understand the effect of gravity on a building.
As stated previously, chief officers, company officers, and all firefighters are responsible for a size-up en route and on arrival at a fire scene. One part of the size-up relates to the building’s type of construction and the likelihood of fire spread. In addition to the fire spread risks and collapse hazards associated with each type of construction, firefighters should also be aware of other potential hazards associated with the type of construction. A firefighter sins if he operates on a peaked roof unaware of its inherent risks. He sins without knowing the dangers of masonry parapets. The firefighter must be familiar with the effect of wind on a structure.
Excellent texts, publications, and seminars are available for all members of the fire service to learn the simple principles of building construction that will keep them alive while operating on a fireground. But a firefighter who wants to die will never consult any of them.2, 3
4. IGNORING CHANGING FIRE CONDITIONS
Firefighters who initiate interior firefighting operations can commit the fourth deadly sin by ignoring evidence of changing fire conditions. First, firefighters can ignore a sudden flash of fire out of a room doorway. This occurs when combustible gases, smoke, and heat flow out of the compartmentalized area of burning and mix with air, thereby entering the flammable range and suddenly igniting. This phenomenon, called rollover, is often a precursor of flashover and is a warning for firefighters to withdraw from the fire room. Rollover can trap firefighters in below-grade fires and is itself a deadly threat to those who ignore it. A fire service sinner will ignore the fact that no one can predict when a flashover will occur and will have forgotten that he did not know how long the fire had been burning prior to the fire department’s arrival. The firefighter will fail to assess the heat buildup in the smoke-filled room and will ignore the fact that the hotter the smoke, the lower the firefighter should and must crouch.
Such a member will also ignore the condition of flameover, which usually occurs after flashover. Flameover is a rapid flame spread over one or more surfaces during a fire and is caused by the sudden ignition of combustible vapors that are produced from a heated surface. This condition usually occurs once a room flashes over and flames begin to spread out of the original fire area into adjoining spaces, which may place firefighters advancing hoselines down hallways or corridors to the room of flashover in danger. This risk increases when the flames spread behind the forward-moving hose team.
Firefighters can also become a statistic if they ignore dense black smoke, smoke puffing around door frames, a reverse flow of smoke back into an open doorway, and discolored glass windows—all warning signs of a backdraft condition. Firefighters forget that backdrafts do not have to occur in the fire-involved structure as a whole but may occur in smaller confined spaces such as cockloft areas. Sinners will not act defensively, will not vertically ventilate, will not place a hoseline in the proper position, and will not apply water quickly to the fire.
Finally, with respect to changing fire conditions, firefighters who wish to commit a deadly sin should simply ignore structural collapse indicators. Although structure collapse usually occurs without warning, there are several factors, in addition to those already discussed as part of the size-up, that may be noticed during firefighting operations. These factors, which will be ignored by the risk-taking firefighter, include the presence of combustible materials, unusual occupancies, discovered modifications to the building, and supported loads (such as rooftop heating and cooling systems) that might affect the integrity of the structure.
5. OMITTING ICS, SOPs, AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Firefighters commit another deadly sin by working beyond the sight or sound of the supervising officer without a portable radio. Firefighters must communicate with a supervising officer by portable radio to ensure accountability and indicate completion of assigned duties. Every firefighter must be assigned to a team of two or more and given specific assignments to help reduce the chance of injuries. A fireground sinner will not know who is on his team, will not know to stay with the team leader, or will fail to remain in visual contact with one or more members of the company at all times. If visibility is obscured, the firefighter will fail to remain within touch or voice distance.
A fireground sinner will ignore the department’s incident command system (ICS), however strong or weak, and will not complete the assignments given to him. He will fail to report back to the company officer or incident commander and will continually deviate from the assigned task without a valid reason. This firefighter will fail to recognize that such deviations, or freelancing, will place him in a position he should not be in and will further fail to understand such freelancing will reduce the accountability by superiors and will significantly increase his risk of injury or death.
6. FAILING TO USE SAFETY EQUIPMENT
A firefighter sins when he fails to wear and activate a personal alert safety system (PASS) device when operating in a hazardous area. Many firefighters die on the fireground when they become lost and disoriented, eventually succumbing to the products of combustion. Many more firefighters are killed when they become trapped as a result of a flashover or a building collapse. Although PASS devices are not designed to be heard outside the building, they are intended to alert nearby firefighters or officers when a firefighter is missing, lost, or trapped.
An activated PASS alarm will also help a rapid intervention team find lost or trapped firefighters. In 89 cases in which a firefighter killed on the fireground was reportedly wearing a PASS device during a 10-year period, the device was activated only 9 percent of the time. (1)
A firefighter who fails to follow a guide or reference point and maintain any sense of direction will commit a deadly sin if an evacuation becomes necessary. Firefighters who fail to independently make a mental note of the location of the closest hoseline, rope, or other guide will commit a deadly sin should conditions change.
Firefighters commit deadly sins when they fail to use all protective equipment provided to them, including hoods, gloves, and SCBA masks, especially where carbon monoxide or other dangerous gases may be present. A fireground sinner will view protective clothing as an optional choice and will fail to realize that protective equipment has changed because building construction and the contents within the structure have changed.
7. LIMITING OR IGNORING RESOURCES
At every fire, many tasks must be accomplished. Fireground activities include suppression, ventilation, search, rescue, water management, utility control, overhaul, and salvage. One firefighter can perform well only one task at a time. Firefighters who are stretched too thin will unnecessarily place themselves in a position of increased risk. Fireground sinners will try to do too many activities, with the result that the firefighter is unable to complete any one task successfully. This firefighter will not be realistic about what he can accomplish when faced with a working house fire and having only 10 firefighters available on the fireground. (In a recent informal national survey, more than 50 percent of fire departments responded with 10 firefighters or fewer.)4 A fireground sinner will hesitate to call for additional staffing on arrival at the scene, knowing that the chief is still en route. He will fail to understand that any delay in calling for additional resources may prove to be too little, too late, placing every firefighter on the fireground in jeopardy.
Fireground sinners will also neglect to address staffing issues away from the emergency scene. In the volunteer ranks, firefighters will deny any responsibility for recruitment and retention efforts. Career firefighters will fail to educate and demonstrate to government officials why additional firefighters are needed. Presen-tations concerning staffing issues will be illogical, not well thought out, and confrontational. Firefighters in the volunteer and career fire service will be unprepared to make their presentations to the public and will fail to explain the risks, benefits, and costs of inadequate staffing. Such firefighters will fail to encourage their chiefs to make similar presentations to government officials and will not support the chief officers when they do so. If a chief makes a presentation and fails, fireground sinners will not be prepared to encourage and support the development of automatic mutual-aid agreements. Finally, these resource sinners will not be prepared to eliminate political, geographical, and labor boundaries that too often impede safe and efficient fireground operations.
8. IGNORING COMMUNICATION PROBLEMS/HAZARDS
Firefighters commit deadly sins when they fail to notify the company officer regarding known changing conditions or other emergencies that require immediate action. It is often more important to communicate what action cannot take place than what operation has been successfully accomplished. If a truck company cannot ventilate or if an engine company cannot reach the seat of the fire with a hoseline because of obstructions, the incident commander must be notified. This information may change the chief’s tactics and may require the withdrawal of firefighters from the building.
Firefighters also commit a deadly sin when they fail to immediately notify the incident commander regarding a possible Mayday situation, since the delay in sounding the Mayday will result in a delayed rescue effort. The Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department’s deployment committee found, in studies conducted through various training exercises, that it takes a rescue crew three minutes to enter a structure after receiving a Mayday and an additional 5.8 minutes to reach a firefighter in trouble. If a firefighter is trapped, how much air will be left in his SCBA bottle? Fireground sinners will fail to communicate with the incident commander at the first hint of trouble, to put the rescue process in motion. Like calls for mutual-aid assistance, the rescuers can be told to stand down if not needed, but wouldn’t you rather have the assistance on the way? If your answer is no, make sure your life insurance premium has been paid in full, since you have committed another deadly sin.
9. VENTILATING LATE OR NOT AT ALL
A firefighter commits a deadly sin when he fails to study, train in, and implement horizontal and vertical ventilation procedures. First, he will fail to understand that ventilation is necessary to improve the fire environment for trapped building occupants and firefighters and to assist engine companies with extinguishment. Such a firefighter will not understand that prompt ventilation may delay flashover and will make no effort to understand the difference between venting for life and venting for fire. It makes no difference whether or not occupants are in the dwelling and whether hoselines are in place prior to ventilation efforts. For this firefighter, it will not make a difference whether the ventilation attempt will be conducted vertically or horizontally, and the effect of the weather conditions, particularly wind, will be ignored. The sinning firefighter responsible for ventilation will ignore the construction type and will proceed to vertically ventilate a residence, even when the fire has not entered the attic space. Worse yet, the firefighter will attempt vertical ventilation in a well-involved attic where lightweight wood truss construction is present. Alternatively, this fireground sinner will only attempt vertical ventilation in a multiple dwelling with a fire on the first floor and an interior stairway with a door to the roof.
The fireground ventilation sinner will also consider positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) as the only form of ventilation and will argue that its efficiency, speed of use, and position of use (exterior vs. interior) far outweighs any disadvantages. He will ignore the fact that use of PPV without knowing a fire’s location or intensity may quickly cause the fire to intensify into a conflagration. Worse yet, this firefighter will not understand that the use of PPV without knowing the potential life hazard may result in trapped occupants dying through the uncontrolled spread of smoke and fire. The improper use of PPV may place firefighters in remote locations to the PPV (other floors) at risk. Positive pressure is often set up at the front (or A side) of a structure. More often than not, fire victims are found in the rear of the structure, and the use of PPV prior to extinguishment efforts simply decreases the victims’ chances of survival.
10. FAILING TO USE AN INCIDENT SAFETY OFFICER AND RIT
Fire departments must use rapid intervention teams (RIT). If your department does not have such a team, you must ask why not. Firefighters sin when they do not make efforts to protect themselves through the use of safety resources. If your department does not have sufficient staffing to fight a fire and have a RIT stand by for assistance, you must train in RIT, or argue for this training, with mutual-aid companies from outside of your jurisdiction.
When a department has its own RIT, firefighters who are members of the RIT sin when they fail to remain together throughout the duration of the operation. These guardian firefighters sin when they fail to survey fireground operations, including where firefighters are entering and exiting the structure, how many firefighters are inside, where the firefighters are operating, the layout of the structure, and construction feature hazards of the building. RIT members sin when they fail to determine the type of hazards they might encounter in operating, the fire’s location and potential for spread, and the best route to enter or exit the structure in the event of an emergency.
As stated previously, RIT members also sin if they fail to adequately communicate to the company officer in charge or the incident commander conditions on the fireground and possible problems that might exist. The rapid intervention team should, where possible, assist in accountability measures. The RIT may be the last hope for a firefighter who has himself sinned, and a member of a rapid intervention team who sins may eliminate any chance of survival for the original firefighter in distress and the RIT member.
LACK OF PHYSICAL FITNESS: THE 11TH DEADLY SIN
Although not a direct fireground sin, special mention must be made regarding a firefighter’s failure to exercise prior to the receipt of the alarm. Almost 50 percent of annual firefighter deaths are attributable to heart attacks or strokes. The reduction of stress, high-blood pressure, cholesterol, arteriosclerosis, and other health conditions can be impacted significantly through proper diet and exercise. Every firefighter has the ability to control these risk factors, and to ignore these issues puts a firefighter at significant risk of dying on the fireground.
Driving without a seat belt, failing to address building construction hazards, ignoring changing fireground conditions, and failing to use issued safety equipment can all result in a firefighter’s death.5 Ignoring the applicable National Fire Protection Association standards on fireground operations, protective clothing, SCBA, PASS devices, and other equipment is also dangerous.6
History has demonstrated that firefighters repeat these deadly acts or omissions—”sins”—every day. Statistics suggest that firefighters have a “death wish” given the number of funerals that are attended annually. The fire service preaches safety, but our actions reveal that we act otherwise. To those readers who have a true “death wish,” this article may serve as your guide to the next world. Like Dr. Kevorkian, we have been of assistance. But readers who have read these 10 points carefully will confess their sins, repent their ways, and live a long and healthy life.
1. Firefighter Fatality Retrospective Study, April 2002/FA-220, FEMA/USFA, National Fire Data Center.
2. Brannigan, Francis L. Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association, 1993.
3. Dunn, Vincent. Safety and Survival on the Fireground. Saddle Brook, NJ: Fire Engineering Books and Videos, 1988.
4. www.firehouse.com/polls/, January 26, 2003.
5. Firefighter fatality reports and related information from The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)’s Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program are available at www.cdc.gov/niosh/ firehome.html, or by calling (800) 35-NIOSH.
6. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards may be accessed at www.nfpa.com.
DAVID C. COMSTOCK JR. is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and chief of the Western Reserve Joint Fire District in Poland, Ohio. A chief fire officer designee, he lectures on fire service topics relating to chief and company officer operations, liability, and personnel issues. Comstock is an attorney in the firm of Comstock, Springer, and Wilson Co., LPA, in Youngstown, Ohio, which specializes in insurance defense litigation, including governmental liability defense and insurance fraud/arson cases.
SCOTT MAXWELL is a 15-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a lieutenant assigned to Rescue 3 in the Bronx. He has lectured on firefighter safety and survival, general fireground and truck company operations, and technical rescue topics. Maxwell is an FDIC H.O.T. instructor.