Improving Situational Awareness in a Fire Structure


I don’t think anyone in the fire service could have anticipated how deadly the summer of 2007 would be for U.S. firefighters. Fifty-four firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty from May 1 through the end of August. Eighteen of the 54 fatalities were the result of firefighters being lost, caught, or trapped in structure fires. This four-month period saw a line-of-duty death every 2.22 days. Firefighters lost, caught, or trapped accounted for a staggering 33 percent of the 54 fatalities incurred.

As fire safety consultants nationwide were tallying the numbers, I couldn’t help thinking about the 1990-2000 U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) study that showed that lost, caught, or trapped firefighters are now the second leading immediate cause of firefighter fatalities, at 18.2 percent. The statistics cited in the first paragraph reveal a horrific 11.8 percent increase over the national average over a 120-day period. This number of fallen firefighters raises the question: What is it that we as fire service professionals are missing in our pursuit of a safer profession that is causing us to lose firefighters at rates that parallel line-of-duty deaths of the 1970s?

Fundamentally speaking, I think we have lost perspective on one of the most basic foundations of our work—proactive education based on updated information. The emphasis in the fire service appears to be more on rescue and recovery of firefighters in trouble than in the timely delivery of updated information that can be incorporated into education that may dramatically change decisions during size-up. This is essential to preventing firefighters from having their judgment overwhelmed by conditions on the fireground, placing them in needless jeopardy. Where do we go from here?


In Northwest Indiana, Safety Training Services (STS), a company owned and operated by firefighters, has developed the “Caught or Trapped” survival awareness program to specifically target conditions that precede firefighters’ being lost, caught, or trapped. I developed and wrote the program, which started as a variety of training ideas expressed by instructors at STS. Robert Groszewski, a battalion chief and 23-year-veteran of the Gary (IN) Fire Department and president of STS, produced it.

The four-hour classroom program centers on USFA statistical data on firefighter fatalities and The Disorientation Study endorsed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The class also discusses the Mayday protocol and tactical size-up considerations for lost, caught, or trapped firefighters. Discussions on open area searches, escape from entanglement techniques, and the different types of building collapse are used to emphasize the difficulties that may be incurred when firefighters are overcome by conditions missed on size-up that may necessitate firefighter rescue. Additional discussions on rapid intervention and survival awareness emphasize the small window of survivability for firefighters in trouble and the tactical difficulties involved when transitioning the fireground from a suppression operation to a high-priority rescue.

Simulator Training

The centerpiece of the practical part of the program is the advanced training simulator. It measures 22 × 16 feet, is taller than 10 feet, and enables firefighters to experience a floor collapse in a 10 × 10 room. The floor of the room drops 31⁄2 feet during the lean-to collapse. This allows students/firefighters to experience the disorientation that they may experience when they lose all visual references while their body or their environment is in motion, an occurrence that happens at every working fire with a heavy smoke condition.

(1) Chauffeur Angel Gilarski backs up Captain Damon Carpenter (not visible) as they start their approach to the simulator. (Photos courtesy of The Times Northwest Indiana; used with permission.)
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Firefighters are trained in the simulator in groups of six. Two firefighters start each scenario by traversing a 30-foot tunnel prior to entering the smoke-filled simulator. The first two firefighters travel the tunnel and enter the simulator to conduct a primary search, as would be performed during a structure fire. During the primary search, the first two firefighters experience the floor collapse and declare a Mayday. The remaining four firefighters are staged on the roof of the simulator and act as a rescue team. The rescue team experiences debris-filled vertical and horizontal approaches, simulating void spaces, en route to the lost, caught, and trapped firefighters. The rescue team must also breach a wall in near-zero visibility conditions to reach the trapped firefighters inside the simulator. Again, firefighters experience firsthand the problems incurred when one of their own is lost, caught, or trapped.

(2) Rescue team members are staged atop the simulator just prior to entry.
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When possible, line officers lead all search and rescue teams entering the simulator while staff officers stay outside the simulator. Remaining within the incident command system format, staff officers see firsthand the problems incurred when they transition from a search and suppression effort to a high-priority rescue effort involving firefighters lost, caught, or trapped. The staff officers are not counted as part of the original six-firefighter group. All parties involved with each evolution are equipped with radios, and radio traffic follows individual fire department standard operating procedures (SOPs). This allows members of individual fire departments to problem-solve the practical application of existing fireground SOPs as the evolution unfolds in a controlled environment.

(3) “The Coffin” builds confidence by helping students overcome entanglements in a confined area.
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Firefighters and instructors hold a quick informal critique after every evolution to discuss options, techniques, and their experiences. This allows firefighters to explore a variety of solutions to problems they experienced not only in the simulator but also previously on the fireground.

(4) Captain Damon Carpenter steps off the simulator to the critique held after the last evolution.
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The training achieves the following goals:

  1. Makes firefighters aware that the second leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty fatalities is becoming lost, caught, or trapped on the fireground.
  2. Illustrates how the disorientation sequence plays a role in firefighter fatalities.
  3. Illustrates the importance of fireground accountability.
  4. Introduces the Mayday protocol and the parameters for declaring a Mayday.
  5. Teaches basic survival awareness by discussing fire dynamics, building types, the warning signs of collapse, and the types of collapse.
  6. Teaches sound search and rescue techniques.
  7. Teaches size-up and search techniques for rapid intervention.
  8. Teaches tactical considerations when switching from suppression strategy to a high-priority rescue.
  9. Teaches the importance of a strong command presence and managing resources when a Mayday is called.
  10. Discusses considerations for developing standard operating procedures.

DAVID N. DIEHL is captain of Engine 2 in the East Chicago (IN) Fire Department, where he has served since 1995. He is an OSHA-compliant training instructor and a fire safety consultant. He began his career in the fire service as a reserve firefighter with the Oxnard (CA) Fire Department in 1985 and served as a volunteer firefighter in Northwest Indiana for seven years.

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