BY WILLIAM M. GREENWOOD
Any interior firefighter WHO spends enough time in an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere will eventually encounter some type of bad situation. Unfortunately, interior firefighters can become overwhelmed under these conditions and unable to escape the hazard. Part of the reason for these problems may be our ever-increasing budget cuts and the resulting lack of personnel on arrival, which leave officers no choice but to ask the responding firefighters to multitask. There are too many “bad situations” to list. The focus here is on lost and disoriented firefighters and identifying severe thermal insult conditions.
“Interior benchmarking” for greater firefighter situational awareness can assist us when we are caught in a bad situation. Over my fire service career, I have found that if firefighters can adopt this behavioral modification and acknowledge the interior benchmarks, they can be safer interior firefighters or fire officers.
Interior benchmarks are situational points we acknowledge at every fire. Locating the fire, knocking down the fire, completing the primary or secondary search on a floor, pushing down the basement stairs for fire attack, and advancing to the floor above for fire attack or searching for extension are all interior benchmarks.
In interior benchmarking, the interior crew acknowledges the benchmark and completes a quick firefighter safety and situational assessment. The next time you enter an IDLH atmosphere, stop yourself and your crew. Ask for quiet, gain control of the adrenaline rush, and assess the atmospheric conditions. This approach is as valuable for recruits as it is for seasoned veterans. To use the interior benchmarking concept, you must obtain baseline information you can use to compare with your next interior benchmark.
Ask yourself these potentially lifesaving questions: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel? Where am I? What is the floor made of? Is my crew intact? Do we have a personnel accountability report (PAR)? What is our remaining SCBA air pressure? Let’s break down these questions in detail.
What Do I See?
Can I see the fire? Is there rollover? What are the smoke conditions like? What does my thermal imaging camera read? Can I see thermal layering or smoke travel? Is the fire already rolling over my company? What is the floor made of?
Should you become lost or disoriented or experience a floor collapse, you should use your last interior benchmark for comparison. Did the floor change on me? Where am I now? Am I in the kitchen, living room, bathroom, or cellar? All these rooms typically have distinguishable flooring or more common floor plans and window configurations. Identify them and report your location.
What Do I Hear?
Do I hear the fire crackling to my right or left? Many times we are too eager to enter and stick to a left- or right-hand search pattern, following basic habits instilled as a recruit. What if you stopped for a second and really listened? Listen as if you were a blind civilian searching for day-to-day directional cues.
If you still can’t determine the direction, cover one ear with a gloved hand. Does the sound get closer or farther away? Your uncovered ear will lead you to the fire or victims more quickly.
Also, pay close attention to the audible response from sounding the floor with a tool. Thermal imaging cameras have given us more vision, but they also can help us develop some bad habits, such as forgetting to sound the floor.
What Do I Feel?
This is a big one. What is the heat like on initial entry? Think back to your last building fire; now, ask yourself how much time was spent getting off the truck and gaining entry. Most of us will say, “As little as possible.” This is a great attitude to have, but let’s face it: Sometimes rapid entry without making mental notes creates bigger problems for us in the future. The American fire service prides itself on quick, aggressive interior fire attack. Our forefathers created this tradition for us, and we should carry it on, but we must change our behavioral traits. Let’s face reality: We have fewer building fires and less live-fire experience (firefighters and officers included). We are now wrapped up in greater head-to-toe protective clothing. Our battle with the red devil entails a much greater thermal insult from hotter fires, and we all too often operate in underventilated structures because of tighter, energy-efficient homes. So I ask you: Can we really afford this “rush-in” mentality?
The interior benchmarking question “What do I feel?” provides a baseline for future heat-index comparisons. Without the baseline input, you have nothing to compare until the seat of your pants computes, “Darn, it’s really hot in here!”
Completing the Company PAR
The fire officer must maintain control and be held accountable for his crew’s actions. The crew members must also have discipline and confidence to communicate their own individual hazardous situations. Never ignore situations such as not feeling well, a lack of crew integrity, firefighter disorientation (report it early), entanglement, or a low-air warning alarm.
SCBA Air Consumption and Management
The last component of the interior benchmarking process is the constant monitoring of your air consumption. How much air was used to get to your current location? Do you have enough air to make it back to the entry door? Calculating the distance traveled on the air already consumed drives the decision of whether you continue to advance; back out; or give a clear, concise, and early Mayday report. Given the right set of hazardous circumstances, sometimes our SCBA’s low-air warning alarm provides a false sense of security and will not give us enough time to safely evacuate the building.
I did not mention “What do I smell?” We cannot operate as our predecessors did. We cannot allow ourselves to go in too deep and not have enough air to safely exit the IDLH environment. Nobody can tolerate a few breaths of superheated gas and the ever-present hydrogen cyanide of the modern but routine building fire.
If you implement the interior benchmarking concept at your next building fire, you will have ascertained an incredible amount of potentially lifesaving information. If you should encounter a bad situation, the more information you have, the more likely you will feel you can manage conditions that are rapidly spinning out of control. Constantly compare your last download of information with what you are now experiencing, and make educated decisions. As you advance to locate your victims or the seat of the fire, continuously ask yourself these same interior benchmarking questions. If you do this on a regular basis, you not only will increase your situational awareness, but you also will find victims more quickly, extinguish the fire faster, and greatly increase your personal safety.
WILLIAM M. GREENWOOD has14 years of experience in volunteer, paid-call, and career fire departments and is a lieutenant with the Keene (NH) Fire Rescue Department. He is also the owner of Fire and Emergency Training Consultation Services and a staff instructor for the New Hampshire Department of Safety-Division of Fire Standards and Training and a member of the board of directors of the Fire Instructors and Officers Association of New Hampshire.