By William R. Mora
During fatal structure fires, exposures to serious fire hazards often occur suddenly. In frustrating contrast, tactical changes on the national scale in response to those hazards are slow to evolve. Often, these crucial changes to fire procedures can take up to a decade or more to come to fruition. The firefighter disorientation hazard, defined as the “loss of direction because of the lack of vision in a structure fire,” is one case in point.
Firefighter Disorientation Incidents
After learning that six veteran firefighters had lost their lives during the 1999 Worcester, Massachusetts, Cold Storage Warehouse fire, a bewildered commanding officer who was in total disbelief of the situation confidently informed the gathered media that they had fought the fire “by the book.” However, despite following the trusted details of the policy, his firefighters became disoriented in a windowless brick building packed with heavy acrid smoke and were not able to exit safely.
In 2007, in heavy blinding smoke, nine career firefighters of the Charleston (SC) Fire Department became disoriented while attempting to evacuate from the depths of the large involved Sofa Super Store. Like the six veteran firefighters of the 1999 Warehouse fire, they were unable to evacuate the furniture store in time. Strategically, it is interesting to note that the officer in charge of the Charleston incident offered a statement that reflected the words spoken by the Worcester chief eight years earlier. To paraphrase, the Charleston chief decisively stated that he would not have changed a thing in respect to the method he used during the attack on the fire. This suggests that the incident commander (IC) firmly believed that his department used the safest strategy and tactics at the time. In other words, he also believed his firefighters fought the large hazardous structure fire “by the book.”
In 2013, firefighters from the Bryan (TX) Fire Department responded to a large structure that had no windows and was not equipped with a sprinkler system. During the incident, two career officers lost their lives and two firefighters were seriously injured after becoming engulfed by a flashover. While attempting to exit from the large Knights of Columbus Hall in zero visibility conditions and after the first-arriving officer became separated from his crew, the officer transmitted two distress calls. In the second emergency message to the IC, he stated that he was on the handline, but because of debris that had fallen on the hose he could not exit and was disoriented. A rapid intervention team (RIT) subsequently entered, located, and secured the officer; but as they evacuated the structure, they were all engulfed in fire as they attempted to reach the point of entry. On arrival, the IC established command and advised that the operation was in “offensive mode.” During firefighter interviews and according to the ensuing incident investigation, “No one reported that the fire should not be attacked offensively.”
In a more recent incident, San Antonio (TX) firefighters responded to an unprotected gym within a strip mall in May 2017. During this extremely dangerous arson fire, one firefighter from the first-arriving truck company lost his life after becoming separated from his crew and becoming disoriented in the structure. A second firefighter, also a member of the first-arriving truck company, similarly became disoriented but was removed from the structure. He sustained extensive burn injuries. During the attempt to rescue one of the two distressed truck members, one member of a RIT also was separated from his crew and became disoriented in the thick and hot blinding smoke. Fortunately, he was located and dragged from the heavily involved structure and was not injured. As he stood before a smoldering shell of a structure, the distraught chief reflected that because of the need to conduct a primary search, his firefighters were correct in using an offensive strategy during the operation.
It is conceivable that because strategies and tactics have worked safely and effectively in the past, many conscientious ICs would use them again and make statements comparable to those of the Worcester, Charleston, and San Antonio chief officers even though the outcomes also may have resulted in serious firefighter injuries or fatalities.
Importance of the Research-Safety Relationship
To provide excellent emergency services while maintaining self-survival during dangerous structure fires, firefighters routinely train with and employ firefighting methods considered to be as safe and effective as possible. However, when attempting to determine specific weaknesses associated with traditional procedures, national research institutes and local fire departments closely study the safety and effectiveness of the tactics, or the study is conducted using a combined national and local department effort. The information being sought is also often acquired from on-the-job experience, usually at great personal cost.
Structural firefighters have learned that fireground tactics cannot be safely implemented without first having a sound understanding of the real dangers they face. This understanding greatly underscores the importance of the research-safety relationship. When shared and implemented on the fireground, the new findings can increase firefighter safety. Conversely, failure to keep abreast of the most current research-based information concerning the managing of firefighting hazards and implementing these new strategic and tactical changes adds to the risks of firefighters, including that of firefighter disorientation.
Including these changes in your standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and basing them on the capability of your unique departmental resources usually may necessitate adjusting your existing SOGs. To prevent loss of the benefits of the most current tactical information available, review, in addition to major local fires, national research findings and national structural fatality reports, and adjust your department’s SOGs as necessary. This national review should be an ongoing process. Regardless of your department’s type, size, or location, failure to initiate changes after learning lessons from these other sources could result in firefighter injuries or deaths.
Assessing Structure Fire Danger
Assessing the danger associated with structure fires has been an area of considerable interest to safety and training officers, state fire marshals, and firefighter safety researchers such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Underwriters Laboratories, to name a few. Risk factors that contribute to overall structure fire danger include but are not limited to the occupancy type, the construction type, the amount and kinds of contents, and the size and height of structures.
Occupancy type or the way a structure is used is an important factor in risk assessment. Referring to a structure as residential or commercial during an initial report in and of itself provides responding firefighters with a sense of the level of danger to expect on arrival. The risk can involve a significant life safety issue in a residential structure; although not eliminated, the life safety risk may be lower in the nonresidential commercial structure, where occupants typically self-evacuate. The danger to firefighters associated with the fire consumption of residential furnishings is regarded as moderate, whereas the consumption of the various types of stock in a commercial occupancy may be high and necessitate major fire flows to control and ultimately extinguish the fire.
Construction type is absolutely a factor when assessing structure risk, especially with regard to the collapse potential and the presence of concealed spaces that allow for undetected and hazardous fire spread, which may drop to floor level and cut off the advancing firefighters’ means of egress.
With respect to amount and type of contents, again, and in close association with the type of occupancy involved, firefighters can be exposed to the heat of a residential structure fire involving typical household furnishings or, to a greater extreme, the greater risk associated with exposure to burning synthetic materials or the explosive potential of products related to the combustion of hazardous materials.
Size and height of a structure are also factors to consider in structural risk assessment. In general, firefighters regard small structure fires, such as small residential fires, as relatively safe to attack and extinguish. On the other hand, larger structures, such as warehouses and department stores, have expansive floor areas or high-rise structures that generally and instinctively are considered very dangerous. Therefore, the size and the height of a structure factor into the level of risk firefighters may be exposed to during working fire conditions. For safety, firefighters must consider these factors in assessing the ultimate danger of a working structure fire, and they must do this while contending with an active fire situation. In addition to the above risk factors, you must include whether the structure has an “opened” or “enclosed” architectural design.
The Significance of the Structural Design
In basic terms, opened structures have windows and doors that allow firefighters to promptly ventilate and to evacuate a structure, if needed, during a working fire. On the other hand, enclosed structures do not have an adequate number of windows or doors to promptly ventilate or for firefighters to use to evacuate if needed. Opened structures can cause life-threatening hazards that disorient and occasionally take the lives of firefighters. Never take lightly the risk presented by the opened structure.
The enclosed structure presents the hazards of zero visibility and disorientation and has the potential to cause greater numbers of firefighter fatalities through flashover, backdraft, collapse of the roof and floors, or continuous zero-visibility conditions. The injuries sustained in enclosed structure fires are the direct result of burns, asphyxiation caused by inhaling smoke or superheated gases, and blunt force trauma. Unprotected enclosed structures are extremely dangerous and should not be managed with the traditional method commonly used during residential opened structure fires. When it is possible to use an offensive strategy in this type of structure, it calls for a quick and aggressive interior attack from the unburned side.
Since firefighters are customarily and exclusively focused on executing fireground tactics safely and effectively within their departments, they may incorrectly perceive that the fire service in general is similarly delivering emergency services safely and effectively in their departments as well. Despite this misconception, the reality is that firefighter fatalities as a result of operating on the interior of enclosed structure fires continue to occur in departments using SOGs that are suitable for residential opened structures but that are unsafe for enclosed structure fires. For this reason, changes must be made to modernize procedures that have been shown to be consistently ineffective and unsafe.
In addition to other important safety concerns and to reference National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Life Safety Initiative #3, restructured SOGs should integrate risk management with incident management at the strategic, tactical, and task levels by incorporating the significance of the opened and enclosed structural design, the firefighter disorientation sequence, the wind factor, door control, size-up factors for opened and enclosed structures, transitional attack, the unknown-known method of decision making, and using hose evolutions that maximize the flow in a minimum amount of time.
Commanding officers use strategy and tactics they believe will provide the safest and most effective operation for the situation encountered. Strategy and tactics must always be based on the most current research available. In this regard, it cannot be overemphasized that firefighters must use SOGs that incorporate modern tactics to avoid the trauma associated with firefighter disorientation and other hazards. Every department must respect the importance of firefighter safety research and developing awareness and knowledge of their resulting policy changes as a priority in helping to ensure the safety and survival of their firefighters.
National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). 2011. “Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.” http://www.lifesafetyinitiatives.com/.
William R. Mora is a former captain and 33-year veteran of the San Antonio (TX) Fire Department, where he served in the emergency medical, training, and firefighting divisions. Mora has researched and written extensively on firefighter disorientation and enclosed-structure topics. He is a firefighter safety advocate and former Texas state advocate. He is on the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Everyone Goes Home program board and is a member of the Safety, Health and Survival Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Mora is the author of the “2003 U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study” and of Preventing Firefighter Disorientation: Enclosed Structure Tactics for the Fire Service (Fire Engineering, 2016).