Rapid Emergency Decision Making: Beyond the Five Senses


You can essentially break down any firefighting operation into a series of decisions. These decisions are based on the elements you receive in the initial alarm and are refined from information you obtain as you are responding. Once you arrive at the scene of the incident, the bombardment of sensory input (the building, the fire, the smoke, and so on) will formulate your strategy and tactics.

On the surface, this all appears to be a logical progression of rational decisions: Examine the problem, consider the alternatives, and plug in a solution. There is, however, another dimension in an experienced firefighter’s thinking that guides him through most of his emergency activity. This type of thinking and decision making was in evidence at a recent Fire Department of New York fire operation.

We received an alarm at 1217 hours for a structural fire. On arrival, first units were met with a well-involved fire on the top floor of a six-story, 100- by 75-foot apartment building of ordinary construction. They immediately implemented the logical tactics: Establish a water supply, ladder the building, initiate searches, and request additional help because of the life hazard and long hose stretches involved.

However, when I got to the scene, it was obvious from the intensity and stress of the fireground radio traffic that this was not unfolding as a typical top-floor firefight. There had been several “urgent” and one “Mayday” transmissions just prior to my arrival, and one of the first radio messages I received was that a firefighter had “gone out of the window.”

The chief of Battalion 15 met me in the street and gave me a quick overall appraisal of the situation and told me the locations of the units that were already at work inside the building. Given the extent of the problems with which we were dealing, we requested a second alarm for additional help. To gain control of the radio traffic, I immediately ordered all personnel to cease their transmissions unless they had an urgent message to broadcast.

Having established workable communications, I contacted the chief of Battalion 27, who was supervising operations at the fire location on the top floor. He immediately informed me that the Mayday situation had been resolved. The firefighter involved was in a safe location on the rear fire escape, the initial engine had a charged hoseline, and personnel were in the process of extinguishing the fire. Within minutes, a worst-case scenario had been avoided.

Fortunately, the majority of our bread-and-butter fires are brought to a safe and successful conclusion. However, each of these fires has the potential for disaster if the wrong confluence of factors falls into place. A postincident review provided an insight into how close this fire came to falling into that category.

The first units arrived at the scene within three minutes of the alarm transmission. Because of the extent of the hose stretch (10 hose lengths were required), the first two engines (48 and 62) paired up to get the first hoseline in position. The interior team of the first truck (Ladder 37) proceeded to the top floor to locate the fire and initiate a search for life. Personnel were sent to the roof to provide vertical ventilation and to check for fire extension in the cockloft. In the rear of the building, a ventilation team proceeded to a fire escape to provide horizontal ventilation.

Engine 48 advanced the hoseline into the fire apartment to extinguish the fully involved living room. At the same time, a Ladder 37 firefighter vented the window of a small adjoining bedroom from the rear fire escape (Figure 1). He then entered the bedroom through the window and proceeded to search it. There was a minimal amount of fire in that room as he entered. While he was searching, he broke the other bedroom window to alleviate the smoke.

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Figure 1. Layout of Apartment

Shortly after the second window was removed, conditions in the bedroom changed dramatically. The heat quickly intensified, fire lit up in the room, and the firefighter was forced to dive out of the same window he had used to enter. The way it was later described is that he bailed out “in a ball of flames.” He fell through the stairway opening in the fire escape (photo 1) and landed on the steps halfway between the fifth and sixth floors. Photo 2 is indicative of the height he would have fallen had he missed the fire escape altogether.

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(1) Photos by author unless otherwise noted.
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At this time, a firefighter from the second truck company (Ladder 32) was in position on the rear fire escape assisting with ventilation. He issued the Mayday transmission, fearing that other members of Ladder 37 may have been trapped in the bedroom as it lit up. On hearing the Mayday, Battalion 27 immediately ordered the rapid intervention team (Ladder 56) to the floor below the fire, where it would be in position to assist.

While all of this was going on, Engine 48 was knocking down the fire in the adjoining living room. However, despite applying an adequate water stream that was extinguishing the visible fire, the company officer continued to sense an unnatural presence of intense heat. At that moment, he transmitted an urgent radio message to get the second hoseline in position and immediately ordered his line to be backed out toward the apartment entrance door. From that position, they were able to contain the fire that had exploded in the bedroom.

What had been just another “typical” residential fire had suddenly displayed very atypical heat and fire growth, had driven a firefighter out of a window onto (and nearly off of) a fire escape, and had generated several urgent messages and one Mayday radio message.

The decisions that had to be made at this operation were made quickly, efficiently, and under a great deal of stress. A number of lessons were reinforced by the factors that shaped these decisions as well as in the manner in which they were made.




Never assume. Even a “standard” fire has the potential to go bad in an instant. Conditions can change drastically. The bedroom that the firefighter entered from the fire escape went from tolerable conditions to a flashover situation in seconds. Photo 3 shows a charred dresser in the bedroom and displays the extent of rapid temperature buildup. Most apartments are loaded with plastics and foam-cushioned mattresses and furniture. These products are oil based and will burn with great intensity.

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Urgent/Mayday transmissions.An urgent or a Mayday message should be immediately transmitted. All nonessential radio traffic must cease. If necessary, the incident commander must take command of the fireground radio traffic to gain control of the situation and gather information. At this incident, Battalion 27 effectively conducted a roll call to account for all personnel.

It is well worth drilling on roll call procedures. Be prepared to conduct a roll call so you will be able to do it efficiently when you need it.

Know your way out. Photo 4 shows the window the firefighter used to enter the bedroom from the fire escape. It does not show the metal child protection window bars that were originally in place. He removed the bars prior to going into the window, ensuring for himself a rapid means of egress from the room.

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Every time you enter a building through a window, assume that you will have to get out very quickly. Completely remove child bars, air-conditioner supports, blinds, and other obstacles.

Some experts have said that a firefighter can only survive flashover conditions if he is no more than five feet from his exit. This firefighter survived with relatively minor injuries because, first, he had the situational awareness to know his way out of the room and, second, he had proactively removed the child bars and didn’t get hung up in the window.

Two-in/two-out rule: The two-in/two-out rule is not just an academic concept. It is a vital safety tool on the fireground. When the Ladder 37 firefighter entered the bedroom window, a firefighter from Ladder 32 stayed on the fire escape. This position allowed him to rapidly transmit the Mayday message and to assist the Ladder 37 member in getting back out through the window.

Personal protective equipment.The proper use of hoods, masks, and other protective gear definitely prevented serious injury at this fire. Photo 5 shows the turnout coat of the firefighter who entered the bedroom window. Note the light brown discoloration caused by the excessive heat levels reached in the room. The melted eye shields in photo 6 are on the helmet belonging to one of the Ladder 37 interior team firefighters. We work in an extremely hostile and unforgiving environment and need to take every advantage we can of our protective gear.

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(5) Photo by Battalion Chief Paul Kozlowski, Fire Department of New York.
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(6) Photo by Battalion Chief John L. Sullivan, Fire Department of New York.

Transfer of command.A clearly defined transfer of command is essential to maintain safety and continuity at any fire or emergency operation. At this incident, the chief of Battalion 15 was available for a face-to-face meeting in the street when I arrived at the scene. He was able to provide a great deal of vital information at a time when a lot was going on. Also, meeting in person kept us from further contributing to the fireground radio congestion. Following the transfer of information, he became available for other assignments at the fire.

Autoexposure.We generally think of autoexposure as something that affects only the floor above the source of the fire. That is not always the case. In this top-floor fire, there was no window above, but there was an adjacent window in the same apartment. You can see from photo 7 that the window in the small bedroom was no more than five feet from the living room window.

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With a charged hoseline already in the process of extinguishing the fire, it made sense to vent the bedroom to facilitate the search of that room. However, it is likely that the proximity of the bedroom window to the fire venting out of the living room may have been a factor in the rapid growth of the bedroom fire. The quick redeployment of the hoseline was the key to resolving this problem.

Intuitive fireground decisions.Whether making decisions in our lives or on the fireground, we use basically two methods. If we are facing a situation with which we have little previous knowledge or experience, we will use the analytical process. We weigh various options, consider their consequences, and then choose a path. This process takes some time to implement and is generally used by new or inexperienced personnel.

On the other hand, people with extensive backgrounds can instantly draw from a variety of mental images stemming from their experiences. This often allows them to quickly and intuitively choose the correct course of action. This is one reason we should always critique our fire operations. There may be items we can store in our mental “libraries” to be recalled at a future similar incident.

This theory of decision making stems from research psychologist Gary Klein (Sources of Power, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998), who has done extensive studies on how people make decisions under emergency conditions. He studied fire, emergency medical services, hospital, and military personnel and found that many of them could make instant high-pressure decisions but couldn’t articulate exactly how they had made such decisions. They were able to make instinctive choices based on recognition of, and a reaction to, a situation that they had previously encountered.

When events are not unfolding as previous experience tells us they should, there is an instant sense of alarm. This is exactly what the Engine 48 officer felt as he was supervising the fire attack in the living room. He knew in his gut that the heat levels in that room were not normal. This led him to redeploy the hoseline and to issue the urgent radio requests for the positioning of the second hose.

All of the units at this fire contributed a number of rational, well-planned, and well-executed tactics that led to the successful outcome. However, it may have been an instantaneous, intuitive decision by an engine officer that made the difference in containing the fire and avoiding disaster.

We carry within ourselves vast bodies of experience that can quickly and accurately guide our decisions. Although we have to make use of our five senses in firefighting, our experience at this operation makes a case for our also tuning into this “sixth sense.”

THOMAS DUNNE is a deputy chief and a 29-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and has extensive experience in mid-Manhattan and the Bronx. He has been the incident commander at hundreds of fires in residential, commercial, and high-rise buildings. Dunne has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering and has presented at conferences across the country. He also serves as an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy. A Fordham University graduate, he writes and lectures on a variety of fire service topics.


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