Ihave learned a lot over the past 30 years. One of the hardest pills to swallow or the toughest lesson I learned is that things don’t come wrapped in nice convenient packages in our profession. In the world of physics, for example, gases always flow from areas of higher pressure to areas of lower pressure.
When I first came on the job and started trying to “figure” things out, I soon learned firefighting rarely allows for the use of the words “never” and “always.” When you first come to the job, you are told that life safety is our first priority. In that case, a two-month firefighter might think that “if life safety is always our first priority, then we should always search a building first to ensure that everyone is out of the building.” When was the last time you went to a fire and pulling an attack line wasn’t the first action taken? That is “almost always” the way we operate. But if that’s the case, where does this life safety thing fit in? I think I know the answer, but, as moderator, I’ll hold off commenting and see what you think. (Here’s a hint: There’s more than one way to skin a cat.)
–John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.
Question: Your engine pulls up first at a house fire with heavy smoke but no fire showing. No occupants are outside, but neighbors say they believe people are in there. Given this scenario, would your first-due engine advance a line to perform a primary search for life or advance a line to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire?
Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: Our first-arriving engine would do the following:
• Provide dispatch with a squestionize-up of the incident on arrival.
¿ Stretch an attack line into the structure.
¿ The engineer would make the hydrant connection.
¿ The crew would advance in and attempt to locate the fire and begin extinguishment.
¿ While advancing the line, the crew would sweep the areas adjacent to their direction of travel. They would attempt to remove the victim(s) from the building, if any are found, or call for assistance.
I have had several discussions with firefighters from across the country who believe that the first line and crew should move toward the sleeping areas to search for possible victims, with life safety and rescue as the highest priorities. There is no argument about these priorities, but we often can accomplish them by locating the fire and putting it out.
All too often, a crew will enter the building and go for the rescue and not attempt to do anything with the fire. During that process, the fire overruns the firefighters or cuts off their path to the exit. As Fire Department of New York Deputy Assistant Chief John Norman has been saying for more than 30 years, “Put the fire out, and most of your problems go away.” It sounds kind of cold, but the vast majority of the time we can stop the fire’s progress just by getting the first line in and on it. Many very good and well-respected fire service instructors have said that 95 percent of our residential fires are put out with the first attack line. By doing this, we reduce the amount of heat and smoke being produced, get the place opened up and ventilated, and improve the environment for any potential victims (and ourselves).
Gary Seidel, chief, Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department
Response: I would expect the first-in engine company to give a complete size-up:
• “Engine 1 is on-scene of a one-story single-family residence, 123 South First Avenue, with heavy smoke coming from the A/B corner. We have a report of occupants still inside.” We have just described the incident conditions, percent involved, and life-safety situation.
• The engine company officer calls additional resources, if needed.
• The officer describes the action being taken by his crew: “Engine 1 has taken the hydrant and is deploying the two firefighters to fire attack.”
• The company officer assumes or passes command. I respect the decision our company officers make-assume command as is the case described above, or pass command, in which case the officer and two firefighters would take fire attack. This could be the case based on the life-safety priority of people inside.
• If the officer assumes command, other units are assigned to tactical operations, including what our personnel are taught through prior training in strategy and tactics. We ensure that our firefighters base their assignments and actions on the “known priorities.” These include lessons we have been taught by our fire service mentors over the years: “RECEO-SV” and “WALLACE WAS HOT.”
It begins and ends with the decisions of the first-in engine company.
John Salka, battalion chief, Fire Department of New York
Response: The first-arriving engine company would almost always be stretching and operating the first hoseline. There are times when an engine may arrive alone, before any other units. Even then, however, unless someone is hanging out a window or is visible on arrival, the crew would probably be stretching the first hoseline. FDNY is fortunate that we would have a full first-alarm assignment responding to the situation in the question-routinely, three engines, two ladders, and a battalion chief. With five or six people on each apparatus, engine firefighters rarely need to do engine and truck duties. Many fire departments do not have such a response assignment, and the first-arriving engine company might have to take immediate life-saving action. Now with heavy smoke and no visible occupant in need of immediate removal, the engine company must stretch a hoseline!
If no other companies or assistance will be arriving immediately, they will certainly have to force entry and begin a search for the fire and any victims, but they must accomplish these duties while advancing their hoseline. During their search, they should be initially looking for the fire and at the same time, if staffing permits, searching for victims as they move into the structure.
I would not advise them to drag the hoseline along on a victim-only search and rescue mission because they could end up in a dangerous situation such as being cut off or trapped by advancing fire. If you think having that hoseline eliminates that possibility, you’re wrong. Firefighters with charged hoselines have been burned and even killed.
Find the fire and knock it down; then continue to search for victims. If enough staffing arrives on that first engine, the line can be stretched and a two-person team can begin the search at the same time. The important point to remember here is that the most important tactic at any fire is extinguishing the fire. Put out or knock down the advancing fire, and all of your other problems, such as possible victims, ventilation, and extension to exposures, disappear. The three most important items at a structural fire are WATER, WATER, and WATER.
Leigh T. Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue,Manatee County, FL
Response: Based on the information given and the staffing of four firefighters on an engine company, the actions I would expect by the first-due engine company would be based on our normal riding-position duties, assuming no other units are on-scene:
• driver/chauffer sets pump;
• officer establishes command;
• officer sizes up by performing a 360° walk-around, if possible;
• officer reports findings;
• officer determines line size and placement;
• firefighter 1 and driver stretch line;
• firefighter 2 brings PPV blower to front or rear; and
• officer and firefighter 1 enter structure with handline and conduct room-by-room search.
The entry point and search direction, of course, would be based on the officer’s observations on arrival and the findings during the size-up. Also, it is important to note that if the location of the fire is not known, your crew may find the fire before they find the victim. If this is the case, the fire should be knocked down before the crew proceeds with the search.
Our department sometimes uses PPV in conjunction with fire attack for this type of residential fire. If the officer is met with the proper conditions for use of PPV during fire attack, this tactic can greatly assist a crew in this situation. On the other hand-and like other advanced tactics such as vent-enter-search (VES)-if the conditions are not conducive or the crews do not have experience with these advanced tactics, they should not attempt them.
The main point of the question posed is a basic “search or fight fire” choice. With the information given, not knowing the location of the fire and knowing that the house is pushing smoke pretty “good,” if the occupants of the house are to be saved, a quick search by the officer and firefighter 1 would be my choice. It seems to me that the fire location, if not determined during size-up, would be quite evident shortly after arrival.
Thomas Dunne, deputy chief, Fire Department of New York
Response: The best initial strategy for an engine at a structural fire is to protect the means of egress. Engine personnel should not get involved in searches or other ladder duties unless there are extenuating circumstances. The heavy smoke condition and the possibility of trapped occupants must be addressed, but they should not distract the engine from performing its prime function.
The hoseline can ensure a vital escape route for occupants and firefighters. A water supply must be established, and sufficient lengths of uncharged hose should be flaked out until the exact location of the fire is determined. Once the engine has confined the fire, it will be possible to accomplish aggressive searches throughout the house.
If the ladder was seriously delayed, I would consider assigning any available engine firefighters to initiate ventilation and search-but only after the hose is in position to operate.
A charged hoseline in the right location is the foundation on which all safe tactics are based. If you have ever searched the floor above a fire, you will surely recall how reassuring it was to hear the sound of water hitting the floor below you. Sometimes a properly positioned hoseline may even be more effective than an aggressive search in saving lives.
Nothing stirs up a firefighter as much as the challenge of getting to people trapped in a fire. However, in this scenario, a rapid and effective hoseline stretch offers the best means of extinguishing fire and preserving life.
Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant, Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services
Response: As the company officer, I’m expected to make an educated decision on what steps to take initially. As the first-due officer, I must have knowledge of the building’s construction, available personnel, water supply, and so on, to make a decision that will have a positive impact on the fire. Where is the smoke coming from? What are the color and velocity of the smoke? All of the above factor into where the line is placed and the size of line that comes off the engine first.
The first line would be stretched based on my initial size-up. Although the rescue of possibly trapped occupants is a top priority, the safety of my crew is my biggest concern. Our thermal imaging camera would be used in an attempt to find the fire. If we can quickly locate, extinguish, and ventilate the fire, all other operations will fall into place, including a well-performed search and rescue of the involved structure.
Today, we may not always be able to stretch our lines and rush in to find possible victims. New construction may dictate otherwise. As company officers, we must continue to educate ourselves on the new dangers that face us every day. I must seriously weigh the risk to myself and my firefighters vs. the benefit of rushing into the building. Think before you act so everyone goes home.
John O’Neal, chief, Manassas Park (VA) Fire Department
Response: Bystander information may or may not be correct; however, given the scenario, the expectation for the first engine company would be to give a proper size-up for other responding companies and announce the passing of command to the second-arriving company because of the limited number of personnel who will be needed for the fire attack and search. The crew would be expected to deploy an attack line and initiate an interior attack and simultaneously search with a crew of two or three personnel, with one person carrying a thermal imaging camera.
This scenario is very likely for our jurisdiction. A significant portion of the population is transient and may or may not be fluent in English. Like others in the area, we are experiencing significant problems with residential overcrowding. We no longer can gauge whether victims are likely to inhabit a residential building by the time of day or night, or the presence or absence of vehicles in the driveway, or whether other occupants escaped or if others are still in the building. Even the absence of electrical service to a structure does not preclude the presence of people residing in the house.
Like all fire incidents, the first-due officer has to make a risk vs. benefit decision based on the conditions and information received on arrival at the scene. Conducting a rapid search and simultaneous extinguishment or confinement of the fire is the only way to ensure viable victims are rescued in a timely manner.
Josh Thompson, battalion chief, Avon (IN) Fire Department
Response: Life safety is the most important priority on the fireground, but it begins with our life safety. I would expect the first-due engine to pull up spotting or hitting a hydrant, give a radio size-up with assignments of the next two companies, and determine a mode of action-in this case, fast attack.
The company officer should get out and direct one of the jump-seaters to pull a line to an entrance location. The officer should then do a quick 360° walk-around (preferably with a thermal imaging camera) and try to locate possible victims and/or the location of the fire. If a victim is located, the CONFIRMED victim should be immediately rescued. If no victim is found on the walk-around, the CO should meet “backup” with the rest of his crew and enter for an attack with a pretty good idea of where the fire is.
The attack crew should advance directly to the seat of the fire, searching quickly as they go, and knock down the fire. The officer should then be able to determine the next most appropriate action based on whether other units are on the scene. If no other units have arrived, initiate a primary search; otherwise, everyone should be doing the assignment they were given during the initial size-up. I was taught a long time ago that “if you put out the fire, generally your problems will go away” [thanks, Chief (Ret.) Tom Brennan] and that rescue has priority when there are confirmed, savable victims.
Craig H. Shelley, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, fire protection advisor, Advanced Fire Training Center
Response: I agree that life safety is the first priority but, in many cases, the search functions take place without a hoseline in position to increase survivability of the victims and the rescuers. The stretch of the first hoseline and the primary search should take place simultaneously. One of my officers used to say, “If you put out the fire, you eliminate the rescue.” I agree with that statement in most cases.
Departmental SOPs and staffing guidelines should provide staffing levels to enable the stretching of the first hoseline and the primary search. In the above scenario, a risk-benefit analysis should be done. What other factors indicate a life hazard? What is the time of day? Are automobiles in the driveway, indicating someone is home? Are air-conditioners running, indicating that the occupants are present? What is the reason the neighbors believe that occupants are in the home? Has someone performed a 360° walk-around inspection of the perimeter? Victims who may have exited a window or rear door could be in the rear. All of these questions should be answered before a rescue team is committed.
In many cases, departments place all efforts into rescue and lose the structure because the fire was not contained by a hoseline. Why? This statement found in fire service textbooks has proven true in my 38 years in the fire service: “More lives are saved by a properly positioned hoseline than any other method.”
John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue
Response: I would expect my crews to take in a line and attempt to locate the fire. If they stumble onto a victim before they locate and knock down the fire, that’s great! As Tom Brennan says, “All things being equal and [when] staffing is low, put the fire out!” Sometimes life safety can be best addressed by doing something other than searching.
Paul J. Urbano, captain, Anchorage (AK) Fire Department
Response: Since rescue is our mission, I have to ask myself, which option would give us the greatest chance for a rescue?
First, I need to address a few factors to help me choose the best option:
• Am I arriving on a three- or four-person engine company?
• Is there a truck, a rescue, or another engine company on my tail?
• Where is the smoke?
• How well can we perform ventilation?
Sometimes, locating the fire helps us find the victims in need of rescue first. If another company is following me in the door, my best choice may be to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire while the other company slips past my company to perform a primary search.
If we are on our own for a while, we may choose to vent for life (pulling the fire away from the victims) and perform vent-enter-search (VES) where we think the victims may be. If I choose to go in to perform the primary search, I need to ensure our backs are covered so the fire doesn’t grow unchecked, placing us and the victims in a worse situation.
There are several ways to make a rescue; as an officer on a first-due engine, I need to know what resources I have and when I’ll have them. Then I need to choose the best option to put my company or another company in the best position to make the rescue.
Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, battalion chief, Gresham (OR) Fire and Emergency Services
Response: This decision depends on a number of interrelated factors including time of day, design of the house (single or multilevel), and location of the smoke. Size-up under these conditions is absolutely critical to evaluate fire and structural conditions as well as the likelihood that conditions are survivable for building occupants.
There have been many cases in which ignoring the fire based on reported occupants has resulted in firefighter and civilian fatalities because of rapidly deteriorating fire conditions, even when the search crew had a hoseline. It is also important to recognize that a crew with a hoseline is unlikely to be able to perform fire attack and primary search at the same time (with typical company staffing).
Given the limited information available, I would assign the first-due engine to fire attack and assign another unit in the first-alarm assignment to primary search. This maximizes the probability of maintaining a survivable environment for the occupants and the safety of the firefighters operating inside the building.
This provides a simple answer to a complex and dynamic situation. What if things change? Information provided by the first-in crew might lead to a change in assignment. For example, confining the fire by cooling the hot gases and fuel in the involved room and closing a door may permit the first-in company to safely extend a primary search to adjacent rooms.
Russ Chapman, lieutenant, Milford (CT) Fire Department
Response: This is a debate that is almost as much fun as smooth bore nozzles vs. combination nozzles. There are too many factors to consider before giving a pat answer. What is the size of the building? What type of smoke? Is it thick and pulsing or moderate? Is fire showing already? Is the building vented yet? Can this be a quick VES? Can someone make a quick sweep, or is a detailed primary search needed? What size water tank do you have and how much firefighting time do you have with it? (You will not have time to make up a hydrant.) Can you make a quick knockdown? Are victims at the windows, or have witnesses seen them near an opening? Where is your first-due ladder company? Where is your second-due engine company? Where is any help, for that matter? What is the staffing of your department? Could you split your resources safely?
All these factors and more must be addressed within a short time. Finally, what is the risk vs. benefit ratio? We all would make the attempt, but to what extent? This probably will be said by every respondent, but an old firefighter once told me that putting out the fire solves your problem-a point well taken.
Jim Mason, lieutenant, Chicago (IL) Fire Department
Response: The size-up must include a location, the extent of the fire, along with the construction type. The building is of stable construction (not truss-we preplanned). The neighbors believe someone may still be in there. This is not a verified/witnessed report on the front lawn, but the stable construction allows us “maneuver room” to get inside to investigate. When we open up a building with a heavy smoke condition, it may light up, so we need a hoseline for protection. Our primary goal is to save lives before property, so we would search with protection of the hose-unless the fire was easily accessible so we could get water on it and protect the search at the same time. To protect the search, we protect the stairs or just get the nozzle between the fire and the search.
The search areas would be the most likely spots to find victims. In a residence, civilians fall victim because they are sleeping or are incapacitated for some reason. The sleeping areas, like couches and bedrooms, are primary search targets along with the path of egress. If the house is two stories or more, I tell my crews, “Let’s get the line in place.” Then I’ll go upstairs to the bedrooms because I have the radio. If we are passing bedrooms or a couch, I’ll push my backup firefighter in the right direction while telling him to search. Inside, everyone repeats what they hear, so we all know what is said. After the search, whoever went reports back to others for accountability-i.e., “back on the line,” “got someone; going out,” for example.
Kai W. Rieger, captain, Jackson Township Fire Department, Canton, Ohio
Response: We have three-person engine companies with usually a four-person truck company on the alarm assignment. With our usual response profile, we would stretch a line to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire. We would search the immediate areas off the attack line, advise incoming companies of our progress, and relay any pertinent information. Although there is great temptation to “go for the grab,” it takes discipline to stay on task and put a line between the fire and the occupants and the uninvolved structure. Our engine company’s stretching a line to the fire and searching the immediate areas buys time for the truck and other companies to search the rest of the building.
Remember, this is a team effort. Each player has assigned duties so that the team performs according to plan. If the fire is left unattended while we search, the fire and toxic products of combustion will rapidly spread and only make our overall job much harder and ultimately untenable.
Stan Mettinger, captain, Brooksville (FL) Fire Department
Response: Based on the limited information and no visual of exactly how much heavy smoke is showing and from where, this is a tough call. If heavy black/brown smoke is being generated and there is no visible fire, the chance that a flashover will occur is obviously great. You have to ask yourself, “Is anyone that could be in there still viable based on what I am seeing?” This is definitely a risk vs. benefit situation. How much are we willing to risk for something that is “believed to be”?
If you risk it, then a quick aggressive attack may eliminate the problem and facilitate a rescue, but conditions should be monitored when advancing. If you can get a line on the fire and effect confinement and extinguishment, the volume of smoke will decrease and heat conditions will be reduced, improving the chance of survival for potential victims.
I would have a line pulled and advance in an attempt to locate the fire and confine it; the advancing line would search as it goes. Allowing that line to operate in the building with no attention given to the fire would allow the situation to deteriorate and jeopardize firefighter safety. We must focus on taking care of our own.
Steve Kraft, deputy chief, Richmond Hill Fire Department, Ontario, Canada
Response: In our department, the first-arriving apparatus would have four firefighters onboard (one captain, a driver, and two firefighters). We are also very fortunate because we dispatch four apparatus, all staffed with a minimum of four firefighters, to any reported “smoke-showing” incident. A chief officer is also dispatched to such incidents. This type of response is comforting to our firefighters because they know that a second truck is usually right behind them.
The first thing the first-arriving company would do is to ensure that the building is sufficiently ventilated. Considering that heavy smoke is showing, with no fire, breaking a few windows quickly would probably suffice. Ensuring that the possibility of a backdraft is eliminated would be their number-one priority. Once this is done, the crew would enter the building with a charged hoseline. The origin of the smoke would determine where they would enter the structure. Considering they don’t have much information (i.e., number of victims, location, for example), a front-door entry is most likely. Their priority would be search and rescue; however, if they locate the fire, they will extinguish it.
I was told early in my career: “You either remove the victim from the fire, or you remove the fire from the victim.” Our company would work its way throughout the home with its main focus on search and rescue. Once other apparatus arrive, RIT, ventilation, a safety officer, accountability, and a second search team would be established.
John Anderson, firefighter, Clifton (NJ) Fire Department
Response: We recently had an incident with this exact scenario. The dispatch was structure fire with occupants trapped. The first unit on-scene observed the neighbors trying to gain entry. The neighbor “knew” the occupant was home. There are some critical decisions to be made quickly. Being understaffed like most of us are, one company will have a hard time multitasking. In my department, there is no procedure in place, so the company officer must use his own training, experience, and intestinal fortitude to make his decision.
The most obvious and quickest action to undertake is the primary search. This addresses the life-safety situation for the resident. It causes another issue by putting unprotected firefighters in harm’s way. There are many variables involved and seconds to make choices. In this scenario, there was no visible fire. Will the search team find it? Will it be cut off by it? Should the company have stretched a line? Will it take too long to deploy? How far behind is the truck to search? Should they vent? Where could the victim be? There are many more variables for the mix.
In my department, I think the search is the best way to use our minimal staffing to give the occupant the best chance of survival.
In our incident mentioned above, primary and secondary searches turned up negative. After contacting the daughter, we learned the resident was in the hospital. We couldn’t take the chance that the neighbor was wrong!
Robert DiPietro, deputy chief, New Britain (CT) Fire Department
Response: In our department, the initial assignment would consist of three engines, one ladder, and one heavy rescue. Each company except the rescue is staffed with one officer and three firefighters. The rescue is staffed with an officer and two firefighters. On arrival, after completing a size-up report and establishing command, the first-due engine would stretch a line to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire. The responsibility for search and rescue is divided between the ladder and rescue company. The ladder company would search the fire floor; the rescue, the floors above.
These assignments are predetermined because we can rely on the response to be there. If for some reason the assignment is not there or is delayed, the officer must decide whether to fight the fire or search for occupants. Sometimes a quick extinguishment can do more to save the occupants than allowing the fire to burn while the company searches. Stretching the line protects not only the occupants but also the searchers until the search is complete. Another strategy is to split the company. One-half attacks the fire; the other half conducts a search. This may not be possible and still satisfy the two-in/two-out rule. However, a confirmed report of people trapped can breach this rule.
Ed Herrmann, lieutenant, Boynton Beach (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: I’ll assume that all of the other units (not just engines) responding to this fire are significantly delayed. We’re on our own for the first few minutes. After combining some experience with the information taken from “The Art of Reading Smoke,” we should be able to get a fair idea of where the seat of the fire is. With this, I could spend the time extinguishing the fire because it is the cause of the problem. In this case, however, the picture I see requires the opposite strategy.
The description of “heavy smoke but no fire showing” means that we could lose precious minutes attempting to find and extinguish the seat of the fire when smoke is the immediate enemy for the occupants. Since life safety is ALWAYS our first priority, we have to remove these victims from this toxic atmosphere as quickly as possible. Minutes spent doing anything else can make all the difference in this outcome. Anyone who says “It will take only five minutes to attack this fire” should first try holding their breath that long.
That said, we will keep the attack line (and thermal imaging camera) in hand; watch for signs of flashover, backdraft, smoke explosion, or structural instability; and quickly knock down the main body of fire if we come across it. Once our line is charged and a water supply is established (if possible), the driver/operator will assist in ventilating by taking out windows near the seat of the fire.
Mike Bucy, assistant chief, fire operations, Portage (IN) Fire Department
Response: What makes this question interesting is that there is not one answer. Some may answer they will follow their SOP or SOG, but that is the bigger problem. The key word in these documents is “standard.” I don’t believe this scenario is “standard.” In this scenario, if the house is huge, locating and extinguishing the fire may be the best bet. A smaller house may lend itself to rescue. Also the configuration-one, two, or more stories-would be a huge factor. The real answer (and what makes firefighting the best and most challenging job in the world) is, “It depends.” Too many firefighters and civilians get hurt or killed because of “old-school” thinking such as, “This is the way we always do it.” Our training needs to take on critical decision making along with traditional methods of teaching.
Mike Daley, lieutenant, Monroe Township (NJ) Fire District #3
Response: It is paramount that the first-arriving officer perform a thorough size-up on arrival. That being said, the primary consideration of the first-due officer during this size-up should be the location and extent of the fire. An effective operation cannot begin until this is determined. The location and extent will assist in identifying the severity of the life hazard, which will lead to decisions for an effective strategy.
Our first-due engine is staffed with a chauffeur, an officer, and two firefighters; personnel will be stretched thin for the first few minutes of the alarm. The officer has to decide which decision would be best while keeping firefighter safety the number-one priority. Based on the given information, a minimum second alarm should be struck to fill all of the necessary functions and to staff the tactical reserve at the scene.
The primary concern of the first-arriving officer is that the most accessible means of egress for the victims, if there is one in the structure, is being cut off by the smoke and heat of the fire. Therefore, it may be best to stretch a handline into the structure to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire while keeping two firefighters outside to serve as a FAST team. As other units arrive, they can be assigned other necessary operations on-scene.
Andrew Bencomo, deputy chief of operations, Las Cruces (NM) Fire Department
Response: Our operations require that our number-one priority always be life safety (ours and our customers). We search all tenable buildings and always assume a structure is occupied until proven otherwise. Therefore, our personnel are trained to perform whichever function will provide the greatest potential for rescue/life safety. In other words, if locating, confining, and extinguishing the fire provide the greatest opportunity to be successful with rescue/life safety, then that’s what they should do. If a search prior to fire attack provides this, then so be it. Because all fire scenes do not act and react in the same manner, the company officer must be well trained and make good decisions as to how to accomplish the number-one priority.
Marty Ogan, training officer, Nampa (ID) Fire Department
Response: I would need a little more information, such as what my 360° walk-around shows on the B, C, and D sides. Do I have smoke from all sides? All floors? What color is the smoke? Is it under pressure? What does my thermal imaging camera show as I walk around the outside? What is the time of day? Day of the week? Could I do a VES on each room?
Based on the little information I have at this time, I would go for a search and rescue.
Jean Solecki, lieutenant, West Bradford (PA) Fire Company
Response: Our volunteer fire company services a densely residential suburban/rural township. We always encourage our firefighters to follow the fireground priorities: life first. However, we are all aware that fireground tactics sound great from behind a desk. In that vein, as officers, we include crew safety as a life priority. The crews may deviate as the situation dictates to preserve life, then property. In this scenario, I would have to say our crews would search for life with a line. Is that always the best approach? Not always. If there is no officer on the scene, we ask that the pump operator try to do a little detective work, if possible, to find out the location of the occupants outside of the dwelling.
Otherwise, that is the fire officer’s first priority as the crew is searching within and juggling other details. If our engine has two crews, which it normally does, one crew will search and the other will locate, confine, and extinguish to eliminate hazards. (RIT is always on initial dispatch.)
James W. McGuire III, CFI, CFEI, CFPE, FI II, CEM, assistant fire marshal and deputy emergency management coordinator, Langhorne, PA
Response: The first engine’s job is to pull line unless it has a point-specific location for the trapped occupant-i.e., hanging out a window or a confirmed trapped occupant in one room for a quick vent-enter-search. This tactic has one key part, being able to control the door. This creates a tenable environment for the search team. The job of the first engine is to prepare a safe entry and EXIT for the search team. Everyone has a job. If the team works together, things go smoothly-everyone goes home.
Douglas C. True, assistant chief,fire prevention, TSgt, USAF (Ret.)
Response: I was intrigued to see this even come up in any kind of discussion. Any firefighting operation has the following priorities:
1. save lives and
2. save property and protect the environment.
I have always thought these priorities were in order of precedence. If the possibility exists for saving a life, then saving the lives of those within an involved structure must always be the highest priority.
Chad Jorgensen, chief, Bayshore Fire/Rescue, N. Ft. Myers, FL
Response: The first-in engine company would attempt to search the structure with a protection line in service at virtually the same time. In addition, using positive-pressure ventilation in conjunction with an exhaust point placed high would help to protect the viability of victims and the safety of rescuers.
Staffing is always an issue for our department; as such, rescue with a protection line would begin before we have a RIT on-scene. Sure, we may technically meet the two-in/two-out requirement by having the engineer and the officer outside, but they are not a RIT team.
If the protection team can isolate the fire by closing a door, it would. The obvious idea here is to protect whatever airspace there may be close to the floor. Normally when operating a combination nozzle, the thermal balance of the fire area would become inverted, eliminating whatever breathable air that may be there.
At some point, the protection line would have to begin suppression operations or leave the structure if a defensive attack is not the choice.
Rhett Fleitz, lieutenant, Roanoke (VA) Fire-EMS Department
Response: In our department, the ladder trucks normally perform search duties. However, if there is even a remote possibility that occupants are in the building, the first unit on-scene begins the primary search. In this scenario, the first-due engine has a duty to act as the search team. Saving and protecting life is our number-one task on the fireground. The first-due engine should stretch a line and perform a primary search immediately. If the crew finds the fire, it can keep it in check or extinguish it while finishing the search. As more units arrive on-scene, the remaining tasks can be completed.
Jason Camper, firefighter, Parker (CO) Fire District
Response: Victim search and removal is the first priority. Some would say that you put out the fire and the problem goes away. I disagree; the problem for the victims does not go away until they are out of the building breathing fresh air. Any delay in doing this reduces their chance for survival. Obviously, it would be ideal to have search, ventilation, and attack happening as close to “simultaneously” as possible, but this cannot happen for the majority of us. Three- to five-minute delays in subsequent arriving units prevent this. All of the more common fireground mnemonics such as REVAS and RECEO address rescue first for a reason.
Frank Ricci, lieutenant, Carpentersville (IL) Fire Department
Response: With the information given, the key is heavy smoke and no fire showing. I would vent-enter-search with a charged hoseline. Our primary mission is to protect life and property. Property is replaceable most of the time; human life is NOT. The thing that concerns me is the heavy smoke and no visible fire, so my first task would be some type of ventilation to make sure my crew and I are not entering a backdraft situation.
Obviously, with the possibility of trapped occupants, we do not have time to wait for the roof to be opened, so breaking some windows will have to do until the truck arrives to open the roof, if that is still needed. There is a risk to the occupants by introducing fresh air into the structure, but our safety is above all else. Providing some ventilation, hopefully, would lift some of the smoke and release some of the heat, giving trapped occupants a chance and making the conditions a little better for us.
Tom Sitz, lieutenant, Painesville Township, OH
Response: A little more information would make the decision-making process easier. Is the structure one or two stories? What makes the neighbors “believe” someone is home? What is the time of day? Is a three- or four-person company responding? What is the victim survivability profile based on the conditions seen on arrival? Even though only smoke is showing, an experienced officer should be able to read the smoke to help determine the fire’s location.
If, after talking to the neighbors, we believe we have trapped savable occupants, we would attempt to perform life-saving operations simultaneously (search for life and getting water on the fire). Both accomplished simultaneously offer the best chance for trapped victims.
The nozzleman has only one task-to put water on the fire. If for some reason he cannot make the fire, he is to protect the means of egress for the search team. The search team (company officer and firefighter) is to search the means of egress and probable victim locations based on information received from neighbors. They may or may not initially fall in behind the line based on their search size-up and then branch off. Immediately after charging the attack line off booster tank water, the chauffeur would take a position outside the attack line point of entry (probably the front door) with a 10-foot hook. He has two primary tasks: feed line to the nozzleman from the front door and vent for life (take as many windows as possible from his position to support the search while feeding hose).
Robert C. Owens Sr., firefighter, Henrico (VA) Division of Fire
Response:I have to agree with those who say, “If you put the fire out, everything gets better.” With staffing levels of three firefighters (one driver, one officer, one firefighter), we have to perform the task that will solve all three priorities of the incident (life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation) instead of just one priority. If we choose to rescue only, we might save the victims, but the property is lost and the incident is lost as well-not to mention the safety hazard for the interior crews operating in possible flashover conditions. If we choose to put out the fire, we can accomplish all three incident priorities at the same time.
Mike Del Castillo, fire training officer, Hudson Bend Fire Department, Austin, TX
Response: I would stretch the line to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire. This is based on two significant sources of fact. First, the 1999 tragedy in Keokuk, Iowa, clearly indicates the need to hold a fire in check while crews are operating inside the structure. Second, the March 2005 U.S. Fire Administration report on fatal fires indicates that 57 percent of all structure fire fatalities occurred in the area of the fire’s origin and another 25 percent of the victims died trying to escape the fire.
Whether these victims are savable by the time an engine company arrives on-scene is a separate issue, but the odds are much greater of at least finding a victim if you enter in a common exit path and proceed to the seat of the fire.
Given our tendency to search high-probability areas such as bedrooms first, you are likely to kill two birds with one stone, as bedrooms are also the most frequent area of origin. The report indicated that 29 percent of fatal fires started in sleeping areas, more than any other area.
Additional crews can quickly and safely search throughout the structure once the first line is holding the fire. Ventilation is critical, but it must be coordinated with fire attack.
There are always exceptions, but rapid extinguishment and ventilation provide the greatest chance for a successful outcome for the victims, firefighters, and structure most of the time. Whichever method you choose, remember that the fire is causing the problem. If you don’t control the fire, your problem will only get worse.
Marc Hickson, battalion chief, Lawrence (IN) Fire Department
Response: As a first-arriving engine company, you have to consider several factors: if the neighbors know the schedule of the occupants, what time of the day it is, and if cars are in the driveway. If you have good solid information that someone is in the house, you need to stretch a line and do a search. The victims could have made it just to the front or rear doors before being overcome by smoke, or they could be at the bedroom windows. If this is the case, remove the victims, turn them over to the EMS sector, and finish the job. If you find the fire along the way, make sure you have searched the room if you can get into it before extinguishing the fire so that you don’t push the steam and heat back onto the victims.
Eric Dreiman, lieutenant, A-Shift Safety/Training, Washington Township Fire Department, Indianapolis, IN
Response: We would perform a search as we advanced the line to the fire. Even though search is primarily a truck company function, we are all charged with the responsibility to save lives first and property second. Our department is fortunate to have truck companies and engine companies responding to fires. We typically try to assign tasks according to our standard company function guidelines so there is less confusion about who will be performing what functions at a fire.
Dean J. Maggos, chief, La Grange Park (IL) Fire Department
Response: Unless there are obvious victims in immediate danger, such as at a window with fire in the room or hot sooty smoke coming out the window they are standing in, the first line off goes to the fire. That first-line company understands that it should be conducting a primary search as it pushes toward the fire. In our response area, the near-west suburbs of Chicago, the next-due company is usually no more than a couple of minutes out. That next-in company most likely would be assigned search. If that next-in company does not have to assist with water supply and has at least three firefighters, it may be split so at least one person can start outside horizontal ventilation, which obviously can help with victim survival.
Many times, in this type of situation, our ALS ambulance crew is split to handle water supply and outside vent. We also usually run with a duty officer. If nothing else, he may do what he can to assist with venting as he makes his 360° walk around the building until another company arrives.
What can really throw you a curve is when the first-in company heading to the fire encounters a victim. Our attack companies are taught to hand off the victim to a company behind them, but if no one is there yet, it will definitely delay the hit on the fire.
Joseph Pronesti, captain, Elyria (OH) Fire Department
Response: Assuming additional crews are responding, you must lay a line to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire, but you must size up what you have in front of you: How bad is the smoke? What is it doing? What kind of structure is it (balloon frame, Queen Anne, ranch)? Where is the fire? Where could it be going?
After considering this information, go for the fire, put it out, but be sure to stay ahead of the fire. As you advance, you may come upon a victim. Stretch through the front door, if possible. You may find a victim who was trying to get to an exit. If you have a thermal imaging camera, take it with you.
These are the fires that used to be our “bread-and-butter” fires. The fire service saw them every day and knew how to control them. Now, with the decrease in the number of fires, these fires could be complicated for inexperienced or unprepared officers and crews.
Officers and crews must constantly be ready physically and mentally to fight these fires. Constant reading and training can help firefighters confront these fires easily. Sometimes, we lose our focus because of the demands for nonfirefighting jobs and services. Don’t lose that focus.
Brian Singles, firefighter, Hampton (VA) Fire Department
Response: It is common practice for our first-due engine companies to stretch an attack line on all residential structure fires with heavy smoke showing on arrival. We know that life safety is the number-one priority in any situation, whether or not it has been confirmed that occupants are inside. Firefighters instinctively enter the structure with the first attack line to conduct a primary search, under the assumption that occupants are trapped. Simultaneously, the next-due engine company stretches a second attack line for fire confinement and extinguishment. When the secondary search has been completed, then and only then can we accurately report to the incident commander that no occupants were inside.
Once that has been determined, we can focus on fire extinguishment and overhaul. It is a lot less stressful on the first-in crews knowing that no occupants are trapped. However, if occupants are trapped, the crews would be able to handle the situation in a professional manner and get the job done.
Jim Grady III, chief, Frankfort (IL) Fire District
Response: Our first-in company would pull a line and make entry for suppression and rescue action. Determining where the fire is will be paramount to the search, as the victims might be between the fire and the first-in company. The aggressive search/rescue would take place on the command of the company officer as he entered the building. Based on the conditions within, the officer would determine how aggressive the search would be or if suppression would take precedence over a continued search. The engine company’s duties are suppression and rescue.
We have adopted a two-in/two-out rule that addresses interior firefighting activities based on staffing. If faced with making a decision regarding a rescue, I am confident that our officers would make the right choice based on training and that gut feeling. I will support the decision of the officer but will not allow continued deviation from a policy created for firefighter safety.
Our primary duties consist of life safety, rescue, suppression, and property conservation. Training and use of street smarts will prove to be the cornerstones for our officers and firefighters as they assess situations.
Danny Wnek, firefighter, Cayuga Heights (NY) Fire Department
Response: Without question, life safety is the highest priority of the fire service. When there is any indication of a possible hazard to human life (regardless of the scenario), rescue should automatically become the primary objective. The scenario of “heavy smoke showing” leads me to believe there’s already significant fire involvement within the structure. Time is a critical factor in the survival of potential victims. For this reason, the first line would go in to perform a primary search. Once a primary search has been completed, full attention can be focused on extinguishing the fire.
There’s a train of thought I’ve heard several times that the best way to handle the situation is to go directly after the problem and just put out the fire. I’ll buy into it for a small fire-one contained to a single room-where there’s almost no doubt that a single handline will be able to do the job.
When there’s substantial fire within the structure, however, I want to know as best as I can that there’s no one inside before attacking the fire. If you lose control of the fire after choosing to attack first, there’s no going back to do a search for victims. Given the choice, I’d much rather have a lost structure on my conscience because I attempted to save a life than the other way around.
Michael Stanley, lieutenant, Aurora (CO) Fire Department
Response: As the first-in engine officer, I would direct my crew to advance an attack line. This decision would be based on the fact that I have an advantage many departments do not have. I know that a truck company will be arriving on the scene at or near the same time as my rig. That four-person crew will be able to mount an aggressive interior search for victims. By using the engine company for fire attack and the truck company to ventilate, force entry, and search, a coordinated fire attack will occur. This increases the chance for survival for the victim and provides safer conditions for firefighters.
Even without the advantage of having more resources at my disposal, I would still issue the same directive. With heavy smoke showing and no visible flames, we are likely arriving during preflashover conditions. By having a hoseline in the building, the firefighters would be better able to protect themselves during rapidly changing fire conditions.
In addition to this benefit, the hoseline will help firefighters in several other ways. It can serve as a tagline for the engine company to conduct a search as members advance toward the fire. It also could be employed for hydraulic ventilation. By extinguishing the fire, or by ventilating the building of heat and smoke, the environment will immediately become more tenable for the civilians trapped inside the structure. Typically, firefighters love a tool that will do multiple jobs. So I say, take the hoseline inside!
Bobby Shelton, firefighter/EMT- I, Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department
Response: I wholeheartedly agree with those firefighters who say search is an imperative. When I entered this department, I was taught the firefighting formula, which consists of the following components: scene size-up, save lives, confine the fire, ventilate, cover exposures, salvage, overhaul, extinguish.
Although my career has been spent on a truck company and I am now on a squad company, there are certain commonsense things and procedures in place to address the life-safety concern.
The first-in engine is to immediately establish a water supply. Not only does this help with fire control, but it also helps in preserving a means of egress for those who may be trapped. Since our primary concern is life safety, if a truck or squad company is not on-scene, the engine has to in effect do “truck” work until one or the other arrives. That is plain common sense.
In Cincinnati it is somewhat less problematic because of the fact that we send on alarm drops an engine and a truck. On one-alarm assignments, we send two engines, two trucks, two district chiefs, one rapid assistance truck, one squad, and one paramedic ambulance. With that type of response, more than 95 percent of the time the first-due engine can remain focused on fire control/suppression while the truck and squad companies perform search and rescue, ventilation, and so on.
But, let there be no mistake about it: Whoever is first on-scene must do their utmost to confirm there is no life hazard-through observation such as time of day, type of occupancy, knowledge of the running area (water supply and closest fire companies to assist), and reliability of neighbors and passers-by). All these clues together can help us in making a decision as to what our first action(s) on the scene will be.
We need to keep in mind: “Risk a lot only if we are going to gain a lot; risk a little if we are going to gain a little; risk nothing for property only.” Taking this approach to first-in operations may make the difference between a successful firefight and one that ends in tragedy.
Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One
Response: Our first action would be to quickly assess the reliability of the neighbors’ report to determine that we really are in the “rescue” mode. This is necessary to determine our need to comply with the two-in/two-out rule. Next, we would communicate our status to incoming units.
Because of our limited staffing, our most effective option would be to pull an attack line and enter the house to find the seat of the fire and do a basic search along the way. A nationally recognized tactics instructor, who has provided training to our members, emphasized that controlling the fire and ventilating the structure are probably more efficient than an all-out search and a more effective means of saving the people.
Our members are well trained in risk management and in incident priorities. Although rescue is at the top of the list, we have trained our members to consider that rescue can be removing the people from the danger OR removing the danger from the people. Therefore, if we can knock down the fire and ventilate, we would increase our chances of finding the people quickly and removing them to the outside while increasing safety for everyone. These scenarios are full of “what ifs.” We need to train our firefighters to make quick accurate decisions, communicate their actions to incoming units, and know their options before taking actions. ■