SAVING OUR OWN: APPROACHING A DOWNED FIREFIGHTER
BY RICK LASKY AND RICK KOLOMAY
Throughout our fire service careers, we will continually train in several essential areas, such as the search for and removal of trapped occupants. Our goal is to get the victim out of or away from the smoke and fire as quickly as possible. One possibility that is not considered is our reaction when we find a downed firefighter. While these situations may appear similar, the latter requires additional action.
When assigned to search for a missing or lost firefighter, we need to take certain actions to increase the chance of survival of the member in trouble. This is also true when we encounter a downed firefighter while performing other tasks (e.g., advancing a hoseline or completing a search for occupants). In either scenario, the incident`s pace changes drastically.
In the first scenario, when we receive a “MAYDAY” call and the word travels to others on the fireground that one of our own is in trouble, the incident`s pace immediately intensifies, and the push toward locating and rescuing one of our “family” becomes more aggressive. When we do locate the firefighter, our adrenaline level is extremely high, because we were looking for one of our own.
In the second scenario, when we discover a downed firefighter while performing other tasks, we may stop, shocked by the discovery. Realizing that we have encountered a firefighter, the adrenaline rises as we take action. While both scenarios may start out differently, they both end with the same result–an aggressive, adrenaline-pumped reaction that is absolutely normal when faced with saving another firefighter.
We need to control this attitude and keep our cool so that we do not lose control in this situation. It is difficult to control the fireground emergency when it involves a firefighter. It is even more difficult to maintain control as the incident progresses and to not allow it to become chaotic. While it is normal that everyone should want to help, at the same time, we need to keep certain suppression companies performing their tasks. All too often, companies back out or change tactics, when in reality the best action they can take is to continue their suppression efforts. Many times, keeping water on the fire makes it easier for companies to make the rescue and possibly reduce or even eliminate the threat to the downed firefighter.
This rescue situation may not occur to many firefighters regularly and at times can provoke some surprising reactions. We need to look at this from the tactical standpoint of how to approach a downed firefighter.
Discovering a downed firefighter can be one of the most traumatic experiences a firefighter can ever have. During live fire training evolutions in which firefighters are reported missing in the fire building and then are discovered by rescuers, the untrained rescuer`s reactions vary. We have witnessed the following:
The rescuer discovers the downed firefighter and attempts to remove the victim before calling for help verbally or via radio. If the discovery is made while working as a team, as the officer calls for help, the other members should assess the victim. This frees the officer, enabling him to give good, clear directions as to where they are and where additional help will be needed.
The rescuer discovers the downed firefighter, then immediately leaves the victim to seek help. The downed firefighter should not be left alone but should have his condition checked and his position reported to others.
The rescuer doesn`t evaluate the downed firefighter`s SCBA. Many times the firefighter is in trouble because of an SCBA problem or because he just ran out of air.
On discovering the downed firefighter, the rescuer does not react immediately. The discovery so traumatizes the rescuer that he remains in a state of confusion or shock and doesn`t call for help or even attempt to move the downed firefighter.
The rescuer locates the downed firefighter, and an irrational panic reaction results; the rescuer almost becomes a victim himself! A panicked rescuer can be worse than no rescuer at all. He may even become a victim, too, and add to the problem.
THE SAVING OUR OWN PROGRAM
The Saving Our Own program has adopted a basic, realistic way to train rescuers to approach downed firefighters. The basic skills are as follows:
1. Check breathing. If the SCBA face piece is in place, check for airflow. If the victim`s SCBA is out of air, disconnect the face piece from the regulator. This can help protect the face and respiratory tract from the heat and smoke. If the face piece is dislodged, can it be replaced?
2. Check for consciousness. Can the firefighter help save himself? In this case, the firefighter might be able to tell you what is wrong and quite possibly be able to help in his own removal.
3. Call for help. Calling fellow firefighters nearby and requesting “EMERGENCY TRAFFIC” or “MAYDAY” will alert command and other available units to assist and activate the rapid intervention team (RIT). When calling for help, try to give detailed information about your location and your avenues of escape. Let the incident commander know as soon as possible so he can direct assistance to that location.
4. Move to a safe haven. If possible, drag the downed firefighter out of the fire and collapse area. Sometimes just moving the victim several yards to an uninvolved apartment or room, a protected stairwell or landing, a nearby window to which a ground or tower ladder can be placed, or a fire escape or exterior exit can mean safety.
5. Shared breathing. If the downed firefighter cannot be moved immediately, try to supply the victim with additional breathing air through the following methods.
–Exchange the victim`s SCBA with a new one. This can be done easily with training. As with any other task performed in the fire service, we need to train in exchanging SCBAs to become proficient.
–Use intrinsic SCBA shared-air systems (e.g., quick-fill regulator attachments to transfer air from one cylinder to another). A word of caution when using this method: If you do not have other means of transferring air to the victim and you must use your own cylinder, before you make the connection and complete the transfer, make sure that you have enough air to make it out yourself so that you don`t become a victim, too.
–Provide a portable air system that will refill the victim`s SCBA. This method can work just as well here as it does in confined-space and technical-rescue jobs.
–Provide an external air line from an air cascade unit. This can be a great help with an extended rescue operation in which the victim is pinned or in a situation that hinders the rescue team`s attempt to remove the firefighter quickly.
–If conditions allow, share air by sharing your face piece with the victim. If you run out of methods or don`t try anything, what will happen?
6. PASS device. If the victim`s PASS device is activated, consider disarming it so that it does not interfere with communications. It may have done its job and is no longer needed.
CONDITIONS AFFECTING TACTICS
Another important aspect is defining the various conditions in which a downed firefighter may be found and how the priorities of approaching the victim may change. For example:
High heat/heavy smoke conditions. Call for help, and drag the victim to a safe haven immediately.
Minimal heat/moderate smoke conditions. Call for help, check SCBA air and consciousness.
Collapse/high heat and smoke. Call for help, check SCBA air, and position hoselines between the victim and the fire.
TRAINING IS KEY
Once again, we need to emphasize the need to call for help as soon as you can after locating the downed firefighter. Many times, the officer or member with the radio will forget to notify the incident commander until he is halfway out of the situation or having difficulty getting the victim out.
The final important aspect is training. Hands-on training should require donning full turnout gear and SCBA and incorporate as many of the obstacles that may be found in an actual situation as possible. The conditions of the scenario must be carefully described so the rescuers will understand how to react when the downed firefighter is found. This training session should not be used to harass the team but should be a confidence builder. During some training exercises, we can get a little carried away and make the tasks too difficult for the team. To be successful, the drill or task needs to be objective and attainable. Presenting a next-to-impossible task defeats confidence building. There is already a feeling that trainees are under the gun because the effort is one of trying to save one of their own. As you complete this training and your fellow firefighters are feeling great about their accomplishment, challenge them again. This time ask them to create and present their own rescue scenarios for everyone to practice. This will allow them to feel they truly are part of the process.
As always, training is our key to success. The resulting benefit is that the rescuers will react as trained professionals–not in confusion, frustration, or panic. We will not give up, because we have been trained to save our own. n
Photos by author.
On discovering the downed firefighter, have a team member assess the victim. This will allow the officer to radio for help.
(Left) A safe haven may be found in an uninvolved apartment or room. (Right) A protected stairwell can offer safety to the victim and rescuer.
A nearby window can offer a means of egress via a ground ladder or tower ladder.
RICK LASKY, a 17-year veteran of the fire service, is assistant chief with the Darien-Woodridge Fire District in Darien, Illinois, and is currently assigned to the Training/Safety Division. He is an instructor for the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) and the Illinois Fire Chiefs` Association and the creator of the IFSI “Saving Our Own: Techniques for Firefighter Rescues” program.
RICK KOLOMAY, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutenant with the Schaumburg (IL) Fire Department and is currently assigned to Heavy Rescue Squad 1. He is an instructor for the Illinois Fire Service Institute and the Illinois Fire Chiefs` Association and is a co-coordinator and lead instructor with the IFSI “Saving Our Own: Techniques for Firefighter Rescues” program.