SAVING OUR OWN: TECHNIQUES FOR FIREFIGHTER RESCUES
BY RICK LASKY
Several years ago, I lost a good friend “in the line of duty.” As often happens, it was at a single-family dwelling fire. This had a serious impact on my life and changed my teaching direction. I wanted to be involved with programs that had a direct impact on a firefighter`s ability to survive on the fireground. The best way to do this is to share vital information concerning tragic incidents in which firefighters were killed or seriously injured. “In order for a firefighter to survive the dangers of firefighting, he must know how other firefighters have died or been seriously injured,” Vincent Dunn, a deputy chief in the City of New York (NY) Fire Department, states in Safety and Survival on the Fireground (Fire Engineering Books and Videos). What a valid statement!
INSTRUCTORS BECAME AWARE OF THE
NEED FOR TRAINING
A barely averted tragedy in the Chicago area a few years ago made it apparent to several of my fellow instructors and me that firefighters must be taught how to “save their own.” In this incident, a company was operating on a bowstring roof approximately one hour into an incident. Heavy fire was in the truss area, and visible fire was pushing from a vent hole. The firefighters were ordered to leave the roof. Shockingly, the company left a good roof and climbed onto the involved roof, which began to fail as they hurried down the ladder. The last firefighter, straddling the parapet, barely made it to the ladder. All of this was caught on video.
We instructors–all in the “certification” program–wondered how we missed conveying to these firefighters the horrible history of dealing with truss roofs. Since then, we have been asking students, “What happened in Hackensack?” in an effort to make them aware of the dangers of truss roofs. After seeing the disappointing response to this question, we ultimately included a lesson on trusses in the program.
The death of Engineer Mark Langvardt of the Denver (CO) Fire Department in September 1992 (Fire Engineering, April 1993) revealed another lesson that must be conveyed to firefighters so that lives can be saved. Langvardt`s death and the incident that led to it was published at the request of the fire department so that what happened that day could be shared with all firefighters. The lesson of this tragedy is that getting an unconscious member of average size out of an extremely tight space and through a window is terribly difficult–sometimes impossible.
In another tragedy, Firefighter John Nance of the Columbus (OH) Fire Department fell through a weakened floor into the basement of a commercial occupancy. Numerous attempts to rescue him failed. The rapidly advancing fire forced companies to back out. Some officers on the scene had to use great restraint to prevent personnel from going back into the raging fire.
CONFIRMING THE NEED
We began asking our students, “How many of you have practiced and drilled on rescuing a civilian?” Not surprisingly, all answered yes. But when asked, “How many of you have practiced or drilled on rescuing a firefighter?” about 95 percent of the respondents said that they had never practiced “saving our own”! For years, the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute has been providing programs that assist in developing fire service personnel from the recruit to the chief officer levels. There have been programs and articles available on this topic as well. Yet, it became apparent that there is a need for a program dedicated solely to responders saving themselves and each other. “Saving Our Own: Techniques for Firefighter Rescues” was born.
Putting together ideas for practical skill stations and classroom sessions was not difficult, since most of them were already being taught in our current programs. The difficult task was determining the information and skills that should be emphasized in a time-restricted class.
THE PILOT PROGRAM
The pilot program was to be 12 hours, three sessions taught over two days. It was first presented, on two separate days, during the June 1996 Illinois Fire College program. The pilot program was well-received.
Session 1, held in the classroom, introduced the program concept and goal. This began with a keynote speech by Captain John Norman, a program instructor and member of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department, and was followed by a review of an incident involving the loss of a firefighter and a close friend of the instructor`s (all instructors have lost a relative or close friend in the line of duty or they themselves have had a close call on the fireground), bringing home the concept that such a personal loss could happen anywhere to anyone.
The rest of the session covered the following topics:
Protective clothing: the ways in which it protects us and the need to understand its limitations.
Building construction: recognizing the hazards of truss roofs and understanding lightweight construction.
Reviewing the incidents involving the deaths of Langvardt and Nance.
Note: No attempts were made to assign blame or point fingers when presenting case studies. The emphasis was placed on lessons that could be learned from that incident and the fact that it could happen to anyone. It was also impressed on the students that the loss of a firefighter should never be swept under the rug or forgotten–on the contrary, we need to, and are obligated to, share that experience with others so that all can learn from it and so the loss of that firefighter will not have been in vain.
Session 2 was held on the Fire Service Institute`s training grounds. The students were rotated through the following practical stations:
Station 1 was a scenario similar to the incident that claimed the life of John Nance in Columbus. The students “rescued” an unconscious firefighter from a lower level or simulated basement using a knot, referred to as the “handcuff knot,” taught by John Norman.
Station 2 presented the students with a rescue task similar to the incident that claimed the life of Mark Langvardt in Denver.
Station 3 was divided into two parts. In Part 1, “rescuers” were required to bring an unconscious member down a staircase. In Part 2, they were to bring an unconscious member up a staircase.
The first part of Session 3, held in the classroom, was devoted to discussions of the difficulties the students encountered at all three practical stations. The following areas were covered during the remainder of the session:
Size-up, hitting on the proper reading of the building, the smoke, and the fire.
Communications on the fireground and controlling the fireground when a “Mayday” is out.
Searches–techniques and problems, the “team search” concept.
Rapid intervention team–a detailed explanation of the concept; the tools needed; and, most of all, the positive attitude needed by the company assigned this task.
We received many requests to teach the program off campus. The program was expanded into 16- and 24-hour programs, which are presented in two or three eight-hour sessions, respectively. It has been offered between 20 and 25 times throughout the state of Illinois and has been presented off-site to individual fire departments (or divisions thereof) across the country. (The 16-hour program has been the most popular with fire departments, since it entails only two working days when making budgetary and scheduling adjustments.) The new programs included the following adaptations:
A section solely on the responsibilities of the rapid intervention team (RIT) officer was added to the module on the RIT.
A module on self-rescue was added.
The following demonstrations were added: breaching walls to get from one room to another to escape an advancing fire, entanglement hazards, tools, and additional SCBA survival techniques.
Additional practical stations were added, including the following:
–an emergency bailout from an upper floor using a personal rope.
–bailing out of an upper story window onto a ground ladder to escape an advancing fire. (See the February 1997 issue of Fire Engineering: the cover and Fire Focus, “Townhouse Fires.”)
–the removal of an unconscious firefighter from an upper floor using a floor drag method to move the member in distress to a window, then out and down a ground ladder.
This program was and continues to be a great success mainly because of the instructors` beliefs and dedication. The instructors used for this program all had a vested interest in this subject. As was already pointed out, all have lost a relative or close friend in the line of duty or themselves have had a close call on the fireground, enabling them to bring personal experience and sincerity to program content. In addition, they do not stand to gain personally from any monies the program may bring in. All monies are put back into the program.
The instructors chosen to teach this program shouldn`t be looking for self-gratification. They should have the attitude that they want to make a difference. Set out to find out how many members of your organization practice rescuing firefighters. Don`t be surprised at the answers you may get. Ask them how they would get an unconscious firefighter up a set of stairs, out of a hole in the floor, or out a window and down a ladder. Saying that “things happen” just isn`t good enough when it comes to a line-of-duty death. Consider also what firefighters whose fellow responders die in an incident go through wondering, thinking, and asking, “What could I have done differently? Could I have made a difference?”
This type of program is just a first step in getting to our members the information they need to save themselves and “their own.” Unfortunately, we will always have new material for these programs, but maybe through the efforts of the fire service and its resources, the amount of new material could be minimized.
For additional information on the “Saving Our Own” program, contact Instructor Dave Clark at the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute at (217) 333-8928. n
RICK LASKY, a 17-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion 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 and the Illinois Fire Chiefs` Association and the creator of the IFSI “Saving Our Own: Techniques for Firefighter Rescues” program.