SAVING OUR OWN: THE FIREFIGHTER WHO HAS FALLEN THROUGH THE FLOOR
BY RICK LASKY AND RAY HOFF
Firefighters may fall through floors for a variety of reasons. If you should fall through a weakened floor and have not been seriously injured, try to get your bearings as soon as possible while calling for help on your radio or yelling back to your partner or team. Firefighter fatality records indicate that the trapped firefighters never called for help and that some did not have a properly working radio with them.
Next, address the question, How do I get out? Usually there is another way out of the area: a set of stairs, a window, or maybe even a door. In training, firefighters usually are instructed to find the stairs and attempt to climb out. But many firefighters in this situation could not find the stairs, and the results were tragic. In such cases, we learn only during the investigation that windows–and sometimes a door leading from the basement or cellar to the outside–were only a few feet from where the firefighter was found. Such discoveries once again drive home the lessons learned when we don`t address the rear of the building in our size-up and miss a walk-out basement or lower level.
A firefighter who has fallen through a weakened floor and made it out to talk about it usually describes the experience in the following way: “As I was falling, I was thinking about a lot of things. It seemed as though I was falling forever, but I know it was only a second from the time the floor went out from under me to the time I hit the lower level. I was thinking about where I would land. In the fire? On my back? On my head? It seemed like an eternity. How the firefighter reacts from that point on will often decide the outcome of the incident. Of course, the condition of the area into which the firefighter falls and the degree to which it is involved with fire will also affect his chances of successfully getting out.
RESCUING AN UNCONSCIOUS FIREFIGHTER
When the firefighter who has fallen through the floor is unconscious, various considerations must be addressed, including how to get to the trapped firefighter and then how to get him out. The goal is to find the easiest way in to him, but sometimes that is not possible or quick enough. It may be quicker to use the opening through which the firefighter fell and to have other companies attempt to find another way in.
Again, we must stress the importance of having a company such as the rapid intervention team (RIT) that is dedicated to rescuing firefighters in jeopardy instead of being committed to performing other tasks.
Rescuers may reach the firefighter by placing a ladder in the opening and climbing down to the firefighter. You may have to enlarge the opening before a firefighter can fit through it. Take the time to consider how you would accomplish this. A pickhead ax may work well, or you may need a saw, depending on the makeup of the floor. Keep in mind that gas-powered saws usually will not run well in a smoke-filled room. This might be a good time to use the electric- or battery-operated saw that is on the ladder truck or squad and that often is thought of only when it is needed in a technical rescue situation. If the ladder doesn`t work or is delayed in getting to you, you may have to resort to using rope to lower a firefighter to the trapped member. Firefighters who carry a personal or search rope can use either to accomplish this. If the RIT is attempting the rescue, the team should have a search rope and other tools and equipment they assembled when assigned as the RIT (see “The Rapid Intervention Team Checklist,” January 1998).
REMOVING THE FIREFIGHTER
After reaching the trapped firefighter, you must determine how to get him out. You may have to do this through the same hole he fell through. Even if you could reach him by ladder, you wouldn`t be able to carry him up the ladder and out of the hole. Having rope available will allow you to remove the firefighter in the following way.
Determine what you consider to be approximately the middle of the rope. Lower the “middle” of the rope down to the rescuer.
The rescuer ties the “Handcuff Knot” (see illustration above) and slips it over the victim`s wrists or ankles. This knot is very easy to tie. You should practice tying it until you are confident you can do it blindfolded, which is virtually equivalent to tying it in the dark or in smoke.
The firefighters at the top of the hole could tie the knot before the rope is lowered to the rescuer.
The firefighters at the top of the hole begin to pull the victim up and out. As they pull together, whether they use the wrists or ankles, the victim`s arms will end up over his head, allowing for a reduced body profile. When the victim`s arms are at his side, the shoulders are wider and harder to get through the opening.
Among other approaches that may be used are the following:
Using one rope, tie the handcuff knot and place it on the victim. You will end up with two rope ends with which the rescuers can hoist. This task is easier when four firefighters hoist.
Use a second rope, if it is available, and a second handcuff knot. Once both knots are in place, you will have four rope ends with which to hoist–one for each firefighter at the top of the hole.
If you have only one rope and it`s long enough, you can use the following method to get two knots out of it. Once again, find approximately the middle of the rope. From that point, go back in each direction toward the rope ends, stopping about halfway. Tie a handcuff knot at each halfway point. You will now have two handcuff knots with four rope ends with which to hoist.
Keep the following considerations in mind from the first moment of the rescue to the last.
Take precautions to ensure that firefighters working around the hole attempting to rescue the firefighter do not fall through the hole themselves. Consider how much weight is being placed in that area while working there. If possible, slide a ladder on each side of the hole to help distribute firefighters` weight. Using only one ladder will help to accomplish this.
Another thing to consider throughout this operation is the condition of the victim`s spinal cord after the fall. Take any precautions you can to protect the victim`s spinal cord, which may have been injured in the fall, but realize that this is a rapid removal technique and although it may be necessary, it could result in further injury.
A building scheduled for demolition can provide a floor hole from which to practice this rescue technique. You will need the owner`s permission to use the building and damage it. Cut a hole in the floor. It doesn`t have to be a big one, just large enough so that a firefighter wearing an SCBA can fit through it. After practicing for a while, have your firefighters try the rescue while on their knees, which is the position they would have to use in a real rescue in an environment with conditions that would not allow them to stand up for a long time.
As firefighters, we don`t go out the door saying to ourselves, “I`m not coming back from this one.” How we prepare for the dangers inherent in our profession and how we react to them when they present themselves will determine many issues, including whether we will go back home or not. Training and believing in firefighter rescue and survival are just the first steps in reducing the number of line-of-duty deaths and injuries we suffer each year. Having a positive attitude about the RIT can only help. The best way to become effective in firefighter rescue is to be proactive in training and not to allow our people to get in trouble in the first place. But when they are in jeopardy, and unfortunately they will be, we must be ready. The following saying, commonly heard among instructors, emphasizes the relationship between training and performance on the fireground: “The more we sweat in training, the less we bleed in the battle!”
(Left) After placing the “handcuff” knot on the victim`s wrist, the rescuer can assist the hoisting efforts by pushing up from below. (Photos by Rick Lasky.) (Right) When the victim reaches the opening, one or possibly two rescuers performing the hoist can now reach in and grab hold of the victim to complete the lift from the hole.
(Left and right) If the victim`s ankles are used, the rescuer with the victim should try to help by pushing up from below.
Rescuers hoisting the victim should attempt to have a rescuer positioned at each corner and lift as a team.
RICK LASKY, a 17-year veteran of the fire service, is an 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.
RAY HOFF, a 32-year veteran of the fire service, recently retired as a battalion chief from the Chicago (IL) Fire Department, where he was assigned to the 4th Battalion. He is an instructor for the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI), the Illinois Fire Chiefs` Association, the Chicago Fire Academy, and the IFSI “Saving Our Own: Techniques for Firefighter Rescues” program.