Getting Back to Your Senses on the Fireground


Our senses allow us to collect information and send it to the brain, where it is stored. This stored information allows us to interpret the sensory input that we constantly receive as our interdependent senses collect information. All that we do and learn involves at least one of our five senses. Unfortunately on the fireground, the conditions we operate in either take away or severely impede our five senses. So how do we perform our jobs safely and efficiently when we are stripped of our basic means of collecting the information we use to make decisions? Better yet, knowing that we will encounter this at most structural fires, how do we regain those senses or compensate for the loss?


Touch. Our skin is our biggest organ and, because it covers such a great area, plays an important part in the sense of touch. Our fingertips, lips, and tongue are the most sensitive areas of our body because they contain the largest number of nerve endings. These receptors sense pressure, pain, and temperature.

The conditions we encounter on the fireground force us to protect ourselves by wearing turnout gear. This protective envelope covers our skin, which impedes our sense of touch. Losing this sense does not allow us to accurately gauge heat conditions. Our recognition of temperature changes is an indicator of when we need to slow or stop our advance, open the nozzle to cool ceiling temperatures, or back out of the area.

We wear bulky firefighting gloves that cover our fingertips and inhibit our ability to determine temperature. This is important when feeling for a hot door or trying to locate where a fire might be from the outside by feeling for a hot window. Our gloves also diminish our ability to feel textures and decipher objects with which we are in contact.

In the old days, we used to use our unprotected ears and neck to alert us that it was too hot and potential flashovers could occur. These receptors were effective in letting us know it was hot; multiple cases of firefighters suffering bad burns made us recognize the need to abandon this temperature indicator and cover our ears and neck with hoods, collars, and earflaps.

(1) A variety of personal flashlights can be mounted on helmets or hooked to a turnout coat or over the shoulder or waist strap to improve sight. (Photos by author.)


(2) An SCBA face piece can be equipped with a voice amplifier mounted on the side and an eyeglass kit installed to allow for improved vision. A thermal imaging camera can also be used to decipher objects in smoke conditions.


Smell. The sense of smell is one of our most sensitive senses. From great distances, most of us can recognize the distinctive smell of a skunk. We know it means that there is a critter in the area that we would be smart to avoid. On the fireground, we use this sense to help us decipher natural gas from propane, the presence of an accelerant such as gasoline or diesel fuel, and the difference between smoke from meat on the stove or burning paper or wood vs. the distinct odor of an overheated electrical ballast. We are often dispatched to reports of the smell of smoke in the area. One of our best tools for investigating this report is our own sense of smell.

Sometimes this sense can become anaesthetized simply by continuous exposure to an odor or masked by the presence of multiple odors that mix together. When we are operating at structural fires and have our SCBA face pieces in place, our sense of smell is lost.

Taste. Taste is an important sense in many parts of our lives, but once we leave the kitchen at the fire station, our sense of taste is not widely used on the fireground. Fortunately, we do not depend heavily on taste while on the fireground because that is also eliminated by our SCBA face piece.

Hearing. We heavily rely on our sense of hearing on the fireground to receive face-to-face or radio reports or orders. We listen for crackling of the fire, screams or moans from victims, glass breaking from the vent crews, hoselines opening up on the fire, explosions that might occur, PASS devices and other audible warning signals, hissing from a gas leak, and even sirens indicating arriving apparatus or alerting crews inside a building to evacuate.

Although hearing is the sense that probably remains most intact for us on the fireground, our amplified breathing in our SCBA can muffle our hearing. Lapel mics can blast useless chatter if good radio procedures are not used. Even the piercing alarms ringing from smoke detectors and fire alarms can hamper our ability to effectively hear other important things at a fire. Many firefighters trying to talk on the fireground have their voices muffled from their face piece, which adds to the hearing difficulty.

Sight. Our sense of sight is perhaps the most important of our senses. So much of the information sent to our brain comes from our seeing things. Studies have shown that between 80 and 85 percent of what we learn is acquired by seeing. We also depend on what we see to gather information for our decision-making process.

A great deal of our initial and ongoing size-up is based on what we see. Being able to see where we are going allows us to avoid obstacles and quickly locate victims, flames, hazards, and smoke. It allows us to observe the intensity and color of smoke, which better allows us to determine what level the fire has reached and to develop our plan of attack accordingly. Truck crews need to be able to see what they are being sent to overhaul or where to open walls and ceilings to get ahead of fire and cut it off.

Unfortunately, operating in smoke-filled buildings partially or totally obscures our vision. In many cases, even when smoke is not heavy, our vision can be diminished simply by darkness. This can occur inside and outside of a structure. Our sight can also be limited by steamed-up or badly scratched SCBA face pieces or by wearing them without glasses or contact lenses.


As firefighters, we operate at a great disadvantage on the fireground. We enter structures that are weakened by fire, not knowing how long the fire has been burning. We are forced to negotiate our way through strange surroundings under stressful circumstances. We carry a great deal of additional weight from gear, SCBA, tools, and hoselines. We are battling fire that may be below us, above us, or intentionally set and approaching flashover or backdraft stages. We are called to these situations suddenly and without time for warm-up. We sometimes have to contain immense psychological stress from seeing injuries, death, and tremendous devastation. We do all of this in temperatures that can reach 1,000°F-plus wearing gear that elevates our body temperature and hampers our mobility. As if all of this is not challenging enough, now we are also stripped of our senses, our most basic means of getting sensory input to our brains—input crucial to operating safely and efficiently.

After looking at the environment in which we must operate, one would think these challenges are insurmountable. The good news is, however, that firefighters can overcome many of these handicaps and safely and efficiently operate under these conditions.

We know that on the fireground we are likely to lose some or all of our senses. If we know this will occur, we must be prepared to deal with these challenges. The two ways to do this are (1) get those lost or diminished senses back with the use of technology and tactics, and (2) compensate with what we have left by learning to adapt by using enhanced skills.


The loss of sight has the biggest impact because we rely so heavily on what we see to gather information. We can overcome the loss of sight in a few ways.

If our loss of sight is from smoke, as it so often is, the tried and true way that we have been using for years is to simply ventilate the smoke out of the area. As you know, there are several ways to accomplish this depending on the situation. The bottom line is that if you can make the smoke disappear, your sight problem will get a whole lot better.

Another way of beating the loss of sight from smoke is to use a thermal imaging camera. This helps you to locate fire, hazards, victims, exits, and whatever else you may be looking for.

If sight is diminished because of darkness, use a flashlight. Flashlights can be mounted to helmets, hung from turnout coats, or hung on a strap that can go over your shoulder or around your waist. It is a good idea to avoid carrying the flashlight in your hand so that hand can remain free to carry other tools or do work. Make it a habit to have a flashlight with you on all calls that require wearing your turnout gear regardless of whether it is day or night, inside or outside. When you enter a building, turn on your flashlight. This is not just to help you see but also to help others see you. Place floodlights or spotlights in exit/entry doorways to show the way out to safety. Most apparatus have the capability to power quartz lights to illuminate the exterior areas in which you may be operating.

Even after smoke is cleared and adequate light is available, some firefighters still have a sight problem. In the past, firefighters who wore glasses had to remove them to get a proper fit of the SCBA face piece. Most SCBA manufacturers now have some type of option built into their face pieces for glasses to be mounted inside the mask and still allow for a proper fit. The one sense we have the best chance of getting back is our sight.

We can get our sense of hearing back by using some available tools to help us to hear voices of other firefighters or radio transmissions. Many SCBA manufacturers offer voice amplifiers for face pieces and integrated radio earpieces. It is important to listen for radio reports on conditions from crews in other areas. This will help you know what is happening. Are things getting better or worse? Listen for benchmarks being reached and transmitted. You may be able to hear hose streams hitting underneath you or in other rooms, which may indicate that crews are getting water on the fire. You can often hear vent crews breaking windows or the truck crews chopping or sawing to open up the roof.


As we operate on the fireground under conditions that take away or diminish one or more of our senses, we must learn to depend more heavily on the ones we have left. People missing one or more of their senses seem to have a remarkable ability to compensate for that loss with a heightened capability of their remaining senses. The skill of compensating with other senses takes time and effort to develop.

Touch. Your sense of touch is often impeded but usually remains intact enough to allow you to decipher between many objects. This takes some practice but it can be developed with frequent “hands-on” training.

Conducting searches strictly using your sense of touch can be difficult, but it can be done. With practice, you should be able to negotiate your way through a building using your sense of touch and picturing in your mind the objects you are encountering. Some simple rules can help you keep somewhat oriented in a building.

If you are advancing up a hoseline that is already in place, count the number of couplings you encounter from the entrance to give you the approximate distance you have traveled into a building and, more importantly, how far you will need to go to get out if you go back the way you came in. If you get disoriented in a building and are not sure which direction is in or out, find a coupling. Feel it to determine which end is the male and which is the female. The male end of a coupling is the smaller collar and points toward the fire or inward. The female end of the coupling has the bigger collar with the wrench pins on it and points back to the pumper, to the the standpipe, or out of the building. Practice during a training session by blocking out a face piece and having the firefighters use their sense of touch to determine the way out.

Commercially available raised arrows that point to the way out can be placed on your hose. Some hose manufacturers are even integrating these arrows into lengths of hose. Keep in mind that these arrows may point the way out but not necessarily the fastest or closest way out.

Take a good look at the building from the outside before you encounter the smoke that impedes your sight. This is part of doing a proper personal size-up, which every firefighter should be doing at an incident. Even when operating in smoke-filled buildings, you might come to windows that you may be able to poke your head out of to orient yourself. Once you have this picture in your mind, it will help you to remain oriented as you use your sense of touch to find your way through the structure.

While navigating your way through a building, you might encounter a toilet or a bathtub, which usually indicates you are in a bathroom. Tile floors may mean you are in the bathroom or the kitchen. Doors that open outward are often exit doors, closets, a basement, or an attic stairwell. Conversely, doors that open inward usually indicate a bedroom or a bathroom. These landmarks can give you an idea of where you might be in a building if you relate them to the size-up you did before entering the structure. Once again, this is only a rule of thumb; there are exceptions.

(3) The male end of a coupling points inward toward the fire; the female end goes back out toward the pumper or standpipe connection. This is how your sense of touch might help you when you are disoriented in low visibility.


Hearing. It plays an important part in compensating for the loss of other senses. Our hearing may be somewhat muffled but is usually intact enough to allow us to use this sense to our advantage. It is very beneficial to become a good listener—not just to hear things but to listen to noises and consciously decipher what they are, what they mean, and from where they are coming. It also takes a great deal of practice to enhance this skill.

By using your sense of hearing, you can stop and listen for the sound of the engine rpm powering the pumps. This can help you determine the street side of the building and perhaps the direction in which you must go to exit, if you entered from that direction.

When operating hose streams from the outside in a defensive mode and smoke is obscuring your vision, you can usually distinguish between the sound of water hitting the side of the building and the stream’s finding the window opening.

Good communication involves more than just using your hearing to listen. You can also influence the way others hear you. Applying some simple methods will help everyone on the fireground to be heard. For example, you can conduct tests while training to determine the best way to talk while wearing a face piece. Some SCBA face piece voice ports are low, near the throat. Others are off to the side. You will have to know how to position your head or where to hold a lapel microphone.

Learn to speak the right way. Often, outside noises, such as that from hose streams, makes you want to shout into the radio or voice port. Shouting distorts your voice and may make it much harder for you to be understood.

Use good radio procedures. Cutting down on useless radio chatter will make the intended listener less likely to tune you out.

Smell. Our sense of smell is eliminated by our SCBA face piece, but there is something we can use to compensate for the loss. A number of detectors on the market basically serve as the sense of smell by testing the air and determining the presence of various gases. This is safer than using your nose to test air quality or the presence of a gas. Your nose cannot detect some odorless gases that might be present, which can be very dangerous. When investigating for the possible presence of hazardous gases, use a gas detector designed for that purpose.

The presence of carbon monoxide is very common in structural fires, especially if you remove your face piece when fires are knocked down and you are in the overhaul phase. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that you won’t even know you are breathing until the harmful effects occur. Keep using the safe breathable air from your SCBA during overhaul, or use a gas detector to ensure that the building is properly vented and free of dangerous gas.

Sight. When vision is obscured, you should be on your hands and knees while moving through a building. You will not be able to move as quickly, but you will be close to the floor where there may be less smoke and you can feel your way along and better locate hazards. You will be able to touch a greater area to help you to find victims, holes, stairs, and tripping obstructions. You also distribute your body weight over a greater area, which helps you to avoid falling down stairs or into holes or causing a floor collapse.

Common sense. This is a sixth and very important sense we must always use on the fireground. Common sense is the knowledge and judgment you have acquired from using your other five senses. It comes from what you have experienced and from what you have been taught in training, schools, and seminars. It comes from stories you have read in books and magazines or have shared with other members. It should be obvious that it is very dangerous to operate in a structure on fire and filled with superheated toxic smoke. You should understand that your gear keeps out heat and keeps you from feeling the effects of worsening conditions. It is often common sense that tells us to slow down, advance with added caution, or back out.

We can count on some or all of our five senses being stripped away from us when operating at fires. With a combination of training, education, and experience, we can learn to function quite effectively by getting them back or compensating with what remains. Especially when our five senses are diminished, we cannot afford to be on the fireground without good common sense.

Many other systems/practices should be in place to help us as we try to overcome the many hazards we encounter at fires. Some follow.

  • Good standard operating procedures.
  • Proper command structure.
  • The use of effective communication equipment and nomenclature.
  • Knowledge gained from preincident inspections and planning.
  • Effective and enforced building construction codes.
  • The sharing of information and experience at post-incident critiques.

When we are stripped of our senses is when we need these other systems the most.

JOHN T. CARLIN, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is in his 11th year as fire coordinator for the town of Hamburg, New York. He is safety officer for the Big Tree (NY) Volunteer Fire Company and past chief of the Blasdell (NY) Fire Department.

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