What about life safety?
I read with some trepidation and disappointment the responses to “Restaurant/Nightclub Fire with Rescue” (Roundtable, February 2004). The question asks the respondents to illustrate what they would do as the officer on a three-person engine company that arrived first due to a nightclub fire with victims just inside the front door within easy reach, heavy smoke showing, fire visible far inside, and a line stretched. It seems that many of the respondents are overthinking the question and trying very hard to impress the reader with how much they know while forgetting the main focus of firefighting—life safety!
One respondent says, “Our number one goal is to protect the means of egress and put water on the fire.” With unconscious victims right at your feet?
This is a commercial size structure with heavy smoke already showing. One understaffed engine company is not going to put this fire out. Indeed, most of the respondents advocate stretching lines and getting water on the fire as the first order of business.
Another respondent goes through a complicated fire flow formula and comes to the conclusion that she needs a 21/2-inch handline flowing 250 gpm in place, attacking the fire before the search is initiated. Clearly, she has ignored the fact that there is an extended delay for second-due companies and that she has only two other firefighters with her on scene to get this operation going. A 21/2-inch line at 250 gpm for two people? This is a physically exhausting and, more importantly, a time-consuming task for just two firefighters.
Additionally, the time needed to perform this evolution and the physical effort required would both be better spent getting the victims, who are within reach, to safety first before getting involved with suppression. That is the best way “you give more victims the chance to become patients—not fatalities.”
In fact, only one respondent, Lieutenant Bob Oliphant from the Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety, put the safety of the victims first in his list of objectives. “Where victims are virtually within your sight, as in this situation, the initial action should be to remove as many of them as you can from the building.” He goes on to say, “I would continue with this process as long as the victims can be located by sight alone,” turning his attention to suppression only after all of the victims in sight have been rescued.
Of all the respondents that stipulated suppression as the first tactical objective, none of them discussed what would surely happen to any victims from the production of steam or the resulting thermal inversion that is sure to come from operating a handline in an unventilated structure with an advanced fire condition.
One respondent states, “If you put the fire out, your problems tend to go away.” Not so in an advanced fire with an extraordinarily high rescue profile. Suppression efforts in an unventilated fire such as this would certainly decrease the chances of finding anyone left alive. Opting to fight the fire in this example unmistakably ignores the survivability of the victims.
One final point: Several of the respondents said they would ignore those victims that were already dead. Unless the victim had been horribly disfigured by the fire, it will be almost impossible to tell who is dead and who is still alive. Assessing a victim inside a working fire environment while wearing full bunker gear including gloves and SCBA is extremely difficult at best. The only way to be sure is to remove all victims from the environment so they can be properly assessed.
There simply are not enough personnel given in this example to perform fire attack and the required ventilation while addressing victim survivability all at the same time. For a first-due understaffed engine company arriving on the scene of an advanced fire condition with victims in easy reach, there is only one obvious alternative: LIFE SAFETY. Get the victims out. If we save the victims at the cost of losing the building, we have been successful. It would be unconscionable to operate a handline over or around a victim who is well within the reach of rescue.
City of Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department
Procedure for fire alarm activations
During the course of the average year, the American fire service responds to literally thousands of automatic fire alarm activations. In many cases, the building in question is unoccupied with no available key holder. What is the proper procedure? Should forcible entry be used and a thorough search of the premises be conducted, or is an outside visual inspection adequate?
Local attorneys have conflicting opinions. Some attorneys indicate that forcing a door or window is considered an invasion of privacy. Others indicate that once the fire department is summoned, it starts a chain of events that requires the fire department to perform a complete and thorough investigation. These attorneys advise that the fire department’s actions must include an interior inspection of the building from which the alarm has emanated, to ensure that no incipient fire exists.
What is proper, morally and legally? There apparently is no case law on this matter in New York State. However, I am sure that there have been situations nationwide where the fire department responded to a fire alarm activation, did not force entry, did not see or smell any smoke, and returned to quarters—only to be called back for a working fire. The eventual legal disposal of this type of scenario has obvious implications for all fire departments.
If any Fire Engineering readers have knowledge of a scenario such as this or are aware of any legislation or legal decisions that apply to these types of responses, please e-mail me at email@example.com or call me at (845) 364-8800.
Gordon Wren Jr.
Rockland County Fire Training Center
Pomona, New York
Editor’s note: In the article “It’s Just What We Do” by Ron Kanterman (Fire Commentary, March 2004), the name Ron Fitzgerald should have read Ron Fitzpatrick.