Letters to the Editor

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.

Michael Bricault
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 wreng@co.rockland.ny.us or call me at (845) 364-8800.

Gordon Wren Jr.
Fire Coordinator
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.

Letters to the Editor


A chief can make or break a department

I was recently elected the first female chief in the Colden (NY) Fire Company—only the second in Erie County and the 16th nationwide. I worked long and hard and was abused by the system back when women were not in the good graces of the fire service.

I always vowed I would not treat anyone as I was treated and that I would always make sure I took care of my people. Christopher Flatley’s “Do You Live in ‘Anytown’?” (Volunteers Corner, January 2004) really sums up the way I try to lead our people. I agree (from my standpoint at least) that I can run or ruin our department. Thanks for giving me a little boost in learning that I am not the only one who thinks this way.
Jody L. Feidt
Colden (NY) Fire Company

Officers must be responsible for safety

“Learning from Firefighter Fatalities” (January 2004) is right on. I am copying the article for my company officers to read with emphasis on the views expressed by the participants, which I also share.

We have a great organization but, like others, also have officers who just don’t get their role/responsibility for safety and their need to fine-tune their skills through continual training. Our department covers a 200-plus mile district with a population of 80,000-plus and is growing. A new community, projected to have a population of 40,000, is starting up at the edge of our district.
Jeffrey J. Mason

Battalion Commander
City of Tracy (CA) Fire

Create the opportunity to train

“Train as if your life depends on it, because it does.” Yes! Our lives as “brothers” depend and hang on this very statement. Granted, some departments across the United States are fortunate enough to have budgets that allow progressive training above a “minimum standard”; some aren’t that lucky. Those less fortunate departments with lower budgets that still rose above the hurdle and succeeded in becoming “mentors” and embracing the “art” of firefighting have taken the steps to pass along knowledge and “know how” to those who value their wisdom.

The “brothers” of Local 4045 have taken this opening statement to heart. Through the FEMA process, creative efforts, and elbow grease, we have succeeded in bringing a regional training tower to life. The principle of neighboring departments in our area is to come together to train on the “basics.” Firefighter safety/survival and RIT have become realities. The opportunity to “train as if our lives depend on it” cannot be passed by; to let it slip past is a disservice to us, our families, and the communities we serve and protect.
“JJ” Moreau Jr.
Northern Lakes Fire Protection District
Hayden, Idaho

Safety must be top priority

I am disappointed in photos 9 and 10, page 35, used for “Vehicles in Water” (Extrication Tactics, September 2003). This is a wonderful and informative article; more care should have been taken to have better photos. Although wearing gloves, the person popping out the window clearly has no arm protection. The photo shows the glass shattering violently; although frozen in time by the camera, no doubt some ended up on the member’s arms. I teach vehicle and machinery extrication to members of my department and also at a local fire academy. Safety is my number one priority. I often have to remind personnel to wear gloves, button their coats, wear eye protection, etc. I know this is not a perfect world, but we as educators and instructors have a responsibility to show proper and safe techniques.
Michael J. Lopina
Lockport, Ilinois

There should be an integrated system of fire protection

As an organization that advocates more stringent fire safety provisions in our building codes, we agree with many of the views expressed by William Manning in “Rolling the Life Safety Dice” (Editor’s Opinion, November 2003).

However, data compiled from actual building fires indicate that sprinklers are not 100 percent reliable, making it clear that we should not put all of our eggs in the sprinkler basket. While we fully support the use of sprinklers in buildings, they can fail to perform as intended for a number of reasons, including improper installation, inspection, and maintenance.

In fact, the NFPA has released statistics showing that sprinklers fail to operate as intended in as many as one in six fires. The NFPA’s findings were corroborated by a recent study on sprinkler performance conducted by William Koffel, one of the nation’s leading fire protection engineers and code consultants.

We believe that both sprinklers and fire-resistant building materials and systems are required to achieve the high level of fire safety in buildings that Manning advocates in his commentary. Our position on balanced fire protection is identical to that of the NFPA, as expressed in its Fire Protection Handbook.

In the Handbook, the NFPA calls for an “integrated system of balanced protection that uses many different design features and systems to reinforce one another and to cover for one another in case of the failure of any one.” It also suggests that achieving that integration, balance, and redundancy is “the essence of fire protection engineering, including codes and standards.”

The NFPA further notes that success in achieving a desired level of fire safety “is not measured by the extent of use of any one technology or system or code. No one system should be considered disposable, and no one system should be considered a panacea.”

We, too, have come to the conclusion that fire safety cannot be an “either-or” proposition. Buildings for which sprinklers are appropriate should also have fire-resistant construction and vice versa, especially when you consider the extended life cycle of buildings after they are constructed. Anything less puts occupants and emergency responders at risk and is, therefore, unacceptable.
Frank Hertzog

Alliance for Fire Safety
Falls Church, Virginia

NFPA not fire service organization

I would like to thank Chief Douglas P. Forsman for pointing out that the National Fire Protection Association is not a fire service organization (Letters to the Editor, January 2004). The problem is that this nonfire service organization is making up a whole bunch of rules that the fire service is expected to follow! Forsman says that only about 25 percent of the 70,000 NFPA members are from the fire service. I figure that’s around 17,500 of us. I don’t know how many firefighters there are in our country, but I have heard around one million. That means that less than 2 percent of American firefighters even belong to the organization that has made a business of making rules, called standards, for the fire service. Worse, it means that three-quarters of the members of our standards-making organization are NOT firefighters!

I might change a light bulb, but I shouldn’t have as much say in the National Electrical Code as an electrician or an electrical engineer. I really don’t like the fact that within the NFPA system, the electrician gets a vote on how I fight fires. The problem is worse than it appears. Under the NFPA system, in order to vote on new or changed standards, you have to attend the meeting and vote on the issue. Although there are many dedicated firefighters who spend their own time and money to do this, the vast majority do not. However, many nonfirefighter NFPA members routinely attend these meetings on their corporate expense accounts. And one special interest group can always pack the meeting and force the outcome; this may have happened with the standard governing our company staffing level, which most departments in the nation do not meet.

NFPA standards are not law, and we generally don’t have to follow them. But, we are constantly bombarded with reminders that they are considered industry standards or best practices and that if we don’t follow them some smart lawyer will sue the pants off of us!

If the fire service has to have standards, and we do, shouldn’t they be realistic, achievable, commonsense rules made by firefighters for firefighters? Most fire departments in this country don’t even come close to meeting all NFPA standards concerning their organization, training, and operations, not even the big city-big budget departments. The standards seem to be more like an overly complex pie-in-the-sky vision than a real-world picture of how the fire service actually operates. The NFPA standards concerning the fire service may be a great goal to strive for as we try to reach perfection, but in the real world they subject us to a huge liability when something bad happens and the “standard” was not met.

The NFPA does a good job with many of its core functions related to building and fire protection systems. But, I think it’s time for a new or existing fire service organization to take over fire service-related standards making. This organization should be open to all members of the fire service, should not be overly expensive to join, and should be guided by the common sense that still, somehow, prevails among most firefighters. What we need is for the “consensus” standards that govern us to really reflect the consensus of a large portion of the fire service community and be based on what we really do, not on what we wish we could do. Does anybody out there agree with me?
Richard G. Sterne
Battalion Chief
District of Columbia Fire/EMS Deparment