One of the first basic principles taught to firefighters early in their career is the importance of teamwork and to never go into an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) situation without a partner. Yet all too often we see this basic concept of crew integrity violated. And all too often it results in the tragic loss of one of our own.

The Occupational Safety and Heath Administration (OSHA) Respiratory Protection standard 1910.134 requires the employer (the fire department) to ensure that any personnel entering a structure fire have a partner. In addition, it also requires the employer to ensure that the crew maintains visual and/or audio contact (radio communication does not meet this requirement).1

Let’s take a look at a couple of fatality cases investigated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in which the breakdown of crew integrity led to tragic losses:

• Case Number 1: Dispatch tones out a department to a structure fire. On arrival, firefighters find a working fire in a multiple dwelling. While conducting a primary search of the third floor, the victim and his partner encounter thick smoke and high heat conditions. Not having hand lights with them, the crew retreats to the second floor, where they meet up with a hose team. The victim is told to stay and assist the hose team while his partner goes back to the truck to get hand lights. For reasons unknown, the victim proceeds back up to the third floor. At this point, he becomes trapped by fire and radios for help. The attack team attempts to advance the hoseline to the third floor but does not have enough line. The FAST/RIT unit was deployed but was unable to locate the downed firefighter because of high heat conditions. One of the key notations made in this NIOSH report was “ensure that team continuity is maintained with two or more firefighters per team.”2

• Case Number 2: On arrival, firefighters find a two-story commercial structure with smoke coming from the front of the building. During this incident, multiple crews failed to maintain their integrity. First, a firefighter (victim #1), who appears lost, is found on the second floor by another firefighter performing ventilation duties (who was, by the way, also alone). While the venting firefighter attempted to flee intense heat, he lost victim #1. After backtracking, he finally located victim #1, who was unresponsive on the floor. Unable to move the downed firefighter by himself, the ventman made several attempts to call command for help using his handheld radio; his calls went unanswered. The ventman then exited the structure to change his air cylinder. While outside, he notified command that a firefighter was down on the second floor. Immediately, a rescue crew was deployed to assist with the removal of victim #1. On exiting the building with victim # 1, the captain from the rescue crew took a head count and noticed a firefighter from his rescue party (victim #2) was now missing. While attempting to locate victim #2, the rescue crew was driven back by intense heat. Hearing a PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) device sounding in the rear of the building, the rescue crew attempted to access victim #2 through a second-floor window that had been boarded up. After an intense forcible entry effort, victim #2 was removed from the structure and placed in a stokes basket and lowered to the ground. One of the key points of this NIOSH investigation was “ensure that team continuity is maintained.”3


What is crew integrity? My definition, putting together the dictionary definitions of “crew” and “integrity,” is “a group of people working together in a perfect condition.” Yet for some reason, we still seem to go against this basic rule on a regular basis, which sometimes costs us the ultimate price-the loss of one of our own.

Both of the above tragic events show why it is important for firefighters to maintain crew integrity. Some of the ways we do this is to follow the basics.

Always remain in visual, verbal, or direct contact with your partner(s).

-Visual. Now I know that sometimes in a smoke-filled environment it is difficult to remain in visual contact, but with a little modern technology (i.e., the thermal imaging camera) this task is much easier. Warning: This tool is designed to aid you in your efforts; however, DO NOT rely on it alone. Should the camera fail, you could easily become lost or disoriented.4

-Verbal. This can easily be accomplished by sounding off about every 15 seconds. The first member in the door is Search 1. The second member in the door is Search 2, and so on. As you conduct your search, the members of your crew simply sound off their number in sequence (example Search 1, Search 2, Search 3). Should a number in the sequence be missed, this is your warning to STOP and account for all the personnel on your crew before you continue on. (Note: Always try to customize your method of sounding off. For example, if every team in the building just used 1, 2, 3, etc., you could easily lose track if you came across another crew in the building using the same method.) I advocate using your job assignment before your number-for example: Attack 1, Attack 2, and so on.

-Direct contact. This can be accomplished by tapping your partner’s shoulder as you progress through the structure or by using a tool (i.e., a pike pole) to extend your reach. Also, using a search rope during a large-area search allows you to maintain a firm reference point.

Enter as a crew/exit as a crew. The easiest way to drive home this point is to borrow a quote from the movie Backdraft: “You go, we go.” I know this movie was more fantasy than fact, but this point is definitely fact. Should any member of your crew have a problem, the entire crew should exit the structure. I know many departments are short on staff, and this simple concept may be hard to swallow. Some may say, “Well, if we have a three-person crew and someone has a problem, we’re still okay.” That may be true, but let’s focus on the member exiting the structure. What happens to that firefighter should he become lost or trapped?

Have the proper tool assignment and personal protective equipment. In my truck company, there are three primary assignments: forcible entry/search team, outside vent team, and roof team. Each one of these jobs has a standard tool assignment, and the personnel assigned to that task are required to take their complete tool assignments. One way my department maintains this is by strongly emphasizing tool assignments during our training. As we saw in one of the previous case studies, a firefighter on the search team was left with a hose team so his partner could go out to get flashlights. This may not have changed the outcome, but what if they had lights? In addition, even if you are on a hoseline, you should have at a minimum a set of irons (halligan tool and flathead ax) because you never know. What if you lose water and the fire gets behind you? You may have to force your way through a different exit. Or, you start your initial attack and the door shuts on your line. Now you have no water, and the door is jammed shut. In my fire department, no matter what your job assignment is, we stress to never go in without a tool.

Know your limitations. None of us is Superman! If you’re conducting an aggressive search of a building and you are more than halfway through your air cylinder, you should make sure you’re going to have enough time to get out. Remember, the warning on an SCBA sounds when you have approximately five minutes of air remaining. If you are more than five minutes away from an exit, you may run out of air.

If you lose your bearings while conducting a search or lose contact with a hoseline and can’t find it, you’re lost! Don’t be a cowboy. Call for help, and activate your PASS device. In my department, we train our personnel to also transmit a Mayday over the radio and make sure that they get an acknowledgment back on the radio.5

In addition, if you lose a member of your crew, don’t assume he is with another team. Report the member missing so a roll call can be conducted. I personally would rather be ribbed by my fellow firefighters for losing my bearings and getting lost at a fire than have them go to my house and tell my wife and daughters I won’t be coming home.

I encourage you to take a look at yourself and your department. How many times have you seen crew integrity break down at your fire scenes? There have been instances when an entire crew of firefighters was killed during an incident. Most of these cases, however, involved an unforeseen structural failure. The most common structure-related firefighter fatalities involve firefighters who became lost or trapped by themselves and then ran out of air.

If you remember anything from this article, remember these two things:

1. Crew integrity is everyone’s responsibility.

2. Always maintain contact with your crew. And, if you become lost or trapped, don’t be a superman. Call for help!


1. OSHA Respiratory Standard 1910.134(g)(4)(i).

2. NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation, Career Fire Fighter Dies After Becoming Trapped by Fire in Apartment BuildingNJ, March 2002.

3. NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation, Two Career Fire Fighters Die in Four-Alarm Fire at Two-Story Brick StructureMissouri, March 2002.

4. See “Tips for Using Thermal Imaging Cameras,” Training Notebook, John G. Riker, Fire Engineering, May 2002.

5. See “You Must Call Mayday for RIT to Work: Will You?” Dr. Burton A. Clark, Raul A. Angulo, Steven Auch; Fire Engineering, June 2003.

CHRIS WHITBY, a 16-plus-year veteran of the fire service, is a former captain and the current training officer for the Middletown (NY) Fire Department; an adjunct fire instructor for the New York State Academy of Fire Science in Montour Falls, New York; and a fire instructor for the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is completing an associate’s degree in fire science at Empire State College.

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