BY STEVE KREIS
The reasons firefighters are dying during structural firefighting operations have not changed much over the past 250 years of the American fire service. Smoke, thermal insult, structural collapse, getting lost, and running out of air continue to be leading causes of firefighter deaths. The number of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) annually hovers around 100 (excluding 2001, in which 343 additional firefighters were killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center). Of these 100 annual deaths, approximately about half die from cardiovascular disease-associated problems and roughly another quarter die as the result of vehicle accidents that have occurred en route to and from emergency incidents. This article focuses on the remaining fatalities, the traumatic deaths that occur during structural firefighting operations and that result in physical and emotional shock for members of the fire departments.
SOUTHWEST SUPERMARKET FIRE: FATALITY FIREFIGHTER BRETT TARVER
On March 14, 2001, the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department lost Firefighter Brett Tarver at the Southwest Supermarket fire. The fire occurred at 5 p.m. The store was filled with people, and fire was extending through the building. Engine 14 (E14) was assigned to the interior of the structure to complete the search, evacuate people, and attempt to confine the rapidly spreading fire to the rear of the structure.
Shortly after E14 completed its primary search, the captain decided it was time to get out. Tarver and the other members of E14 were exiting the building when Tarver and his partner got lost. The engineer (driver) was leading the group following the attack line they had brought into the supermarket. Tarver and his partner were following. The company officer was the last person to begin the long crawl out of the smoke-filled structure. At some point, Tarver and his partner had gotten off the hoseline and moved deeper into the supermarket fire, away from their only exit.
Earlier during the exit attempt through maze-like conditions, Tarver and his partner had basically turned left instead of right. Not knowing this, the company officer continued to crawl out of the building, believing his whole crew was ahead of him on the attack line. Tarver and his partner ended up in the butcher shop area, where they eventually became separated.
Based on radio reports of deteriorating conditions inside the building from E14 and other companies, the incident commander (IC) considered switching to a defensive strategy and started the process of pulling all crews out of the structure. During this process, Tarver radioed the IC and reported that he was lost in the back of the building. The IC deployed two companies as rapid intervention crews (RICs) through the front access point, to no avail. Other companies coming to their rescue through the back room area of the supermarket later rescued Tarver’s partner. After several unsuccessful rescue attempts, Tarver succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning from the acrid smoke and eventually was removed from the building as a full code. Trying to remove the 260-pound firefighter was nearly impossible for rescue team members. Outside, resuscitation efforts failed.
During the rescue efforts, more than 12 Maydays were issued by firefighters trying to make the rescue. On this tragic day, one other firefighter (attempting to rescue Tarver) was removed in respiratory arrest; fire department paramedics resuscitated him at the scene.
Over the next year, the department systematically reviewed its standard operating procedures (SOPs) and fireground operational activities at the strategic (command), tactical (sector), and task (company) levels in an attempt to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening in the department again. One of the many significant questions asked was, “Why didn’t the rapid intervention concept work?”
Immediately after the fire, the department reviewed its rapid intervention and Mayday SOPs. Based on drills, training, and the data acquired through those drills, the department is challenging the concept of rapid intervention—it is now evident that rapid intervention isn’t rapid.
(1) Front of Southwest Supermarket, March 14, 2001. [Photos courtesy of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department.]
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE OF RAPID INTERVENTION
The concept of rapid intervention was developed in the early 1990s. This was a bold attempt to rescue one of us if we got into trouble in a structural firefight. Basically, the concept provides that a company of firefighters, ready to be deployed to rescue a fellow firefighter in trouble, be positioned outside the fire structure in a safe location near the command post. The concept is a well-intentioned effort to protect ourselves if we get in trouble.
Later in the 1990s, the Occupational Safety and Health Admini-stration (OSHA), in 29 CFR 1910.134, mandated the two-in/two-out policy, which in essence was developed to account for the first-arriving company and provide for its safety during the initial attack on the structure fire. Realistically, if two firefighters get in trouble inside a structure on fire, unless they are near the door through which they entered or are in a minimal amount of trouble, it would be all but impossible for two firefighters who are outside to come to their rescue.
Numerous nationally recognized training sessions and classes have been developed to support the rapid intervention concept. First-class instructors and authors have dedicated hundreds if not thousands of hours to developing a concept for rescuing one of our own. These efforts have led to several documented cases of firefighters either rescuing themselves or being rescued by others. The concept of rapid intervention has been institutionalized in many departments across the country, but the number of firefighter fatalities has not been significantly reduced.
(2) Rear of Southwest Supermarket, March 14, 2001.
THE REALITY OF RAPID INTERVENTION ON MARCH 14, 2001, IN PHOENIX
At Southwest Supermarket, the concept (actually the theory) of rapid intervention was tested. Shortly after the initial Mayday from Tarver, two companies were deployed into the interior of the rapidly deteriorating supermarket to rescue Tarver and his partner. Neither rapid intervention nor the heroic efforts of the Phoenix Fire Depart-ment on that day could save Brett Tarver. The theory was unsuccessful for a number of reasons.
Members attempting to rescue Tarver and his partner experienced problems ranging from running out of air to losing the hoseline and becoming lost themselves. During the rescue attempt, more than 12 associated Maydays were transmitted to the IC (command team). The rescue, which actually became a body recovery, took 53 minutes from Tarver’s first Mayday broadcast.
Although the front portion of the supermarket was fully involved in fire within a short time, the firefight continued in the rear of the building, where Tarver was known to be. Companies continued to hold the fire out of the rear portions of the structure until his recovery was completed.
The IC had several radio conversations with Tarver after he got off the attack line. Command knew he was near the storage room area and that he was running out of air. Command told him to activate his PASS device. He didn’t do it, possibly because he didn’t hear the radio transmission. Why couldn’t we rescue him?
DEDUCTIVE RESEARCH PROCESS
Very shortly after the Southwest Supermarket fire, based on the assumption that one RIC standing in the street cannot rescue two firefighters in trouble inside a commercial structure, our department increased the number of rapid intervention resources sent on working incidents. We staff our engine and ladder companies with four members. The department originally dispatched one additional en-gine company for rapid intervention on residential incidents and two companies for rapid intervention on working first-alarm incidents (larger residences or commercial structures).
Using a deductive research process, the department, shortly after the Southwest Supermarket incident, increased its resource allocation for rapid intervention on most residential alarms to one engine and one rescue (a two-person transportation unit) and on working first-alarm assignments to two engines, one truck, one rescue, and one battalion chief with a field incident technician (aide).
In this enhanced version of rapid intervention, the companies work under the control of the battalion chief and are assigned to a Rescue Sector. Through the drills described below, the department learned that it is unreasonable to expect a single company to locate, package for removal, provide air to, extricate from any entrapment if necessary, and actually remove a firefighter from the structure.
In essence, the new concept for rapid intervention requires an operation orchestrated by the sector officer that involves first deploying a search team and then sending the rescue team. Obviously, if the search team can accomplish the rescue, it should do so. But, all things being equal (as demonstrated by the data below), it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to do so during a rescue attempt in a commercial occupancy.
As a side note, in this new Rescue Sector concept, the rapid intervention companies will no longer be positioned in the street waiting for assignments. They will be on the fireground performing essential tasks to make it safer for interior crews and doing a recon of the fireground to completely familiarize themselves with it in case a firefighter needs to be rescued. Members of the Rescue Sector will not enter areas that require the use of air in their SCBA. They must remain in a “ready state” capable of being deployed in a very short time if there is a Mayday.
(3) The inside of the vacant structure. Note that there are no lights. Window-tinted face masks simulate real-life conditions.
(4) Members use a rescue strap to extricate a downed firefighter in a theater.
CALLING A MAYDAY
Realistically, when do we call a Mayday? Unless a fire department has done significant training in this area and—probably more importantly—has dispelled the negative cultural aspects associated with the calling of a Mayday, firefighters will not use it until they are in significant trouble. More than likely, it would be about the time they are running out of air or when they find they cannot escape from the structure or resolve the problems they have encountered.
The reality of our culture is very simple: We hire aggressive fighters, we hate to lose, we are always there to answer the call for help from others, we will adapt and improvise to overcome any situation (even to our own detriment), and none of us ever want to admit defeat or even that we may need help. To make this cultural issue even worse, how do we treat those in our ranks who show this perceived “weakness”?
We asked officers and firefighters in Phoenix shortly after the Southwest Supermarket incident, When would you call a Mayday? Although they didn’t say it directly, after boiling out all the rhetoric, the response basically was, “on my last dying breath.” That is way too late!
After companies completed the rescue training cycles, they understood how difficult it really is to rescue one of us. That training, coupled with some of the facts associated with this study, clearly demonstrates that waiting until you can’t get out of trouble before you call a Mayday will cause serious problems that cannot be overcome.
Training to rescue firefighters isn’t enough: We must change the culture. Everybody must understand that it’s okay to call for help if you suspect you are lost, running out of air, or trapped—and they must do it early. As the statistics given below demonstrate, it is going to take us a long time to get you out, and there is a good chance that some of your brothers or sisters will get in trouble coming to your rescue. Don’t wait until your last dying breath!
DRILLS AND TRAINING
Over the next year, our department embarked on a series of drills and training exercises that culminated in a rescue drill designed to test a new process for rapid intervention.
A total of 269 engine, ladder, and rescue companies—1,144 uniformed members of the Phoenix Fire Department—participated in each set of drills. Companies from the 19 neighboring communities (automatic-aid partners) also participated in the exercises, but they were not included in the statistical analysis portions of this report.
The drills were designed to exercise and measure the following basic firefighting skills: air management (individual and company), Mayday procedures, the newly enhanced rapid intervention concept, company officer decision-making processes, communication techniques, crew accountability, crews’ ability to follow existing attack lines already placed in the structure, and others.
Check sheets were developed, and obser-vers/evaluators were trained in the criteria and data-gathering process. After analysis of the data, Dr. Ron Perry, of Arizona State Univer-sity, and the Phoenix Fire Department prepared several internal reports.
The drills were conducted in three vacant single-story commercial occupancies spread out over the Phoenix metro area. The owners of the structures donated or leased the buildings to the department. The occupancies included the following:
- Melrose Bowl, a large bowling alley in central Phoenix. The interior of this site was partitioned off to limit the size of the structure to about 7,500 square feet. One hundred fifty-two crews participated at this location.
- The Coyote Grill, a 5,000-square-foot bar and restaurant in south Phoenix. Forty-three crews participated at this location.
- The Watering Hole, a 5,000-square-foot bar and restaurant in north Phoenix. Seventy-four crews participated at this location.
The scenario was similar to that of the Southwest Supermarket incident. The extrication of the firefighters was to be a fairly simple operation. None of the firefighters to be rescued were entrapped in any way and generally were located within 100 feet of the exit. Crews had to follow a previously extended attack line to find the lost firefighters. The line was laid out as it would be in a real event. No tricks, spaghetti drills, or anything like that was added. A few obstacles were placed in the path (3 2 3 2 3 cubes built by banding wooden pallets together), but they were not placed on top of the previously extended attack line, and the hoseline could be followed with minimal effort. In essence, the drill was laid out in such a way that members should be successful in extricating both firefighters while learning the new concepts of the rapid intervention process. Heat, fire, and smoke were never introduced in the drill sites.
Firefighters conducting the rescue operation had their vision obscured (but not completely blacked out) by pieces of laminated window tint cut to fit precisely inside their SCBA facepieces.
The different shades of window tinting provide a realistic level of visibility that can be adjusted to simulate the different levels of visibility (five to 20 feet depending on ambient light and the use of flashlights). A cassette tape of actual fireground sounds was played during the drills. It is important to note again that no heat or smoke was introduced into the structure.
(5) Rescue team members provide “horsepower” to a rescue firefighter.
(6) Phoenix Fire Department and NIST residential burns; two of the structures are in the background.
The Drill Scenario
A crew of four firefighters extended an attack line about 150 feet inside a commercial structure in which there was a fire. When it was time to exit, the company officer and the engineer safely exited the structure, but the two firefighters got separated from the others. Firefighter 1 was mobile and running out of air. He was still in contact with the initial attack line and could communicate on his radio. Firefighter 2 was approximately 40 feet off the end of the attack line (typically in another room), down (not mobile), and unable to communicate on his radio. Firefighter 2’s PASS device had activated and was sounding. Firefighter 1 radioed Command that he had become separated from his partner and was running low on air.
The goal was to accomplish the objective of the new concept of rapid intervention: to remove both firefighters from the structure in the best possible condition and, just as important, that the rescuers do this without getting in trouble themselves.
Among other things, trouble was defined as problems such as exiting the structure with the low-air alert activated and becoming separated or lost.
The crews needed to locate Firefighter 1 (still on the line); capture him; assess his remaining air; transfill or buddy breathe, if appropriate (our department considers buddy breathing as a Mayday event); and then safely remove/escort Firefighter 1 from the building. While Firefighter 1 was being escorted from the building, the remainder of the search team would continue to search for Firefighter 2 (off the attack line). Once Firefighter 2 was located, the companies continued to monitor their own air, interior conditions, and safety considerations; assess the condition of Firefighter 2 (including air) and also transfill air to the victim; package the firefighter for removal; and safely extricate the firefighter. Even though approximately 150 feet of attack line was in the building, in no case was Firefighter 2 ever more than 100 feet (line of sight) from the exit.
Note: During this timeframe, the department had a very limited number of thermal imaging cameras (TICs). We now have a TIC on every engine and in most ladder companies. The department has also purchased (but has not yet received) intercom systems for each SCBA, to enhance communication among crew members while inside a fire structure. They were not available for the drill scenario. (I believe these intercom devices will result in significantly safer and more effective firefighting operations.)
Air management accountability is critical any time firefighters enter a burning structure, whether it is for fire control or to rescue another firefighter. Our chief, Alan Brunacini, said it best at a recent meeting with our department captains: “Our life expectancy inside a structure fire is limited to the air we carry on our backs.”
Dr. Ron Perry analyzed the data associated with air management in the more than 200 drills conducted in Phoenix. He reported the following.
A 3,000-psi SCBA bottle equated to 16.5 to 18.5 minutes of air consumption.
Perry noted the following: “While it is known that a large number of factors determine air consumption rate, and these factors are not specifically controlled here, the average consumption rate judged across the firefighters is a meaningful figure. That is, assuming that the uncontrolled factors are randomly distributed across the department members, the uncontrolled factors should statistically be ‘averaged out’ (that is, represent a multivariate normal distribution) across individuals. This does not mean that any average reported here serves as a statistical point estimate for any individual firefighter. It does mean that the averages represent ‘rules of thumb’ regarding air consumption for the firefighters in general who work for the Phoenix Fire Department.”
According to Perry, the amount of time we can expect a firefighter to be able to spend inside a structure fire (under simulated conditions) is 18.5 minutes. Some can stay inside longer and still have enough air to exit the structure before the low-air alert activates; some will have less air.
It took the rescue sector 2.47 minutes to get ready.
Using the new theory developed for rapid intervention, companies are required to report to Command when they are “ready.” Within the drill scenario, companies were assigned to the rescue sector prior to Firefighter 1’s Mayday. The purpose for this “ready state” report is to let the IC know when crews are prepared to be deployed to extricate firefighters in trouble. The definition of “ready” in this context means full crew turned out with tools and assembled outside the building’s point of entry.
It took an average of 2.47 (standard deviation = 1.82 minutes) minutes for the “ready” report. “The shortest time was 30 seconds; the longest was 14 minutes. The relatively small standard deviation indicates that these shortest and longest times tended to be ‘outliers,’ with most crews much closer to the mean time.” Again, in this drill scenario, the numbers appear to be best-case scenario. How often do companies arrive at the incident together and know beforehand what their assignment will be?
It took 2.55 minutes from the receipt of the Mayday to the rescue team’s entry.
After the “ready state” report from the rescue sector officer, the drill coordinators had Firefighter 1 call Mayday at different time intervals, to simulate real-incident conditions. At an incident, we all expect some time to elapse from the first Mayday broadcast on the radio until the rapid intervention team makes its interior entry. How many of us actually know how long that will take? Even though a team is assembled outside the door, it takes a certain amount of time to receive instructions from Command, for the sector or company officer to develop a rescue plan and to relay orders to the crew members, and for members to don their facepieces and pick up their tools to prepare for entry. Honestly, how many of us have actually calculated that time and understand the impact of being out of air for 21/2 minutes? To prove the point, try holding your breath for 21/2 minutes. It becomes pretty uncomfortable in a relatively short time. It can become even more problematic if you are waiting to be rescued. Keep in mind that this is just the time it takes for the search team to enter the structure.
It takes 5.33 minutes to reach the downed firefighter.
On average, it took the search team 5.33 minutes to locate the downed firefighter. It becomes evident from this statistic that locating a firefighter who is 40 feet off an attack line that has been extended 150 feet inside a commercial structure is relatively quick. This statistic, coupled with the 2.55 minutes it takes to enter a structure from the first Mayday, means that most downed firefighters should be located within eight to nine minutes.
It takes 21.8 minutes to locate, package, transfill, and extricate a downed firefighter from a commercial structure.
It took 21.8 minutes from the first Mayday to extricate Firefighters1 and 2. Because the remaining search team members continued to search for Firefighter 2 while the other two members removed Firefighter 1 from the building, the search team lost very little if any time attempting to locate Firefighter 2. In most of these drill scenarios, two search team members escorted Firefighter 1 out of the structure. However, in some circumstances it may be necessary to assign an entire company to this function. Incident commanders and rescue sector officers must plan for this type of resource allocation.
If we operate in pairs (at a minimum) with both members having a radio (National Fire Protection Association 1500), this scenario should be pretty close to realistic. Nobody should ever operate inside a commercial structure on fire alone; the risk is too great.
That being said, it becomes very evident that rescuing a single firefighter who is no more than 40 feet off the end of an attack line that has been extended 150 feet into a commercial structure will take somewhere close to 21.8 minutes. In fact, the statistic of 21.8 minutes is a composite calculation based on the various components of the drill. In a real-life scenario with smoke, fire, and heat, you could safely assume the timeframe may be longer.
Twelve firefighters were needed to complete the rescue.
Based on the data provided above, it becomes obvious that the time it takes to rescue a firefighter is longer than the time allotment for which we carry air on our backs—18.5 minutes air time vs. 21.8 minutes total rescue time. That being the case, two teams using a relay rescue concept should be deployed (at different times) to rescue the downed firefighter. A sector officer must orchestrate this event for the rescue to be successful. If you deploy all of your resources at the same time, the rescuers clearly would not have enough air to complete the task.
The search team should have six members—five firefighters and one officer.
In the rescue drills scenario, a search team consisting of five firefighters and one officer located Firefighter 1 and captured him; two of the search team members escorted him out of the structure. This multitasking approach allowed four of the remaining search team members to continue searching for Firefighter 2, who was located on the average of 5.33 minutes. Once located, the search team would begin to package the firefighter for removal, provide air, and begin the extrication process. If the search team can locate the firefighters in trouble, provide a trail for the rescue team (in most cases, another attack hoseline), and package the firefighter for removal, this should be considered successful; anything more would be an added bonus.
If these skills aren’t practiced, even the simplest movement of companies becomes a problem. As an example, teams exiting and entering the structure following the same hoseline would have a “train wreck” if they are both on the same side of the attack line. In this drill, it became evident that, especially when crews follow the same line, they must hold onto the attack line with their left hands so that those entering and those exiting do not collide and are not forced to let go of the line.
The rescue sector officer should have be a command officer and should have a field incident technician (aide).
Orchestration by the Rescue Sector officer is a critical component of the total rescue effort. Deploying the rescue team too soon will result in their not having enough air to safely exit the structure; deploying them too late may mean the search team will not have enough air to safely exit the structure. The sector officer and the field incident technician play critical roles in the safe rescue of downed firefighters and the safety of those coming to their rescue.
The Rescue Sector officer must be accountable for every RIC team member who enters and exits the structure. It is very easy to lose track of personnel during this highly stressful and dangerous time. The officer must also ensure that everyone on each team totally understands the rescue action plan and should also monitor company “on air” time to make sure no one overextends his air supply. Having the sector officer enter the structure creates a very difficult operational environment and results in poor communications and sector management. The hostile conditions inside do not allow the sector officer to effectively orchestrate the rescue efforts.
The rescue team should have four members—three firefighters and one officer—minimum.
We have all been raised on the theory that if we get in trouble, our partner could get us out. The reality is that it takes a lot more horsepower to get one of us out of a structure than it does to get the average citizen out. This four-member team is a minimum; in this scenario, the company officer should supervise the extrication efforts and may need to act as a pathfinder. The three other crew members provide the horsepower to drag and lift the downed firefighter out of the structure.
Interior clutter, obstacles, lack of visibility, distance, and many other factors all lead to the conclusion that one or two firefighters simply cannot remove one of us if we get into trouble. The rescue team provides the horsepower to perform the actual extrication of a downed firefighter. Trying to move a firefighter in full turnout gear is extremely difficult in most incidents. In the past, we trained in areas where we would drag firefighters across a smooth, open area to remove them from the structure. In reality, even a firefighter walking around lost and confused needs to be captured, contained, and led out. An unconscious firefighter more than likely would have to be lifted off the floor at times during the extrication process. We all know how hard it is to lift an unconscious person. Imagine how difficult is would be to lift one of us in the conditions we find during a firefight! Even in the neatest occupancies, the interior clutter created during a firefight produces huge obstacles: Normally simple, benign objects snag and catch a firefighter being extricated.
As you can see, the 12 members needed to safely extricate one of our own do not provide rapid intervention for the rescuers. The IC must reinforce the rescue sector with additional companies to treat the downed firefighter and, even more importantly, rescue the rescuers. That being said ….
One in five rescuers will get into trouble.
Throughout the drill scenarios, basically 20 percent of the members assigned to the rescue effort got into trouble. The definitions of trouble in this scenario ranged from members’ exiting the building with their low-air alerting device activated (16.9%) to rescuers themselves getting lost to a variety of other problems that would have led to their needing to be rescued. Perry noted that company officers comprised at least 13 percent of those in trouble.
“In the Rescue Sector drills, 99 of the crews (36.8%) had at least one member with no-air or vibra-alert-activated at exit. Several crews had multiple members with vibra-alert activated on exit; a total of 193 firefighters (16.9% of all firefighters taking part in the drill) experienced activated vibra-alert. Among the firefighters with their vibra-alert activated, 25 (13.0%) were company officers.”
The old axiom about leaving the structure when our low-air alarm begins to activate is a fallacy, especially in commercial structures. According to Perry, “Activation takes place on average with slightly less than 700 psi remaining.” Using the relatively conservative figure of the average firefighter’s using 175 psi per minute, if you wait for your low-air alarm to activate before exiting a structure, that means you would have four minutes to get out of the building. Trying to crawl out of a commercial structure in four minutes allows little or no room for errors. If you crawl into a commercial structure for 18.5 minutes and wait for your low-air alarm to activate prior to exiting, how long would it take you to get out? Company officers must monitor their crews’ air consumption and make the critical decision of when to exit based on remaining air supplies and forecasting how long it would take to get out. Firefighters are results-oriented individuals. They must understand that they are part of the big rescue operation and they are responsible only for the work they can do within the duration of their given air supply. Staying too long will result in more firefighters getting in trouble.
Many times we use a residential mentality in connection with commercial structures. In most fire departments, 95 percent of structural fires are in residences. In most residences, if you wait until your low-air alarm activates to exit the structure, you can almost always get out without many problems. But, taking that mentality into a commercial structure may prove fatal. Commercial fires are different animals; we must train for commercial fires and carry those habits into residences. Don’t wait for your low-air alarm to activate before leaving residential or commercial buildings.
A structure can collapse within 16 to 18 minutes.
As if these statistics aren’t bad enough for structural firefighters, how many of us were taught the 20-minute rule? To make matters worse, how many of us who grew up with this rule completely understood its meaning—does it mean 20 minutes from when we get on the scene or 20 minutes from the fire’s inception or some other interpretation that has or hasn’t been passed on for years? Does it mean that we should come out at 20 minutes or that the structure is going to collapse in 20 minutes? You get the point.
In a separate set of studies on commercial and residential structure fires conducted by the Phoenix Fire Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), it has been demonstrated that if there is no firefighter intervention, it is between 16 and 18 minutes from the point of ignition until the time we can no longer operate on top of or inside a structure.
The studies were conducted on four similar-type residential buildings. The only difference between them was the type of sheeting and roofing materials used in each structure. In each of the four cases, the two 250-pound (static load) firefighter dummies used fell through the roof in between 16 and 18 minutes.
In another study conducted by NIST and the PFD, an older-style commercial warehouse structure was divided in half by constructing a two-hour firewall in the middle of the building. This allowed for two separate burns, thus providing two different data sets. In each scenario of the warehouse burn, the roof collapsed within 16 to 18 minutes, again without any firefighter intervention.
The old 20-minute rule was created years ago when there wasn’t any lightweight construction. Buildings were constructed with true dimensional lumber and were held together with fasteners instead of gusset plates. Times have changed, construction has changed, and British thermal units (Btus) have increased. Statistics demonstrate that without any firefighter intervention, buildings fall down or become unsafe for occupancy in much less than 20 minutes.
(7) The commercial structure burn; note the two-hour firewall in the center of the structure.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
This article is presented to inform and stimulate additional discussion. The statistics provide us with the necessary groundwork to move forward from this point. Much more work is needed to analyze the impact of these statistics on our daily operations. We must look at the role of the organization; task-, tactical-, and strategic-level training; and techniques, equipment, and other topics relating to this debate.
Enhanced rapid intervention staffing and techniques are only short-term answers. Increasing our ability to get ourselves out of trouble is not the solution. We must figure out how to avoid getting into trouble and eliminate the need for rapid intervention.
But for now, do the math, analyze the impact, and try these types of drills yourself. Get out of the drill tower or apparatus bay, and train in commercial occupancies. Maybe your organization can develop a better way to rescue one of us if we get into trouble in a commercial structure fire. Clearly, dedicated rescue companies or heavy squads can make a difference.
Providing better technology, gathering more resources, and developing mutual- and automatic-aid agreements to increase your staffing and resource pool are other options. Maybe even more important is to look at your culture and standard operating procedures to make sure they are up to date. Seventy-five percent of our training efforts need to be focused on preventing us from ever needing to use rapid intervention; 25 percent of our efforts should involve getting ourselves out of trouble. For the most part, all of our practiced and trained on “systems” were in place at Southwest Supermarket. But, some of them needed to be strengthened, revised, or overhauled. Ninety-five percent of what we do in our daily operations was right on target; about five percent needed to be changed.
In today’s structural firefighting environment, we clearly don’t carry enough air on our backs to successfully (safely) rescue one of our own from a commercial structure fire by ourselves. If it takes 12 firefighters to rescue one and if one out of five of the rescuers will get into trouble, how many of us have those kinds of resources to commit to an incident? And, to make matters worse, the buildings are falling down sooner.
Most times we go “back to basics” after a firefighter fatality. We stress firefighter training. This should be done in all organizations; but, in many cases, a firefighter did not die in the line of duty because the firefighters were not performing their tasks. Firefighters and company officers should continue to practice and hone their fireground operations and rapid intervention skills. Again, many well-known and dedicated instructors have taught and should continue to teach concepts like “Saving our Own” and “Managing the Mayday.” There isn’t any substitute for a well-trained fire company if things start to go bad.
Too many times, these are last-ditch efforts for effecting a self-rescue from a situation that could have been prevented by following safe and effective SOPs; establishing strong incident command; maintaining good communications; having smart firefighters and officers; and enhancing training at the task, tactical, and strategic levels of fireground operations.
Organizations must train not only companies and firefighters but also command officers who operate at the tactical and strategic levels of fireground operations. Incident commanders should not assign companies to an interior attack without being able to provide the attack crews with a “round-trip ticket.” If you’re going to send them in, you need to be able to get them out. Incident commanders and the organizations they work for have the enormous responsibility to provide for the safety of our workforce.
In paramedicine, a person who has been shot in the head with a 45-caliber handgun is going to die. Paramedics will try to resuscitate the person, but everybody knows the victim is going to die. In the fire service, there are commercial and residential structures that have been shot in the head. In essence, they are going to burn down. We can’t save them all. It’s a standard outcome. Our goal should be to recognize standard conditions, implement standard actions, and achieve a standard outcome.
We must be smarter about which firefights we can win and which are losers. Losers really aren’t losers; they are simply the standard outcome of a fire that progressed past our ability to control it with the resources we can effectively bring to the incident. It’s nothing more than physics: The Btus are greater than the cooling efforts we can provide.
We need to be offensive in the right circumstances and defensive in those that require us to be outside. Clearly, we should risk more for life safety; it’s our job. But nobody should die trying to save gypsum board. In commercial fires, the risks are great. Today, we can’t get ourselves out if we get in trouble, and more than likely we are going to get others hurt when trying to rescue ourselves. Rapid intervention is the only alternative we have now for getting us out of a commercial structure if things go bad—and rapid intervention isn’t rapid.
Brunacini, Alan, V., company officers meetings, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, 2002.
Perry, Ron. Rescue Sector Training Exercises Data Contrasting Four- versus Five-Person Crews, June 6, 2002.
Perry, Ron. Rescue Sector Training Exercises, Final Data Report; June 4, 2002.
STEVE KREIS is assistant chief of the Operations Division of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, where he has served for 27 years.