BY JOHN “SKIP” COLEMAN
Staffing has always been an issue in the fire service. In the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, I am blessed to have adequate staffing-adequate from my perspective! Some of the bigger cities may believe that what we do in Toledo as it relates to staffing is inadequate-for example, operating three-person truck companies.
Toledo sends about 28 firefighters to a reported fire. We send 31 or so to a reported fire in a high-rise or an apartment building. Most departments don’t have that resource capability. I would guess that the average response to a reported fire in a U.S. fire department (paid, volunteer, or combination) would be 10 to 12 firefighters.
When I came on the job in 1975, it wasn’t uncommon to run two-person trucks in Toledo. This is unheard of today in Toledo and probably was never acceptable in one of the bigger cities. Today, we run trucks with a minimum of three firefighters. We don’t do “traditional” truck work as they do in the larger cities. Predominantly, trucks handle ventilation and, depending on the situation, search. That’s the way it has always been.
My brothers and sisters in the bigger cities ask, “Who forces entry and does searches in Toledo?” The answer is, usually the first-in company (engine) forces the door (normally with a boot, the irons, or an ax). The unit assigned to search “searches” based on the priorities of the incident. Most of our fires are in vacant buildings, and search isn’t usually a high priority, not as high as putting out the fire and ventilation (horizontal and vertical).
Given the above, what would be the options for a fire in a restaurant, a nightclub, a nursing home, or another place of assembly where there is a potential for multiple victims?
• You are assigned as the officer on one of the three engines in the city-two full sized and one quint-dispatched first due on a reported structure fire at the local nursing home. Also dispatched are the other engine and the quint, along with the on-duty battalion chief. You pull up to the nursing home at 0937 hours and find heavy smoke in two wings. You know from previous EMS runs there that each wing holds approximately 24 residents. Some are ambulatory, and some are not.
• You are the officer assigned to one of the seven engines in the city. You are dispatched at 2238 hours to a report of a fire in an unsprinklered nightclub. Two other engines, a truck, and a chief are also dispatched. When you pull up, you observe heavy smoke throughout the building and fire showing from the rear. Occupants tell you that they were the first ones out and that many more people are inside.
Discussion of the scenarios: Most would probably agree that the first action that should be taken at the nursing home fire is to take in a line and try to locate the fire and cut off its spread. Others may opt for first removing the most endangered victims. Arguments can be made for either case.
In the second scenario, again, most would agree that the first action should be to take a line in the front and push the fire out where it is venting in the rear. In both scenarios, the first-due engine would accomplish this.
If I were a betting person, I would bet that the next action many of you would take would be to search for and remove victims. (Both situations would be extremely stressful on first-responding units. The actions of the on-scene civilians would complicate the situation.)
In one scenario, you would have six to nine firefighters to accomplish that task if no one vents or pulls additional lines. In the second scenario, you would have from nine to 12 firefighters to accomplish the same tasks.
Our normal thought process would be to remove the victims from the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmo-sphere by going in and blindly searching for (heavy smoke conditions) and removing victims, perhaps while one or two members attempt horizontal or vertical ventilation.
Here’s a thought: Instead of removing victims from the IDLH, why not remove the IDLH from the victims? How many firefighters will it take in either case to locate and remove victims in a zero-visibility IDLH condition, especially when minimal or moderate ventilation evolutions are employed? Let’s see: one victim, two firefighters. You do the math.
Instead, why not contemplate aggressive ventilation practices that would remove the IDLH from the victim? I am talking specifically of positive pressure ventilation. Some might be concerned that we may push the fire to the plenum or other undesirable areas. If the fan is positioned correctly, you can push the fire where you want it to go.
In the case of a 60- 40- 10-foot nightclub, you will push in an amount of air equal to the volume of the building in 1.2 minutes with a 20,000-cfm fan. Even expecting a 50 percent success rate from the ventilation, you can improve the air condition in the building by 50 percent in 1.2 minutes. Now, you can go in and probably “look” for victims, as opposed to blindly feeling for them. In addition, you have increased the survivability rate for victims not yet found by improving the area’s air quality by pushing out smoke and CO and replacing it with oxygenated air.
We all are familiar with the pros and cons of PPV. However, what I do know is that one of three things happens when you turn on a PPV fan: Things get worse, things stay the same, or things get better. Two out of three isn’t bad. If you turn on the fan and the fire flares up, turn off the fan.
Will this work in all situations? I’m not sure. I know that under most circumstances, most fire departments do not have the staffing to attack the fire, search for and remove victims, and ventilate the building in large life-loss situations? Should we take a closer look at this option? Absolutely!
Look at your staffing levels and the life-loss potential, and then consider aggressive ventilation to remove the IDLH from the victims as opposed to removing the victims from the IDLH, and make your own decision.
Would I do this at a single-family residential fire? I don’t know! But I would certainly consider it at a fire where many lives may be at risk.
■ JOHN “SKIP” COLEMAN, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.