This month’s question in-volves two problems: staffing and incident priorities. For most of us, staffing is something beyond our control. Normally, the city council, mayor, union contract, or chief of department sets staffing. We can’t choose our staffing; we have to make the best of it. Incident priorities are another story.
The vast majority of departments, paid or volunteer, use an engine company with fewer than four persons some or all of the time. The last U.S. average statistic I saw was 3.75 firefighters per engine (including the officer). A company’s success or failure lies in the officer’s ability to realize what needs to be done (by looking at “the picture”) and then to prioritize the actions the company takes. This is especially true if staffing is low.
Considering the “givens” in this month’s scenario, if your engine pulls up at night with a probable (unseen, unheard) life hazard with heavy smoke but no visible fire and staffing prohibits concurrent (more than one at a time) firefighting operations, go for the fire. Your objective is to get a line between the fire and savable victims. Stretch a line, enter the building, and head for the second floor.
The best thing that can happen is that you stumble onto the fire before you locate any victims. If you stumble onto victims before you find the fire, you will have some tough decisions to make in an instant (especially if you’re inside with only one other firefighter).
In this case, the driver is probably outside getting you water and doing a host of other things. Once the fire is located, it should be darkened and the closest window should be vented first by the driver (outside vent man if possible) and subsequently by the nozzleman (with the nozzle). While this is occurring, the other firefighter can leave the line and begin to locate any victims in adjacent rooms. (I realize it’s unsafe and a violation for one firefighter to leave the line and start searching alone, but drastic times call for drastic measures. Your department should have procedures dictating if and when the two-in/two-out rule can be violated. The buddy system is a part of it.) It sounds like a lot of work in a short time, and it is! That’s what low staffing brings.
—John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.
Question: You are the officer on a three-person engine company in a five-station fire department. Your station is on the outskirts of town, where future city expansion is expected. If you catch a fire in the far end of your district, you are about six minutes away for your next-in unit, which is another engine company. You pull up to a two-story house at 3 a.m. and have an occupied house with heavy volumes of smoke on all floors and coming out of the eaves. The neighbors tell you people are in there. Is your initial objective at this fire search, attack, a combination of both, ventilation, or some other action? Why?
Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Response: In the outlying areas of Phoenix, this scenario could take place, except for the portion about the regularly staffed three-person engine company. All of our units are staffed with a minimum of four members, but there are times during a shift, because of training, short-duration vacation leaves, or a few other situations, where a company could have only three people.
A house fire at 0300 hours doesn’t meet the parameters for not adhering to OSHA’s two-in/two-out rule. But the report by neighbors that people are still inside does allow us to move directly into action without having two members outside.
In this scenario, we are not told if a fire hydrant is nearby. If it is, the engine would spot at the front of the house, and the pump operator would secure a water supply while the company officer and firefighter prepare to enter the house. If a hydrant isn’t close, the company officer would be forced to decide whether to lay a supply line or go into the scene using tank water (all Phoenix engines have 500-gallon tanks). With four-person staffing, this decision is much easier to make; Phoenix policy would encourage the officer to lay the supply line.
The company officer and firefighter would extend a preconnect attack line (13/4- or two-inch) into the structure. The primary objective would be to search for victims. As they advance the attack line through the structure, they would systematically and quickly search for victims on the first floor. Once the “All clear” is given on the first floor, the same plan would be extended to the second-floor area.
Another critical issue for the company officer would be what to do if fire is found before completing the search. In that case, the company officer would have to decide whether to extinguish the fire and continue the search or to continue the search and come back to the fire. In some cases, it is better to knock down the fire even though it may make the search more difficult. In other cases, it is better to complete the search and then deal with fire control.
Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: Our department has faced this scenario and will do so as the eastern portion of our city continues to be developed. Our Station 6 is located on the far east side of Lewisville. It houses a three-member paramedic engine company, a brush truck, and a reserve tower ladder. Station 6 responds to the majority of its runs with its engine. The station is located near a rapidly growing residential subdivision, flanked by some warehouses, various other residential and commercial structures, and a very popular marina and restaurant on the southeast shores of Lake Lewisville. The station receives mutual aid from a neighbor, but that sometimes is delayed by technical problems between the two dispatch centers (we are working on that), which makes that station unavailable because of its own calls or being out of district.
As a matter of fact, while I was writing this response, Station 6 was the first-arriving unit at a large, two-story, single-family dwelling with heavy fire in the attic. The unit was there for awhile with no help. To makes matters worse, severe weather delayed the remaining responding units.
If Station 6 were to arrive at 3 a.m. in the posed scenario, the first-due engine’s goals would be to stretch an attack line into the building as quickly as possible; attempt to locate the fire and hit it; and, if they can, try to search for occupants as they advance the attack line. However, we wouldn’t want them to get sidetracked and find themselves searching only and letting the fire go.
When we think back to the first week in the academy, we remember being taught that if we find the fire and put it out, the problem usually goes away. Getting water on the fire is paramount. While this is going on and while waiting for the cavalry to arrive, the driver engineer, once having established a positive water source, can take a window or two in the direction away from the attackers—most often, the rear of the building—thus providing some relief and a place for the fire, smoke, and heat to go.
We run our tower ladder with a five-person crew; engines and quints with four-person staffing, minimum of three (often with three); and ambulances with two firefighter/paramedics. Three years ago, our city council approved our staffing plan to move to five-person staffing, minimum of four, in all suppression companies (dependent on the economy for funding). Phase one has already begun with the addition of field incident technicians (chief’s aides) for our battalion chiefs.
Larry Anderson, deputy chief, Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue
Response: A three-person engine company creates challenges and dangers that must be considered in such a predicament. As we know, rescue is our primary strategic priority. First, determine if the information is reliable: Who are these people telling you people are inside? If you establish that the information is reliable, assess the environment in the structure and the chance that someone inside could survive, keeping in mind that a body recovery is not a rescue. You have determined that you might have an opportunity to change the outcome of this situation.
With a three-person crew, two in/two out is not possible, but a rescue attempt must be made without delay. The company officer decides which tactics to use. Communicating his intentions to dispatch and incoming companies is critical in this situation. The company officer might need to be rescued on their arrival. Have EMS respond as quickly as possible. Establish a permanent water source. It is everyone’s responsibility to support the operation the first-due company initiates. A charged hoseline might protect occupants as well as rescuers and allow access to structure areas that otherwise might be untenable. Limit extinguishment efforts to those that enhance the rescue operation. The same applies to forcible entry and ventilation operations. The entire focus here should be getting in the structure, conducting a rapid primary search, accomplishing whatever rescues are possible, and getting out without doing anything else. This is a situation in which we “risk a lot to save a lot.” Let’s save the hero stuff for when it is necessary and keep our members safe.
Leigh Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: This is a classic situation for vent/enter/search (VES) by way of each bedroom window. I also think this is a classic example of the exception allowed in the two-in/two-out rule. If a life is to be saved, you have to risk your own. It would be worth the time to do a quick check just inside the exterior doors before the VES.
Of course, the VES technique requires training and experience to pull it off properly. For those not familiar with it, it involves taking out the window, entering, closing the interior door, searching, bailing out, and repeating the steps at the next bedroom as necessary. However, you must “read” the conditions properly for VES to be successful and to ensure that you will not get caught in a probably fatal flashover.
Locating and attacking the fire (as the primary objectives) are probably not going to save the lives at this fire because of the time they would take in a two-story home with a three-person crew.
Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One
Response: In following our two-in/two-out protocols, it is important to note that neighbors said people are in the house and that the fire conditions indicate that these occupants are in grave danger. This allows our members to enter the structure without waiting for the additional firefighters to serve as a standby team. On that note, our initial objective would have to be rescue.
Before entering the building, it is extremely important that a proper size-up report be given over the radio. This will alert incoming companies to the following: the initial company is entering the structure without a standby team and the initial company is placing priority on rescue instead of extinguishment, and subsequent actions must be taken. Good radio communications can help incoming officers make better and quicker decisions. Good, quick decisions are critical here.
Given our priority of rescue, we traditionally think only of locating and removing the victim. However, rescue can be effected also by removing the danger or putting out the fire. Therefore, the initial company would enter the structure with an attack line. If they find the fire while searching, they obviously should knock down the fire to significantly reduce or eliminate the danger, but they should not get so engrossed in extinguishment that they become distracted from rescue. Although the fire may be reduced or eliminated, the amount of smoke throughout the house would still be a serious concern. The victims may be lying unconscious in another room safe from flames but still breathing in deadly smoke.
Keith Smith, chief, Westfield Washington Township (IN) Fire Department
Response: My first tasks as company officer would be a size-up for dispatch and a request for additional resources. (PPE is assumed.) My crew priority is search and rescue because there is a reasonable suspicion that people are at home. We would take a charged handline for protection and fire/heat knockdown, but not as an attack strategy. I as company officer have accepted the risks of a two-firefighter search and rescue mission, recognizing that my third person would be at the pump panel.
Although a ventilation tactic makes some sense, it would take too much time. I would rather use the limited time and energy to effect a victim rescue.
A few other things are racing through my mind: I have limited water because I’m operating off a tank, so fire attack cannot be a priority. Help is not close or immediate, so I have to attempt to change the outcome with what I have at hand.
I recognize that I have breached NFPA and OSHA safety standards and perhaps department safety regulations. My decision is a calculated risk to save lives based on the available information and on-scene re-sources.
Josh Thompson, battalion chief, Avon (IN) Fire Department
Response: Whether you run with a three- or four-person engine company, you must be able to prioritize the immediate needs of the incident. Life safety, including your own, will always be a priority. You must be able to determine the risk vs. reward when setting these priorities. In a situation where there is a delay in the arrival of additional units, the priorities don’t change too much. In my opinion, a good size-up should begin the initial operation. The officer should do a walk around the residence, looking for critical information such as possible victims, the location/extent of fire, and other hazards including “reading the layout of the residence” (with a thermal imaging camera if possible).
While the officer is doing this, the “jump seat” firefighter can pull a preconnect to a point of entry and the chauffeur can assemble forcible entry tools and take them to the point of entry (unless an immediate water supply needs to be established; this can be done by incoming crews in most residences). After completing the walk-around, the officer can meet the other firefighter and enter. It takes only seconds to accomplish these two critical tasks.
This “attack” crew has two priorities: to attack the fire and search as much of the area as possible. Attacking the fire can tremendously slow the production of toxic gases and limit the extent of fire. A quick search for victims can be done while searching for the fire. Once the fire is knocked down, the immediate and surrounding area can be searched more extensively. The hoseline can also serve as an immediate line to safety if things go sour. Since this situation throws the two-in/two-out rule out the door, you must take every safety precaution into account. A hoseline will give you water and a line out of the building.
Peter Sells, district chief—officer development, Toronto (ON) Fire Services
Response: Without any indication of the occupants’ location in relation to the fire, I would expect the officer to initiate a fast attack mode of mobile command and commit all personnel to search operations immediately. There should be continuous transmissions of as much information as possible about the layout of the house, fire and smoke conditions, which areas have been searched, and the location of personnel. The officer should be prepared to laterally transfer command to the next arriving officer as soon as possible.
Although the standard wisdom is that ventilation can be effective in improving visibility and survivability during search operations, I would never recommend ventilation until there is enough information to allow for a reasonable prediction of its effects. If the officer is able to determine that ventilation is appropriate under the circumstances, or if it becomes necessary as a last resort to make search possible in the absence of thermal imaging units, the officer retains the tactical option of ventilation by the appropriate method.
Bob Oliphant, lieutenant, Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety
Response: A three-person crew is severely limited in what it can safely accomplish under these conditions. House fires at 3 a.m. generally don’t get reported right away unless the call comes from a resident of the house. The neighbors’ reporting that the house is occupied is a sign that this fire has probably been burning for a significant time. The three-person crew is essentially on its own; the next-due engine is too far away to help if things suddenly go wrong. The only operation I would consider would be a cursory search of the bedroom areas if interior conditions allow. If the fire conditions appear too far advanced for savable victims, my second option would be ventilation.
I do not believe there would be enough time to conduct a thorough search of each bedroom. The fire will continue to grow and conditions will deteriorate until the next engine company arrives. Hopefully, it would have enough people to begin extinguishment operations.
If this house resembles the typical two-story house with which I am familiar, a stairway near the front door would lead to the bedrooms on the second floor. I would have one person stay at the top of the stairway to monitor conditions while the other two firefighters search for victims. The searchers would concentrate on the hallway and doorway area to each bedroom in the hope of finding victims who succumbed to smoke while trying to escape. A victim may be overlooked, but anything more than a cursory search would be too risky.
Tom Brennan, chief (ret.), Waterbury (CT) Fire Department
Response: A three-person engine company is (assumed) one officer and two firefighters, one of whom must “get” water. This problem is probably more difficult than it looks on paper. The first question to ask and to continue to ask is, “Where is the fire?”
I would stretch a 13/4-inch hoseline with sufficient hose to reach the second floor. The sad thing here is that the officer stops being an officer as soon as he becomes engaged in the labor-intensive tactic. After charging the handline with water, force entry and search for the fire with the hoseline; the goal is to isolate the fire from as much of the interior exposure as possible.
If everything (hose stretch, water supply) is accounted for, try to get the chauffeur (motor pump operator, engineer, driver—whatever the title is) to provide some needed ventilation, hopefully at your direction and at the rear of the fire in front of you. The information we have gives no indicators of a single location in which life is in distress at, in, or around the structure on arrival.
Two immediate actions may extend the time for finding those within the structure. The first action is to put out the fire! Right now. I read that an unknown number of victims who cannot help themselves and who are in various states of unconsciousness are throughout the structure. They may have some time to survive clinical death but not the biological death that will occur if you indiscriminately open the structure to force the starving fire to grow rapidly in intensity and to extend.
The second action would be ventilation, to assist the search and to advance an extinguishment process. But only the officer and severely understaffed crew are there at this moment. Some texts hint at putting fire extinguishment on hold if the life hazard is so severe—but that is IF you see it or can determine the location in rapid fashion AND the life hazard is that severe in relation to what is exposed and you don’t see.
Years ago, a fire in a 21/2-story mansion was photographically portrayed in one of our defunct journals. It showed two victims at a window at the second-floor end of the structure. Because of the height of the ceilings and the “fall away” of terrain, it would have taken an extension ladder in excess of 24 feet to reach them. The three-firefighter crew raised the first ladder they handled. It was short. The second ladder they raised was also short. They finally got to the storage place of the proper size ladder and removed the two civilians with great difficulty. The victims later succumbed. All this was depicted in photos!
Well, the fire that was on the first floor in the kitchen and extended into the large living area kept seven family members from descending to safety and killed them also. By the time the handline was “on the fire,” it was too late. (This would have been true for any size hose stretched.)
In this scenario, there is even less time to consider rescuing people you cannot see. The fire described at best puts the victims’ locations in each individual’s sleeping room on the second floor OR, worse, in locations they reached while trying to escape (halls, stairs, rooms, for example.)
What is the most result-oriented solution for improving the chances of those trapped within, those you don’t see or hear? Stretch the line, check the fire, ventilate what you can, and find whom you can while ensuring the previous objectives.
This “bread and butter” fire is the worst-case scenario for a remote, understaffed engine company. It is the most important example a fire service leader should be able to articulate at personnel reduction budget hearings.
I assume that the first report asked that the entire department respond and account for at least a second handline and eight people to assign to truck tactics of support and rescue (probably mutual aid on arrival).
The problem here is more than the fire. It highlights the inadequate leadership and communication and marketing qualities of many of today’s fire service leaders.
Bobby Halton, deputy chief, Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department
Response: The first decision I have to make given the information provided is in or out. I am going to always look for in first. If I have a good mental model, based on the building construction (old/compartmentalized, new/open floor plans, or balloon/platform), I can start to format my awareness level for the predictable fire behavior. What is the consistency or lack of consistency in the area (similar homes in the area or tract homes)? Do I recognize the smoke conditions as threatening—an immediate or rapidly approaching severe fire condition? Finally, how good/experienced is my team?
If I have a family entrapment confirmed by credible reliable information, a good mental model, a solid team, and proper communication of my situation to later arriving companies, its an “in.”
The neighbors have told me they know people are inside. How many? What ages? How do they know the family is home? I must get good information to make good decisions quickly. I can be packing up and listening while getting information. The two-story home generally has bedrooms on the second floor, but this is not always the case. Ask the neighbor. A first-floor rescue may be possible and quickly done. I would hope for a hydrant on the corner, but it might not be. I would loop the plug or have the engineer hand jack a supply line after charging the two residential 13/4-inch attack lines off the tank. I would grab for our wide bore/high-flow/low-reaction tip.
The smoke and fire conditions become difficult issues here. What is producing the heavy smoke, and where is the fire? The fire may be contents, structural, or both. The smoke from the eaves suggests the fire has extended into the attic space or is significant enough to push smoke into the void spaces and out the eaves. In either case, this is a bad sign. Where is this fire? The smoke conditions and my experience should tell me if the origin is first floor, second floor, or possibly basement. A balloon frame makes this a tougher call. I would love to vent vertically, but time is against my customers, so I am going to bet on nailing the seat and getting people to windows or out as my brothers and sisters arrive to help rescue.
If we can determine that the fire is seated on the first floor, I would gear up my engineer, set my relief, and have the engineer try to attack from an exit point or protect the stairs. The issues are not to get trapped above the fire without a line and, hopefully, to get the fire knocked down as we advance. We carry two preconnects; the firefighter and I will go up the interior stairs with the second line.
Real world, this stuff takes time. We are about four minutes or so in here. The cavalry should be two out. I would give them my situation and instruct them to be ready on arrival to attack the fire with the 21/2-inch preconnected commercial attack line off my rig. If we call a knockdown, then we put all new hands on rescue. I would have an ambulance or two put on the call.
This is a no-win deal. I can say the smoke and fire conditions are such that I can perform a safe and successful rescue. You can’t argue. It’s my picture of the conditions. Or, I could say the conditions are such that there is no way the good people inside could be alive, and I should not risk my crew. It all boils down to what the conditions really are, my level of experience, and the ability to assess the situation. Once I have an assessment, I must remain vigilant of changing conditions, because when we open a door or take a window, the conditions will change.
This scenario represents the most dynamic conditions for decision making we routinely face—first 10 minutes, 40 feet from the street, limited resources, residential job, and critical decisions. We lose a lot of good folks in these events.
Michael Allora, lieutenant, Clifton (NJ) Fire Department
Response: You must resist the urge to charge into a building in a case like this. The two-in/two-out rule states that it doesn’t have to be followed if, and only if, a known life hazard exists. This can be frustrating and is not meant to preclude firefighters from doing their jobs. It is meant to stop firefighters from getting killed. Should the company officer make the decision to enter this immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere and get the members of his company killed for occupants that had already evacuated, what would be the justification? A three-person fire company is an understaffed company. There is only so much an understaffed company can accomplish without unduly endangering the safety of the crew.
A number of things can be done while waiting for members to arrive. A 360° size-up is a good place to start. Charging in the front door of this building would be counterproductive if occupants are hanging out a rear window. Also, if they were to be spotted at a window, this would be the necessary justification to enter this IDLH atmosphere and effect the rescue. Is there a rear entrance? Is the door open? You can force entry if the doors are locked, checking inside the doorway for any occupants that may have been overcome while attempting to escape.
Attempt to gather as much information as possible from the neighbors. Perhaps they are familiar with the layout of the building, and they know how many people are inside and whether they are elderly, invalids, or small children. All this is important information that can be relayed to the responding units so everyone is on the same page.
Is there an exterior shutoff for the utilities? If so, secure them.
Establishing a water supply is also a good idea. Chances are that if the building is full of smoke from the first floor to the eaves, you are going to need the water. Stretch the line to the front door, and flake it out; set up the scene so that when the members do arrive, there will be no delay in entering and going to work. It is not easy to do, especially if people are standing outside wondering why the fire department is standing outside waiting. How many times have you been in a building someone said was occupied only to learn later that it was empty? If the decision to wait for the next arriving company becomes an issue, this would be the opportunity to ask legislators why the fire companies are understaffed. This is the reality of the situation. If we as firefighters are not willing to put our own safety first in a situation like this, we are doomed to fail on many fronts. Do the best you can with what you have. But make sure all of your firefighters go home at the end of the day.
Marc D. Greenwood, lieutenant, Akron (OH) Fire Department
Response: Approaching the house, I would check the sides and front for imperiled occupants. I would report heavy fire conditions, order a second alarm, and request the second-arriving engine to snag a hydrant. Simultaneously, I would direct my crew to stretch a 13/4-inch attack line to the front of the structure. While they’re stretching the line, I would race to the rear and check for trapped occupants. Never assume the rear is danger free because occupants don’t seem to be in trouble at the front of the house.
Using William E. Clark’s five factors that impact a fire officer’s decision making (Firefighting Principles and Practices, Second Edition, Fire Engineering, 1991) as my framework, here is my rationale and plan.
- Life hazard. Seventy-five percent of American fire fatalities occur in residences. According to the National Fire Protection Association, most fire fatalities occur between 2200 and 0400 hours. Based on these facts, operate as if a life hazard exists. What’s the next move? Placing an attack line between occupants and the fire is the quickest way to rescue occupants—hence, the selection of the 13/4-inch hose. Its maneuverability makes it invaluable when understaffed and time is critical. A 21/2-inch packs more wallop, but its use is counterproductive with limited resources.
- Location of fire. This fire is enveloping all floors and pouring out the eaves. In a two-story structure, most of the bedrooms are upstairs. Here’s where the most vulnerable occupants will be. Once you make the stairs, begin extinguishing the fire as you search bedrooms, closets, and areas near windows.
- Extension probability. Extension is underway. All floors and the eaves show heavy smoke and fire. Depending on the wind, exposures may need to be protected by late-arriving crews. Since the eaves are showing heavy fire and smoke, the communications center must alert companies 10 to 15 minutes into the interior attack. If companies haven’t brought the fire under control in that time, the incident commander should abandon the interior attack.
- Type of fire. We’ve already noted that late-night residential fires present severe obstacles to firefighters and the gravest risk for occupants.
- Size of fire. Considerable fire and smoke are showing in this two-story structure—hence, the early order for a second alarm. It’s always better to get companies rolling early than to piecemeal companies. Companies can be placed in staging; when the IC decides staged companies aren’t needed, they can return to service.
Clark’s five considerations provide the fire officer with a good foundation for sizing up conditions and deciding on appropriate actions.
Danny Kistner, battalion chief, Garland (TX) Fire Department
Response: Ideally, your objective at this fire clearly would be rescue; however, the tactics used to perform the rescue may involve a combination of ventilation and search. The IC should immediately broadcast his situation and request the next level of response, whether that be a 2-11 transmission or a call for mutual aid.
If the IC believes his objective should be rescue, he should broadcast, “(Unit #) will be in rescue mode.” All incoming units now know two things: (1) that victims are believed to be in the structure and (2) that all fireground efforts will be in support of the rescue effort.
A residential structure at 0300 hours with neighbors stating people are inside usually means a rescue is indicated. Other elementary clues would be vehicles in the driveway, toys in the yard, and so on.
The prudent fire officer would be familiar with the company’s first-alarm district and have a good grasp of the vacant buildings in his area. This same officer, supported by his knowledge of the area, can postulate if the structure is likely occupied at the time. This conclusion is critical, for how a department interprets two in/two out will dictate how it responds to this scenario.
According to the description, this fire has progressed beyond the incipient stage. The only permissible entry into this structure will be for known, savable victims. The IC will also have to weigh the risk-to-benefit ratio prior to committing to an interior rescue attempt. Simultaneously, this same officer should be reading the smoke conditions before committing his firefighters. Flashover could be imminent if smoke is thick, cotton-like, and churning out of the structure. If this is the case, especially with a crew of only three, ventilation should be the first activity, although I would still consider myself in rescue mode.
Conditions should be reevaluated following ventilation to see if entry can be initiated. Conditions are the major variables here. If the smoke and heat are such that human life cannot be sustained inside the structure, then the rescue would become a recovery, and firefighters should not be risked. A defensive strategy would be warranted until help arrives.
The structure should be observed to see if any victims are obviously within easy grasp. Smoke conditions around possible or known sleeping areas should also be observed. A complete 360° assessment of the structure is a must. No victim may be in the front, but one could be hanging out a window in the rear.
After ventilation and while operating safely from the outside, use tools to probe windows, doorways, or other openings to feel for victims. If you have been in the fire service for any length of time, you have probably stumbled onto a victim in the immediate vicinity of a door or window.
Should flashover occur while ventilating, any reasonable hope of savable victims inside the structure becomes moot. Operations become defensive until help arrives.
We must be reasonable in these situations and know our limitations. We all believe we can initiate and successfully execute a rescue in such circumstances. Where we fail is that we do not know our real capabilities. For example, the first-in officer orders ventilation. How fast can this task actually be accomplished? Do we know how fast our crew can perform this task because we practiced this tactic in training, or are we gambling on the unknown?
The prudent officer will carefully weigh all the variables before him: smoke, heat, and fire conditions on arrival; the likelihood of savable victims in the interior; the experience and skill level of his crew; what conditions would be like in the next minute, in two minutes, in five minutes; and what conditions most likely would be like following ventilation. Only after evaluating these variables can the on-scene officer make reasonable judgments concerning the deployment of his limited resources.
Jeff A. Stricklin, chief, Concordia (KS) Fire Department
Response: Based on the information, there is an obvious life safety issue here for your crew and the occupants. That should be your priority. You do not have enough to fight and save at the same time, but there is a possibility of getting handlines in play to give life safety its greatest advantage. With your next-due units six minutes away, your first efforts need to be very controlled. It is easy to try and fix everything on the scene because of the complex situation, but the goal needs to be, first, the safety of your crew and then that of the people you can safely get to without jeopardizing the crew. The on-scene officer also needs to be actively getting resources on the way to help with the overall stability of the scene. The first unit here can start getting the important areas of concern worked out. Getting water to egress points and finding the areas where potential life loss is greatest will help when units arrive. This will also help in getting the layout of the building and determining where ventilation would be most effective.
For many years, fire departments would just arrive on-scene and go bursting into the flames without regard for their own safety and the safety of their crews. Today, we know we cannot be effective fire or rescue team members if we need to be rescued.
Thomas Smith, staff sargeant and fire protection specialist, United States Air Force, Al Dhafra Air Base
Response: I would enter the structure with two personnel, a 13/4-inch hoseline, and preferably a thermal imaging camera. I would then search the residence for victims while looking for obvious signs of fire or heat signature. I would think that the rescue strategy would take precedence over searching for the fire or venting the structure. Having only three firefighters limits my fire attack capabilities as well as my ventilation tactics because of the volume of smoke and the size of the structure.
Lance Peeples, instructor, St. Louis (MO) Fire Academy
Response: The company officer arriving at a serious fire in a two-story private dwelling at 3 a.m. with only a three-member engine company and a report of people trapped faces difficult decisions. If ladder company support cannot be expected to arrive for an additional six minutes, however, the course is clear. The engine must attack and extinguish the fire. If the company is successful in extinguishing the fire, it would have succeeded in buying the victims valuable time until additional personnel can arrive. These later-arriving firefighters must mount a primary search from the interior and exterior of the building by portable ladders firefighters use to vent, enter, and search (VES) the bedroom windows, the most probable location of trapped victims.
Failing to extinguish the fire quickly will subject the firefighters performing VES operations to extreme danger with little chance of success, as conditions will rapidly deteriorate on the second floor. The people charged with the responsibility of determining staffing levels must understand that certain functions at a private-dwelling fire must be carried out within an optimal timeframe if trapped occupants are to be saved. These functions are the following: Engine: 1. Officer to supervise; 2. Nozzle to operate nozzle; 3. Backup to relieve backpressure; 4. Door to hump hose; 5. Hydrant to make hydrant; and 6. Engineer to operate pump. Ladder: 1. Officer to supervise/search; 2. Can for interior search; 3. Irons to force entry/search; 4. Vent for VES by ladder; 5. Roof for VES by ladder; 6. Operator to assist Vent.
This staffing is the bare minimum for an aggressive interior attack and rescue attempt. This force must be doubled as quickly as possible if there is to be a reasonable chance of rescuing trapped victims.
An engine company arriving at an early-morning fire with only three members and a report of people trapped cannot hope to accomplish all of the tasks required for a successful rescue. The members must not divide their efforts, or no task will be successfully completed. They must focus on extinguishing the fire in the hope that they can buy sufficient time until additional companies arrive and undertake the critical tasks listed above.
Michael Matz, lieutenant, Coral Springs (FL) Fire Department
Response: I work for a five-station department that has the same staffing levels, sometimes fewer. With the given factors of an occupied structure and the next apparatus being six minutes out, my tactic would be vent-enter-search (VES). Entering (laddering) the bedroom windows and searching from there would give me the best chance of rescuing the occupants.
I would not consider extinguishment because of the negative effects of steam on victims. I would rather lose the structure than miss the opportunity of making a “grab” and getting all the members of the family out alive.
To ensure a good search, use a water can to effectively control volumes of fire that may be encountered. Compartmentation is also needed to control the fire’s spread and aid the crew’s search and rescue efforts.
The crew’s efforts would be better applied if they did not have to drag a charged hoseline around. An uncharged hoseline could be brought up and charged if absolutely needed, but again I would be concerned about the negative effects of the large volumes of steam that would be produced. The hoseline could be used to protect against fire extending up the stairway like a chimney and impacting rescue efforts on the second floor.
Kai W. Rieger, firefighter/paramedic, Jackson Township (OH) Fire Department
Response: This is similar to the situation in our fire department, although we usually do not have to wait six minutes until the next company arrives. This situation will certainly test the mettle of any first-arriving officer. Although this seems like a routine working fire, there is no one concrete answer. The officer must make his decision after weighing many factors in a matter of seconds.
Even though the second-due company is an engine, that doesn’t mean it can be assigned only typical engine company duties. In a department this size, most firefighters are usually cross-trained in engine and truck duties. Is a truck company responding, and what is its staffing? What is the initial alarm assignment? What other stations are responding or are tied up on other alarms? Is automatic aid responding? The decision will vary greatly if six firefighters vs. 15 firefighters are responding on the first alarm. This incident calls for an immediate alarm upgrade.
What is the competency level of the company? What is the proficiency level in VES and other search techniques?
If smoke is visible on all floors, we more than likely have a belowgrade fire. Is it an old or new private dwelling? If it is older, it is usually a simple basement door placement. If it is newer, it is sometimes very difficult and time consuming to find the basement door. What is the building size? Is it a 20-foot 2 40-foot private dwelling with a front porch roof with easy access for VES or a huge Queen Anne type at 80 feet 2 80 feet? Ask a neighbor how many occupants there are and their ages. An 80-year-old man living alone may sleep on the first floor, whereas a young family of four probably would be on the second floor.
The officer must ask himself, “What can I accomplish in the next six minutes alone and what is the most I can do to protect life safety?” Maybe get a line on the fire; maybe go for the rescue.
At 3 a.m., occupants are in the second-floor bedrooms. By reading the smoke, it tells us that the fire is probably belowgrade. Given the different floors of the fire and the victims, it will be very difficult to stretch a line, attack, and rescue with the same crew.
An officer faced with a small older 20-foot 2 40-foot private dwelling and arriving with a very disciplined company well trained in VES may well opt to use all three firefighters to VES the second floor (high-priority areas) and get a primary search on the second floor accomplished by the time the second engine arrives.
An officer faced with a large Queen Anne or a newer large private dwelling and arriving with a company not well versed in VES or other search techniques may decide to stretch a line to the basement and find the seat of the fire.
Any way you cut it, this is a major operation for the first-arriving company. The incident commander can easily put 15 firefighters to work immediately.
After weighing the options within seconds, the officer must choose an action plan and stick with the plan to accomplish a goal before the other companies arrive. If a line is stretched, they crew shouldn’t get frustrated, drop the line, and then decide to search. None of the tactics will be completed. Those six precious minutes alone should be used in a way that makes a difference. When the second engine arrives, the crew wants to relay that it has completed placing (or is in the process of getting) an attack line in place or has completed a primary search in high-priority areas.
Craig H. Shelley, fire protection advisor, Saudi Aramco, Ras Tanura Division
Response: With only a three-person engine company and help at least six minutes away, my advice is as follows. First, give accurate information to the dispatcher regarding the conditions on arrival, and call for immediate assistance. With a known or suspected life hazard, which is highly probable in this scenario, an entry can be made without two-in/two-out procedures. These procedures must be in place as soon as possible. It appears the district is spread out and it is time to have the needed resources responding, not wait until the fire gets away from the company. The driver should hook to the hydrant and get water flowing while the other two firefighters/officer stretch an attack line.
Once this attack line is stretched, the company should begin moving toward the seat of the fire, searching as they go. One member can leave the line for short distances for this search but should stay in voice contact with the firefighter advancing the line. More lives are saved by the proper positioning of the hoseline than any other action at a fire.
Many times, departments forsake the positioning of a hoseline to effect rescues, and the result is a limited search because the fire is growing faster than they can search. By the time a line is stretched and water is applied, the fire has doubled in size. I believe strongly in a coordinated fire attack/search. It is a challenge with limited staffing, but it is necessary. Where proper training and discipline are maintained, this coordinated attack can be accomplished. By holding the fire in check, we can buy time for the victims. Where possible, we should vent as we go. This also can buy time for the victims. This venting for life cannot be performed safely if no hoseline is in place. This venting provides fresh air for victims but also for the fire. The hoseline must be in place as the team moves. With limited staffing, it is imperative that thermal imaging technology also be used. It is not a substitute for proper staffing but can be helpful in such situations.
Mitch Brooks, lieutenant, Columbus (OH) Division of Fire
Response: Search must be given high priority. You would definitely want the protection of a hoseline, but your main goal would be to get an “All clear” in the residence prior to searching for and extinguishing the fire. Most likely, your victims would be upstairs. I would have my nozzle team protect the stairs while an oriented man search is completed upstairs. I would then shift my efforts to the first floor. Any time fire is encountered, the nozzle team would extinguish it. I would vent as I search.
Jim Mason, firefighter, Chicago (IL) Fire Department
Response: No matter how understaffed we are and what the fire conditions are on arrival, we have to remember that the primary goal of the engine is to contain and then extinguish the fire. The engine can save lives by putting out the fire, because the problem then goes away. Securing a positive source of water should be the first concern as soon as the engine turns the corner and the officer sees smoke coming from a structure. With the second engine being so far away, you can’t afford to play catch-up if you run out of tank water.
To secure a positive source, the engine can do a forward hydrant lay to the fire building or, if the firefighter is lucky, a hydrant will be close to where the engine stops. Either way, one firefighter will be committed to this. This first firefighter will be committed to turning on the hydrant if we perform a forward lay while another sets pressures at the engine pump panel before going inside. If the hydrant is close and the firefighter is very good, he can set up the pressures at the pump panel and then connect the engine to the hydrant before the tank is empty.
Size-up of the building and the fire conditions is next. If the building is a two-story house, you can expect that the bedrooms are on the second floor and that at 3 a.m. they will be occupied. If someone is out in front, ask where the people are and where the fire is while you stretch hose. Very often, even if they are only neighbors and not occupants, they will know the answers. Of course, this is not always the case. Listen to the neighbors; then use your own judgment.
You can more easily confirm the location and extent of the fire than the exact locations of the victims by sizing up from the front yard. The victims may be in the second-floor bedrooms, in the path of egress, or possibly on couches in the den. If the neighbors are swearing over and over again that one bedroom instead of another is occupied, that would most likely be the place to search.
During size-up, consider the construction. If the building is lightweight construction and the fire has gotten past the incipient stage, the structure may collapse before you can evacuate the victims or put out the fire with an interior attack. If it collapses, you will become part of the problem.
In these circumstances, the best thing to do may be to throw the 24-foot ladder to the bedroom windows, carry the people out that way, and let the building burn. If the building is of stable construction, the two firefighters should bring a charged 13/4-inch hose in the front door.
With limited staffing, you now need to make another decision. Can you put out the fire to save the victims upstairs, or are the extent and location of the fire beyond your control? If the fire is right there or it is accessible, put it out and save lives. When the third firefighter enters after securing the positive source of water, he can search for victims. In this case, when the officer determines that conditions can continue to be controlled by the pipe man alone, he can leave and help with the search and rescue effort.
If on entry you find a fully involved basement fire with vertical extension up the plumbing wall to the first-floor kitchen and bath, where it has broken through the wallboard and is now rolling over on that ceiling, you have a problem. In this case, while the stairway is protected by one firefighter with the hoseline, the officer could perform a quick search of the bedrooms for victims. The firefighter on the line could continue to call to the officer as a point of reference while the officer is searching and dragging victims. This would be a good safety measure if firefighters are not familiar with the floor plan.
The hydrant firefighter could come in, let the officer know he is inside, and then help with the hoseline unless called by the officer to help with the rescue effort. A discussion with the crew about all the variables prior to this incident would go a long way in getting all your members home safe. Also, the officer should not forget to call for extra help when giving the radio report on arrival.
The understaffed engine in this problem reflects the dangers of firefighters working alone in departments across the country. Even in Chicago with 20 to 26 firefighters arriving on a still alarm, we sometimes must work alone.