The concept of running into a burning building is not a new one to most firefighters. Of course, depending on your department’s SOPs, manpower, staffing, etc, things will be different. This article discusses the critical decision of “Go” or “No-Go” when first pulling up to a structure that is on fire. This practice, of evaluating conditions on arrival, and contrasting them to whether or not someone could be alive within the structure, is known as “Survivability Profiling.” Extensive discussion has already been done on this topic, and has even resulted in an EFO paper by an FDNY Captain Stephen Marsar. He is also considered one of the leading proponents of Victim Survivability Profiling (VSP). You can read his full report by simply “Googling” “Survivability Profiling” or catching up on your past editions of Fire Engineering (December 2009 & July 2010). Both articles are a good read, and I encourage further research for the reader. I am hoping to simplify, and shorten his points into a very simple text below.
Now, put yourself in the front seat, and imagine the following: It is 2 o’clock in the morning, and you are dispatched for a reported building fire, with multiple calls being received for the address you are responding to, reporting the fire. Upon arrival, you find a 2 1/2 story, wood frame, legacy constructed building (1952), with heavy fire pushing out the first floor living room bay window, fire coming from the right front window on the 2nd floor (probably a bedroom), and moderate/ non-turbulent smoke pushing from the other window on the 2nd floor (the other bedroom). (See the above photo, and keep in mind that Photo 1 is one example, while Photos 2 & 3 are from a different fire) You have a full crew (1 officer, and 3 FFs), and arrive with a truck company at the same time, who also has a 1 & 3 crew. The RIT company is coming up the street as you are about to begin your size-up. Because of the heavy volume of fire and smoke, you request an immediate Working Fire/ Second Alarm assignment.
Before we continue, lets ask some valuable questions of ourselves and what we may be looking for and thinking. As an engine company, what are our priorities? Rescue (check), extension of the fire (check), putting the damn thing out (check), protecting the company who may be doing an aggressive search/ rescue (check!!!) Of course, establish a proper water supply, and get water on the fire. As we’ve stated and heard ad nauseum, if you put water on the fire, it will go out; if the fire goes out, 90% of our problems disappear.
Now, truck and rescue guys… we need to gain access for the engine company, if they are not already doing so, and then we need to make a plan on how we’re going to go into this building, and do it as safely as possible. Without question, ground ladders need to be thrown for 2 major reasons: (1) Rescue of Occupants, and (2) A quick emergency egress for our guys.
But, what else should we be looking for on the front lawn of this house? People. Are there people meeting you on the front lawn telling you that this is their house, and everyone made it out and is safe; or is it the neighbor telling you that the occupants went away for the weekend (confirmed), or that the house is vacant? Worst case: only one of the occupants meets you up front, is crying and hysterically panicking, screaming that their family is still in the house!!
This is all part of our size-up. So… lets look at the facts for this fire. Upon arrival, we found the above conditions, no car in the driveway, but the garage is closed. This is a upper-working class neighborhood, no derelict buildings, and most people work normal schedules. It’s a Wednesday night, so not common for someone to be at a nightclub. No one meets you on the front lawn. What do we do? Do we charge in, assuming that there are people still in the building, even though no one said there was, or do we go with what VSP tells us to do… surround the house, flush is with water, because it is not worth losing a firefighter for an “Unspecified [or non-existent] Report of people trapped?”
My belief for this fire is that the truck company needs to throw ground ladders to the upper right window (the one with smoke only pushing out) and either perform aggressive Vent-Enter Search (VES) procedures, or throw it for egress should they get hung up, and work with the engine company to blitz attack the fire on the first floor, then attempt to make the stairs to the second floor to search and clear that bedroom. By what we saw, and using a little bit of VSP doctrine, we can safely write-off anyone who is in the upper right bedroom, because that room has already flashed over, and is in the steady state of burning. Agreed, no one would survive that insult.
I have spoken to many people about this, and have received mixed reactions on whether trying to make the second floor is too risky, or could even be done at all. I concede, it is a calculated gamble, but also falls back to the intuition, training and experience of the men making this decision. If you make it halfway up the stairs, and get driven back, obviously it is too hot to push, or maybe you need a bigger line (or a line to begin with…) Without knowing the facts of this fire, someone pointed out to me that no one would be alive in the Upper Right bedroom (Photo 2), even with only smoke pushing out of the window, and no visible flame. I submit Photo 3 for your review. This is the bedroom, after the fire was put out. Very little smoke damage is noted, and no thermal damage was found, except on the outside of the bedroom door (seen in the foreground), which held for the duration of the fire.
One of the biggest pushes now within the fire service is respiratory protection for our guys against Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN). Since heat and fire never made it into this room, can we still safely assume that the products of combustion; the odorless, colorless tasteless products may have made it into this room? Absolutely. This person would have died from smoke inhalation, by being left behind, while the fire never touched them. Just another thing to think about, if the conditions are really tenable or not? Something to think about: “at 1.28% CO in the air, will have an immediate effect, unconsciousness after 2-3 breaths, and danger of death in 1-3 minutes” (Marsar, 2010, p. 79).
If we had simply “fluffed off” going aggressive early, and getting people in the building to search and clear the second floor, we easily could be burying a needless civilian victim. Of course, the argument always comes back to, “Risk a little to gain a little, and risk a lot to gain a lot,” which is completely true in this case; the problem arises where one person thinks it is a reasonable risk, and another does not feel that it is worth putting yourself or your crew in that situation. Only you can make that determination. I am not advocating that we should always go blindly charging into a burning building, like Don Quixote chasing a windmill for “Honor,” and “Valor.” On the contrary, I am pushing for fire officers or people in charge to make smart decisions, based on experience, and intuition, along with sound tactics. The aggressive approach may not work for everyone, in every department. Some do not have the resources to safely commit two companies to very dynamic and aggressive tasks. Some people may not have a second alarm assignment coming for at least 20 minutes. For you guys, you need to do what you have to do; but remember: Putting the fire out, usually will solve most of your problems, so focus on that.
There’s a lot of recent banter on the subject of Firefighter Duty to Die Syndrome (FDTDS). This gained prominence from Chief Brian Crawford, Shreveport, LA FD. He defines FDTDS as “a firefighter’s behavior that reflects a sense of obligation and duty to unnecessarily risk personal and others’ safety above what is appropriate or required” (Crawford, 2007). We have all met those guys who feel it is their duty to die on behalf of someone else, by writing it off as “Firefighting is an inherently dangerous job.” Yes it is, but we can still make educated and informed decisions as to what degree of risk we shall take. Ultimately, it is all of our responsibilities to go home at the end of the shift; and to reduce our average LODDs down from the consistent 100 per year. But, some of the greatest rescues have come from people who push the envelope smartly, and save lives. I do not question that at least 90% are prepared to give our life in the execution of our duties to save another, but let’s be smart about it. These same dangerous conditions would have resulted in an unnecessary death of a civilian, had the firefighter not made the decision to “Go.” Know what you have, and what you and your crew are capable of, and make the smart decision the next time you may find yourself in this position. Stay safe, and Keep Training!! -RM
Crawford, B.A. (2007, May). Firefighter duty to die syndrome. Retrieved July 29, 2011 from http://firechief.com/leadership/firefighting_die/index.html.
Marsar, S. (2009, December). Survivability Profiling. Fire Engineering, 162 (12), 69-72.