Saturday, November 20, 2010

Working in the Dragon's Lair

"Knowing When To Back Off"
by: Lou Angeli

November 20, 2010 -- When a firefighter loses his life in a burning structure it is usually a result of unanticipated or unexpected fire development, rather than inadequacies in a firefighter’s skills.  And that goes for those in command as well.  The fire service here in the USA is extremely fortunate to employ some of the most knowledgeable fire officers in the world.

So what’s the problem and how do we fix it?  Well here in America, our approach to firefighting has always been one of adopting an aggressive attack, a tactic that requires firefighting teams to make their way inside the burning structure and remain there under even the most severe conditions. If you've ever discussed interior attack with a European firefighter you know what I mean -- they think we're absolutely bonkers.

Since the introduction of superior protective gear (Nomex and PBI) in the late 70’s, fire-training instructors nationwide have taught their students to conduct an extremely aggressive interior attack, sometimes referred to in the books as Offensive Strategy.  The idea is to take an offensive stance, moving nozzles and hoselines deep inside a building to meet the fire on its own turf.

But my personal belief is that -- unless a life safety issue exists -- firefighters should never attempt to inhabit the same space as fire.  Being there is a lot like snorkeling in shark-infested waters, then poking a Great White in the eye.

When the search and rescue effort goes south, a firefighter can easily become disoriented and lost in the blaze.  This is especially true in departments, which respond to a blaze without enough firefighters to handle a typical working house fire. In some of these cases, a firefighter must conduct a preliminary search – alone. Without a buddy by his or her side, they face the unknown alone. Panic sets in and it’s just a matter of time before they breathe-out their bottle, collapse and succumb to the blaze.

San Antonio's Captain William R. Mora studied firefighter line-of-duty-deaths for 12 years in order to determine if the was some common mistake that fallen firefighters possibly made. According to his findings released as the U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001, Enclosed Structures are highly prone to producing life-threatening hazards and are directly linked to firefighter disorientation and line-of-duty deaths.

“The root of the disorientation problem in the fire service,’ the San Antonio study reads, ‘is the lack of knowledge about the extreme danger posed by enclosed structures and the disorientation sequence.”

In many communities, especially those protected by volunteer companies, firefighters sometimes ignore the important fact that fighting a structural blaze is a team effort.  Rather than wait for next arriving units, short-staffed companies often begin search and rescue -- or the hoseline advance -- lacking appropriate support and resources. Many officers refer to this as a "rescipe for disaster."

Crucial to fire extinguishment is proper vertical ventilation, which we’ve all been taught should take place simultaneously with the hoseline attack below.  However, before the chain saw is on the roof, well-meaning hose teams – working alone -- may quickly find the seat of the fire and bravely open the nozzle to dampen the blaze.  But with no vent opening to release smoke and hot gases, the team destroys the delicate thermal balance, allowing super-heated air from above to drop down to the floor and bake them like Maine lobsters.

In cases like this, inexperienced firefighters may panic and abandon the line, leaving their partner behind.  The team is now separated, company integrity is lost, and it can only go downhill from here.  Call in the RIT team.

In these turbulent financial times, City finance directors take direct aim at the Fire Department, slashing away at budgets, with little consideration as to how cuts will impact publicsafety. With fewer companies and less firefighters, especially in smaller career departments,  the common concern among firefighters is whether sufficient manpower will arrive to back them, should they be told to initiate an intertior attack.  As a result, safer offensive attacks are becoming more commonplace as Battalion and Company level officers carefully weigh the safety of their crews versus the salvage of the plasma TV hanging on the wall.

There’s no denying that firefighters must enter flaming structures to conduct search and rescue operations, especially when civilians are reported trapped, or the commanding officer feels that an interior attack is warranted. However, changing the behavior of two generations of firefighters, who have had the term “aggressive interior attack” drilled into their helmets, will be a tough assignment for company officers and training personnel. Fortunately though, some more forward thinking administrators have begun to embrace alternate tactics, like large line blitz attacks using portable master stream devices.

A reminder: We’re told that the most important tactic in any type of firefight is size-up. So, the next time your company pulls up in front of a burning building, quickly establish command and learn as much about the situation at hand as you can. I f there is no life-safety issue and no danger to surrounding structures, hold back the hoseteam, by their SCBA straps if you must.  Wait for second due companies to arrive, then engage in a coordinated attack.  Like they say, “Everyone goes home!”

(1)  Mora, W.R., "U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study, 1979-2001" (2003)
(2)  Mora, W.R., "Enclosed Structure Disorientation",, January 2006

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