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Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival:
Determine the Occupant Survival Profile (Part 1)

April 1, 2011


Return to the April 1
issue of On Scene



IAFC On Scene: April 1, 2011




In last month’s column, we discussed the need for firefighters and company officers to conduct their own size-up for their assigned tactical operations area. One essential component in the size-up process is to determine if any occupants are trapped and if they can survive the current and projected fire conditions.

This article is part one of a two-part discussion on survivability profiling. We’ll first look at what the victim faces when exposed to the products of combustion.

Determine the Occupant Survival Profile

Objective: To cause the company officer and firefighter to consider fire conditions in relation to possible occupant survival of a successful rescue event as part of their initial and ongoing individual risk assessment and action-plan development.

Our goal as firefighters is to save lives.

The fire service has a long history of aggressive search and rescue operations as an initial priority of first arriving fire companies. History (and firefighter fatalities) also reflects that firefighters are exposed to the greatest risk of injury and death during primary search and rescue operations. Search efforts must be based on the potential to save lives.

A safe and appropriate action plan can’t be accurately developed until we first determine if any occupants are trapped and can survive the fire conditions during the entire rescue event (find and then remove them).

If survival isn’t possible for the entire extraction period, a more cautious approach to fire operations must be taken. Fire control should be obtained before proceeding with the primary and secondary search efforts.

Fire in a building today is not what it was 50 years ago in the days of our ancestors. Today’s building contents contain a large array of plastic products. When exposed to fire, plastics burn hotter and produce highly toxic gases. For example, a pound of wood when burned produces 8,000 British thermal units (BTUs). On the other hand, a pound of plastic can produce 19,900 BTUs when burned. That’s nearly three times hotter!

As a result of plastics in our buildings, today’s fires are hotter and flashover occurs quicker than in the past. The human limit for temperature tenability is 212 degrees. Fire models for today’s environment reflect that flashover can occur in less than five minutes and reach a temperature of more than 1,100 degrees.

On many occasions, flashover can occur as the first fire companies are arriving on the scene. In such cases, the survivability of any victims in that compartment can be very limited or nonexistent.

The affects of carbon monoxide poisoning on a victim is well known to the fire service. With our plastics environment, carbon monoxide is produced in very high concentrations and very quickly. As a result, victims die sooner than in the past.

What’s not as well known—but is evolving as a killer for both the victim and firefighters—is cyanide poisoning. Where carbon monoxide kills by blocking oxygen absorption in the blood, cyanide kills the body’s organs.

Literature reflects that a low concentration of 135 PPM of cyanide and carbon monoxide will kill a person in 30 minutes. At 3,400 PPM, it can kill in less than one minute. It’s not uncommon for a fire in today’s buildings to routinely produce 3,400 PPM of cyanide. Where a victim may be resuscitated from the affects of carbon monoxide poisoning, the victim may not survive the organ damage caused by cyanide poisoning. (Stephan Marsar. “Survivability Profiling: How Long Can Victims Survive in a Fire?” Fire Engineering. July 2010.)

An example of the need to apply survivability profiling as part of action-plan development for search and rescue operations is found in a 2005 study by the Boston Globe. The paper examined firefighter fatality reports related to 52 fires that killed 80 firefighters between 1997 and 2004.

In only 14 of those 52 incidents was there even a suspicion of trapped occupants. In only 6 of those incidents were people in the building at the time the fire departments arrived and not one of those 52 fires resulted in a civilian fatality. (B. Dedman. “Fewer Resources, Greater Risk for Firefighters.” Boston Globe. January 31, 2005.)

What this research suggests is that firefighters are dying at fires where there are no occupants/victims in the building.

The bottom line: victims die quicker today than in the past, yet the fire service continues to employ aggressive search and rescue tactics of years past. And firefighter fatality reports reflect what can happen without a thorough size-up that includes a survivability profile.

Ret. Chief Gary Morris is a director at large on the Safety, Health and Survival Section board of directors and was the team lead for the Rules of Engagement project. He was formerly chief of the Rural Metro Fire Department in Scottsdale, Ariz.