Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival: Extend Vigilant and Measured Risk to Protect and Rescue Savable Lives

Extend Vigilant and Measured Risk to Protect and Rescue Savable Lives

Objective: To cause firefighters to manage search and rescue and supporting firefighting operations in a calculated, controlled and safe manner, while remaining alert to changing conditions, during high-risk primary search-and-rescue operations where lives can be saved.

The key words in this rule are vigilant and measured.

Vigilant is defined as “on the alert and watchful.” During search and rescue operations, crews must remain alert to changing fire conditions that may increase risk or prevent rescue.

Measured is defined as “careful, restrained, calculated and deliberate,” the applications of which must be considered during a search-and-rescue event by both the firefighter and the incident commander.

Being alert and watchful means continually assessing fire conditions throughout the rescue event; it’s typically referred to as maintaining situational awareness. Conditions will either be deteriorating or improving.

It also means monitoring the radio for reports of conditions occurring elsewhere on the fireground. Worsening conditions observed from the exterior or elsewhere on the fireground can quickly increase the risk to firefighters involved in search operations.

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 reflect that firefighters are exposed to the greatest risk of injury and death during primary search-and-rescue operations.

The decision to search 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—the time to find and then remove them.

If survival is determined to be possible for the entire extraction period, a search-and-rescue operation may be deemed appropriate.

Search and rescue and the removal of a victim take time. Fire conditions are almost always deteriorating, most often at the outset, thus increasing risk during the initial phases of operations. Firefighters must be constantly aware of changing conditions and balance the risks. Changing conditions may require a search to be abandoned in the middle of the search and crews withdrawn.

Research conducted by the Phoenix and Seattle Fire Departments regarding search and rescue of downed firefighters determined that it took an average of 11-12 firefighters and an average of 19-21 minutes to complete the rescue and extraction from the building. While this research was for downed firefighters in large buildings, it does reflect the realities of the time and resources needed to search and locate and then remove a (civilian) victim from a building. And it likely will take more than a two-firefighter team to complete.

Where it is believed lives can be saved, firefighters may tend to push the safety envelope. Risk may be justified, but it must be closely monitored and controlled to a safe level. If fire conditions create too high of a risk, firefighters should be withdrawn to a safe location before they can be harmed.

Rescue operations must also be fully supported with adequate resources, and risk must be closely and continually assessed. If resources are inadequate to maintain firefighter safety during search and firefighting operations, other safer approaches should be considered or defensive operations implemented. Large-caliber hoselines provide improved fire control and safety for firefighters. In some cases, it would be appropriate to use large-caliber monitor devices to quickly knock down fire before crews enter a building to conduct search-and-rescue operations.

Where hoselines are used for attack, they must be of proper size and number to protect the search effort and achieve fire control. All hoselines entering or approaching a burning building or compartment must be charged and operating with the correct pressures.

Crews must consider the possibility of lightweight construction and early collapse potential. Underwriters Laboratory test determined some lightweight unprotected truss can collapse in 6.5 minutes after flame impingement—and without warning. In some situations, collapse could occur as firefighters are arriving on scene and starting operations.

Bottom line: During search efforts, both the firefighter and incident commander must maintain situational awareness of changing fire conditions and surroundings and what’s happening elsewhere on the fireground to ensure safe search operations.

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.

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