Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival: Maintain Continuous Awareness

Maintain Continuous Awareness of Your Air Supply, Situation, Location and Fire Conditions

Objective: To cause all firefighters and company officers to maintain constant situational awareness of their SCBA air supply and where they are in the building as well as all that is happening in their area of operations and elsewhere on the fireground that may affect their risk and safety.

The SCBA air supply is a firefighters’ life support system; firefighters must always confirm a full bottle before entering a burning structure and constantly be aware of their air supply while in a building and when they have reached the turnaround point. It should be mandatory that firefighters plan on exiting before the low air alarm activates (NFPA 1404).

Firefighters must frequently check their air supply while in a structure. Major benchmarks are before and after going up or down stairs, before entering and searching a room, after exiting a room, after going down a hallway or aisle and before and after doing a labor-demanding task.

The air consumption during laborious tasks can be more than double the old minute rating system for SCBA bottles: The old 30-minute” bottle rating can be consumed in 15 minutes or less. All firefighters should know their individual consumption rate and they must provide frequent air-supply status reports to their company officer. The company officer should include the lowest air supply status as part of progress reports to the incident commander or the division or group officer.

Air-supply status reports improve the logistical commitment of crews. With these reports, the incident commander will have early awareness of an approaching need for a fresh crew instead of being surprised as a crew announces its exit from a position because they’re running out of air. With ongoing air-supply status reports, an incident commander can call fresh crews up from staging and conduct a transition at the operating position instead of at the door after exit.

The National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System lists Situational Awareness as the most commonly reported cause for a life-threatening, near-miss event. Situational awareness is defined as the level of understanding and attentiveness one has (the firefighter) regarding the reality of a set of conditions (fire conditions and fireground operations).

When situational awareness is high, there are rarely surprises. When situational awareness is low or absent, unexpected events that can injure or kill firefighters occur.

Simply put, situational awareness is the relationship between what one perceives is happening and what really is happening. Pay attention to what’s really happening!

The factors that affect situational awareness can be broken down into three divisions:

  • a lack of information
  • a lack knowledge 
  • a lack of cognition

These three divisions are made up of their own unique factors, including misinterpreting conditions and surroundings, not recognizing factors and cues, gathering incomplete information, being narrowly focused and being impaired.

All firefighters, for basic survival, must maintain constant awareness of their surroundings. Conditions early on in a fire attack may be out of control, placing a firefighter at continued risk.

Even after a fire is controlled, the building’s structural integrity has been compromised, sometimes considerably. Situational awareness also includes monitoring all radio communications on the assigned radio channel. Worsening conditions elsewhere on a fireground can quickly result in unsafe conditions for firefighters at other locations.

Firefighters must be aware of their work environment and be in control of their actions—all the time!

Every firefighter must observe or otherwise be aware of his surroundings, landmarks, windows, exits and route he takes when penetrating the building. These are important landmarks for survival if a firefighter becomes separated or lost. These key items become critical when facing a life-threatening emergency, affecting a firefighter’s ability to safely exit the building.

The more detailed and accurate the location description or landmarks provided when calling a mayday, the faster a RIT can reach a firefighter.

NO GO, if you don’t have a full SCBA bottle.
NO GO – If you don’t know your air supply all the time, don’t go.
NO GO – If you don’t know where you are at all times, don’t continue. Stop, reorient or report.
NO GO – If you have reached your turn-around point on SCBA air supply, exit.

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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