Determine the occupant survival profile.
Objective: To cause the incident commander to consider fire conditions in relation to possible occupant survival of a rescue event before committing firefighters to high-risk search and rescue operations as part of the initial and ongoing risk assessment and action-plan development.
Our goal as firefighters is to save lives. The fire service has a long history of conducting aggressive search and rescue operations as an initial priority of first-arriving 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.
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 if they can survive the fire conditions during the entire rescue event (finding and then removing 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; today’s building contents contain a large array of plastic products. When exposed to fire, plastics burn hotter and produce highly toxic gases; a pound of wood when burned produces 8,000 BTUs; a pound of plastic can produce 19,900 BTUs when burned. That’s nearly two and a half times hotter!
Because of plastics in our buildings, flashover occurs faster than in the past. Fire models for today’s environment reflect that a flashover can occur in less than five minutes and reach a temperature of more than 1,100 degrees. On many occasions, a flashover can occur before or as the first fire companies arrive on scene. In such cases, the survivability of any victims in that compartment can be very limited or nonexistent.
The effects of carbon monoxide poisoning on a victim are well known. With our plastics environment, carbon monoxide is produced in very high concentrations and very quickly, and victims die sooner than they did in the past.
What isn’t as well known, but is an evolving killer for both victims and firefighters, is cyanide poisoning. While 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 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. Although a victim may be resuscitated from the affects of carbon monoxide poisoning, the victim may not survive the organ damage caused by cyanide poisoning (see “Survivability Profiling: How Long Can Victims Survive in a Fire?” Fire Engineering: July 2010).
The need to use survivability profiling as part of action-plan development for search and rescue operations is demonstrated in a 2005 study (“Fewer Resources, Greater Risk for Firefighters,” Boston Globe: Jan. 31, 2005). 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 52 incidents were people in the building when the fire departments arrived and not one of those 52 fires resulted in a civilian fatality.
This research suggests that firefighters are dying at fires where there are no occupants or victims in the building.
The bottom line: victims die quicker today than in the past, yet the fire service continues to employ the 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.
NO GO: If occupants can’t survive the search and rescue event, don’t commit the rescue. Obtain fire control before searching.
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.