Rules of Engagement for Incident Commanders: Determine the Occupant Survival Profile, Part 2

Determine the Occupant Survival Profile, Part 2

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 aggressive search-and-rescue operations as an initial priority of first-arriving fire companies. But 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. Obtain fire control before proceeding with the primary and secondary search efforts.

Today’s fire environment is far more toxic and lethal than the in past. Victims die sooner than what occurred a few decades ago. For example, the medical examiner in one fatality investigation stated he believed the firefighter, who had his face piece knocked off, had a carbon monoxide blood level that would have rendered him unconscious in 30 seconds and would have stopped his breathing in another 60 seconds.

Incident commanders must factor growing fire conditions, resources on scene (the number of firefighters to complete a rescue) and the time needed to complete a rescue into the decision to conduct and support primary search-and-rescue operations.

Search and rescue and the removal of trapped victims from a fire building take time; these operations often occur while conditions continue to deteriorate—sometimes rapidly. This situation decreases the possibility of victim survivability while increasing risk to firefighters. A search-and-rescue decision must be balanced against time and conditions. In some cases, primary search-and-rescue operations must be delayed or abandoned because of deteriorating conditions until the fire is controlled.

The incident commander must determine if victims can survive fire conditions in individual compartments as part of this evaluation. If there is no potential for survival, the action plan should be based on that determination.

For example, a fire in a home in the middle of the night, with fire showing out a rear window and modest smoke throughout the rest of the building, may allow victim survival in noninvolved compartments.

A fire in the same home in the middle of the night, with significant fire showing from windows of several rooms along with dense smoke—under pressure—pushing out nearly all openings, may not allow any victims to survive the heat, toxic environment and the time required to search and remove them. Additionally, a well-involved structure won’t allow for survival of any victims.

A fire in an apartment building may not allow survival in a well-involved apartment (one compartment), but the survival profile may be good in adjacent apartments. The action plan should extend search and rescue to the exposure apartments if safe to do so.

The incident commander must also fully understand the resources required for search and rescue and victim extraction. The Phoenix and Seattle fire departments conducted research on the search and rescue of downed firefighters; they determined it took on average 11-12 firefighters and 19-21 minutes to complete the search and extraction.

While this research was for a downed firefighter in a large building, it reflects the time and resources needed to search, locate and extract a civilian victim, and it will likely take more than a two-firefighter team to complete.

This rule by no means suggests that primary search-and-rescue operations not be initiated. However, the rule does suggest there are fires conditions where the firefighter can’t penetrate and the victim can’t survive.

Bottom line: If firefighters must wear PPE and SCBA to survive a toxic, 1,100-degree environment to rescue a victim, can the victim survive? If occupants can’t survive the search-and-rescue event, don’t commit. 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.

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