Train Like You Fight with the Rules of Engagement

Training and fireground operational safety are uniquely linked, and standard operational guidelines (SOGs) establish a baseline for effective training. Where SOGs exist and firefighters are trained on the guidelines, the incident commander can expect consistent, predictable and safe operations. The Safety, Health and Survival Section's Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival (PDF) can serve as model guidelines that will improve fireground safety for any fire department.

Space won't allow a full review of all the Rules, so we'll focus on the more significant ones.

First is recognizing that occupants trapped in a fire today have far less chance of survival than those in fires 50 years ago. Research by Underwriters Laboratory's determined involving fires in older homes took 29 minutes, 25 seconds to reach flashover; in a modern home, flashover occurred in just 3 minutes, 40 seconds!

This rapid flashover and related highly toxic atmosphere reflect today's contents of synthetics and plastics. These conditions quickly reduce the survival of any trapped victims.

While our goal as firefighters is to save lives, we must also seriously consider these new facts and reevaluate our 200-plus year protocol of automatically committing to a search and rescue, no matter the conditions. Thus, Rule #2: "Determine the occupant survival profile."

Before committing to a high-risk search-and-rescue effort, firefighters must include in the risk assessment the rapidly developing fire conditions and the time required to complete the entire search and extraction effort, along with the toxic atmosphere. Fire control may be the first priority and search-and-rescue efforts delayed.

The Rules also recognize that it's the fire crew who are always at the greatest risk and we have not, in the past, formally integrated the firefighter and company officer into the risk decision-making process. Rule #1: "Size up your tactical area operation" requires firefighters and the company officer to assess their assigned operational area to determine if the assignment can be safely achieved.

Where conditions won't allow a safe commitment, the company officer must report this size-up to the incident commander and the action plan must be adjusted to allow a safer approach.

Further integrating the company officer and firefighter in the risk assessment is Rule #9: "You are required to report unsafe practices or conditions that can harm you. Stop, evaluate and decide."

Any concern of the firefighter regarding risk must cause the supervisor to appropriately evaluate how to make the situation safer. Where a correction affects the action plan, the change must be reported to the incident commander.

Another life-saving Rule is #10: "You are required to abandon your position and retreat before conditions can harm you."

Simply put, where a fire is overwhelming hose streams, standing your ground becomes life threatening very quickly. Firefighters don't need permission from the incident commander or supervisors to abandon their position under rapidly deteriorating conditions, but must report this decision to the incident commander as soon as it's safe to do so.

Finally, firefighters must "Declare a Mayday as soon as you THINK you are in danger" (Rule #11). Conditions often deteriorate rapidly. There will always be a narrow window of survival and the earlier a mayday is declared, the greater the opportunity for survival. Additionally, experience with rapid-intervention teams has shown that "rapid" isn't always rapid enough.

As your prepare for Safety & Health Week and Train Like You Fight, consider the importance of proper, updated standard operating procedures and guidelines to training programs, fireground operations and firefighter safety.

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