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First 5 Minutes Determines Risk and Outcome

It’s generally accepted in the fire service that the first five minutes of a firefight sets the stage for risk and outcomes. If we do it smart and correct, the risk to firefighters will be low and the outcome will be better. If we do it wrong, without caution or much thought, the outcome can be tragic.

Two rules from the IAFC’s Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival play an important role in reducing risk and setting the foundation for a successful operation during the first 5 minutes.

Rule number 1 is “Size up Your Area of Tactical Operation.” The objective is for the company officer and firefighters to pause for a moment and look over their area of operation, evaluate their individual risk exposure and determine a safe approach to completing their assigned tactical objectives.

Just as a 360-degree size-up is required of the incident commander to get a better picture of fire conditions and risk, so the company officer and firefighters need to size up their operational area to determine if their assigned objective can be accomplished safely. If not, that concern must be communicated to the incident commander and the objective changed to something that has a lower risk and higher safety for firefighters.

One of the first decisions in the first five minutes is determining if a search-and-rescue operation can be safely accomplished. Rule number 2 plays a major role in this decision: “Determine the Occupant Survival Profile.”

The objective is to cause the company officer and firefighter to consider fire conditions in relation to possible occupant survival of a successful rescue event; this is done as part of their initial and ongoing individual risk assessment and action plan development.

The key element in this evaluation is whether the occupant can survive both existing and projected fire conditions for the entire rescue effort. It takes time to enter, search, locate and extract a victim. This may take many minutes, and it often requires more than one crew to extract. Fire is dynamic and expanding during the first five minutes and risk can increase suddenly.

Today’s room and contents are full of plastics and synthetics that are highly lethal to fire victims. Flashover can occur as early as 3.5 minutes and reach a temperature of more than 1,100 degrees. Cyanide levels routinely reach 3,400 PPM and can kill a human being in less than one minute even in rooms remote from the fire as smoke density increases.

A search decision 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 whether they can survive the fire conditions during the entire rescue event.

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.

Gary Morris is the fire chief for the Pine-Strawberry (Ariz.) Fire Department. He's a director at large for the IAFC's Safety, Health & Survival Section and was the team manager for the Rules of Engagement project. He has been a member of the IAFC since 1985.
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