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Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival: Abandon Your Position and Retreat

You are required to abandon your position and retreat before deteriorating conditions can harm you.

Objective: To cause firefighters and company officers to be aware of fire conditions and cause an early exit to a safe area when they’re exposed to deteriorating conditions, unacceptable risk and a life-threatening situation.

Firefighters are nearly always at a point of greatest risk when operating on the fireground and so often detect a rapidly deteriorating condition before the incident commander. Flashovers can develop in seconds and firefighters may only have a few more seconds of survival time when they do occur. When a situation creates a high potential for injury or a life-threatening situation, no firefighter needs approval from a supervisor or the incident commander to abandon the high-risk position. Nor should they be required to report their intent to abandon if reporting impedes or delays a rapid exit to a safe location.

Firefighters should never push the safety envelope and extend risk for what is already lost or can’t be controlled.

Withdrawal from a life-threatening position must occur early enough to allow a safe exit from the building or to relocate to a safe location. Firefighters should understand that an emergency exit from a building often takes longer than it took to get into the interior operating position and conditions will be worse. No hesitation should occur, as seconds can mean surviving or dying.

If saving the hoseline or any equipment will delay exit, the firefighter should leave it behind and get out. It’s far better for the crew to abandon the position early than to try to take a needless stand and be pushed out.

A radio report to the incident commander or the division/group supervisor on the decision to abandon a position should be made as soon as possible, but only when it’s safe to do so and doesn’t cause a delay in exiting.

The culture of firefighters standing their ground—with a willingness of taking on overwhelming flame and heat when a fire can’t be controlled with existing fire-attack lines—cannot be tolerated.

Evidence of firefighters who engage in this risky behavior is illustrated by repeated events resulting in melted or heat-damaged helmets or damage to other personal protective equipment. These firefighters often have a repeated burn-injury history. Where this behavior exists, the fire department’s management team must intervene and eliminate this unsafe behavior and culture.

This rule by no means suggests that firefighters or an incident commander abandon a firefight when progress in fire control is being achieved. Interior firefighting is tough business. When crews are advancing and knocking down fire as they proceed, the action plan may be working. When crews are not advancing—especially when fire is pushing back or is about to overtake a crew—firefighters should retreat to a safe location and do so before they’re harmed.

When faced with such a situation, the company officer and firefighters must be comfortable with the knowledge that they have the authority to abandon a position they can’t hold.

NO-GO: If the fire is about to overtake you, retreat or exit the building before you are harmed.
NO-GO: If your radio lose communications, exit the building.

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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