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Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival: Don't Risk for What Can't Be Saved; Extend Limited Risk to Save What Can

DO NOT Risk Your Life for Lives or Property That Cannot Be Saved

Objective: To prevent firefighters from engaging in high-risk search and rescue and firefighting operations that may harm them when fire conditions prevent occupant survival and significant or total destruction of the building is inevitable.

Our goal as firefighters is to save lives. But firefighters must recognize that we can’t always save a life. If conditions indicate no occupant can survive current and projected fire conditions in the search compartment, then search and rescue operations shouldn’t be extended until the fire is controlled.

Firefighters must also recognize that we can’t always save a building. Those that are lost generally are rebuilt after the fire.

No building is worth the life of a firefighter. Yet, firefighter fatality reports are full of cases where firefighters were killed while operating in buildings where fire conditions would be clearly defined as defensive fires.

Where such conditions exist, a defensive strategy must be seriously considered at the outset of firefighting operations. If interior operations are already underway, firefighters must be immediately withdrawn and operate from a safe exterior position. Appropriate large-caliber hose streams or monitors from exterior positions should be employed to obtain fire control.

The action plan should be to protect firefighters. Firefighters should not extend risk for what is already lost.

Abandoned and dilapidated buildings are a particular risk to firefighters, and experience has shown there is little likelihood that there are any occupants in the building. Should there be any active and growing fire in such a building that can’t be immediately controlled, then a defensive strategy must be seriously considered at the outset.

Bottom line: If fire conditions prevent an occupant from surviving a rescue event or the fire has or will destroy the building, the action plan should protect firefighters.

“Extend LIMITED Risk to Protect SAVABLE Property”

Objective: To cause firefighters to limit risk exposure to a reasonable, cautious and conservative level when trying to save a building.

Limited is defined as “the point, edge, or line beyond which something cannot or may not proceed; confined or restricted within certain limits.”

In other words, there is a limit, or a line, beyond which firefighters may not be exposed to unsafe fire conditions. If a building is savable, limited risk and carefully calculated operations should be employed and operations must be continuously monitored to ensure firefighter safety.

The key word in this discussion is savable. Again—no building is worth the life of a firefighter. If conditions worsen and become unsafe during interior operations, crews must be withdrawn from the building in a timely fashion and defensive exterior operations employed.

Where the building is deemed savable, attack hoselines must be of proper size and number to achieve fire control. All hoselines entering or approaching a burning building or compartment must be charged and operating with the correct pressures. In some cases, it would be appropriate to use large-caliber monitor devices to quickly knock down fire before crews enter a building.

Interior firefighting operations must be fully supported with adequate resources on scene and risk must be closely and continuously assessed. A fire that can’t be controlled quickly will continue to eat away at the building’s structural integrity, weakening it and thus increasing risk.

Crews must consider the possibility of lightweight construction and early-collapse potential. Underwriters Laboratory test determined some lightweight, unprotected floor-truss systems can collapse in 6.5 minutes after flame impingement—and without warning. This short timeline means collapse could occur as the first crews are entering the building.

Bottom line: No building is worth the life of a firefighter. Risk must be closely and continuously assessed during interior operations.

Ret. 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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