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Rules of Engagement for Incident Commanders: Don`t Risk Firefighter Lives for What Can`t Be Saved

Do not risk firefighter lives for lives or property that can't be saved. Seriously consider a defensive strategy.

Objective: To prevent the commitment of firefighters to 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. However, where conditions indicate an occupant can't survive current and projected fire conditions in a search compartment, the incident commander must recognize that we can't always save a life.

The incident commander must also recognize that we can't always save a building. Those that are lost are generally rebuilt after the fire; no building is worth the life of a firefighter. Yet, NIOSH 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.

If conditions indicate that occupant survival isn't possible, fire control should be obtained before firefighters are committed to search and rescue. If the building is lost to fire, the incident commander must change the strategy and seriously consider defensive operations. If interior operations are already underway and conditions deteriorate, firefighters must be immediately withdrawn and operate from safe exterior positions.

The incident commander must also recognize that it often takes longer for crews to evacuate than it took them to penetrate the building to their operating positions. The call to evacuate must occur before the fire can harm them. Appropriate large caliber hose streams, or monitors, from exterior positions should be employed to obtain fire control following withdrawal.

The change of strategy requires a change in the action plan. The first priority of the action plan should be to protect firefighters. The incident commander should not extend risk for what is already lost. The incident commander must quickly obtain progress reports from all points on the fireground, conduct a fresh risk assessment and continually update the action plan based on new information.

Recent research by Underwriters Laboratories determined that a fire in a modern home can create a flashover in just 3 minutes and 40 seconds! This rapid flashover time for the modern home reflects today's typical contents—synthetics and plastics. Such rapid flashovers quickly reduce the survival profile of any trapped victims and increases risk to firefighters.

The incident commander should also consider the effects of wind-driven fires on the rapid loss of the building and the risk it presents to firefighters. Any wind over 10 mph begins to have increasingly dangerous effects on a fire by dramatically increasing the intensity of fire conditions in a building. This results in a rapid increase in risk to any firefighters who are downwind in the building.

The higher the wind speed, the more intense the fire conditions. Once downwind windows fail or doors are opened, wind will rapidly push the fire onto firefighters—almost instantly—thus minimizing survival time.

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

Abandoned and dilapidated buildings are also a particular risk to firefighters, and experience has shown that there's very little likelihood any occupants are in the building. Should there be an active and growing fire in such a building that can't be immediately controlled, 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. Go defensive.

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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