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Rules of Engagement for Incident Commanders: Extend Vigilant, Measured Risk to Protect and Rescue Savable Lives

Extend Vigilant and Measured Risk to Protect and Rescue Savable Lives

Objective: To cause the incident commander to manage search and rescue and supporting firefighting operations in a highly calculated, controlled and cautious manner while remaining alert to changing conditions during high-risk search and rescue operations where lives can be saved.

The key words are vigilant and measured.

Vigilant is defined as "on the alert and watchful." During search and rescue operations, the incident commander must remain alert to changing fire conditions that may increase risk or prevent rescue.

Measured is defined as "careful, restrained, calculated and deliberate"—the applications of which must be seriously considered by the incident commander.

Being alert and watchful means the incident commander must continually assess global fire conditions throughout the rescue event and is typically referred to as maintaining situational awareness. Conditions will either be deteriorating or improving.

It also means the incident commander must obtain progress reports of conditions from all points of the fireground. Worsening conditions observed from the exterior or elsewhere on the fireground can quickly increase the risk to firefighters involved in search operations.

Our goal as firefighters is to save lives, and the fire service has a long history of aggressive search and rescue operations as an initial priority of first-arriving fire companies. History—as well as firefighter fatalities—also reflects that firefighters are exposed to the greatest risk of injury and death during primary search-and-rescue operations.

The incident commander's decision to search 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 can survive the fire conditions during the entire rescue event (the time to both find and remove them).

If survival is determined to be possible for the extraction period, a search-and-rescue operation may be deemed appropriate.

Search and rescue and removing the victim take time. Fire conditions are almost always deteriorating in the early stages, thus increasing risk and reducing occupant survival. The incident commander must be constantly aware of changing conditions and balance the risks. Changing conditions may require the search to be terminated and crews withdrawn in the middle of the search.

Research conducted by the Phoenix and Seattle Fire Departments regarding search and rescue of downed firefighters determined that it takes an average of 11-12 firefighters and an average of 19-21 minutes to complete the search and extraction of a firefighter from a building. While this research was for a downed firefighter in a large building, it does reflect the realities of the time and resources needed to search, locate and remove a (civilian) victim from the building. And it likely will take more than a two-firefighter team to complete.

Where it's believed lives can be saved, firefighters may tend to push the safety envelope. Risk may be justified, but must be closely monitored by the incident commander and controlled to a safe level. If fire conditions create too high of a risk, firefighters should be withdrawn to a safe location before they can be harmed. Search operations can resume following fire control.

Rescue operations must also be fully supported with adequate resources and risk must be continually assessed. If resources are inadequate to maintain firefighter safety during search and firefighting operations, other safer approaches should be considered or defensive operations implemented. Large-caliber hose lines provide improved fire control and safety for firefighters. In some cases, it would be appropriate to use large-caliber monitor devices to quickly knock down fire before crews enter a building to conduct search-and-rescue operations.

Where hoselines are used for attack, they must be of proper size and number, with adequate staffing, to protect the search effort and achieve fire control. All hoselines must be charged and operating with the correct pressures before entering the fire compartment.

The incident commander must consider the possibility of lightweight construction and early-collapse potential. Tests by Underwriters Laboratories determined some lightweight, unprotected trusses can collapse in 6.5 minutes after flame impingement—and without warning. In some situations, collapse could occur as arriving firefighters are starting operations.

Bottom line: During search efforts, the incident commander must maintain situational awareness of changing fire conditions and what's happening elsewhere on the fireground to ensure safe search operations.

Gary Morris is a director at large on the Safety, Health & 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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