Disorientation and the Interior Firefight

by: Lou Angeli

(Anytown, USA) -- The fire service here in the USA is extremely fortunate to employ some of the bravest firefighters and most knowledgeable fire officers in the world. But firefighting is inherently a dangerous profession, and things will and do go wroong. When a firefighter loses his or her life in a burning structure it is usually a result of unanticipated or unexpected fire development, not the inadequacies of command or even a firefighter’s skills.

So what’s the problem and how do we fix it? Back in the mid 70's, the fire service modified its approach to firefighting from surround and drown -- to one of adopting an aggressive interior fire attack. This tactic requires that firefighting teams make their way inside the burning structure and remain there under even the most severe conditions. Over the past few years the procedure has become the source of heated debate among instructors and officers because the interior attack assumes that there are victims inside the burning building who need to be rescued.

Since the introduction of superior protective gear (Nomex and PBI) in the late 70’s, virtually every fire-training instructor nationwide has taught their students to conduct an extremely aggressive interior attack, sometimes referred to in the books as Offensive Strategy. The idea is to take an pro-active stance, moving nozzles and hoselines deep inside a building to meet the fire monster on its own turf.

But my personal belief is that -- unless a life safety issue exists -- firefighters should never attempt to inhabit the same space as fire. Being there is a lot like snorkeling in shark-infested waters, then poking a Great White in the eye.

Inadequate Staffing


According to a report issued by Captain William R. Mora of the San Antonio Fire Department, many firefighters (often Truck company members) choose to begin search and rescue operations without the assistance of an Engine company and their hoseline. "It's in our blood to rush in." one rookie told me. "Try keeping me out!"

Unfortunately, in far too many situations, the search begins prematurely because of poor staffing (career) and lack of responders (volunteers). The obvious concern in these situations is that teams that have entered won’t have the extinguishing tools to cool a blaze should flashover rear its ugly head. (Ever wonder why FDNY has a "can man.") And with no hose (or lifeline rope) to follow back to safety, firefighters often have no way out!

When the search and rescue effort goes south, a firefighter can easily become disoriented and lost in the blaze. Without a buddy by his or her side, they face the unknown alone. Panic sets in and it’s just a matter of time before they breathe-out their bottle, collapse and succumb to the blaze.

Disorientation

“The root of the disorientation problem in the fire service,’ the San Antonio study reads, ‘is the lack of knowledge about the extreme danger posed by enclosed structures and the disorientation sequence.”

In many communities, especially those protected by volunteer companies, firefighters sometimes ignore the important fact that fighting a structural blaze is a team effort. Rather than wait for next arriving units, the few who have assembled on the fireground often begin search and rescue -- or the hoseline advance -- lacking appropriate support and resources.

Crucial to fire extinguishment is proper vertical ventilation, which we’ve all been taught should take place simultaneously with the hoseline attack below. However, before the chain saw is on the roof, well-meaning hose teams – working alone -- may quickly find the seat of the fire and bravely open the nozzle to dampen the blaze. But with no vent opening to release smoke and hot gases, the team destroys the delicate thermal balance, allowing super-heated air from above to drop down to the floor and bake them like lobsters.

In cases like this, inexperienced firefighters may panic and abandon the line, leaving their partner behind. The team is now separated, company integrity is lost, and it can only go downhill from here. Call in the FAST team!

“Firefighters must be warned of the extreme dangers associated with enclosed structures,” says San Antonio’s Captain Mora. “(They) must be informed that (waging) an aggressive attack immediately on arrival may be ineffective and unsafe in many cases.”

Life Safety Issue

There’s no denying that firefighters must enter flaming structures to conduct search and rescue operations, especially when civilians are reported trapped, or the commanding officer feels that an interior attack is warranted. However, changing the behavior of two generations of firefighters, who have had the term “aggressive interior attack” drilled into their helmets, will be a tough assignment for company officers and training personnel. But change is coming slowly and some forward thinking administrators have begun to embrace alternate tactics, like large line blitz attacks using portable master stream devices.

A reminder: We’re told that the most important tactic in any type of firefight is size-up. So, the next time your company pulls up in front of a burning building, quickly establish command and learn as much about the situation at hand as you can. If there is no life-safety issue and no danger to surrounding structures, hold back the hoseteam, by their SCBA straps if you must. Wait for second due companies to arrive, then engage in a coordinated attack.

like they say, “Everyone goes home!"

----
Resources

(1) Mora, W.R., "U.S. Firefighter Disorientation Study, 1979-2001" (2003).
(2) Firefighter Life Safety Initiative - "Everyone Goes Home"
(3) Saving Firefighter Ryan -- Lou Angeli (2004)

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Comment by Rob on February 6, 2009 at 5:49am
Good points, but not applicable 100% of the time in those terms. On an all volunteer department where you may find yourself with two guys on the engine and the chief in his car you have to size it up to determine what you will do. We recently had a dispatch for structure fire at 6:30 in the morning when most of our folks have left for work. With 2 on the engine we arrived and found that we had a bedroom fire. We arrived 6 minutes after the 911 call was made. Our next supression piece arrived with 2 on it 8 minutes after we did. We went in on arrival of the chief (about 7:30 after the 911 call) and made a very quick knockdown (about 45 seconds after entry). If we woudl have followed 2 in 2 out we would have lost the entire house. It all depends on what you see when you pull up.

On the flip side we had one a few weeks ago at 3:30 in the morning with 2 on the engine and the chief for the first 5 minutes. One house on the ground on arrival and heavy involvement in the attic of a second. Can we say 2 1/2 with smooth bore and defensive attack till the troops arrived!

Yes the rooks are taught to make an agressive interrior attack, but that is why us older guys are around to look at the big picture and weigh risk vs. gain and make sound judgements.
Comment by Lou Angeli on January 24, 2009 at 9:45pm
Lutan -- I feel lucky in that my work has taken me to fire departments and brigades throughout Europe. Inevitably, the first question I'm asked is "why we go into burning buildings that are unoccupied." I write it off to culture, and the fact that I was trained in Delaware and Missouri to conduct an aggressive interior attack. Now, if we could establish an exchange program that would permit more US firefighters to experience other methods, changing such a well established norm would be much easier. And Chris, I really like your formula. -- Lou, http://rescueus06.blogspot.com
Comment by lutan1 on January 24, 2009 at 3:39pm
I like that Christopher!
Comment by Christopher J. Naum, SFPE on January 24, 2009 at 3:36pm
Of the number of things I profess around the country in my training programs and writings is this; Building Knowledge = Firefighter Safety ( Bk=f2S) and RIT is not IT.
Comment by lutan1 on January 24, 2009 at 3:25pm
But my personal belief is that -- unless a life safety issue exists -- firefighters should never attempt to inhabit the same space as fire.
Amen brother!

"It's in our blood to rush in." one rookie told me. "Try keeping me out!"
And that's scary! That mentality needs to be beaten out of noew recruits, not taught to them.

We’re told that the most important tactic in any type of firefight is size-up.
This seems to have been lost in the "interior attack" discussion on this website. Size up, risk assessment, etc. Interior attacks need to be a calculated risk, not an automatic response/action.

Vincent Dunn wrote a great article recently questioning RIT teams. His concern (which you alluded to) is the fact that we arrive at a property and have no clue as to it's lay out. When a team gets into trouble, they call for help, to an area they "think" they're at. The RIT team needs to get in, possibly attack fire to get to the downed FF's, in a building that they too know nothing about.

Vincent suggests that aggressive interior attacks also need to be questioned.

Interesting that in 3 seperate discussions on FFN, I've raised this article (in 2 of the discussions I took direct quotes from the artcile) and not a single person has commented on it. Why? I'd suggest becuase many don't want to move away from interior and that many still have this attitude, "this is what we do".

Sad that we're willing to die for a building that's probably insured and in many cases the insurance company will bulldoze and start over....
Comment by Christopher J. Naum, SFPE on January 23, 2009 at 9:44pm

Nice post....
This is what many of us are working to influence and change in our fire service culture, to improve safety, develop new strategic and tactical methodologies and improve our profession based upon effective risk assessment and management, and do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons. The continuing efforts of the NFFF, the EGH pogram, the Near Miss Reporting System, the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, IAFC SH&S Section, etc., are part of that a much bigger picture to improve firefighter safety, survivability and reduce the escalating LODD trends.
Comment by Lou Angeli on January 23, 2009 at 9:20pm
Rachel -- The general public has more eye contact with law enforcement, so therefore they assume that police officers do more. In short, law enforcement enjoys a higher perceived value. I've always been an advocate of firefighters "taking it to the streets." In other words, during those late afternoon, early evening hours, have the engine crew -- or even a couple of jakes in a brush truck -- drive through local neighborhoods and make contact with their customers. Meeting the public face to face would go a long way in changing public perception and the value that firefighters offer. Lou

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