Certainly one of the biggest issues being discussed by the fire service these days is our mission; the risks involved, how much risk is too much risk, and what can we do to protect our members and reduce their chance of injury and death. For those that are not aware, Victim Survivability Profiling is the subject of an EFO research paper[1] by Captain Marsar of the FDNY.

While lauded by the National Fire Academy for his paper[2], and even receiving an award for it, the rest of the fire service is not necessarily embracing VSP. It isn’t that those in disagreement are fool hardy, or overly aggressive, it is just that VSP is not an easily defined tactic. Captain Marsar has written several articles explaining what VSP is, but to date there are no real explanations of how it is applied.

The crux of VSP is that arriving firefighters should be able to determine if potential victims inside a burning structure will be viable, based on the amount of smoke or fire showing. It is difficult to imagine that an officer arriving first due at 2:00 a.m. will be able to look at the structure in question and say, “any victim inside is not viable, therefore we will not search.” Now before we go too much farther no one is talking about or advocating entry and search into fully involved buildings. That is not the point of the discussion nor the argument against VSP. No one is advocating unnecessary risk.

Survivability profiling will not compensate for a lack of experience and we cannot overcome the fact that today’s firefighters are going to less fires by adding an additional step in sizeup that forces us to choose between someone living and dying. At issue should be whether we can or can’t safely enter the building. That decision, the “go or no go” should be based on the following: 1) Resources Available 2) Conditions 3) Structure. Do we have the resources available to commit to interior operations and attack the fire? Will the fire and smoke conditions we see allow us to enter and conduct a fire attack and a search? Is the structure safe enough for interior operations?

The speed in which the fireground changes requires rapid decision making. Prime factors in this process should include staffing, resources and conditions. Adding assumptions can lead to distraction. (Mark Filipelli photo)

Many places do not and will not have the luxury of enough manpower to initiate fire attack and a search at the same time. Without confirmation (eyewitness declaration) of a victim these departments will initiate fire attack and then conduct their search incidental to the fire attack. Their decisions become much more difficult when faced with a confirmed victim. For example, a three-man engine company arrives at a two-story wood frame with moderate smoke from the first and second floors. The next due company is three minutes out and a victim is observed at a second floor window. Choices have to be made and fire attack may have to wait until after a rescue is made. Not an ideal situation. What happens when there is more than just the one victim? Would attacking the fire have been the better choice? Could the company save that victim and then attack the fire? There is not a cut and dry right or wrong answer. Many will say you have to save the visible victim. Others will argue that if you put out the fire, everything gets better.

So back to the “go or no go” decision, is adding VSP into the mix the correct decision? When is a smoke condition too much for a victim to survive? Is that a condition that can be quantitatively determined from the street? The fireground is not a place that allows for analytical decision making. Much of our decisions are based on intuition, and intuition is derived from experience and training. If we continue to add steps and processing to our size up, we will eventually create a condition where timely and effective decisions do not happen.

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