Beware of Absolutes
How "never and "always" can get in the way of effective fireground procedures
NFPA Journal, November/December 2010
Fireground procedures often include general statements containing words such as "all," "never," "none," and "always." Procedures are often adopted as a result of a serious firefighter injury or death, and while these procedures are written with good intent, they can sometimes result in less-than-optimal operations. While the standard procedure remains the benchmark, how it’s implemented in the field is the result of an informed decision by the company officer based on the conditions present.
For example, many fire departments require that firefighters entering a burning building always use their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). This procedure can sometimes be impractical, since strict adherence means firefighters could possibly deplete their air supply before reaching the fire floor. A better procedure would require that they don their SCBA before entering an IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) atmosphere.
Many departments also require a charged hose line before entering a burning structure. In a small one- or two-story building, this is a good practice. If the fire is on an upper floor in a taller building, however, it can slow the operation and requires unnecessary effort when there is no imminent threat or smoke on the lower floors. In a building equipped with a standpipe system, connecting to the standpipe outlet below or adjacent to the fire area is generally the best practice.
At times it is impossible to determine the presence, size, or location of the fire before entering a building. In a large building, where the fire location and size are unknown, it is usually better to perform interior reconnaissance before advancing a charged hose line or going on-air. Viewing all four sides of a building before making entry may provide crews with important tactical information that can help determine the location of the fire and occupants. For this reason, many departments require that all four sides of a building always be viewed before firefighters enter it, a practice commonly known as "doing a 360."
In the case of a single-family detached residential occupancy, this is usually a good procedure. However, there are times when doing a 360 can significantly delay entry, allowing the fire to grow and resulting in a more hazardous incident. Obviously, there are large buildings or groups of attached buildings where walking or driving completely around the structure is impractical, and, in some cases, it is impossible to see all four sides of the building. In addition, the fire may not be visible from the exterior. In several reported cases, however, firefighter line-of-duty deaths could have been prevented if a 360 had been done. If first-arriving units cannot complete a 360 in a reasonable time, consider assigning this task to the rapid intervention crew or a unit arriving later.
Similarly, be aware when "always" and "never" statements are applied to ventilation, such as "always use positive-pressure ventilation" or "always vent the roof." Positive-pressure ventilation is not always the answer; as with all forms of ventilation, it can have negative consequences. There are times when safety considerations dictate that firefighters not be assigned to roof positions or when vertical ventilation is a poor tactic. Venting the stairway via a roof scuttle can effectively relieve smoke in the stairwell, but under unfavorable conditions, this same tactic can endanger firefighters and occupants by pulling smoke and fire into a stairway being used for evacuation or fire operations.
This column is adapted from the author's book StructuralFireFighting, available online or (800) 344-3555.