How training and planning can improve the chances of locating lost or trapped firefighters
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2011
One way firefighters can avoid injury or death on the fireground is to follow the many safety requirements spelled out in codes and standards such as NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. These codes and standards not only explain safe operations, but also require that provisions be made to rescue firefighters when they are lost, trapped, or otherwise unable to make their way to safety. We advocate full compliance with these codes and standards, including an immediate call for assistance when firefighters are in trouble.
While unexpected circumstances can delay rescue, placing firefighters in even greater jeopardy, certain tricks of the trade can increase your chances of survival while waiting for help. Intentionally creating confusion and disorientation during training exercises is an effective way to reduce the likelihood of panic during a real incident. It is also important to familiarize yourself with the building during pre-incident planning.
Firefighters can become disoriented as they move about inside a structure where visibility is limited. Following a hose line, rope, or wall is the normal way to find your way out, but if this fails, seeking a source of light can help you regain your bearings. For example, a window may appear as a hazy light through the smoke. Getting to a window can help others find you and allow you to establish your location in the building.
You can also use sound to help you escape. Activating your personal alert safety system device is one way to increase your chances of being found. Simply calling out can also be effective. This tactic can help a rescue team find you, or, if you are mobile, you can follow their call to find the way out.
All these techniques can be practiced in training. Reduce visibility using blacked-out facepieces or blindfolds, then disorient the firefighters by carefully moving them into an area, rearranging furniture, turning them around, and so on. Have the simulated trapped firefighters find their way out without help, while providing monitors to protect the disoriented firefighters.
Repeat the drill, but have a firefighter at the exit use voice contact to lead the trapped personnel to the exit. This can also work with trapped occupants. A similar precaution uses a signal such as a light or sounding device placed at the entrance/egress. A light flashed around the room can also help rescuers find those who are trapped.
If rescue is delayed, there is a chance firefighters will deplete their air supply, so finding a source of air can save a life. The best air inside the fire area is usually at floor level, and breathing from the floor level will thus extend survival time. There may be other sources of air such as windows or doors. A team of firefighters in Cincinnati depleted its air supply deep inside a smoke-filled warehouse, but the firefighters were able to extend their survival time by placing their breathing tubes at a crack at the bottom of a locked metal door that led to the exterior of the building. They then used a wrench to bang on the door to indicate their location until they were eventually rescued.
Training on these and other ways to save yourself or help others to save you could keep you from becoming a tragic statistic.
This column is adapted from the author's book StructuralFireFighting, available online or (800) 344-3555.