More firefighters are killed per year fighting fires in residential structures than in commercial occupancies, with the single exception of 2007 when the number of deaths in each category was the same—due in large part to the loss of nine firefighters in the Sofa Super Store Fire in Charleston, S.C.
The yearly numbers have a direct correlation to the percentage of fires that we face in the various occupancy types. The NFPA reports that nearly 76 percent of our structural firefighting experience comes in residential structures, while less than 5 percent of our experience is gathered in non-residential occupancies.1
The number of fatalities per incident, however, is greater in non-residential properties, including commercial buildings. That is, more firefighters die in clusters at these fires than do in residential fires. So why are the “per incident” numbers so skewed? Simply put: because we fight these fires the same way regardless of structure type.
Open vs. Enclosed
Rather than considering these occupancies as either residential or non-residential (commercial) buildings, recent research points to a more practical distinction: enclosed vs. open structures. Enclosed structures feature limited firefighter access and egress, while open structures possess numerous access and egress points. This distinction should be considered as the standard for all incident analyses moving forward.
Clearly, the majority of residential structure fires we face fall into the “open structure” category. That means that nearly three-quarters of our collective experience on the fireground is gained in fighting fires in open structures.
Often in these situations, civilian life safety is the overriding motive for aggressive tactics and, as such, open-structure tactics will continue to be the No. 1 priority for the fire service. But at what cost?
A U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) study conducted in 2002 analyzed trends in multiple-firefighter fatality incidents compared to single-firefighter fatalities.2 The data shows that 82 percent of firefighter fatalities are single in nature, but that there’s an increasing trend in multiple-firefighter deaths.
Unfortunately, we continue to apply our experience and tactics with open structures to enclosed structures, often when there’s no clear civilian life safety threat, and too often fatal consequences result. Why, when the evidence is so overwhelmingly against us, do we continue to use the same procedures at these fires?
• Lack of proper training in recognizing enclosed structures during size-up.
• Lack of specific procedures and guidelines for enclosed and/or commercial properties.
• Lack of situational awareness on the behalf of firefighters and officers to distinguish these dangerous property types prior to engagement. (See “Elevate Your Operation,” by Billy Schmidt, FireRescue Nov. 2007, p. 54.)
• Lack of experience in fighting fires in these occupancies.
The Role of Disorientation
A study by Capt. William Mora of the San Antonio Fire Department analyzed 17 firefighter fatalities that occurred from Jan. 1, 1979, to Dec. 31, 2001, in structure fires in which disorientation was a key factor. The study revealed sobering results: 100 percent of these deaths occurred in enclosed structures and in all cases the strategy employed was “aggressive interior attack.”
A large number of the deaths occurring in enclosed structures are grouped into the category of “lost or disoriented” by the NFPA. Firefighters advance deep into complex or large-area structures without lifelines or become separated from their hoselines during fire attack and/or when searching for possible victims. Routine activities often become deadly when conditions rapidly decline as the fire advances beyond the capabilities of the suppression efforts. Rapid changes in fire behavior are often unseen, hiding in the depths of high ceilings or the thick smoke layer above the crews, and firefighters simply fail to recognize the warning signs.
Incident commanders too often fail to “read” what the fire building is telling them, or don’t routinely request status reports from division and group leaders operating in the immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) environment.
The Low-Air Alarm
I have asked thousands of firefighters the same question over the past 6 years: “When you’re inside a burning structure, what tells you it’s time to get out of the building?” I get the same response every time: “My low-air alarm.” We’re relying on the remnants of our SCBA cylinder to give us enough time to get out. This is a deadly misplaced confidence that we cannot seem to shake.
Every one of us was told the same line of BS when we first donned a 30-minute SCBA: They told us we had about 15–20 minutes “working time” from our cylinder. We soon found out that the time varies greatly with the individual and the work we’re doing.
How much time did they say you had left in your 30-minute cylinder when the low-air alarm sounded? “About 5 minutes”—another line of BS. The low-air alarm can’t tell time; it can only respond to pressure (psi)!
The low-air alarm starts to sound when the pressure in your cylinder reaches one-quarter remaining; for most of us that is 1,125 psi or one-quarter of 4,500 psi (see “Come Up for Air,” FireRescue July 2009, p. 66). For a 30-minute cylinder with 20 minutes maximum user time, that equals “about 5 minutes.” (For longer-use cylinders, such as 45 or 60 minutes, the numbers are proportionate to the volume). “About” is at best a guess and at worse, an outright lie. I’d like something a little more concrete please, Chief!
The bottom line: In a normal, residential, “open” structure, the amount of air left in your cylinder when your low-air alarm activates may be enough time to get out safely, as long as you’re oriented and there are no complications or obstacles to your escape. In an enclosed structure, especially those with large and complex floorplans, relying on your low-air alarm could prove fatal. There just isn’t enough air left for the time it will take to get out.
What happens when you add factors such as being lost (even temporarily), caught or trapped? Tick-tock, tick-tock … your time and air are running out!
Don’t Rely on RIT
The predominant cause of death in enclosed structure fires is asphyxiation. Firefighters run out of air before they can self-evacuate or before we can get a rapid intervention team (RIT) to them. Many departments, including my own, stage RITs at the ready, but often times these teams, however well trained and equipped, can’t get to a downed firefighter before their air runs out in these large-area enclosed structures.
A number of different departments, big and small, have studied the effectiveness of RITs. Most of them have concluded that in a
large area—commercial/enclosed structure— a single RIT will often not be enough. The initial team can sometimes locate the downed firefighter and get a supplemental air supply in place. They may even start the process of extricating the firefighter, but more often than not, one or more subsequent RITs will be needed to finish the job.
The RIT’s ability to get there in time depends on a number of factors:
• The size/complexity of the building;
• The accuracy of the information regarding the victim’s location;
• How much air remains by the time the mayday is called;
• The lost firefighter’s ability to maintain calm and conserve air;
• The RIT’s training, equipment and ability; and
• The department’s ability to manage the fire and the rescue simultaneously.
The Shift to Air Management
Not surprisingly, air management is more frequently a factor in multiple-death incidents than in single-death incidents. The 2002 USFA study showed that in 59 percent of the multiple-firefighter fatalities, the cause of death was asphyxiation, burns or both, compared to only 9 percent in those categories for single fatalities.2 Nearly all of the LODDs occurred in enclosed structures where the incident was treated like a typical house fire in terms of air management.
How do we manage air? Most of the time we don’t; it manages us! So how do we turn that equation around? We must develop solid air-management procedures for both open and enclosed structures. We must train in the use of these procedures, and then train again, and again. The most important element is enforcement. We must be thorough in the implementation and enforcement of the policy.
No matter our rank, we each play a role in a sensible air-management approach:
• Chief officers: If you call on the radio at a house fire and a low-air alarm is sounding, demand that the crew leave the building immediately, no exceptions.
• Company officers: If you’re in an enclosed structure, anticipate a reduced working time, and strictly monitor your crew. Get out at 50 percent, no exceptions.
• Firefighters: Demand change. Help your department develop a sensible air-management policy that will benefit you and your brother and sister firefighters and will ensure that everyone goes home, no exceptions!
Together, we must work to change the LODD statistics through the following steps:
• Demand that NFPA and subsequently all SCBA manufacturers include a pre-alarm that signals at 50 percent air remaining in the cylinder.
• Mandate consumption-rate testing (see sidebar) for all firefighters on a yearly basis, and make that information part of the accountability system.
• Develop better situational awareness of enclosed structures, and treat them with the respect they deserve.
• Restructure our policies and procedures with regard to enclosed structures and consider firefighter access and egress before making an aggressive interior attack, especially when there’s no apparent civilian life safety threat.
• Change the “low-air alarm” culture, and develop an air-management system that monitors and anticipates firefighters’ air and time requirements.
“We’re lost, and we’re running out of air! Hurry!”
This plea for help was one of several uttered by firefighters Paul Brotherton and Jerry Lucey of the Worcester (Mass.) Fire Department at the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Fire nearly 10 years ago. These words continue to echo through the corridors of every firehouse in Worcester, to remind us of how precious life is, and how quickly it can be taken away. Every breath matters. Every second matters. Every action matters.
We always promise to “never forget” when a tragic loss hits close to home. The memory of our brother and sister firefighters and their sacrifice in the line of duty deserves to be remembered. Perhaps, however, we should also promise to forget some other things:
• Forget the practices that are outdated and sometimes outright dangerous.
• Forget the easier 1 ¾” line, and pull the 2 ½” line.
• Forget waiting for the low-air alarm, and start monitoring the air supply more closely.
• Forget freelancing—no excuses, just forget it.
• Forget trying to be a hero. If your opportunity comes up, you’ll know it.
Never forget to forget!
1 NFPA 2007
2 USFA. “Firefighter Fatality Retrospective Study,” April 2002/FA220.