Returning to the foundations - ventilation

CarolinaFireJournal - By Mike Coffey
By Mike Coffey
01/11/2012 -

Loss control — originally a civilian affair (in the city of New York until a few years ago) by the insurance companies of the day — is designed to assist fire companies in reducing damages to property before, during and after fires and other occurrences. Within this category are two specific tasks — salvage and overhaul. Salvage is a task that can be done during and/or after fire attack — usually an afterthought of command officers. Providing protection for one’s or a family’s personal property is, by far, the best way to enhance our reputation. Overhaul is seeking hidden fire and beginning to determine the cause of the fire. Both can actually begin in the pre-incident planning stages.


As we use pre-incident planning sessions to determine strategic and tactical decision-making, we also determine salvage needs. What resources are required, staffing considerations, locations to move materials and furniture should be noted along with the strategic decisions based on building construction, fire attack mode (offensive, defensive, marginal), staffing requirements for tactical decisions (lines for fire attack, ventilation, search).

I realize this is usually not noted on pre-incident plans, but waiting until the incident happens seems a little too late to me — especially in terms of eligible team players we have arriving on our scenes (usually too few in a lot of areas today). This little amount of forethought increases safety of on-scene personnel (fresher people are not as apt to be hurt as fatigued crews), is more efficient (fresh crews are not tired = tasks completed quicker) and more effective (fresh crews have more attention to detail).

Once noted, salvage operations based from pre-incident knowledge of contents can be protected effectively. With a systematic plan of salvage under our belts, a more successful outcome for the affected property is assured for out tax-paying customers. All the information we gathered earlier allows us to know what obstacles to salvage we can encounter, the contents we must protect in some form and fashion and develop a risk assessment plan based on what’s found within the four major walls in that occupancy — from single family residences to industrial facilities.

This information gathering (reconnaissance, if you will) also shows us what processes must be shut down as a last resort, where vital information is stored to keep businesses (even home-based) in operation where billing and accounts receivable will still happen, hazardous chemical and material safety data sheet (MSDS) locations are. We can use that same information in recommending to the owner/occupant what absorbs our suppression water — sprinkler, hand line or master streams — and make the appropriate recommendations to keep that stock/product up out of the water.

The task now turns to using our tools to protect the occupancy, stock or valuables or routing our water away from those items. The way we enter the building, occupant protection and removal, locations of those business records and supporting built-in fire protection systems are all loss control methods, believe it or not.

Controlling the fire solves a lot of primary damage problems within a structure when it’s possible to make interior fire attacks. Effective fire stream placement, nozzle and stream choices absorb heat from the fire and surrounding surfaces, which limits fire growth. Secondary damage (us doing our job) with technique rather than brute force saves several dollars in damage as well.

Utilizing our tools, and brains, to the best of our own personal ability provides observers with the sight of protected property. Objectives to be covered in salvage operations are:

  • Protection of floors and coverings
  • Protection of contents
  • Remove smoke
  • Remove heat
  • Control and remove water.

Covers, pike poles, ladders, streams and forcible entry tools used on scene can curb a lot of the primary (fire) and secondary (our attempts to contain and extinguish said fire) damage when used appropriately. Make sure we address not only the fire floor, but the floor below and the floors above the fire as well (smoke and heat).

The making of, and use of, chutes and catchalls to reroute and contain water are not only practicals for the firefighter certification, used in conjunction with covers over furniture and materials cuts into the damage water used in suppression operations creates or has the potential to create.

The removal of water from the structure should not be allowed to mix with storm/rain water, then into storm drains due to the toxins from burned materials. These instances need addressing in the pre-incident plan as well.

Overhaul concerns deal with further limiting primary damage from the fire itself. Locating and containing hidden fires within structures has the potential to be an imposing task. Void spaces in all areas of a structure hides fires that enter them, burning unchecked and creates further damage.

Use of thermal imaging cameras and digital laser temperature instruments help “see through” and get into those hot areas to contain those sneaky hidden pockets of fire that create the worst embarrassment — rekindle.

Air quality monitoring for levels of carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, acrolein, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen chloride and other fire gases that impair firefighters without SCBA must be done in an effort to limit “down the road” illnesses that have very serious consequences to our people. With limited personnel on scene — fatigue now becomes a serious safety concern. Those that are supervisors/acting as supervisors must watch their crews and not allow mental (fatigue) mistakes to become serious injuries that can cost duty time or hospital time.

During this phase of the operation, determining the cause of the fire now takes precedence. Firefighters and officers alike need to understand the how, where and why of the fire in question. Noting burn patterns, charring of wooden building materials, identifying possible evidence of arson and being aware that the more damage we create in finding hidden fire destroys possible evidence of crimes committed. Calling for the investigator to come out and assist happens during this time frame. Once the investigation into the cause begins, careful removal of debris to find evidence is a conscientious and methodical process that is time-consuming if done with purpose to determine the true cause. Keep in mind, not every fire will be able to be determined, because of destruction by the fire or the firefighters.

Now the fire has a “loss stopped” benchmark with no more damage being done by the fire or us, loss control turns into a post-incident action of two efforts: economic and psychological.

Economic loss control deals with preserving what’s left of the owner’s/occupant’s property. Sealing up holes we created from forcing entry, ventilation and other fire control efforts prevents further damage to property from the elements and the possibility of looting or squatting by the homeless. It also provides a measure of security to the owner/occupant.

The psychological loss control measure has us assisting the owner and/or occupant with the worst day they are involved with. Their lives have just turned upside-down and providing them some form of help to assist them with beginning their recovery and being proactive with their coping with this loss for them. Remembering that the victim’s lives just took a drastic change and may be so shocked they do not show emotion does not mean they are not suffering. Utilizing the local Red Cross chapter or Salvation Army to assist these folks in finding food, temporary shelter or clothing and easing the emotional pain add to our good image that people remember.

Loss control has many facets that make or break agencies. Utilizing skills learned in training and refreshing those skills occasionally makes us better able to help those needing us to be the professionals we are. Salvage and overhaul are practiced skills that need to be passed on to others and reviewed. Never forget the reason why these are done. If you were to lose your life’s mementos — as some of you have — what would you want saved and where would you look for help?

Captain Coffey currently serves as one of the training officers of the High Point Fire Department. He has been an instructor with the NC Community College system and the Office of the State Fire Marshal since 1990. He can be reached at [email protected]
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