...Our occupants may have lots of really neat surprises waiting for us inside — on the field — that we think may be a standard single-family residential occupancy.
If we were to discard, ignore, or treat with disdain the important tasks that prepare us for “game time,” we might be faced with an equally painful defeat. And let’s remember, we are not playing for points. While I don’t intend to belittle the importance of college football, I do believe our job of protecting and saving lives and property, is slightly more important — but maybe only slightly.
Though preparation is the key, some would argue that you can never be truly prepared for everything we will encounter. Given that almost everyday that I come to work, I learn something new, I would have to lean towards that argument. However, on the types of incidents with higher frequency of occurrence, and in the absence of continual refining and improvement of our operations, we simply reinforce poor actions. In other words, just because we do something stupid or unsafe over and over again, doesn’t mean we are learning, or at least it means that we are not learning good things.
The well known speaker Mr. Gordon Graham talks about the inherent risks associated with high risk, low frequency activities. Given that the bulk of our time is now spent on things not related to our middle name (fire), it makes the big fires that much more dangerous. We are running myocardial infarctions, motor vehicle collisions and room and contents fires at least once a week, but how often do we operate at a big fire. When I write of the “big fire,” PLEASE keep in mind that most big fires start as a very small fire. If the detection, our notification or response to the small fire is greatly delayed, for whatever reason, we typically arrive at a time in the chain of events that makes our operational strategy self-evident, defensive or surround and drown. In this case, all we have to do is pump enough water on the fire to absorb the heat being released faster than the heat is being generated.
Although the tactics to reach this end may not be that simple, from a incident management standpoint, all we have to do is prevent any John Waynes from attempting to single handedly extinguish the fire by laddering and making entry with a portable water extinguisher through the only window on the third floor that doesn’t have fire blowing out of it.
So, what happens when we arrive at a fire at the beginning of that chain of events? Usually we are faced with a fire that is quickly brought under control. These are our cooking fires or room and contents fires and we commonly consider these routine. However, sometimes the fires don’t go out as quickly as we would like, or something else occurs that complicates matters. These fires are the ones where the attack team has trouble locating the fire, or even worse, we are faced with a downed firefighter or a civilian in need of rescue. In these cases, when we arrive on “the field,” the “other team” has already begun its first series of plays. In other words, the fire has already begun its movement of the destruction of lives and property. Although we use smoke signs and fire movement to get a look at what the “other team’s” play is as it develops, that doesn’t always give us a look at what the end result of the play is going to be — flashover, structural collapse, etc.
Imagine if we could get to “the field” before “the play” starts to get a good look at “the other team’s formation” prior to the ball being snapped. Now imagine if we could get a look at the “other team’s” playbook, prior to “the game” even starting. Well, we can.
Another one of the “routine” tasks we must complete are pre-incident surveys. These are normally completed on our commercial and assembly occupancies and should include a floor plan that can help the incident command (IC) determine where the fire is, where it might be “running,” and where any of the innocent spectators might be trapped. If we don’t have a pre-incident survey or layout of the building, say we’re dealing with a single family dwelling; we should fall back to our building construction training.
By nature, every house is built a little different, which is what we, as consumers, demand. We are each unique individuals, and therefore, we don’t want to live in a house that is exactly like our neighbors’ or friends’. However, there are some things we can look for to help us determine the layout of the building if we just stop for a minute, ignore the smoke and fire, and the sound of the ventilation fan. Take a look at figure 1, this window measures 46 inches from sill, the bottom, to soffit, the top. These are common in bedrooms. The windows in figure 2 measure only 33 inches from sill to soffit. These are common in smaller rooms, closets or bathrooms. During our 360 degree walk around, we should take a look at the roof line above our windows. We should be looking for sewer vents or fan exhausts that may indicate that our smaller windows are on the exterior walls of bathrooms. Look again at figure 2, these windows are the same size — 33 inches from sill to soffit — and are only 40 inches from each other. If you were building a house, would you have two small windows located this close together in a single bathroom? The answer is probably not, so it would be safe to assume there is a wall running inward from the visible exterior wall separating these two windows into two different rooms. Figure 3 shows us a sliding glass door, which almost always leads to a kitchen, cooking area, or small assembly area. Figure 4 illustrates a larger “picture window” which is popular in living rooms, dens and small assembly areas. These living rooms, dens, and small assembly areas are commonly the first room you encounter when you enter through the front door.
Where are we going to find the fire and occupants? The time of day can greatly affect where we find both.
House fires that get reported from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., Noon to 2 p.m., and 5 p.m. to to 7 p.m. are commonly the result of unattended cooking — or those of us that try to test the auto-ignition temperature of cooking oil using our stoves. If this is the case, we will find the fire somewhere close to those sliding glass doors or if we’re lucky, right behind where the stove hood vent exits the structure — if it is visible on an exterior wall. If we receive the alarm at 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., we may find the fire in the same place, although that’s certainly not a given. However, during these times of the night, we will likely find the occupants behind the windows in Figure 1. Bedrooms are commonly found on the ends of the house. Although these are high priority areas during our primary search, don’t forget to check behind the picture windows — figure 4, the living room/den/family room)— for any folks that may be sleeping on the couches or recliners.
Remember that the other team may not always show us exactly what we are going to have to deal with initially. Sometimes two linebackers and a cornerback will set up on the line of scrimmage only to run backwards to pass protect when the football is snapped in lieu of blitzing. This can be confusing for the quarterback who initially thinks they must get rid of the ball quickly to avoid a sack.
Similarly, our occupants may have lots of really neat surprises waiting for us inside — on the field — that we think may be a standard single-family residential occupancy.
A single family dwelling fire recently yielded the discovery of a home printing business with LOTS of 50 pound, four feet long rolls of paper and several large printing machines. To add insult to potential injury, the landing of the front steps just prior to stepping through the front door had never been completed. Since the front door was not used to access the fire, it would only have been found by firefighters attempting to egress this single family dwelling. The first step out of the front door onto the top of the landing would have sent a firefighter falling six feet to the ground and encased in the bricks that made up the step assembly. This would surely be confusing for our quarterback (IC) if it is not discovered until a mayday is transmitted and we begin looking for the firefighter who is “hiding” inside the front steps.
If the interior crews are reporting, or our pre-incident surveys indicate the existence of bizarre things, such as an unusually high fuel load — large piles of Class A materials — or strange design changes to our building — dead end corridors or stairs with no landings — it should be an indicator that we may need to punt the ball to the other team, send out the defense, go defensive tactically, and try to just keep the fire in its original building.
To press on offensively after knowing that our fire load is much bigger than we anticipated and our building is nothing like what we anticipated, is to increase the chance of a firefighter becoming trapped, and therefore injured.
In the Georgia Tech, Cumberland College football game, the Georgia Tech coach John Heisman (yes, that Heisman) finally showed leniency, agreeing to cut the second half to 15 minutes. We should quickly recognize the signs when we are being beaten unmercifully and remember that life safety always includes our lives. Moreover, we should continue to learn as much as we can about the other team and the field on which we may be playing. This means we have to continually study fire behavior and constantly review the occupancies on which we have pre-incident surveys. Given that some of our “games” will be played on really old “fields” and some will be on really new “fields,” we must also keep up with the history, present, and future of building construction.
Be safe and do good.