Saturday, August 13, 2011

Maximizing effectiveness on the roof

When you go to the roof, what tools do you bring? The usual answer is the saw, a set of irons, a hook or pike pole, and life-saving rope. Is that all? The tool that might serve us best when conducting roof operations is often left on the rig: the thermal imaging camera (TIC). It should be a mandatory part of the roof tool inventory. First of all, how do you know where to cut your hole? Nineteenth-century thinking such as “bubbling tar”, “a dry spot on a wet day”, or “a place where the snow or ice is melted”, is ineffective and guesswork. Twentieth-century thinking such as “communication with the crews on the top floor” is also a hit or miss and subject to interpretative confusion. The thermal imaging camera will show a heat signature on any type roof (or on a floor above a cellar fire) where you can at least sink an examination hole and evaluate the situation. It is much better then guessing or using outdated methods.

The TIC can also be used to check around soil pipes for heat, check a cornice for potential fire spread, check an exposure roof and scan a roof soffit for heat build-up. Another valuable use is when the smoke condition on the roof is such that visibility is reduced and you are trying to find your way off the roof. In this case, the team using the TIC may be able to scan the roof and “see” where the aerial is or where a fire escape is located to more easily find their egress. It can also be used by an officer to keep track of his or her crews. One word of caution: just like a hole in the floor or a missing step, the presence of a shaft will be difficult to determine with the TIC unless there is heat coming from it. It may just look black on the screen. Be careful – always use common sense safety precautions when working on the roof such as was mentioned in the last installment about probing and keeping the weight off the leading foot. Remember – the tool you do not take with you is often the tool you need most.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Make sure that where you are stepping is there

Always probe with your weight on the back foot.

Gravity never takes a day (or a minute) off. When making those forays across a floor above a fire area, across the roof, or in any area where structural integrity is suspect, personnel should use a tool to probe ahead of them. Don’t, however, let this lead tool give you a false sense of security. When probing with a tool, consciously make an effort to keep your weight off the tool so that you will not fall if something gives way or you encounter a hole in the floor, or in the case of a roof, an unprotected shaft is present.

During hands-on training search operations at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis, we noticed that most firefighters do a good job of probing for floors, but they keep too much weight on the probing hand, foot, or tool. We had areas with floors missing and when the probing tool or body part found that area, the individual usually could not stop from falling forward into the missing floor as his forward momentum carried his body and the tool into the hole. We had to extricate more than a few surprised firefighters from these areas (they had a hood over their head for the evolution). Hopefully it was a lesson learned the hard way, but in a training session and not in the harder environment that is the fireground. Never trust what is in front of you without testing the area. Keep the weight off the leading foot or tool, and you will not experience a gravity-induced rapid downward movement.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Maintaining Perishable Skills

Perishable skills are those skills that depreciate in effectiveness over time if they are not practiced. The fire service is a veritable minefield of perishable skills, some of which, conducted in an inefficient and/or incorrect manner, can have devastating consequences. There are very few “like learning to ride a bike” skills in this business where neglecting them for a period of time still allow them to be performed with a large degree of success when we need them.

The skills in question are not only individual skills, but more often team-based skills, where the outcome depends on the competency of a team of firefighters working in concert with each other to achieve an outcome. Departments that do not reinforce both individual and team-based perishable skills are headed for tactical breakdown. Individual skills such as tying knots, operating aerial equipment, starting and operating a power saw and conducting operations with extrication tools are some of the areas where the disintegration of skill can have severe repercussions in safety and operational completion.

Team-based skills are also perishable, not only due to the corrosion of skill by the individual members, but the loss of coordination of the team as well. Think about a pro football team. All plays are created for success and all players are “the cream of the crop” in the field, but when the timing and efficiency of the team as a cohesive unit is off, the play goes nowhere and the team is unsuccessful. Do you think a fire department is any different and when our plays don’t work due to rustiness, there is more at stake, isn’t there?.

Have you ever watched a fire company raise a ground ladder? Their ability to properly and effectively perform this evolution as a team is quite apparent to anyone watching. This can run the scale from a well-orchestrated, smoothly-run operation to a Three Stooges routine. Hose line stretching, forcible entry, and technical rescue operations are other perishable skill areas that require continuous training and reinforcement of skill. How does your department and its individuals measure up? Are they razor-sharp or rusty? It is up to you as a member of the team and the department to hone your skills and to ensure that your firefighting team is operating at maximum efficiency.

Be safe out there

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Unintended Consequences

As firefighters, we must always consider the unintended consequences of our actions or in many cases, our inactions. Unfortunately, we often do not think that far ahead and live in the now instead of the proactive future. That is why that puddle of water or, worse yet, oil that you saw but stepped around on the apparatus floor caused one of your fellow firefighters to split his or her head open when they slipped on it. No one intends for that to happen, but it often does. That is unacceptable in a business where risk analysis is such a critical; part of the job. This attitude often has larger consequences when they are transferred to the emergency situation.

Consider this situation which took place not so long ago and was related to me. On a Saturday, an engine company we will call Engine 1 responded on a spill that required them to utilize all of their speedy-dry. There was none in storage at their firehouse as it was stored in a central location in the department. It was late so the Company Officer decided to wait to pass the need for more speedy-dry to the next shift on the following morning. He passed the information on, but since it was a Sunday, the Company Officer on that day did not take the ride to one of the other firehouses to secure more speedy-dry for the company. The day passed without incident, but at about 0600 the next morning, they were dispatched to a single engine squad run to the scene of an MVA where a spill of vehicle fluids required speedy-dry. Since they didn’t get it the day before, they had to request an additional engine company, Engine 2, to bring some down from their supply. Engine 2 responded from outside that the Engine 1 district. While this “special-called” Engine 2 was operating at the MVA, a report of a structure fire was transmitted in their first-due area. As Engine 2 was at the scene of the MVA, basically doing the duties that Engine 1 had been called to do and it was rush hour, there was a delay in the arrival of another engine into Engine 2’s first-due area.

The officers did not take into consideration the unintended consequences of failing to secure more speedy-dry in a timely manner, a relatively non-essential item in their view, but the consequences of that failure could have been severe. They did not do their job. The job of a Company Officer (and of all firefighters regardless of rank) is to always do your job and always take into consideration the unintended consequences of your actions, your inactions, and those of others.

Competence vs. recklessmess

Experienced firefighters are worth their weight in gold. They are the “go-to” guys when a difficult task must be completed and can be a valuable tool in assisting in training younger, less experienced members. The trap that we cannot let these human assets fall into is allowing them to let their experience lead to recklessness. Too often, we have seen veterans fall victim to casualties during routine “firefighter I” type operations because they have done it too many times before and it is now routine. There is no routine in this business. We must never let ourselves fall into this trap because at that point what was an asset now becomes a liability with potentially severe consequences for all of us. We need to recognize when our comfort levels are causing us to drift into failure.

Last fall, we had access to an acquired structure in which to conduct training operations. In addition to search and RIC evolutions, we chose to do vertical ventilation on the slightly sloped roof using the cutter’s edge fire service chain saw. One of the things I noticed was that the firefighters who did not have a lot of experience with the saw were deliberately over-cautious in their actions, moving gingerly on the roof and working the saw. On then other hand, we had some who were very experienced and were very comfortable handing the saw, but that competence caused them to be a bit too cavalier in their actions, failing to brake the saw (stop the blade) between cuts and while moving from one area to the next, cutting with one hand, etc. While they were very good at what they were doing, a slip-up caused by their obvious comfort with a very dangerous piece of equipment could have brought severe consequences.

The moral of this story: Don’t let your competence turn you from an asset to a liability. Always operate with respect for your tools and for the conditions, never allowing complacency to affect your performance.

Do you know your rig???

One of the most basic requirements of a firefighter is to know his equipment. Even more basic is to know where it is on the apparatus. There is nothing worse than having to rummage through the compartments for a tool that your officer has ordered and expected you to return with. The consequences of this can run the gamut from embarrassment (and having to have someone show where a tool is that you should have be able to locate in the first place) to lost time in completing an assignment or tactical objective. All roads here lead to tactical breakdown, which leads to a compromise in safety.

You, as an integral part of the company (team) must carry your weight. In fact, your Company Officer will expect you to do your part. To that end, what is your responsibility? As a firefighter in a volunteer department, you should be opening the compartment doors and checking the equipment location every time you are in the firehouse. Before you head to the lounge or take part in an evening drill, get in a little early, open the compartments, take the equipment out, and examine it. In a career department, as soon as you get to the firehouse to begin your shift, you should go through the apparatus, and make sure your gear is in place, ready for response. The cup of coffee can and should wait.

If you are an officer, the aforementioned are expectations that you must set with your subordinates. You cannot expect them to meet these expectations unless you explain them, support them, and enforce them all the time. The fireground is not the place to find out that your personnel are not living up to your expectations. To that end, and in context with this discussion, you must demand and expect that your people know where everything on the apparatus is, what it is used for, how it works, what to do if it doesn’t appear to be working, and, equally important, know its limitations.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Safest, most effective path of least resistance, part 5


Overhaul can be divided into pre-control overhaul and post-control overhaul. Knowledge of building construction to take advantage of the paths of least resistance is critical to both operations. Knowing where to open the building ahead of a spreading fire is the first and most important portion of pre-control overhaul. For instance, knowing where a basement fire in a balloon frame dwelling is likely to spread will cause lines to be positioned in the attic early in the firefight, a strategy not usually pursued in buildings of other type construction. Likewise, in ordinary construction, the building may be a maze of honeycomb-like voids, inviting many different ways for fire to spread in many directions at once. Sometimes, fires will not spread as easily vertically and have to move relatively great distances horizontally before finding a vertical channel. One fire that started in a ceiling light fixture spread through the space above the ceiling, passing over room partitions to the other side of the apartment, where it found a vertical void adjacent to the chimney. It then spread to the upper floors and the cockloft. While it is usually best to check around suspected and known vertical openings (paths of least resistance), don’t be lulled into neglecting horizontal paths of least resistance. Checking above drop and tin ceilings, checking inside soffits, cornices, and facades, pulling ceilings in exposures, and exposing barrier penetrations are all ways to check for horizontal fire spread based on building characteristics.

Post-control overhaul tactics should take advantage of the same building openings as pre-control overhaul. In addition, man-made openings such as light fixtures, plumbing and wiring areas, ductwork, and outlets are all paths of least resistance and must be checked. In addition, the area directly over the fire may allow fire to spread into upper floors even where no man-made openings exist. Conduction, convection, and radiation will be the culprits here. The objective of post-control overhaul is to make sure the fire is out. Keeping in mind the most effective paths of least resistance regarding fire travel will assist in ensuring this objective is met.


Damage can be categorized into two areas. Primary damage is the damage done by the fire. Secondary damage is that damage done by firefighting operations. This includes structural and contents damage conducted as part of fire control as well as water damage suffered as a direct result of suppression agent application. Forecasting the most effective paths of least resistance for fire travel and then moving combustibles from those areas before they can become involved not only reduces the available fire load, but also saves property. Take for example a building that is exposed to a fire occurring in an adjacent building via a shaft between the two. The exposed building is of ordinary construction. It is a warm day so many windows may be open. The most effective path of least resistance for exposure ignition from both radiated and convected heat will be via the open windows. Closing the windows and removing combustibles as well as venting windows opposite the fire to dissipate heat are passive ways to lessen the heat’s impact on the building. Coating the building with water and stretching lines via the interior to the window areas of the exposed rooms is a more dynamic method. Why do we do this? The reason is because the window represents the most effective path of least resistance for fire travel into the building. Therefore, in this case, it must be the first area protected in the exposure.

As stated earlier, water will always seek the paths of least resistance, but in a downward and opposite manner when compared with heat. When planning a property conservation strategy, the officer in charge of the Salvage Group must think like water. He or she must consider all the paths of least resistance in order to divert the water or place equipment aimed at limiting or eliminating water damage prior to the water arriving there. In other words, identifying the most effective paths of least resistance for water runoff before the water actually gets there is a proactive method of reducing secondary damage.


All collapses are gravity-dependent. Once the pull of gravity is stronger than the integrity of the building’s connections, collapse will occur. Buildings will always fall in the path of least resistance. For instance, a building that is connected on one side, but not the other will likely fall into the area where no resistance is given. Lean-over collapses are a perfect example of this principle. The building is likely to lean and collapse into the path of least resistance, which is the adjacent lot or street. Although no one can predict exactly how and when a building will fail, determining the likely paths of least resistance can help establish both collapse zones and safety perimeters.

Collapse rescue is another area where an awareness of the paths of least resistance may pay dividends when developing a rescue plan. Chief Officers developing strategies to rescue collapse victims must, however, take into very serious consideration that the most effective paths of least resistance are oftentimes not the safest paths. Secondary collapse, fire involvement, and utility hazards are just a few of the problems that can complicate a rescue operation and make the most effective path of least resistance unacceptable as a rescue route. Remember that when life is involved, the rule of thumb MUST be to utilize the safest, most effective path of least resistance to accomplish the objective. If the seemingly most effective path of least resistance is unsafe, it no longer satisfies the rule of thumb.

The Incident Commander or Rescue Group Supervisor must weigh the risk of rescuing via unsafe, albeit most effective paths of least resistance versus the time it might take to access victims via safer, but more time-consuming access route. This is a difficult decision to make. Rescuers who become victims are no longer rescuers, but now part of the problem. This same mentality must also apply to confined space, high angle, trench rescue, and other technical rescue incidents. Command must never, under any circumstances, let the risks outweigh the potential gains.


It is interesting (and not surprising) to note that in direct contrast to proper tactics and their relation to the paths of least resistance, improper tactics will also take advantage of paths of least resistance and may lead to unintended consequences. For example, misunderstanding of building construction and the associated dangers of compromised structural components has led to death and injury when failing building components unexpectedly fall. Misplaced hoselines due to improper tactics, lack of training, or lack of information in regard to the location of the fire can push fire into uninvolved areas. Improper and misplaced ventilation operations will also pull fire into uninvolved areas, possibly jeopardizing rescue and attack operations. In addition, improper and uncoordinated positive pressure ventilation will push fire into paths of least resistance, often burning the building down. There are many examples of misuse of the most effective paths of least resistance that have resulted in outcomes quite different than those intended. They must be learned from.