You are IC of a working structure fire, all occupants are out and manpower is limited however you have enough to continue your interior attack. Then one of the occupants advises you that they still have pets in the building. What is your priority, firefighting to save the structure or rescue to save the pets?
-Firstly, there is no such thing as an empty or "all clear" occupancy until firefighters have gained access and performed a primary search... period; there is no other explanation or answer. Take the caller or occupants word for it and you'll get bit in the ass.
-Years ago one of our engines arrived at a residential fire to be met on the sidewalk by an elderly woman who was the caller reporting her living room ablaze. She stated the house was "empty" and she knew this because she lived alone. The firefighters took her word for it and ignored the primary search and began suppression efforts.
-What no one on scene knew, and what wasn't discovered until overhaul, was the body of a dead neighbor in the back bedroom. This neighbor, who was a good human being, saw a fire in this elderly woman's home and he kicked in the back door looking for the woman whom he believed to be in danger, who was in reality escaping through the front door. He succumbed to the smoke and died in the fire.
-Did he die because no one performed a search? That is unknown but the incident represents the ubiquitous sloppy firefighting and the pervasive belief in today's fire service that, "If you're not throwing water you're not doing anything important". I'm not suggesting ignoring the fire; I'm screaming, "Don't forget the primary search!!"
-There is a general truth in the statement, "Generally speaking, if you put out the fire, generally things will get better". Sure. But this does nothing for the heat, smoke and toxic gases that already exist AND are present in the occupancy AND are continuing to effect and attack those that are exposed them regardless if the fire is out or not.
-In today's fire service the Primary Search is primarily overlooked. All to often the Primary Search doesn't get performed until it's too late for any hope of a rescue.
-As for the risking of human lives to save pets... there is no calculation that demonstrates that as an acceptable risk to firefighters, to do so is unconscionable. Moreover, how could an Incident Commander call for a "pet search" when the Primary Search was never performed?!?
-Hard as it is for some pet owners to hear, the reality is that pets are possessions and fall under the category of property; see #2 below. In the scenario stated the answer is that fire suppression is the priority.
1. Risk EVERYTHING to save a human life.
2. Risk a little for property.
3. Risk NOTHING for that which is already gone.
With this scenario, I would have to assume that primary search has been conducted and you are simply in a fire attack scenario at this point. But given this I would dedicate my men to an aggressive interior attack as long as the structure allows it and make them aware of the fact that there are still animals within the structure so that if they happen to come across one they can handle it accordingly. Once the fire is knocked and the overhaul stage has been entered then I would dedicate a couple guys to locating the animals within the structure. In this kind of scenario it is simply safer and easier to remove the hazard from the victims (The Animals) than dedicate men to the search for animals in my opinion. If the animals are not able to be preserved alive then dedicate nothing to the search.
The incident that sparked this discussion was one I listened to on a scanner, so the only point of reference I have is what was said over the radio, I was not there. The incident started as an air-conditioner on fire outside the house, with some extension into the crawl space of the house. The all volunteer fire department had a member arrive on scene before the first truck to advise it was a working structure and all occupants were out but that smoke was building inside the structure. After several minutes on-scene and fighting fire someone advised the IC that the owner stated he had some birds inside that meant a lot to him and he would really like to have them if they were not dead already. The IC replied he would do what he could later but he his crews were too busy now.
I understand and I am an advocate of risking nothing to save what is already lost. But as a dog owner of most of my life, I understand that I would rather my animals survive and the house burn to the ground. I know that we are all taught that Life Safety is our number one priority and I thought this raised an interesting of what lives we consider important. I am not saying that the life of a pet is worth risking a firefighter's life but if conditions allow for an interior attack then they would also allow for at least a primary search to remove the pets, especially those in cages, or crates. I have searched for cats in houses before and they are almost impossible to find and just as difficult to catch, most dogs seem to leave as soon someone opens the door for them. But we all know that birds have the least chance of survival due to their smaller lungs and since their cages are normally kept higher where the smoke is located.
What an interesting scenario. Pets are extremely valuable to their owners. We released a dog from a house fire not long ago and it was clear to us that the owner of the dog would much rather have lost the house than the dog. But I don't think we can take that into consideration during operations. I would like to know of any valuable property inside a building on fire (pets would be in that category for me) so that I could do my best to protect and save it. However, as always there would need to be an assessment of risk before committing staff to save the property and I would not risk members' lives for a caged bird, or any other animal. Would I put down the hose line to go and save a pet? That depends so much on the circumstances and I would judge each case on its merits.
Here's another angle, for interest's sake. Our service is funded through insurance levies. As we all know, insurance is based largely on the $$$ value of property, and less concerned with emotional attachment. Presuming a primary search corroborates that there is no-one inside can we then sacrifice saving property of value in order to save other property with little $ value but of extreme emotional and sentimental value to the owner? For example, do we shut the door on a developing fire and allow it grow for a few moments, causing more damage, while we pop into the next room to save the family photo album because that's what the owner is screaming for? Maybe not a sensible question, but I'm just throwing it out there!
Well said. Hearing it on the radio made me ask myself what I would do in their place, and hoped it spark some thought and maybe help others mentally prepare for a similar situation. One thing to add also though is all of our trucks, equipment and some cases salaries are provided by the tax payer which is our "customer" that we all aim to please to the greatest extent reasonable. (Notice I said reasonable not possible, to account for our risk assessment). There is also the public's perception to consider. I am not saying that we do things just to look good to the public but we do. Often times the building is fully involved and is a total loss with no exposures (other than our trucks) but we still spray all the water we can so that it appears we are doing our best to "save" something. As a member of an all volunteer station located on the end of a dead end road, I have always understood the necessity for good publicity and the effect it has on recruitment/retention.
thanks for comments
Very good points made so far. As a Captain, I stick to the priorities; Life Safety, Incident Stabilization, Property Conservation. As a small rural department with only 25-30 active members, and only 9 active interior forefighters I know and understand the feeling of having little to no manpower on scene. There have been 3 times already since getting Captain that I have called on scene, Incident Command, only to be finding out minutes later I have no interior firefighters other than myself and one other on scene and end up handing command over to the pump operator (ex-chief) and making entry into the fire for initial attack while mutual aid is responding. This scenario is simply answered; If my primary search was made and we found no humans (or pets) than I am assuming that the pets are one of two things; already gone, or hiding well enough and safe for now. I have seen it a few times where a cat or dog comes trotting out of a house that was 50-75% involved a few minutes earlier, and the only thing wrong with them is a minor case of smoke inhalation and a major case of sooty fur.
I wouldnt ever, as incident commander, order any of my crews to enter and search for a pet until the scene was secure enough and we had sufficient manpower. As a firefighter though, if I am inside either attacking the fire or venting or whatever, and I hear the call on the radio there are trapped pets inside, I would keep my eye out and every free minute I had I would look into an adjacent room or closet for them.
Its a tough call but in the end the safety of the firefighters, and the civilians come first.
Coincidentally, this just happened to me about a month ago. we opted to continue the attack and then go for the pets which we managed to do with success.