Any interior firefighter who spends enough time in an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere will eventually encounter some type of bad situation. Unfortunately, interior firefighters can become overwhelmed under these conditions and be unable to escape the hazard. Part of the reason for these problems may be our ever-increasing budget cuts and the resulting lack of personnel on arrival, which leave officers no choice but to ask the responding firefighters to multitask. There are too many “bad situations” to list. The focus here is on lost and disoriented firefighters and severe thermal insult conditions.
"Interior benchmarking" for greater firefighter situational awareness can assist us when we are caught in a bad situation. Over my fire service career, I have expounded on this subject dramatically. I have found that if firefighters can adopt this behavioral modification and acknowledge the interior benchmark, they can be safer interior firefighters or fire officers.
Interior Benchmarks are situational “conditions” we encounter at every fire. Locating the fire, knocking down the fire, completing the primary or secondary search on a floor, pushing down those basement stairs for fire attack, or advancing to the floor above for fire attack or searching for extension are all interior benchmarks.
With interior benchmarking, the interior crew acknowledges the benchmark and completes a quick firefighter safety and survival assessment. The next time you enter an IDLH atmosphere, stop yourself and your crew. Ask for quiet, gain control of the adrenaline rush, and assess the atmospheric conditions. This concept is as valuable for recruits as well as seasoned veterans. To use the interior benchmarking concept, you must obtain baseline information you can use to compare with your next interior benchmark.
Ask yourself these potentially lifesaving questions: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel? What is the floor made of? Complete a quick company PAR: Is my crew intact? What is our SCBA air pressure? Let’s break down these questions in detail.
What Do I See? Can I see the fire? Do we have rollover? What are the smoke conditions like? What does my thermal camera read? Can I see thermal layering or flow path? What is this room's vent profile? Is Black Fire already rolling over my company? What is the conditions, contents and floor made of? Should you become lost or disoriented or experience a floor collapse, you should use your last interior benchmark for comparison. Did the floor change on me? Where am I now? Am I in the kitchen, living room, bathroom, or the cellar? All these rooms typically have common flooring or more common floor plans and window configurations.
What Do I Hear?
Do I hear the fire crackling to my right or left? Many times we are too eager to enter and stick to a left- or right-hand search pattern, following our basic firefighting habits. What if you stopped for a second and really listened? Listen as if you were a blind civilian searching for the day-to-day directional cues.
If you still can’t determine the direction, cover one ear with a gloved hand. Does the sound get closer or farther away? Your uncovered ear will lead you to the fire or victim(s) quicker and faster.
Also, under what do I hear pay close attention to the audible response from sounding the floor with a tool. The use of the thermal imager has produced some extremely bad habits with firefighters being able to see again and forgetting to sound the floor.
This is a big one. What is the heat like on initial entry? Think back to your last building fire, and ask yourself how much time was spent getting in. Most of us will say, “As little as possible." This is a great attitude to have; but let’s face it, sometimes rapid entry without taking mental notes, creates bigger problems for us in the future. The American Fire Service prides itself on quick aggressive interior fire attack. Our forefathers created this tradition for us and we should carry it on but we must change our behavioral traits. Lets face the facts that we have fewer building fires, less live-fire experience (firefighters and officers included) we are now wrapped up in greater head-to-toe firefighter protective clothing, our battle with the red devil entails a much greater thermal insult from hotter fires and we all too often operate in an under ventilated structure due to tighter, energy-efficient homes. So I ask you: Can we really afford this “rush-in” mentality?
The interior benchmarking question What do I feel? Provides a baseline for future heat-index comparisons. Without the baseline input, you have nothing to compare until the seat of your pants computes, "Darn, it’s really hot in here!"
• Completing the company PAR. The fire officer must maintain control and be held accountable for his crew’s actions. The crew must also have discipline and confidence to communicate there own individual hazardous situations. Not feeling well, lack of crew integrity, early notification of firefighter disorientation or entanglement and/or a low-air warning alarm should not be ignored by anyone.
The last part of the interior benchmark concept is consistent monitoring of your air consumption. How much air was used to get to your current location? Do you have enough air to make it back to the entry door? Calculating the distance traveled on the air already consumed drives the decision of whether you continue to advance; back out; or give a clear, concise and early Mayday report. Given the right set of hazardous circumstances, sometimes our SCBA’s low-air warning alarm provides a false sense of security and will not provide enough time for safe evacuation of the building.
Never once did I mention “What do I smell?” Today’s firefighter cannot operate as our forefathers did. We are outfitted with self contained breathing apparatus for a reason… wear it! We cannot allow ourselves to get in too deep and not have enough air to safely exit the IDLH environment. Nobody can tolerate a few breaths of super-heated gas and the ever-present hydrogen cyanide of the modern but routine building fire.
If you implement the Interior benchmarking concept at your next fire ground operation, you will have ascertained an incredible amount of potentially lifesaving information. If you should encounter a bad situation, the more information you have, the more likely you will feel in control of conditions that are probably out of control. Constantly compare your last download to what you are now witnessing, and make educated decisions. As you advance to locate victim(s) or the seat of the fire, continuously ask yourself these same interior benchmarking questions. If you do this on a regular basis, you will not only increase your situational awareness but you also will find victims quicker, extinguish the fire faster, and greatly increase your personal safety.
Want more? Please join the Fire Engineering author and radio host Billy Greenwood at FDIC2017 for his "one of a kind" Leadership workshop titled "Extreme Leadership - Next Generation of Leading, Coaching and Mentoring" on Tuesday April 25th, 2017 at 0800hrs.
Your time is valuable my friends, don't just listen to someone telling you how to be a leader. Extreme Leadership will show you (individually) what is needed to become the BEST fire service leader possible!