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Protecting Lives on Backstep Firefighter

Protecting people’s lives will involve risk for us as firefighters


“A female occupant, in her 40’s, was unable to escape due to the intense heat and thick smoke and was quickly located by firefighters. She was removed out of the bedroom window and treated by paramedics on the scene.”

"Bowie House Fire with Rescue, Price Lane" PGFD PIO

“Survivability profiling was born out of a concern for firefighter deaths while searching for victims. Yet the statistics don’t bear out the concern. For the year 2007 cited by Marsar, 47 firefighters died at structure fires where only 2 victims were killed. [3] What is the correlation between firefighter deaths and civilian deaths? How many victims were saved? At what point in the operation did the firefighter deaths occur? Certainly we all must do everything within our power to limit the risks that firefighters are exposed to, but a wholesale change in mission?”

"Courage and Valor Understated" LeBlanc

“We must constantly evaluate the environment we are in and try to determine if the conditions will allow us to continue with our task." Just because there is heavy black smoke coming from the front door doesn’t mean the person trapped in the back bedroom with the door closed, or the family trapped on the top floor, does not stand a chance to be saved. But if while searching for victims conditions become untenable for us, then there is little chance of a victim will survive.”

"Sometimes It's Not So Simple" LeBlanc

The first many heard of Victim Survivability Profiling was the NIOSH Line Of Duty Death Report from Homewood, Illinois. Firefighter Brian Carey was killed in a house fire that also claimed the life of a handicapped occupant.  In NIOSH Report 2010-10 the first Key Recommendation is:

Ensure that a complete 360 degree situational

size-up is conducted on dwelling fires and

others where it is physically possible and

ensure that a risk-versus-gain analysis and a

survivability profile for trapped occupants is

conducted prior to committing to interior fire

fighting operations

NIOSH: One Career Fire Fighter/Paramedic Dies and a Part-time Fire ...

No one will argue the need of a good size up, both upon arrival and continually throughout the incident.  Most will also agree that a 360 view of the structure is essential, although there will be differing thoughts about who should do it and when it happens.

But the concept of not entering a building, or not searching for victims, because they may already be dead is one that will not sit well with most.  As the last quote says, your Size up determines what you can and can’t do.  If your manpower and resources will not let you enter and operate on the fire you face.  Then you need stand by and do what you can until that equation changes.   If the fire conditions or the structural conditions of the building bring into question the ability for personnel to operate inside, then you are going to have to find Plan B.

Leo Stapleton, former Commissioner and Chief of the Boston Fire Department, described a condition affecting some members of the fire service as “Triple Disease”.  According to the Commish, someone with Triple Disease loves everything about the job “except the heat, the smoke and the fire.”  At times it seems as though there is a subculture of firefighters suffering from this malady pushing an agenda that make the job more tolerable for them.  They constantly seek to make the job “safer”, so they can still wear their gear and “do the job” without really going into harm’s way.  They are unwilling to do the hard work of training and drilling so they are comfortable in the environment they should be operating in, instead they work to change the mission.

Usually about this time I make a qualifying statement about “not advocating that firefighters run headlong in fully involved building…”  I am not doing that this time.  Because I trust you folks know that isn’t what this is about.

This is about us doing our job, a job which involves risk, but also involves a constant commitment from you to be ready, be trained and expect the unexpected.  This is about you accepting the risk that comes with protecting your fellow citizens.  Because remember, you choose to do this job.  You were forced into it.  So don’t try and change it to make it more comfortable.  You become more comfortable by doing the work and preparing yourself for the mission.

But back to Victim Survivability Profiling, this concept was developed by Captain Steven Marsar of the FDNY as part of a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer project.  “Captain Marsar describes his profiling ‘as the art of examining a situation and making an intelligent and informed decision based on known events, or circumstances, to determine if civilians can survive existing fire and smoke conditions and to determine whether to commit firefighters to life-saving and interior operations. Based on the likelihood of civilian survivability, this concept goes beyond the tendency to justify risk whenever we respond to an occupied structure fire.’ “

Captain Marsar wrote his paper as it applied to the FDNY.  His concern was trying to reduce firefighters deaths, certainly a noble cause.  Unfortunately prior to fully fleshing out this “concept” it suddenly became a mainstream idea, an approved process, with little or no information as to how it should be done available.   The concept was seized up by those that use the “Everyone Goes Home” concept as a cape to hide behind, instead of how it was intended.  As more information came available, things were less clear.  Questions about how survivability profiling turning us into “Lawn Jockey Gods” could not be answered.  Many said it was the same thing as Size up and “we had always done it”.  Others were not so sure.

If we spent half of the time we use on Facebook training for our next fire, we probably wouldn’t need to have the discussions.  This job is dangerous.  Protecting people’s lives will involve risk for us as firefighters.  There is no way to avoid risk, not if we plan on doing our job effectively.  Buildings need to be searched.  You need to have a plan to do that.  Will you search of the line?  Will your truck search ahead of the line?  Do you VES?  Use Ropes? 

Buildings are never vacant until we determine they are, and as soon as we enter them we become another life hazard.  The job should never be about taking unnecessary risks, but I am sure the woman in Prince George’s County is happy that the brothers that responded to her house didn’t decide she was dead by looking at the smoke.

Photo courtesy of Mark Filippelli/

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Comment by Chris Piepenburg on February 12, 2013 at 5:48pm


I have read this numerous times and couldn't agree with you more.  I have printed it off and threw it on the kitchen table at every firehouse I have been in this past week.  Another kick a** piece of work!

Comment by Lt. Billy Greenwood on February 12, 2013 at 2:51pm

Dave, nice job brother. As we have discussed agmongst ourselves before, I am a big fan of size up as well but the incident commander who ultimately makes the decision to go offensive, marginal or defensive, simply cannot not make educated decision from the buggy or the street.  Therefore to make truly educational decisions it has to be done with the input from the  working brothers who are on the inside, in the trenches, determining the ACTUAL viability or "tenable / non-tenable" conditions as they advance throughout the dwelling or structure.  I think the disconnect in the old way command makes decisions is the lack of interior benchmarking today, with brothers acknowledging the current conditions and comparing them to future changes (+) or (-) throughout the attack, and THEN communicating the information via a good interior situational report to paint a more complete picture for the incident commander.  That in my opinion is the best profile model in the world, the key is getting the line officers to do my 3 C's to company officer success, communicate, coordinate and calculate. It is a dangerous job, and no doubt has it become more dangerous with the fuels for which most of the world's furnishings are now made of, the key is further educating the forward company to better understand their working environment (today's environment) and then provide a good SIT report to the field commander. Billy (FETC)

Comment by Michael Bricault (ret) on February 9, 2013 at 1:50pm

-I am continually impressed with firefighters in this nation when learning stories of successful rescue operations that I come across during my travels as an instructor or through my numerous conversations with Brothers around the country. Searches and subsequent rescue operations that many would have given up on because of fire conditions on arrival. 

-Those stories that impress me most are not the circus act rescues but the rescues resulting from extreme determination, relentlessness, tenacity; integrity and being true to the calling... stories like Dave mentioned. Never giving up. Thinking firefighters not reacting ones.

-As to the so called "safety advocates" that we all know are cowards trying to "improve the job"; remember, you might be able to fool the spectators but you can't fool the players. These folks are just what Dave has claimed and Leo Stapleton labeled years ago; people that like to wear the tee shirts but not the scares. Triple disease fire dept. members. (I just can't bring myself to call them firefighters)

-Survivability profiling, a good idea taken to far, is a subjective prognostication that is akin to witchcraft; its reading a crystal ball. A "skill" insisted upon by the so called "safety advocates" who are afraid to do the job.

-Firefighting IS dangerous. We should be working too improve safety but, this will always be a dangerous calling. If that is to much for you to handle... quit. It doesn't make you a bad person, just a bad firefighter. In fact it makes you a better person for having the courage to be honest with yourself. 

-Dave, this is an EXCELLENT post. I like your thinking and approach to the art and calling that we have named  FIREFIGHTING. I also like the "buildings are never vacant" idea; I think I heard that somewhere before. And, its true. Vacant buildings don't set themselves on fire; someone got in and started the fire... by accident or design is irrelevant. And, that person(s) may still be inside and in need of rescue. Buildings are devoid of human life only after firefighters have entered and made that determination with a search. 


Comment by Nick Morgan on February 8, 2013 at 5:11pm

Excellent post Dave!

Comment by DALE G. PEKEL on February 8, 2013 at 4:17pm

Well stated Dave! - A while back I read about a successful grab on a residential job. Fire was venting out a window in a bedroom where a child was reported trapped. The brothers made entry and found the child in an area of protection/refuge between the bed and wall just under the window in question. He was shielded by the bed and wall while the heat and fire vented out over head and out the window. 

Rare event, but it reinforces the argument not to immediately write anyone off. Just because conditions appear untennable in one area doesn't mean there not in another - Closet, bathroom, etc. There is rarely black and white in our profession, mostly a lot of gray. Size-up is crucial, but risk is also based on a FF's training, knowledge and experience. For example: A 6 foot flame front venting out a couple of windows from a post flashover room and contents fire is viewed as routine for the veteran FF, but may seem intimidating to a brand new recruit. Some basics will always hold true; Risk a lot to Save alot and put the fire out and most of your problems will go away.

Thanks for the post brother!

Dale G. Pekel

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