It seems in the fire service we cite numbers and statistics almost as much as the sport of baseball does. Often these numbers and statistics have relevance, sometimes they are skewed, and on occasion they may not be accurate. Making sense of all of this information can be confusing.
I am going to choose one statistic that should be sobering and is also pretty accurate. How many civilian fire deaths do you believe occur, on average, each year? Would you believe a little over 3,000? This puts us at a rate of 12.4 per million population, which is the third highest of industrialized nations. .
If you have responded to a fatality fire in your career, or multiple fires with fatalities, think about any common factors. Time of day, victim location, and even origin of fire all lead to relatively consistent patterns. Fatalities most often occur between midnight and 7 a.m. and the victim is in a bedroom or egress path. This is not to take away from other locations or other times of day, remember up to a third of the nation’s workface works night shift. If you have not responded to a fatality fire, talk to those who have or do some research on the internet, and see this information first hand. There is a great youtube video by Brian Olson titled “Why We Go In.”
What can be done to reduce these numbers? Educate and train. Educate and train the public and better educate and train ourselves. In my state, the Georgia Public Safety Educator’s Association and the Georgia State Fire Marshall’s office both do outstanding jobs with prevention and education. Beyond this, every firefighter owns a little bit of responsibility in this aspect too. If you are on a medical run, visiting a friend or family member look for things that could cause problems or offer to check smoke detectors. If you are a member of a church or civic group, offer to talk with them about fire safety and prevention.
From a response stand point, whether career or volunteer, we can be prepared. We can stage our gear in a consistent manner, so we can don it efficiently and without any missing pieces. We can train to deploy hand lines faster, smoother, and more efficiently. (If you take time to set the table before you eat, the meal goes much smoother). You can practice effective searches. Often times our search training leaves something to desire, because it is conducted in burn buildings or towers with little or no furniture. Don’t be afraid to practice searches in your station without gear and wearing clean gloves. (A little prep work to remove lamps and tv’s is certainly worth it). Use the tic, learn to communicate as a crew. Understand that most bedrooms are best searched by one person, with the other staying at the door with a light or the TIC and guiding the search. The TIC will never replace the physical act of search, so don’t fall into that trap. The physical search must be done with the body, blindly sweeping with an axe or haligan is not as efficient as feeling the object you encounter. If you want to extend your reach with a tool, place it on the wall and search off of the tool.
Put water on the fire. I am not going to get into the debate about when to do this. Plainly stated, don’t pass an opportunity to apply water. We have always been taught to not pass fire, so it holds true still. If there is fire venting out the front door or window, giving it a dash of water before you mask up may not hurt. (Work on your time to mask up, I challenge everyone to be able to mask up in under 25 seconds). Our potential victims are inside and that is where we need to go to give them every chance that we can at survival. If the need arises to apply a stream from the exterior while this is happening, make sure it is directed at the ceiling. On the walk around use the TIC and read smoke to help determine the seat of the fire to aid in making the interior attack to the right area. Once inside the door, lay flat for a second and you may even be able to see where the fire is located. Pay attention to the flow of your smoke and use your TIC to go against convection to quickly get to the seat of the fire.
With prevention, education, training, and proficiency we can have an impact on the statistics of fire deaths in Georgia. We owe it to ourselves and to the citizens we protect. Master your craft!