It’s an age old question that is still debated by firefighters to this day, and often quite vigorously. When responding to an occupied residential structure fire, do you immediately go for the rescue to remove the victims or do you attack the fire? Many firefighters would say that you should do both at the same time, and if you have the available resources showing up quick enough to do so, that is probably the most correct answer. However, many times our reality is that we are showing up with a single engine company that must operate for several minutes alone. In those cases, the question of rescue vs. fire attack ceases to be a vigorous firehouse debate and becomes a life or death decision that must be made in seconds by a first arriving company officer.
Rescue is always our number one priority. It always has been and it always will be, it’s really why we do what we do. However, there are two very appropriate ways of addressing rescue: remove the victim from the fire or remove the fire from the victim. Which of those is correct, as with almost every other decision we make on the fireground, is dependent upon the situation, our available resources and the information we have at the time.
Often at single family dwelling fires, where there usually (not always but quite often) is one or two victims that require rescue, it may very well be most appropriate for the first arriving personnel who discover a victim while advancing a line to the interior to stop and quickly remove the victim from the hazardous interior of the house. These victims can often be removed quickly, over a short distance through windows or doors that are close by. If a first arriving crew is able to successfully rescue a victim at a house fire and the structure burns to the ground because fire attack was halted or delayed, we would absolutely consider that a win, as we should. But, what about situations where there may be multiple victims in immediate danger as well as others, perhaps dozens, that will be in immediate danger soon? What about fires in duplexes, fourplexes, hotels, motels, apartment buildings, college dorms, boarding houses, townhomes, assisted living facilities, etc. Are you going immediately into evacuation/search/rescue mode or are you devoting your initial resource(s) to getting water on the fire as quickly and decisively as possible? Bring that question up at the firehouse kitchen table next time and see where it goes!
To get a better understanding of our own situation, let’s step back and take a look at what others do in similar situations. Showing up with very limited initial staffing at a fast moving fire with many victims in immediate danger pretty much defines what aircraft rescue firefighting (ARFF) personnel are trained to deal with. When ARFF firefighters arrive with six to eight personnel at the crash scene of a 737 aircraft with 132 souls on board and heavy fire showing, they don’t stretch 1-3/4” handlines to the interior and begin to drag individual victims out of the fuselage of the plane. The best chance they have of saving the most lives is to show up and immediately hit the fire with everything they have as quickly as possible, creating rescue corridors to allow ambulatory victims, with the assistance of the flight crew to get themselves out, while buying valuable time for, and removing the immediate hazard from, those unable to rescue themselves. Putting the fire out, or at least drastically reducing the amount of fire, as quickly as possible makes everything better for everyone all the way around.
Sitting in a non-stressful environment, reading this article, it may seem like a simple common sense decision to “just go put the fire out”, but it must be a decision you think about before the incident happens and that you are prepared to make. It is a difficult decision that you are going to have to make at 2:00am, when you are advancing a line down a long hot hallway towards a fast moving fire in an apartment and you begin to encounter victims down in your path. Do you stop and begin to drag bodies out or do you step over them and continue to move the line down the hallway to get water on the fire? It’s an emotional decision that you will have to make, quickly in an extremely stressful situation. It’s a decision you have to discuss with your crew before it happens, so they are prepared when you make it.
Take a look at how our brothers and sisters in law enforcement have changed their tactics when faced with that same decision while responding to active shooter incidents. Since the 1999 active shooter incident at Columbine High School, law enforcement has been rethinking their approach to responding to these incidents. Instead of arriving, barricading the area, evacuating people from inside and treating it as a hostage incident, officers are now being trained to enter and engage the shooter as quickly as possible. In doing so, they will undoubtedly encounter injured and dying victims. At that point, every officer will have to make a conscious decision to either stop, provide aid and attempt to remove each victim encountered, or to move past them to find and engage the continuing threat. In a recent report titled “The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents” the Police Executive Research Forum states that, “Active shooter polices are built around the reality that even a one-minute delay in responding may result in multiple additional fatalities. Officers should focus on stopping the shooter as their priority, rather than assisting victims whom they may encounter as they search for the shooter. The priorities are: (1) stop the shooter; (2) assist the wounded; and (3) evacuate people from the scene” (Police Executive Research Forum, 2014). It’s a tough decision, but law enforcement knows that their best chance at saving the most lives involves finding and eliminating the growing threat as quickly as possible. The longer they wait the more time allowed for the shooter to continue to target more victims including officers attempting to aid injured civilians. Even with a limited number of initial arriving officers, engaging and neutralizing the threat as quickly as possible makes everything better for everyone. It stops the forward progress of the shooter, protects other threatened civilians from further harm, reduces the continued risk to responding officers and allows help to reach victims already injured.
Even in single family house fires, the best way for the first arriving engine company to protect victims may be to quickly advance a line to confine and extinguish the fire in order to protect the survivable spaces within the house where victims may still be alive.
Apartment building fires that start on an exterior balcony due to discarded smoking materials is not an uncommon occurrence. Firefighters are often greeted with a fast moving fire extending up the exterior of the building and impinging upon the soffits, threatening to enter or already in the attic. These fires are often called in by a passersby because occupants of the building are unaware of the presence of the external fire. In some cases the building’s fire detection and alarm system has not activated. Often the first inclination of firefighters is to enter and begin evacuation and search operations for occupants, while advancing a line to the interior apartment in an attempt to confront the fire extending up the outside of the building. In these cases, the seat of the fire is on the outside of the building. As with an ARFF response, the best way to protect the most lives may be to hit the extending exterior fire fast and hard utilizing the first arriving engine company’s deck gun or a 2 ½” line deployed to the exterior of the building if apparatus cannot readily access the area of the external fire. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZTFCeW3wf0
Interior lines can then be advanced to the interior to assess for extension of fire inside the building, especially in the attic. If the alarm system has not activated, firefighters can initiate it utilizing a manual pull station, allowing occupants to begin evacuating. Quickly hitting and overwhelming the fire also applies to those house fires that start on the back deck from a grill or other exterior ignition source and is extending up the outside of the rear of the house when the fire department arrives. Some would say that this initial exterior tactic is a defensive operation and we should not be defensive if there are occupants in the building. We need to re-examine our definition of offensive and defensive strategy, defining them not based on the location of your attack (exterior/interior) but rather on your strategy. Aggressively attacking the seat of the fire from any location in order to knock down the main body, buys you time and enables you to protect occupants and to quickly follow up the exterior attack with a more effective and safer interior attack. That’s about as offensively aggressive as you can get.
When considering fire attack to help achieve rescue, the following two points are also important:
- Getting water on the fire quickly to support rescue means that you also must be flowing enough gallons per minute to make a difference. Advancing a 1 ¾” to confront a 2 ½” fire because it’s quicker defeats the purpose if you are not able to put the fire out. Speed comes from skill, and skill comes from training and repetition. Be as good with the big line as you are with the 1 ¾”.
- “Softening the target” supports rescue. The recent UL/NIST studies have shown that when done properly, getting water on the fire quickly, even from the exterior, improves conditions throughout the structure and makes the interior more survivable for victims as well as supporting a more effective interior attack following the external application of water.
It is very difficult to write down in an SOP/Policy/Guideline, every decision firefighters and officers should make in any given situation, and there are few things for which we can definitely say ALWAYS do this or NEVER do that. Decisions have to be made by trained and experienced individuals who are on scene, based on the situation they find, the resources they have and the information they have available to them at the time the decision is made. We must arm our personnel with the knowledge of not only what to do and how to do it, but also a good understanding of where, when and more importantly why, so that they can make difficult fireground decisions better.
I’m not saying that we should abandon rescue or that civilian life safety should be a lower priority so that we can go in and fight fire. Just the opposite, I’m saying that we should consider the best way to effect rescue and ensure the protection of life, based on the situation. If you arrive initially with enough resources to attack, confine and extinguish the fire while simultaneously searching for and rescuing victims, great. If not, assess the situation, the resources you have, and the information available to you, and be prepared to make the decision to either remove the victims from the fire or remove the fire from the victims.
Police Executive Research Forum. (2014, March). The police response to active shooter incidents. Retrieved September 12, 2014, from www.policeforum.org: http://www.policeforum.org/active-shooter-report