Grab A 24, We’ve Got A Victim

If you’re the first due engine, and you drop everything for the rescue, then who is doing your job? Dave LeBlanc looks at the obvious rescue and initial search priorities.

Engine 1, Engine 2, Ladder 1, Rescue 1….respond to a reported structure fire…138 Main Street, the cross streets are Elm and Pleasant. The time is 23:40 hours.”

This response happens hundreds of times a day. Often it ends up being a “nothing call”, or one that can be handled by one or two companies.
What happens when it isn’t?

Engine 1 arrives on scene and finds a two-story wood frame house with heavy smoke from the rear on the first and second floors. Now here come the wrinkle, there is also a person at the window on the second floor right side.

Many will argue there is no wrinkle here that our priorities are clear, and life safety is a priority. They will argue the first due will throw a ladder and “rescue” the victim. A life saved, our goal is complete. The answer may not be that simple. The answer may also depend on your manpower, and additional resources.

Suppose Engine 1 was 1st due, and the 2nd company was 10 minutes out. Are your actions different? What if there was fire showing from the front? Lastly, what is your manpower? Your actions change based on the answers to each of these questions.

Why do your actions change? Why is the answer not so cut and dry? Well the victim at the window may not be the most exposed victim. They are at the window, they have fresh air, they should be able to “wait a minute” until more help arrives. What about the victims we can’t see? How do we save them?

So the first due company throws a ladder and starts to rescue the victim. The victim was brought down a ladder, a life was saved. But what is happening elsewhere while they are performing the rescue. More victims could be found inside the structure, in areas not visible from the street.

There is an old adage that the best way to save the most victims is to put the fire out. It is important that we remain focused on our objectives. For Departments with more staffing and set duties and positions, this may be easier to maintain. But at the end of the day whether in Brooklyn or Mayberry RFD, the goals need to be the same. They need to be understood by everyone prior to the incident happening. They need to be followed except in the rare time when conditions dictate they not be followed.

Which victims are in the most danger? Those on the fire floor, closest to the fire are the number 1 priority. How do we get them? Often they are found by the ladder as they are searching for the fire or the engine company as they are making their initial attack. Which victims are next on the priority list? Those victims located on the fire floor. Hopefully we will find these while locating the fire, or by crews designated to search for victims while the fire attack is in progress. Next is the floor above. Heat and smoke rise, placing these victims in more danger than those located in other places that are not already being searched.

So if you follow the priorities of search as listed above, the victim in the window is not necessarily a priority, at least not an immediate priority. Of course this changes if they are hanging out of the window and ready to fall, or slumped over the window sill and unconscious. But what we need to understand is that if we only have limited resources available on scene, we may save one only to lose many more.

Searching is made up of two parts, Primary and Secondary. The Primary Search is a RAPID Search for live victims. It takes place before the fire is under control and is often done in the most difficult of circumstances. Secondary Searches are performed after the fire has been brought under control. They are more thorough and systematic and are often performed by companies that were not involved in the Primary Search. The theory being a fresh set of eyes is a good thing.

What about those departments without a dedicated truck company, or without a truck at all? Who is responsible for their search? Regardless of your staffing, vehicles or assignments the priorities remain the same. How will you effectively control the incident and save the most lives? As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it may not be by throwing a ladder and grabbing that victim at the window.

A great saying from an old Chief was “every situation is a situation.” While at first this seems funny and like it says nothing, what it means is that there are times when what seems to be the obvious solution won’t be. While bystanders may not understand why two firemen grabbed a hoseline and went in, when the neighbor was screaming from the second floor window, it just may be the right thing to do because the neighbors family is struggling to survive far from that window.

Photographs courtesy of Cliff Shockley/

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  • Nate Q. says:

    Another good an thought-provoking post, that brings up several good points. My first thought without reading the rest of the post was just as you predicted “get the person at the window”and was backed up by the rationalization that we deal with the definite victim, not the potential one(s). This came from spending the majority of my career in a double house downtown. Which brings me to my current predicament…

    Having been moved to an outlying station earlier in the year, I find myself smack in the middle of your alternate scenario, running a single engine co. with 3 and quickest 2nd due unit is 10-12 min. out. Thinking this way, I leaned back towards doing the most overall good until backup arrives, getting a line on the fire.

    I think my actual approach would probably fall somewhere in the middle. With a crew of three I feel we could feasibly multitask, with the FF and DE stretching the first line and forcing entry while the Capt. throws a ladder on the walk-around (telling the vic to self-rescue) before joining the FF on the line. Another option would be to have teh DE throw a ladder after teh line is charged and set (something the DE’s at the quint stations used to be assigned).

    This is definitely something we could encounter in our first-in, and we’ll definitely be discussing this at the table (even got a training drill now, too). Thanks for continually keeping us thinking.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:


    Your situation is similar to mine, except my 2nd due is only about 4 or 5 minutes out.

    When I was first presented this scenario, I was studying for LT. The friend that mentioned it worked in an Urban Department with an Officer and 5 assigned.

    His plan was to have his company make the stretch and then to attempt to get the victim via the interior stairs.

    So much of what we do is situational dependant, my plan would probably be similar to your last one, with the Driver throwing a ladder after getting us water.

    Thanks for the comments.

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