Why We Search: PhiladelphiaOne “Rat” Unable to “Scatter Away”

Small fire in a vacant warehouse reveals a 70-year old squatter.

Monday afternoon the Philadelphia Fire Department responded to a fire in a vacant, two-story warehouse. Following a quick knockdown taking all of 45 minutes, the body of a 70-year old man was found.
“Man is found dead inside burned warehouse”, Philadelphia Inquirer
“Elderly man found dead after Philly warehouse fire”, WFMJ

Note: Be sure to read of this job in New Orleans, STATter911

If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousands times over, you’re sizeup is your own sizeup. True, there are common strategies and tactics that can be employed or at least considered no matter your location, however profiling and use of the caste system is not one of them.
See “Chicago LODD and Old School Thoughts on Firefighting in “Vacant” Structures” at SAFE Firefighter.

On Monday, of all days, following the fire in Chicago that killed two firefighters, a well known site published an article condemning the practice of searching for vagrants. “This is not a Monday morning quarterback exercise – ” the article goes on to explain, giving very slim support, that in light of the Chicago tragedy and the Worcester Cold Storage fire, we should embrace a “global” decision to not search these buildings for people not inside.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to meet Nostradamus.

The fireground sizeup is a fluid mental evaluation process that involves complexities within the brain, recalling past experiences and emotions as well as education and immediate surrounding influences, even smell. No two fires are the same and this applies to buildings and sizeup as well. If your department has a flexible SOP, SOG or General Order regarding sizeup that has successfully worked then you should be using that system. If there are experiences that cause you to feel the need to deviate from your proven system, then your department should reevaluate what is being done. We can always take bits and pieces from other departments and add them to our own practices to see what also works well.

However, one thing we should never do is allow a devaluing of the people possibly inside to influence our sizeup.

Stating as fact that homeless people are akin to rats, scattering when the building is on fire to satisfy “their own primal need of survival.” is unkind, unprofessional and unimaginable coming from a member of a public service whose duties do not include casting social value on the citizenry it serves.

“Here is a fact –homeless scatter like rats – ” Odd. I suppose those that can afford suitable housing nonchalantly stroll out the front door when the kitchen is lit off.

“Honey, the stove fire is beginning to extend to the cabinets. Let’s say we gather up Tommy and Buffy and go outside, sit on the porch, and await our heroic civil servants.”

“Oh Thorn, it looks like it may rain! Let me gather our L.L.Bean jackets.”

“Good idea. I’ll get Skipper too, we don’t want to leave man’s best friend behind!”

Like rats? I’ve seen people laying in the front yard, with broken ankles, legs, because at the last minute they jumped to avoid burning to death. Jumped.

Like rats.

You may not feel compassionate towards our homeless people, and that is okay. I am. I learn a lot from them, how they ended up where they are and what they are doing and receiving to get back on course. Unfortunately the minute you openly place a value on them of a lesser, unfavorable animal, you have elevated yourself and others, minimized their value and have opened your department to well deserving criticism. In the author’s state the homeless population was expected to have risen to over 100,000 last year.

You have performed victim survivability profiling.

You have played God.

I don’t know about your department, but there is no “God” assignment in the PGFD.

In Philadelphia they could have pulled up and stayed out. Certainly following the fire in Chicago many people in the profession might not have found any fault. Besides, the elderly man inside may have already been dead, a victim of carbon monoxide (popular now in the VSP methodology), or perhaps alcohol poisoning, or maybe he starved or froze to death.

You and I didn’t place him there, but if the conditions allow and we can safely make the grab, pull him out, whose to say our actions are wasted on a degraded person?

“Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not Him.”
Father Cavanaugh, “Rudy”

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  • John Murphy says:


    I read your post and let me be clear that my post entitled “Another abandoned building takes more firefighter lives” does not reflect the viewpoint of the staff or others at that “well known site published an article condemning the practice of searching for vagrants.” This is my blog and my opinion on the topic and like most blogs it is not edited, reviewed or approved by the staff of that web site. This is my opinion and mine alone.

    Admittedly, there was a poor choice of words on my part in describing the homeless and for that I apologize. I believe that the comment made in your post of “safely making the grab” is well stated. Safety of our firefighters is the key point here.


    • Bill Carey says:

      Thank you Chief Murphy,
      I understand and look forward to talking to you in the future on this subject, if you are willing.

      Bill Carey

  • John Murphy says:

    Certainly – look forward to the opportunity

  • An excellent broadside. We need to reclaim the fire service from those who would have us believe that it is never okay to risk a lot.

  • oldhead says:

    EXCELLENT article. Not searching vacants because anyone in there might be vagrant is no different than refusing to treat the heroin addict simply because they’re a heroin addict or refusing to help someone with aids simply because they have aids. Tenable vacant buildings on fire MUST be searched because we don’t know who’s in there, and as Father Cavanaugh so eloquently stated, “There is a God and I’m not him.”

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