Sometimes It’s Not So Simple

Dave LeBlanc looks at the Sunset Park fire, multiple people trapped and what our expectations are.

“”Firefighter Kevin Anderson yelled that a guy was hanging out a window on the top floor and was going to jump,” said Dunn. “I brought the bucket to the top floor and got him. He said, ‘My wife! My wife!’ so I put my mask on and went in the apartment and found a mother, an 11-year-old boy and a 7-year-old boy on the bed unconscious.”

Dunn carried each victim to the bucket and took the family to the ground.”

In the early morning hours of March 19th, FDNY firefighters faced an incredible challenge as they fought a 3 alarm arson fire in an occupied multiple dwelling. If you watch this video, 510 61st Street you can see the conditions they faced, and hear the radio traffic including two separate MAYDAYs. The “Tally Ho Truck”, Ladder 114 lived up to its reputation as Firemen Kevin Hogan and Joseph Dunn rescued 11 civilians from the building.

Last week on “Taking it to the Streets” on Firefighter Netcast, Christopher Naum interviewed Captain Stephen Marsar of the FDNY regarding his Nation Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer research paper entitled “Can They Be Saved? Utilizing Civilian Survivability Profiling to Enhance Size-up and Reduce Firefighter Fatalities in the Fire Department, City of New York “. The discussion with Captain Marsar centered around this controversial research on trying to reduce firefighter fatalities by adding additional factors to our size up to determine if victims are likely to survive the conditions they are found it. Many will argue that our job is to go in and get the victims whenever conditions will allow us to do so, and while no one is advocating entering a fully involved building, there are times when we must risk severe conditions to search for and rescue occupants.

Captain Marsar’s research indicates that many victims are long dead from CO poisoning before we can get to them and therefore we must carefully evaluate how much risk we place ourselves in. By all accounts, conditions at 510 61st Street were as bad as they get. Heavy smoke is visible from the building and heavy fire appears to have possession of the stairwell and up through the roof. Yet Fireman Hogan and Dunn were able to pull 11 victims from this building and every one of them lived. At one point in the video, you can hear Squad 1 calling a MAYDAY for a collapse of the stairwell between the 2nd and 3rd floors, yet just moments later you can reports of a “baby coming out on the fire escape” and “114 truck, I’ve got 3 10-45’s from the top floor coming down in the bucket.” 4 victims saved after the MAYDAY and while Command considered evacuating the building.

It is difficult for many to accept that by a quick glance at a building at 2:00 a.m. we are supposed to be able to determine the fate of those that may be inside a structure. Certainly every action we take must consider a risk/benefit analysis, but it is clearly in our oath that we protect lives and property. Both of those missions require that we put ourselves at risk. The level of risk we are exposed to should be on par with the potential gain. But it is difficult to say that “we will risk a lot to save a lot, and risk a little to save little.” when the definitions of a lot and little may vary from fireman to fireman, and officer to officer. And the cold hard truth is that there is risk in every aspect of this job, therefore we must do our best to minimize that risk by being prepared. In other words, Train, Learn, Live……

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.

The overall goal of Fire Suppression is simple. Put the fire out. Save lives. Unfortunately the process is not simple, because the environment in which we do that is dynamic. To accomplish those goals we must have a plan, have resources, know our jobs, and perform them in coordination with each other, all of which requires training and practice. It requires that we remain committed to our job; it requires that we remain vigilant. A lot of calls at 5:00 a.m. are false alarms, sometimes they are like what happened on February 19th.

Nice job by the FDNY and the brothers from 114 truck as they “expected fire” and saved the lives of 11 civilians.

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  • Hallway Sledge says:

    Well said Dave. Well said.

  • Chris says:

    You bring up some great points. I spoke with Capt. Marsar at FDIC and he said FDNY was finally going to start tracking the rescues of civilians at fires. I think that is a huge element of data that is missing from the analysis to date. As you point out 4 rescues made AFTER an interior collapse and MAYDAY. While there is value in the data Capt. Marsar has complied it needs to be viewed with a critical eye and by those with an intuitive understanding of the many variables found on the modern fireground. Cheers.

  • Pat Brown says:

    It’s never simple. Making life and death decisions is very hard but is something we as firefighters have to do. We do it when triaging at EMS scenes. We do it Hazmat and technical rescue scenes. We need not be robots who just run in and do what we are programmer to do. A stupid fireman is a danger on the fire ground. We need to think and assess and before taking APPROPRIATE RISK.

  • FETC says:


    Well said brother. Everyone has an opinion on how much risk we should take when we operate. The emphasis lately (by some in the fire service) has been that our safety is more important than the civilian for which we are charged to protect. If we look at any fire with a preconcieved notion, how can we remain subjective with the possibility of potential viable rescues? Good company officers, communicating whether the interior conditions are tenable and not outweigh the generic checklist in a policy or at the command car.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    @ Pat,

    I am not advocating a reckless charge into the cannons. But we are forced to make decisions in hundreths of seconds. We do not have minutes to evaluate every potential outcome. The default should be, can we enter? Not, are they alive?

    The fire referenced in this article is a good example of how crappy conditions can still yield viable victims.

  • Great Job Dave,

    I listened to most of the podcast the other night and agree with Chris that the data on “saves” is critical to knowing how valid VSP is. We always talk about risk vs. benefit. However, VSP really only deals with risk, we have no numbers to show us the benefit.

    Obviously, we always have to use our brains (and training) to make smart decisions. However, a smart decision may not always the safest decision for US. Fortunately for the public, our job is to put THEM FIRST.

    I heard BC John Salka say once, “You don’t know, what you don’t know.” Capt. Marsar’s study is truly a breakthrough. If nothing else, its shows us the reality of our job’s risk and also shows us where we need to gather more data to continue to make better fireground decisions.


  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    I am not sure I agree with “breakthrough”. Captain Marsar certainly has created discussion, and that is always a good thing. But without a direct correlation to LODD and searching for victims, I would still argue that the decision to be made is whether or not conditions will allow us to enter.

    From reading “Blink” and “Intuition at Work” I have developed an appreciation for how too much information can be as dangerous as too little. We are forced to make decisions in brief periods of time….seconds count….while there are times we need to slow that down, there is also only so much benefit from adding more and more info to that process.

    To go with Chief Salka’s “you don’t know, what you don’t know.” Every situation is a situation. It is very difficult to say, with certainty, what you will do when you get there. So we must be prepared, both mentally and physically, to do whatever is required and then take the data in and ACT.

  • Hey Dave,

    As you stated, by breakthrough I was referring to the conversation that it has started. I also agree with your point that too much info can be a problem (kind of like too much safety). Based on the info that we collect, we have a very short window of opportunity to execute that plan. If we take too long, or don’t have the resources or whatever, then that plan is out and we start over again.

    Often times, we HAVE TO rely on our gut feeling. Our gut feeling is what ultimately “pulls the trigger” on the info that we collect. Firefighters have died based on their gut feelings, but civilians have lived because of gut feelings also.

    There is no right answer to this. No flow chart, 87-point size-up or piece of paper can tell any individual at any one fire if THEIR training, experience, staffing and/or resources will support what THEIR gut is telling at that moment.

    Thanks, great post.

  • Rhett Fleitz says:


    I think we are brothers….you just write better!

    My sentiments exactly.

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