Victim Survivability Profiling.A Clarification

Dave LeBlanc looks at size-up and how having to guess if someone is dead or alive can throw a wrench in the initial decisions.

Certainly one of the biggest issues being discussed by the fire service these days is our mission; the risks involved, how much risk is too much risk, and what can we do to protect our members and reduce their chance of injury and death. For those that are not aware, Victim Survivability Profiling is the subject of an EFO research paper[1] by Captain Marsar of the FDNY.

While lauded by the National Fire Academy for his paper[2], and even receiving an award for it, the rest of the fire service is not necessarily embracing VSP. It isn’t that those in disagreement are fool hardy, or overly aggressive, it is just that VSP is not an easily defined tactic. Captain Marsar has written several articles explaining what VSP is, but to date there are no real explanations of how it is applied.

The crux of VSP is that arriving firefighters should be able to determine if potential victims inside a burning structure will be viable, based on the amount of smoke or fire showing. It is difficult to imagine that an officer arriving first due at 2:00 a.m. will be able to look at the structure in question and say, “any victim inside is not viable, therefore we will not search.” Now before we go too much farther no one is talking about or advocating entry and search into fully involved buildings. That is not the point of the discussion nor the argument against VSP. No one is advocating unnecessary risk.

Survivability profiling will not compensate for a lack of experience and we cannot overcome the fact that today’s firefighters are going to less fires by adding an additional step in sizeup that forces us to choose between someone living and dying. At issue should be whether we can or can’t safely enter the building. That decision, the “go or no go” should be based on the following: 1) Resources Available 2) Conditions 3) Structure. Do we have the resources available to commit to interior operations and attack the fire? Will the fire and smoke conditions we see allow us to enter and conduct a fire attack and a search? Is the structure safe enough for interior operations?

The speed in which the fireground changes requires rapid decision making. Prime factors in this process should include staffing, resources and conditions. Adding assumptions can lead to distraction. (Mark Filipelli photo)

Many places do not and will not have the luxury of enough manpower to initiate fire attack and a search at the same time. Without confirmation (eyewitness declaration) of a victim these departments will initiate fire attack and then conduct their search incidental to the fire attack. Their decisions become much more difficult when faced with a confirmed victim. For example, a three-man engine company arrives at a two-story wood frame with moderate smoke from the first and second floors. The next due company is three minutes out and a victim is observed at a second floor window. Choices have to be made and fire attack may have to wait until after a rescue is made. Not an ideal situation. What happens when there is more than just the one victim? Would attacking the fire have been the better choice? Could the company save that victim and then attack the fire? There is not a cut and dry right or wrong answer. Many will say you have to save the visible victim. Others will argue that if you put out the fire, everything gets better.

So back to the “go or no go” decision, is adding VSP into the mix the correct decision? When is a smoke condition too much for a victim to survive? Is that a condition that can be quantitatively determined from the street? The fireground is not a place that allows for analytical decision making. Much of our decisions are based on intuition, and intuition is derived from experience and training. If we continue to add steps and processing to our size up, we will eventually create a condition where timely and effective decisions do not happen.

Officers and firefighters bring debatable experience to each fire. What can’t be debated is that experience is what the mind uses when making decisions.
(C. Shockley photo)

So how do we make better decisions? How do we build our intuition so that we are more effective on the fireground? To begin with our training in the basic needs to be current and sufficient enough so that we can perform these tasks without thinking. If we have to stop and mentally review the steps in raising a ground ladder, we take away from our ability to look at the structure and determine the best location for placement. If we have to think about donning our SCBA, we are not free to thing about other more important things. In the Colerain Township report[3,4], it was noted that the first arriving officer had to finish dressing on arrival. This required that the apparatus operator talk to the homeowner and determine where the fire was. How much impact did that have on the outcome? Put yourself in that position. You arrive to a confirmed fire and need to finish gearing up. How much pressure are you under? What is your pulse rate, because you know you should have been dressed? How effective are your decisions now?

Dr. Gary Klein has worked with the military, fire service, medical professionals and businesses to develop and train folks on using their intuition. In his book “Intuition at Work”[5] Klein discusses intuitive thinking versus analytical thinking and the pros and cons of both. He also leads you through the process of developing and “training” your intuition so that you can more effectively make the decisions needed at 2:00 in the morning or 2:00 in the afternoon. Klein recognizes that intuition is learned “on the job” and that on the job may not lend itself to learning in our environment. But Klein also offers way for us to train our intuition, both by ourselves and in groups.

“Every situation is a situation” and the fire you are responding to is one that you are seeing for the first time. We owe it to ourselves, our crew and those we serve to be as prepared as we can be to make the best decisions we can. Train, Learn, Live……….

1. “Can They Be Saved? Utilizing Civilian Survivability Profiling to Enhance Size-Up and Reduce Firefighter Fatalities in the Fire Department, City of New York” Stephen Marsar Fire Department, City of New York, New York
2. “USFA Announces the 2010 Annual Outstanding Research Award Winners“, USFA
3. “Line of Duty Death Fact Finding Committee, Preliminary Report“, Colerain Township Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, July 2008
4. “A Career Captain and a Part-time Fire Fighter Die in a Residential Floor Collapse—Ohio, NIOSH, July 2009
5. “Intuition At Work‘, Klein, Doubleday Business 2002

Additional Reading
The Science Behind Simulation“, Boyd, Hall, FireRescue Magazine, December 2010
What’s Your Intuition?, Breen Fast Company 2000
To Stretch, or Not to Stretch”, Carey 2008
Firefighting in Suburbia: Q&A with Capt. Jim Silvernail“, Devone-Pacheco, FireRescue Magazine, March 2011
Broken Rules“, LeBlanc, December 2010
Size-Up: How Do We Use It?“, Marsar, Fire Engineering December 2007
Survivability Profiling: Are the Victims Savable?“, Marsar, Fire Engineering December 2009
Survivability Profiling: How Long Can Victims Survive in a Fire?“, Marsar, Fire Engineering July 2010
Reliable Firefighters: Wisdom from other high-risk professions“, Schmidt, FireRescue Magazine June 2010

Klein Associates Division

Photographs courtesy of Mark Filipelli (Working House Fire, Fruitland, MD), and Cliff Shockley ( House Fire, South Division St. Salisbury, MD) with permission.

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  • POSTED FROM From Fire Engineering Training Community

    Comment by Mark Gregory

    Comment My lord, what has happened to “our” fire service.. The days of aggressive / educated firefighting is now being replaced by academic scholars playing God thru their risk vs reward profiling. The risk, we may be injured or killed. We accepted that risk when we raised our right hand and took the oath. Do you think SEAL Team 6 had the odds stacked against them yet, thru proper training and aggressive behavior, completed their task. Ff Peter Demontreaux of FDNY Ladder 132 recently performed one of the most daring rescues in recent times. Watch the video of his heroic act. Some may suicidal. I say unbelievable. The “scholar firefighters” would have written that victim off as unsaveable..
    What is the problem in today’s fire service. SCHOLAR Firefighters I say. Today’s new generation ( and I do not mean new hires) can master an Apple Mac yet can not force a door. They successfully command a fire in a simulator yet look like a deer in the headlights of a car while standing in the street at 3am. How would our survivor profilers feel when they pull up to their own home to find fire raging and the chief saying that due to his educated guess, he deemed the potential victims inside?
    Education is a very important tool. It can not replace our basic values though. How does the armed services perform successfully? They use tactics ( normally learned from battles dating back to the Romans) along with good old fashioned determination to insure our freedom. I am not on a death wish. I love my family and friends and would not jeopardize my role in their lives. I have no interest in laying in the burn center. But, as long as I use my brain, the skills that I have acquired over the years and work with people of the same calibre, I hope to continue to serve my community at home and at work to the best of my ability.
    Hopefully, the survivor profilers will continue to keep “SimsCity” safe and stay out of the neighborhoods where I work and play.

  • POSTED FROM From Fire Engineering Training Community

    Comment by Michael Bricault

    -Im familiar with the concept of victim survivability profiling and after reading up on the subject I must agree with the peanut gallery in saying, “Im less than impressed”.
    -This is a dangerous road to travel down and it becomes easier and easier to write off trapped fire victims the further one gets from the fire ground.
    -There are facts and there are realities, just like there are lies, damn lies and statistics. It is a fact that some people shouldn’t survive the experience of being trapped in a fire building. The reality however is much different. There are always those that beat the odds and that is what this is about. We’re talking about human life after all.
    -Applying the VSP logic to cancer patients and how many cancer survivors would have received life saving treatment.
    -In my opinion, and it is just that; my opinion, VSP is a cowards justification for not performing the heroic actions demanded of all firefighters. Don’t want to take the risks; fine… find another line of work; this one requires courage and a gamble that we may just be able to save one more precious human life.

  • I enjoyed reading this Dave, and Mark Gregory rules. Heres to hoping the real firemen keep doing the work they were born to do… Stay Safe!

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