A Tale of Two Fires

At what point do we add so much to our “incident evaluation” that we handcuff ourselves into inaction?

On Thursday September 29, 2011 a Vallejo, California firefighter was burned in the rescue of a paraplegic.  The firefighter made entry into the man’s mobile home which was heavily involved in fire and dragged the man toward safety.  During his attempt he was forced to bail out after suffering burns and a second crew knocked down the fire and completed the rescue.

On March 30, 2010 the Homewood, Illinois Fire Department responded to a report of a fire in a chair in a house.  They were advised that a handicapped man was still in the house; in fact his wife stated he was in the chair that was on fire.  Firefighter Brian Carey was subsequently killed, when conditions changed and he was overrun by fire.

While many factors were cited as contributing to Brian Carey’s death, there was one reference that grabbed the attention of many.  Recommendation #1: Fire departments should ensure that a complete 360 degree situational size-up is conducted on dwelling fires and others where it is physically possible and ensure that a risk versus-gain analysis and a survivability profile for trapped occupants is conducted prior to committing to interior fire fighting operations.  Homewood NIOSH Report

A survivability profile?  What exactly is that?  In the months that followed Homewood much was heard about victim survivability profiling.  In fact it was the subject of an EFO Research paper by FDNY Captain Stephen Marsar, and the mention of it in the Homewood NIOSH report brought it to the forefront of discussion.  But while it was discussed, many still fail to see how it is used.  VSP is purported to be another part of our size up, where we take into consideration the likelihood of a victim surviving in the conditions that are present.  To date there has been little in the way of an explanation of a practical application of victim survivability profiling for us to use and apply. 

Looking toward the A/B corner, thick, black smoke continues to push out the B-side window that was vented. The volume of smoke venting from the front door has increased, so has fire on C-side. FF1 can be seen in front doorway. Crews are still operating inside and on the roof. (Photo courtesy of Warren Skalski.)

It is difficult to imagine a fire department arriving on scene and after the first due officer evaluates the smoke condition, that a decision is made not to go in because the victim may already be dead.  This thought seemingly violates the very basis for fire departments to exist. Many would argue that it breaks our promise and commitment to the public, violates the public’s trust.  Since its appearance there have been many cases where application of VSP would indicate that the fire department should not extend itself, that victims should not survive and the fire departments did go in and the victims did live. These posts, Sometimes it is not so simple and Courage and Valor – Understated, talk about fires in the FDNY where had VSP been applied, savable victims may have been left to die.

During this incident, the responding departments were made aware
while en route that there was a paralyzed civilian entrapped in the structure.
His wife advised 911 and arriving units that the chair he was sitting in caught
fire with him still in it. Units arrived on scene 6 minutes after the 911 call to
find heavy fire conditions to the addition on the C-side of the house where
the entrapped civilian was last seen by his wife sitting in the chair.”
– NIOSH Homewood Report

“A Vallejo firefighter was injured Thursday rescuing a paralyzed man who
suffered serious burns after the bed he was on caught fire.”  “"The paraplegic
man was frantic on the phone trying to get help," he said. "We knew there
was a man trapped in bed, and when we got on scene, they could hear the
man yelling for help, so they forced entry and tried to rescue him," Meyer
said. "The fire was really going at that point…”
– Times-Herald Online

Just look at the Homewood and Vallejo fires discussed here, both victims were handicapped and both victims where in the area of fire origin.  One incident had a tragic outcome and one did not.  Granted the two incidents are not exactly the same, but is it possible that the decision to go in and search, to aggressively attack the fire and try and rescue the victim was not the problem?  While certainly not going in reduces that chance of firefighters getting hurt or killed, is it possible that other factors – tactics, ventilation, line choice – may have a more profound impact on the successful outcome of an incident that the decision to go in a search? 

Is it possible that the fire service, in its never ending pursuit of reducing the LODD number, is focusing its efforts in the wrong direction?  For all our talk of safety and preventing line of duty deaths, are we really addressing the issues at hand?  VSP will never save a firefighter that fails to wear his seatbelt, that drives like an Indy car racer, or eats his double cheeseburger on a jelly donut. 

Training and preparedness is essential in this job for a good outcome.  But at what point do we add so much to our “incident evaluation” that we handcuff ourselves into inaction?  I have written before about how every situation is a situation.  You must be prepared to execute a plan based on your manpower, our resources and our abilities.  There will never be a “one size, fits all” solution for the fire service.  The goals and objectives are the same, but the methods will vary based on each department and its capabilities.  

Fires are fought and victims are rescued when well trained, well prepared fire departments respond and take the appropriate actions.  There will be times when despite all our best efforts a victim is lost.  There will be times we will be lucky enough to contain the fire to our city or town.  There are just some things we cannot anticipate, no matter how prepared we are.  That is why “Everyone Goes Home” is such a hollow promise.  It is a goal we cannot guarantee will happen.  We can strive for it, but it fails when the unavoidable happens and everything goes wrong. 

We as a service need to focus on fixing what is broken before we jump on the bandwagon of new slogans and sayings.  No one is advocating the reckless placement of firefighters into buildings that are too far gone to save or where no human could survive, but if there is a chance of us saving a life, then we need to do everything in our power to make that save.  We have to be prepared to act in that moment, and we must do what the public expects us to do.

We encourage and support constructive dialogue and debate. View our comment policy.

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  • Tim Aungst says:

    I have not been “sucked into” the survivability profiling. If this system would have been used in my Dept we would have allowed 2 young adults to be burned to death in a relatively recent fire (which made cover of Firehouse).
    These 2 adults retreated into a bathroom with no windows and fell unconscious We were their last hope. The size up revealed HEAVY fire conditions. The bathroom was pretty much the only thing left. But from the street looking in it would have been a “no go” using the profiling method. This method doesn’t include those interior rooms not yet involved with fire that cannot be seen from the street.
    (closets, bathrooms, etc).
    The last thing I want to be involved in is wrapping a bunch of kids in a body bag because they were hiding from the fire and our “check list” told us not to go in. We train to be safe, to make decisions and to come home after the fire. So with that said, let’s do our obligation to those who count on us…. WE are their last hope.

  • charles bailey says:

    Your posts and choice of fire ground narratives have been and continue to be deceptively dangerous. Let me explain.
    Sure there was this one time when all appeared lost and but for the sake of those brave heroic firemen- ignoring risk profiling- Mr. Smith would have died. But the real day-to-day story is much less exciting.
    Assume a hypothetical fire department with some easy to believe numbers. In 365 days this department runs 1000 reported structure fires. Of those only 500 are deemed “working fires.” Of those 500 it is hardly likely that people were reported trapped on all of them.  I think it is realistic to say that of those 500 working fires it is likely to have information in advance or on arrival of people being trapped about 50 times.
    If we can believe the numbers so far we have 50/1000 dispatched structure fires where there is a report of someone trapped inside. That is only 5% of the dispatched structure fires. But that is 5% when such a condition is reported. How often are people really trapped? Of the 50 reports of people trapped only 5 people are really trapped when the fire department arrives. That is only 5/10ths of 1% of the reported structure fires that involve people who are actually trapped. Five trapped out of 1000 reports per year and you are lucky if one lives to talk about it.
    The thing is the stories of heroic saves would not be newsworthy if they happened all the time.  If we rescued people from fires like cardiologists do cardiac by-pass surgery no on would pay attention.
    For those of you who happen to disagree with my numbers pull the stats from your departments and tell me, no show me, that I was way off. I’ll wait.
    Now, science being what it is, people still die when temperatures are above 150 degrees F, or the O2 levels fall below 14%, or when the carbon monoxide levels exceed 1500 PPM. Firefighters acknowledge the potential for these conditions because they put on thousands of dollars worth of thermal protection and breathing protection before ignoring risk profiling to race in for the save.
    Truth is, while it is possible to come to work as a firefighter and have the honor to actually save a life from a fire, it is really a rare event. Many will go their entire career and never have that honor. Others will be able to experience that chance more than once. Barney Fife may never have pulled his gun on a criminal but he was still the police others pulled theirs every show.  
    By attributing success in rare events to the deliberate disregard of common sense and rational assessments you create a dangerous forum where the narrative is taken out of context. Out of context the new guy believes that if the risk profile failed that one time, it is no good ever. Out of context one is led to believe that stretching lines into vacant dwelling is justified by the 5/10ths of 1% chance that someone is inside.
    There are these times when you have to put it all on the line to save a life. Just stop pushing the lie that you have to do it for every fire. 

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    First of all, don't blame Bill, this one was on me.
    Second of all, nowhere did I say we have to "put it all on the line" for every fire.  The point of the article was to compare two seemingly similar fires, with different outcomes, and the reactions to both.
    Homewood, IL was catigated at length for their failures, yet Vallejo was not.  Should Vallejo have been?  If we are going to be consistent in what we put forth as the standard for the fire service then, yes.
    I don't think that "survivalbility profiling", as it exists, should have been cited in Homewood.  While we know that people cannot survive with less than 14% oxygen or more than 1500ppm of CO.  We also know that those conditions do not exist in every area of the structure.  We know that people can and do survive in areas of refuge, that require us, with our PPE, to go through the heat and smoke to get to and bring them out.
    Just yesterday an article appeared about a fire department being sued for failing to properly extinguish a fire. Because they predetermined the building would burn, and they failed to use the sprinkler system in place.
    There will come a day when a Fire Department is sued for standing in the front yard, looking at a smoke condition and not entering a building.  Even though people are trapped, because the "new rules" say it is unsafe.
    I have never advocated reckless behavior because of what might be, but when we stood up and took our oath……we swore to protect life and property.  It is kinda of late now to back off on our promise.  The Fire Service needs to focus on doing our job better, so that when the time comes to "put it all on the line", the other basic missions…hoseline advancement, laddering, ventilation….don't end up being the cause of our injuries or death.

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