So What Are We Supposed to Do?

You'll die if you go in. They will if you don't. Decisions, decisions.

After reading the NIOSH Investigation report for the Line of Duty Death of Firefighter John Davies that occurred in Worcester, Massachusetts in December of 2011, a certain amount of confusion remains.

Based on the finding by the committee performing the Investigation, the Worcester should have used VSP (Victim Survivability Profiling) to limit the exposure to risk of firefighters in searching for a victim, a victim that was reported to be in the building by an occupant, a building that historically doesn't collapse under fire conditions.

Given the scenario as outlines in the report, it is difficult to imagine a Fire Department not committed crews to search for the missing occupant. There were no obvious signs of imminent collapse, triple deckers are historically a building that can sustain a prolonged firefight, and while crews had been removed from the building, and their removal was based more on the advanced fire conditions on the third floor and attic than those on the second floor where the victim was reported to be.

This isn’t a case of a department willy-nilly committing it’s resources to search a vacant building. First of all, rarely do any departments commit firefighters willy-nilly. Departments make decisions and act based on the information they have, they conditions they find and the resources assembled to handle the incident. Unless the VSP kit comes with a crystal ball and a set of x-ray glasses, it still seems hard to fathom how it is reasonable to except a company officer or incident commander to make a snap decision that no one can survive inside that building, based on a 45 second size up done from the outside.

Yet potentially that is what we are being asked to do. We are being told that smoke kills. From the report “The effects of carbon monoxide poisoning on a victim is well known to the fire service. Due to the increased use of plastics and synthetic materials, carbon monoxide is produced in very high concentrations and very quickly in structure fires. As a result, victims die sooner than in the past. What's not as well known, but is evolving as a killer for both the victim and firefighters, is cyanide poisoning. Where carbon monoxide kills by blocking oxygen absorption in the blood, cyanide kills the body's organs. Literature reflects that a low concentration of 135 PPM of cyanide and carbon monoxide will kill a person in 30 minutes. At 3,400 PPM, it can kill in less than one minute. It's not uncommon for a fire in today's buildings to routinely produce 3,400 PPM of cyanide. Where a victim may be resuscitated from the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, the victim may not survive the organ damage caused by cyanide poisoning.”

Fast forward to Pittsburgh, PA. Firefighters arrived on scene to find an advanced fire condition in an apartment building with an occupant stating their child was inside. Firefighters entered without the protection of a hoseline, forced the door to an apartment where the occupants had to exit through a window and rescued a six year old girl from the hallway outside her bedroom.

So who was right and who was wrong? In reality neither. It is easy to look backwards at an event and say that things should have been done differently and there would have been another outcome. The reality is that life does not give us that opportunity. We must make the decisions we make at the moment they occur. While we don’t want to act hastily, hesitation can be just as deadly.

The Pittsburgh Firefighters could have easily said, “according to the principals of VSP, the victim is not savable, therefore we will wait until we have the fire controlled before conducting our search.” Would they have been wrong? According to some, no.

It is very easy to say what should have, or should not have been done, while sitting at the kitchen table or computer after the incident is over. In reality, on the front lawn at 2am, things will appear quite different. This is not a job where we can wait until we get there to decide what we may have to do. Every day, every shift, we have to prepare mentally for what we might be called upon to do physically. If you wait until 2am to think about your choices, then you probably should have stayed in bed.

What drives your potential decisions? Your experiences, the experiences of others as they are passed on at shift change or over coffee, your training and your education are all pieces of the puzzle that you must put together to determine what response is the most appropriate. At any given fire, based on your department’s policies, you should have an idea as you leave the station what you will be doing when you arrive at the scene. Now obviously what you find when you get there may significantly change that plan, but that is what plan B, C and D are for.


Every situation is a situation…

It seems as though, with some of the NIOSH reports, that the recommendations or lessons learned do not specifically apply to the incident being examined. So when we are finished reading the report, we are left wondering which recommendations actually are specific to the event versus which are more general recommendations that could apply to any Department at any fire on any Main St.

While this may appear to be just another swipe at VSP, that is not the intention. It is doubtful that any incident could withstand the after action review, without numerous recommendations of how things could have been done better. We must constantly use whatever resources are available to better prepare us for our next fire. Advances in research and science will continue to offer us more information about the enemy we face, but they must be balanced with real life experiences and conditions.

It is important that we constantly evaluate the information that is being presented, to determine if it is applicable and accurate. It is also important that whatever information you get, you apply to your department based on your resources and capabilities.

"Now did you read the news today
They say the dangers gone away
But I can see the fires still alight
They're burning into the night."

Genesis, ‘Land of Confusion”


Dave LeBlanc is a Captain with the Harwich, Massachusetts Fire Department. Dave entered the Fire Service in 1986 as a Call Firefighter with the Dennis Fire Department. He worked full time during the summers in Dennis, while attending the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. In addition to his regular duties, Dave also manages the Department’s Radio system, is responsible for conducting Fire Investigations, and assists in maintaining the computers systems.


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  • Dave, another solid piece. I've written about this topic myself and cannot fathom why we, as people who have sworn to do everything within our power to save a life, would look for excuses not to. If the fire conditions or building condition prohibit it then so be it. There are limitations. But to stand outside, as you say, and give it a quick size-up and arbitrairily decide one way or the other if you are going to go astounds me.
    As a cross-trained paramedic I look at this issue a slightly different way. We have the ability to "call" resuscitative efforts only in cases of obvious death; rigor mortis, decaptiation, decomposition, etc. etc. But all are physical findings, none are blood chemistry or other subjective findings. We all know what victims that will not make it look like. But let's get them out of the building first and give them every shot first. I don't know about you but I can't tell what anyone's blood carbon monoxide or cyanide levels are just by looking and we don't have the ability to measure for them on the ambulance. So let's first rescue them and then work them and give them every chance they deserve.
    That's just my two cents.

  • Ron Ayotte says:

    Another bullseye, on target article, Dave. It seems to me that NIOSH has taken the "cookie cutter" approach to just about every LODD they investigate. I know a few Worcester Jakes who were involved with the rescue of Brian Carroll and recovery of Jon Davies. They would beg to differ with NIOSH's assumptions.

  • Joe says:

    We have fire departments in areas that aren't getting many fires, they don't train to fight fire because we're tasked with doing more with less and given busy work by politicos/bureaucrats in firemen's clothes, its hard to be skilled at our craft. In areas where there are still fires, we have the same politicos/bureaucrats mascarading as chiefs who cut staffing and probably look for excuses to justify their cuts. "well mr. mayor I know fire fatalities are up, but as i can show you with VSP they were dead when we got there"
    It seems the fire service has lost a lot of institutional knowledge, and the old timers pushing us to be good firemen and reminding us that we are here to serve the public. Lt McCormack said it well, if we're always #1, where does that leave the victim?   No one is looking to get themselves killed, but fighting fire is dangerous, if you can't handle the risk of bodily injury or death, there are lots of other jobs for you out there.

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