A Profiling ScenarioDo you know what your next move is?

Scenario should worry you and lead you to look into what might happen.

O400 hours…
“Communications to Engine 7, Truck 4, neighbors are reporting that there are people trapped inside 604 Smith Street.”

An engine and truck company, along with a battalion chief, arrives at a fire in a two and a half-story private dwelling. Fire is visible from several first floor windows on the front and thick, brown smoke pushes from windows on the second floor and the gable vents. As the truck company’s interior team opens the door, fire rolls out across the underside of the porch roof. The nozzle team begins darkening down the fire and makes a push inside.

To his left the battalion chief sees the figure of a person falling, landing on ground on the left of the home. He and his aide rush over and find an adult male writhing in pain, one of his ankles jutting out at an odd angle, soot, sweat and mucus staining his face, “They’re in there! My wife and kids, upstairs, fire up the stairway…get them please! God save them!” The chief looks to the window the man had just jumped out of and sees it filled with pulsing black smoke. Off to the rear he sees the glow of fire and after a quick look finds the first and second floors ablaze.

Moving back towards the front he radios the dispatcher “Battalion 2 to Communications, I have a well advanced fire, give me the evacuation tones; we’re going to go with defensive operations.” Seeing two members of Truck 4’s exterior team up on the porch roof venting a window he rushes over and yells to the to get down, “Hey! Get off, get outta there!” One of the truckies points to the window furiously and again the chief yells to them to get down.

“Engine 7 to Command, we’re getting a knock on the first floor, have the second engine run upstairs.” The chief replies, “Command to Engine 7, back out, I repeat back out now!” Truck 4’s driver comes running up, “The neighbors are saying that the girls are in that front room.” Pointing to the window the pair of truckies had just opened. “It’s gone” says the chief, “there’s too much fire in the rear and it’s taking over, the whole joint is gone.” More neighbors come up to the front as the chief sees the nozzle team back their hoseline out the front door. “The oldest daughter’s bedroom is that one up there!” says a man pointing to the same window, now with brownish smoke wafting out of it. A woman yells out, “What are you doing?! Those kids are in there!”

Seeing more neighbors come up, hearing the father still yelling “save my family! Save my girls!” the chief pushes his mind to stay focused on the scene. Fire is now coming from the window the father jumped out of, a glow of returning fire lights the first floor and the smoke from the bedroom window that has everyone’s attention is now pulsing with intermittent flames. Engine 7’s nozzle team takes their line up the ladder and onto the porch roof and begins flowing water into the window opening, but the chief pushes past neighbors and yells at the two company officers and firefighters to get down. “They’re right inside here!” yells the truck officer but the chief is insistent and worried about his men, “I don’t care! Get the hell off of there, this place is gone!” He turns, keys his radio to direct the incoming companies and a neighbor grabs him by the sleeve, “What do you mean you don’t care?! Are you an idiot?! There are kids trapped inside there! Go get them!” The nozzle team is now playing their stream inside the window from the ground as the chief can hear more people yelling for his firefighters to go inside. Some cry in exasperation, disbelief; others begin taunting the chief and his firefighters, calling them cowards and worse. The chief calls the dispatcher as he sees fire begin to show from the rear, overtop of the home, “Battalion 2 to Communications, have the second engine bring their blitz line to side Charlie and start city police ASAP for crowd control.”

Three hours later…

Firefighters help investigators and personnel from the medical examiner’s office remove three body bags from inside the burnt out shell of a home. A large police presence has kept the neighbors and curious onlookers at a distance. The chief can still hear some of them, “Why do we pay taxes if you’re not going to rescue us?” “Cowards! They should fire all of you and make you give up your fat pensions!” He can hear one neighbor being interviewed by the local news station, “The firemen, they was about to go in, right? But the fire chief, you know, he yelled at them to get out, to get out of there, you know? And we were like, the kids, they’re right in there, in that window there, you know, and he was like ‘whatever’ and that ain’t right you know?”

Several months later…

The battalion chief is upstairs beginning to start on the morning’s paperwork when the firefighter on housewatch announces “Deputy Chief on the floor.” Coming down the stairs he sees the deputy chief and a few other persons he recognizes to be part of the mayor’s staff and the city council. “We need to talk about that Smith Street fire” says the deputy. The battalion chief cautiously asks why and a thin man in a nice suit carrying an armful of papers replies “Because we’re being sued.”

If your sizeup includes declaring death, isn't it best to address it with the people you respond to before the alarm and not while your engine company is getting ready to go to work for them? (Tony Kelleher photo, used with permission.)

Standing alone this scenario may seem unlikely, but add to it reported instances in the media of fire departments being sued or threatened with lawsuit over firefighter deaths and injury, and deaths of civilians due to perceived “failure to act” and it is a plausible scenario. Add also recommendations and inferences from firefighter fatality reports and commentary of such that victims involved are beyond saving and this scenario can become frighteningly realistic.

Our dislike here of the endorsement of victim survivability profiling, or now termed occupant survivability profiling, has not been over the exact specifics of the concept’s origins in research but is over the push for acceptance without consideration of its negative recourse. To date, current emphasis of profiling is leveraged on firefighter safety and the somewhat fallible belief that life has ceased to exist based on smoke conditions interpreted from the exterior and therefore the number of firefighter line of duty deaths can be lowered by reasoning that those inside are dead.


Where traditional size-up skills, as well as some new ones such as wind speed and direction, have provided a measure of sensible choices based on conditions observed, profiling pushes the first arriving officer and incident commander to make a medical declaration without sufficient medical training, testing and based on speculation. It can be argued that profiling is no different that our past and current size-up, nothing more than a ‘go or no-go decision’ however this is not true and such belief is equal to endorsement.

Sizeup is basically about identifying what we can and cannot do. If the conditions (building, smoke, fire, staffing) allow us the opportunity to make entry, then it is in our best interest (and that of anyone inside) to make entry regardless of our uninformed medical evaluation of what the smoke may have done to anyone inside. When we arrive at a fully-involved home, fire showing from all sides and every opening, it is logical to say that anyone inside has perished and that “risking a lot for nothing” is a suicide mission. On the opposite side, arriving at the same dwelling with only smoke showing from many windows it is also logical to say that someone inside may still be alive, provided we can get inside and actually determine that. Now, add to this one single room showing fire and we can also logically say that in that one room, survivability is very low. Therein is the rub, born out of fear that someone goes into a room on the possibility of being enveloped in fire and is killed. The trouble with trying to identify a uniform risk is that risk interpretation is different here and in your location and in Nebraska and Hawaii. While proponents may say there are countless incidents of firefighters dying in structures where no one was inside, there are also countless incidents of occupant saved from burning structures where it is easy to surmise no one could survive.

While the foundation of profiling is good natured in its intent, prevent firefighter deaths, it lacks operational guidance. Among this is to understand and teach what profiling exactly is to departments based on the three types (volunteer, combination, and career) and their locations (rural, suburban, and urban). Among each of these six areas profiling can have twelve different interpretations and uses, and that’s before we include education, experience and personalities of the chiefs of just one department in these areas.

Remember the Alameda Drowning?

If interpretation and use in a department is clearly defined, then the legal implication of profiling needs to be addressed as more and more departments find their actions placed on display for critique thanks to camera phones and YouTube videos. “Profiling” gained a negative context in law enforcement as appearance alone was cause for suspicion and investigation. Today, for the fire service, profiling relies on appearance not of the victims but of smoke. In fact profiling goes as far as stating that victim appearance need not matter since the interpreted smoke conditions alone can indicate life or death. By playing the “God card”, we are saying that the rest of our size-up is worthless. Much like the public image and relations problem law enforcement faces, and in our example above, profiling will be public relations nightmare if the citizens served become aware that they can be written on based on how a chief looks at smoke.

Exactly…what are you thinking?





Top article photo courtesy of Wayne Barrall/FITHP.net.


Bill Carey is the daily news and blog manager for Elsevier Public Safety (FireRescue Magazine/Firefighter Nation, JEMS and LawOfficer sites.) Bill also manages the FireEMSBlogs.com network and is a former volunteer lieutenant with the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George's County, Maryland.

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