If Not Us, Then Who?


Public trust cannot be taken lightly, especially in the search






Throughout the past year or two, I did something that, in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have done. It was very risky on so many different levels but I needed to see and experience it with my own eyes. I had read several articles pertaining to Victim Survivability Profiling and my curiosity had peaked. It was simply a matter of waiting for the right opportunity. I wanted to show those who didn’t believe it to be true. I needed a way for the members of our profession to see that these people, regardless of their gender, age, race, religious beliefs and financial status, are relying on us; no one else is coming. I wanted everyone to see through my eyes that if we make assumptions or hesitate to take action, people will die.


Captain Stephen Marsar (FDNY) wrote a three-part series on the concept of Survivability Profiling that first appeared in the December 2009 issue of Fire Engineering, followed up by the second part in July of 2010, and the final article in July of 2011. Almost immediately, I became concerned that perhaps I had taken the idea out of context. I couldn’t help but to wonder if I had, who else may have gotten the wrong idea? Sure enough, it didn’t take long for the reactions to pour in. In Fire Engineering’s “Letters to the Editor” section of the September 2011 issue there is a brief article written by Joseph Fleming, a Deputy Chief in the Boston Fire Department, titled “IC’s perspective of risk vs. gain”. Chief Fleming warns us that because every fire and every department is different, we should not be too rule-driven when making fireground decisions. He also makes reference to the fact that victims might have protected themselves by closing their bedroom door, which was an idea that was right on track with UL’s studies at the time.


Photo provided with permission by Lt. Rob McHenry

How could it be that a couple of well-respected, high ranking officers from two major metropolitan fire departments in the northeast have such opposing opinions? While I don’t have the answer I am hoping it is simply a matter of perspective. I do know one thing, though, and that is that we can’t lose the public’s trust. If this were to occur, we would lose everything that our forefathers have worked for. In its simplest form, we would lose lives. Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but perhaps we’ve focused some much on this that we’ve forgotten to trust each other.


York Township Fire Department

Hundreds, if not, thousands, of homeless are living in abandoned structures across the United States. They are taking up shelter in vacated structures in rural and suburban America. There are entire city blocks out there that aren’t being used for anything right now aside from providing the homeless with a little bit of warmth. You’re fooling yourself if you think they’re all in designated shelters.


An abandoned farmhouse in Red Lion, PA



Over the course of the past year or two, I’ve entered a few of these homes in an attempt to document that, at least on occasion, some occupants are only there out of necessity. I’d like to suggest that I’ve gone into hundreds of buildings looking for clues but the fact of the matter is I can probably count how many I have been in using only my two hands.


Abandoned Baltimore City block of rowhomes.


Alpha side of “1912”


Charlie Side of “1912”


Alpha Side of 1614


Charlie Side of “1614”


Front bedroom of “1614”


Rear bedroom of “1614”

Whether you are the acting officer or the head honcho in charge, the decision is yours, but I’m telling you, if there is a chance that someone inside is still alive, the search for victims needs to be done. It is my sincere hope that you’ll stay informed by reading the articles. Spend a couple of minutes looking at the photographs included in this article. See how they might relate to a potential situation when you have to decide.



“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

“Survivability Profiling: Applying What We’ve Learned” Marsar, Fire Engineering July 2011

Letters to the Editor, Fire Engineering September 2011 (gated)

“%$#@ “Victim Survivability Profiling”; Do Your Primary Search” Brennan, Fire Service Warrior October 2010


Photos courtesy of author unless noted otherwise


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BillSchnaekelBioPhotoBill Schnaekel was born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, Bill is a fifth generation firefighter who has had eight other relatives in the fire service since 1898. He served as a volunteer for six years prior to getting hired in 1998 by the Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department, one hundred years after his great-great grandfather had joined the service. In addition to his full time career as a Lieutenant in the bustling 4th Battalion, Bill works part time as a firefighter / chauffeur with the West York Fire Department and as a State Suppression Instructor in Pennsylvania. In the past, he has served as a Battalion Training Officer and assisted in training both recruits and field personnel at the Fire and Rescue Academy. Currently, he is working on a degree in fire science through Tidewater Community College. In February of 2013, he created the Facebook Page “Holding1and1“, a resource to discuss fireground operations and firefighter interests with his friend, Lt. Mike Dowling.

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  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    Bill, I too found myself in a similar position as you. Wondering if our zealousness for our own safety, we were abandoning those we swore to serve.

    The flaw I find in the Captain’s research project ( with all do respect ) was that he looked at fire were firefighters were killed, but no civilians died. It does no say whether victims were rescued, if there were reports of victims, or any other data that would explain why firefighters were inside the building.

    Like all research, there has to be a connection to what we know and experience. I think this is where the disconnect with VSP comes in. Too many examples of victims surviving in places the research says they shouldn’t has led me to continue to believe that if you can go in you should go in.

  • Dave, its funny that you say that because I remember eagerly reading something very similar that you had posted recently (I believe it was after my article was submitted) and I couldn’t possibly agree more. You, sir, nailed it right on the head.

  • Ron Ayotte says:

    Bill… your article is definitely something that should be brought up in every firehouse, whether it be in a formal class setting or an informal firehouse kitchen table discussion.

    I was my Department’s liaison to and a member of the City’s Code Enforcement Impact Team. Part of what we did was marking abandoned properties with the X or the / to denote the hazards to fire personnel. Only those with serious structural issues were marked; there are vacant structures that are structurally sound that are not marked but are on an advisory list. We had the marked buildings entered in out CAD system.

    We found evidence of homeless people residing in some of our marked buildings. While the X, in theory, means “no entry, exterior operations only”, one must also look at the possibility of victims inside, and based on the amount of fire involvement, it is a judgment call from the initial arriving company officer on whether to do a quick primary search. As Captain Dave LeBlanc, my esteemed colleague and Brother has stated many times, nobody responding to a fire is on a suicide mission, and we must do what we can to ensure that there are no victims. The “why we search” section of Backstep Firefighter is a testament as to what we have to do.

  • Chief Ayotte,

    Thank you, not only for your kind words but your informative response. You had stated that it was a judgement call as to whether or not the initial arriving company officer conducted a quick primary search on marked vacant buildings. I’m curious, would that same officer face disciplinary actions if that were the case and no one was found? Thanks!

  • Steve Marsar says:

    Dear Lieutenant Schnaekel,
    I just recently came across your website and the “If Not Us Then Who” article. I’d like to thank you for giving the Survivability Profiling concept some thought, attention and consideration. In your article you started out commenting on Survivability Profiling and then tied it in to the homeless/squatter epidemic. Although that is a noble cause, I didn’t see where you tied the two topics together. Therefore, I will mostly limit my comments to the Survivability Profiling issues that you and your subsequent commenters brought.
    Your article (and frustrations) made me pause and also wonder about Chief Fleming’s comments and insights as you mentioned. So, I read his Letter to the Editor from the September 2011 issue of Fire Engineering. Then I called him to see if he and I truly had such “opposing opinions.” We spoke and communicated over several emails and telephone conversations and have agreed to co-write an article together in the near future based on those conversations.
    I will start with the last line of your first paragraph. “…if we make assumptions or hesitate to take action people will die.” I agree with you here. Unfortunately, the facts are that the majority of those people will be firefighters. Rather than making assumptions and allowing ourselves to take blind re-actions, we should take a few seconds to make informed, educated, and calculated decisions. A few seconds to conduct a proper size up including Survivability Profiling will (and have) saved both firefighter and civilian lives.
    The facts prove it. Year after year we lose 20-25 firefighters in structural fires and between 0-3 civilians in those same fires. As you point out Chief Fleming wrote; “…every fire and every department is different, we should not be too rule-driven when making fireground decisions.” Again, you, he and I all agree. There has to be room for adjustments and in some cases those adjustments may include being professional enough to say when a situation has turned from a rescue to a recovery or, that a valid rescue attempt should be made.
    TRIAGE—we do it in EMS, we do it in technical rescue/confined space operations, we do it at Haz. Mat. Incidents, and we do it at terrorist events. So then, why don’t we do it at working structural fires? Most probably it is because we like fighting them.
    As Chief Fleming points out Survivability Profiling is not a Rule, it is a concept—and admittedly, one that is not easy to accept. Many of us (especially myself and Chief Fleming) have experienced or heard about people surviving in tenable positions during some “fully involved” or significant fires, and that fact has been substantiated by the UL/NIST studies as you mention. People who are in tenable spaces upon the fire department’s arrival will remain in that position as long as the firefighters darken down and/or extinguish the fire and find them within a relatively short period of time. The key there is getting water on the fire!
    Of course, as you point out – the search for victims needs to be done. Survivability Profiling doesn’t disagree with you on that either. Keeping the public’s trust and searching for victims if there’s a reasonable likelihood (not “a chance”) that they’re alive or, in cases where it’s a known fact that people are still inside and alive, those known victims meet the Survivability Profile criteria to we should go in and get them!
    However, we must also get water on the fire. In cases where understaffed departments cannot reasonably perform both fire attack and search & rescue simultaneously, putting water on the fire is the better answer. Once that is done, heat levels drop immediately, the production of toxic gases and smoke decrease immediately, and we buy the victims and our firefighter’s time to perform the searches and to be found. Remember though, for a civilian to survive they must make it through the entire search, removal, and resuscitation effort.
    Ask the people you serve if they expect the fire department to respond and extinguish their home if it’s on fire. Follow up and ask if they expect us to try to save them and their family members who may be trapped (those answers should be pretty obvious). Then, ask them if they would expect a firefighter to die attempting to rescue them or their family members…you may be surprised at the answers you receive and the surprise is to us firefighters!
    In Dave LeBlanc’s reply to your article he cites the flaw in my research as being that I only looked at the fires were firefighters but no civilians were killed. He goes on to say that I do not mention whether civilians were rescued, if there were reports of trapped victims, or any other data that might explain why firefighters were inside the building.
    My answer to Bill is that unfortunately, magazine articles are subject to word limitations and third party editing. Not all aspects of the 108 page Survivability Profiling research can be printed in such limited space (while still providing both an in-depth education and interesting read). However, the Survivability Profiling research was 100% based on fires where firefighters and civilians died in the same fires—and the disparity between those deaths–as well as fires where either only firefighters or only civilians died. The concept has been backed up and validated by both the Boston Globe and the National Fallen Fire Fighters Foundation.
    When presenting Survivability Profiling across this country, I openly acknowledge the other side of the argument. That argument is well, how many civilians were saved in those same fires where firefighters were killed? Here are the facts; according to the FDNY’s Annual Vital Statistics – since 2010, FDNY members rescue between 300 & 500 civilians from fires and emergencies every year. If we double or even triple that number to account for the rest of the nation, and 900 to 1,500 civilian lives are saved by firefighters (which would be an impressive number) those numbers when compared to the 20-25 firefighters killed in structural fires every year still leave those line of duty death (LODD) totals quite high. Conversely, if the number of civilian saves was like, 25,000, those same LODD numbers would seem a much smaller percentage and to some would be more justifiable. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Although the number of civilians rescued & evacuated are part of the basic National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), very few fire departments record those numbers – making it difficult to quantify these statistics with any great accuracy.

    Not to take away from the tragic loss of any life due to fire – be they firefighters or civilians – even the 3,000 people who die in fires every year (according to the USFA), many before the fire department’s arrival, is a relatively small number when compared to the 320 million people who live in the United States. The credit goes to our firefighters who are doing a tremendous job in fire prevention & education as well as the saving of life and property when they respond to fires and every conceivable emergency.

    Does this mean we should forgo the public’s trust? Absolutely not! The trust that we have gained over the last 280 years since Benjamin Franklin organized the first American volunteer fire company and 367 years since New Amsterdam established the first firefighting system (The Rattle Watch) is not in danger of being overthrown or undermined. In fact, that trust is arguably stronger than ever.

    We continue to perform our duties and protect the public regardless of gender, age, race, religious beliefs or financial status. We also do it in abandon buildings that are occupied by those less fortunate. But, we don’t do it in a vacuum nor without regard for life—including our own.

    Lastly, with the utmost respect to your education and experience, and in honor of your family’s long history of firefighting tradition – I say we are all fighting the same battles – In a war that never ends. We ultimately long for the same things: To be firefighters, to save lives and protect our neighbor’s property, and to do everything we can to stay alive and keep on doing it again-and-again-and-again.
    Thank you,
    Steve Marsar

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