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.
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.
Also on Backstep Firefighter …
- Protecting Lives – February 8, 2013
- Rhetorical Lesson No.10
Profiling and Pets – July 19, 2012
- So What Are We Supposed to Do? – August 3, 2012
- “It’s All Good” – July 10, 2012