By Jason Hoevelmann
The fire service is constantly being challenged by changing building construction, budget cuts, lack of resources, which may lead to a change in tactics. We also are increasingly being asked to do more with less, which in turn puts our firefighters in danger on every single call.
If 2012 has told us anything, it is that we must expect fire on every call and that the unexpected will happen.
It has also told us that no matter how many times a certain event happens, we continually tend to forget or get “comfortable” over time.
Let’s take a look at a few tactics that standout. I am not going to mention specific calls, as this is not a column for criticism, yet one to identify some issues that are good to discuss and remember for 2013.
Exterior building collapse
We must be aware of the type of building construction we are dealing with when on the fireground. It is not enough to know just the types of construction, but we must be aware of the intricate parts of each construction type.
It is imperative that we establish effective collapse zones and enforce them in the event that we must evacuate a building, whether a single-family home or a large commercial building.
During 2012 and the last few years, I have read reports of firefighters seriously injured or killed at fires that became defensive events. As officers we must make sure that our people are out of the collapse zone and stay out after an evacuation has been ordered.
Also, when we evacuate a building, firefighters are not out of the building until they are completely out of the building. They cannot continue to operate under porches, over hangs or on balconies. Get them out of the collapse zone.
It’s that simple. Defensive fires are losers. We need to protect exposures and we can do this with portable ground monitors and aerial devices without jeopardizing our firefighters.
This phrase created a great deal of debate and discussion, in some cases very heated discussions. First, transitional attack refers to attacking the fire from exterior or from a defensive position and then making the attack to the interior after a knock down.
There are some variances to this definition depending on where your from, but that is the basic idea.
Some firefighters, officers and instructors will tell you that this tactic is bad for potential victims and that we need to control the interior environment whenever possible. The importance of controlling egress areas is critical and there is validity to that suggestion.
On the other hand, we cannot overlook the difficulty some departments are facing with reduced manpower and extended time delays for additional resources. Unless there are known victims, these chiefs and officers are not willing, and rightly so, to put firefighters in danger without the proper manpower and resources being on the scene.
This tactic is nothing new and does not need a new fancy name. Firefighters and officers need to perform an accurate size-up and respond based on the conditions presented. The tactics that are deployed should be appropriate for the call being worked at that time. It may change from call to call and department to department.
The bottom line is this; do the best you can with the resources you have. I am all for aggressive interior attacks and searches. But, I am also well aware of the challenges of departments responding with low manpower and resources. Your department needs to determine what is effective and safe for each and every call.
Air flows and ventilation
Over the past several years technology and science has play a more prominent role in fire tactics based on research. This year that research create a fire storm, pun intended, when data was released that indicated that the way we have operated for years is not effective.
In short, vertical ventilation with a coordinated fire attack was put into question by the research. It offered that the tactic did not effectively remove enough heat and gas to make much difference in the interior environment and did not improve conditions for victims.
It also showed that as soon as we open the door or window we create an air flow that can speed up the process to flashover.
If that wasn’t enough, it challenged the premise that fire streams push fire. Veteran firefighters will tell you that they have seen this happen, so you can be sure there was some push back on these findings from the research.
We need to study the information from these research studies and try to fully understand them. To shift to one extreme or the other is irresponsible and dangerous. It is our duty to understand what these studies mean and how they relate to our tactics.
Are the tactics that we are using working or can we take some of the information provided and make improvements? Are we operating within recognized standards and best practices or are we doing what we’ve done for the last 30 years because “they’ve always worked?”
Use this technology and information to make educated decisions on your tactics. Don’t shoot from the hip and don’t wing it.
Finally, engineered, low-mass construction is no longer just for single-family homes. This type of construction is being used for strip malls, restaurants, and other commercial buildings including multi-family complexes.
We have preached about the dangers of truss roof systems and laminated I-joists for years, now those systems are getting more dangerous. These building components require firefighters and officers to be more educated about the construction in their jurisdictions.
But, that is not enough. I have witnessed an increase in training and education on building construction, but it hasn’t always translated to a change in tactics.
With the new information that we gather on new and potentially dangerous construction methods for firefighters, we must adapt our tactics to meet this knowledge.
The most important tactic that an officer can employ during a fire is the 360-degree evaluation of the building. I cannot stress enough the importance of getting to all four sides of that building and then considering the additional two sides, top and sub-level.
Being able to identify fires in lower levels can allow us to take the line straight to that area without every putting firefighters at risk above the fire in a low-mass, engineered-lumber building. This is critical.
With all of these topics it’s all about training and education and practicing these objectives on every call. Use what works and is safe for all parties involved.
There are going to be times that we need to put firefighters at risk; that is part of what we do. But, there are times when we need take a step back and take a few precautions to avoid the predictable.
Have a productive, safe and blessed New Year, and one where you keep learn from our mistakes. This column is dedicated to all the firefighters that were lost or injured while operating on emergency calls in 2012.
About the author
Jason Hoevelmann is a deputy chief and fire marshal with the Sullivan (Mo.) Fire Protection District, a combination department, and a career captain and training officer with the Florissant Valley (Mo.) Fire Protection District in North St. Louis County. His experience spans more than 20 years and he has been an instructor for more than 15 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the St. Louis County Fire Academy and is a State Certified Fire Officer II. Jason holds an associate’s degree in paramedic science from East Central College and a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration from Eastern Oregon University. He is currently a state advocate for the Everyone Goes Home initiative, a Board Member for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and on the technical committee for Professional Fire Officer Qualifications for NFPA. He is also co-owner of Engine House Training, LLC. Chief Hoevelmann can be contacted via e-mail at Jason.Hoevelmann@firerescue1.com.