Managing Survivable Spaces on the Fireground – Coordinating the Engine and Truck

Erich Roden

Take a look at the above video and report linked above, and let’s discuss a few considerations for managing survivable spaces in private dwelling fires. To put this into practice, I’ll break some operational considerations down between the engine and the truck. Although they will both manage Survivable Spaces in a coordinated manner, it’s important to understand the role of each unit-type, individually, so that we understand what where we need to be, and when we’re supposed to get there. There are many misnomers regarding survivability and when we would conduct and interior vs. exterior attack. I won’t get into the debate about them here, but it is important to briefly discuss when an interior vs. exterior attack is warranted, so that we can get to the right spot to make the grab when it’s viable.

UL’s FSRI put out a good video showing some decision-making fire conditions that warrant an interior vs. exterior fire. The video can be found here.

For the purposes of this article, however, please review the Tactical Considerations in the video (course), to get an understanding of what the engine and truck need to consider in determining the most survivable spaces within the dwelling. It’s an obvious fact that we will search every inch of a private dwelling, but getting water on the fire as soon as possible, protecting the truck company(s) searching and giving viable occupants the most amount of our efforts, is the game plan. In private dwellings, regardless of the time-of-day, bedrooms and living areas such as living rooms and basements (office areas, additional bedrooms) will be the areas in which most people are hanging out, while at home. These living areas are common in every private dwelling, based-upon typical layouts: bedrooms on one-side, living room and kitchen on the other in ranch style dwellings, et al. Moreover, knowing where the primary means of egress is these dwellings is as important as it is the point at which you will reach and protect those in Survivable Spaces.

So what’s a Survivable Space?

A Survivable Space is actually any area away from the immediate fire area or a room with a closed door in a private dwelling. It is true that we consider private dwellings one large fire area, due to the following four reasons:

  1. Open interior stairs (usually center of dwelling)
  2. Limited separation between floors and rooms
  3. Combustible construction and contents
  4. Limited secondary means of egress (no fire escapes and or balconies)

However, when considering Survivable Spaces, the adjacency to the fire’s original location is the key determinant in survivability and where to initiate the search. Knowing where occupants are likely hanging out is the first step, but if conducting an interior attack (smoke showing, little to no visible fire) or an exterior one (heavy fire showing at or near the primary means of egress), another consideration must be quickly evaluated, based upon how fast the first due unit(s) arrived: the Fractional Equivalent Dose (FDE).

The FDE is measure of the time a victim is exposed to the fire’s thermal and toxic effects, in relation to their proximity to the fire and elevation in that space. This simply means that those closest to the fire and or on a bed are in the worst possible situation to be in. Therefore, it is important when conducting an interior attack to quickly get to those rooms with closed doors and then attempt to grab anyone in an open one, second, if immediately next to the fire. This may seem counterintuitive, but posit:

Once you get water on the fire, those exposed, unprotected by a door, to the fire the longest have the least chance of survival – even before you even arrived. Those overcome by the toxic and narcotic effects of the fire gases only have the greatest chance, and these victims are usually behind closed doors. Of course we will still get into the open rooms as fast as we can, and I’m actually differentiating these two scenarios by a minute or even seconds, in most jobs, but both differ in terms of odds, prior to arrival.

I’ll use a fire that I had several years ago as the first-due Battalion Chief, where I realized just how the position of door to the victim impacts survivability, to prove my point:

We arrived at a duplex with heavy fire auto-exposing the second floor apartment with the report of a child trapped. Companies arrived to find two floors of fire. An auto repair shop employee next door made a tremendous move to search for the child under heavy fire conditions, prior to our arrival, but was chased out by the fire on the first floor. As I arrived, the father of the child and relatives grabbed me, screaming, and pointed to the first floor where they assumed their child was at. I assumed the worse as the entire first floor was fully-involved in fire at that point. We immediately got water on the fire and the trucks and rescue company began their search without hesitation. I was about to key my shoulder mic to tell the rescue to bring the child out the back door, to spare the family of what they would see when the child was found. Until…

Down the gangway of the dwelling, came a member of Rescue 2 carrying an intact, lifeless child to us in front of the fire building. I know I wasn’t the only one who was stunned, because all of our collective experience at that fire has shown otherwise, the typical condition of victims removed from that much fire. He brought the pulse-less, non-breathing child to the awaiting ambulance, where the five year old was revived and taken to the burn center.

Here’s video of the fire:

The child was found on the first floor, in the immediate fire area, behind a door in the kitchen. Although he was exposed to the effects of the fire’s thermals and gases, he was able to be removed and revived just by being on the right side of a door. In fact, he even returned to school just a week or two, later – Amazing. How did this grab happen? Easy. The engine got water on the fire as soon as they got there, and the trucks and rescue made it a point to get to the primary means of egress to begin their search. This was a coordinated attack and search and proves that it works – if things go as planned.

Now that we have an idea of where we’ll immediately find viable victims, let’s get into what the engine and truck need to do, together, to get searching firefighters to these areas. The first thing to do is locate the fire, then the decision on what type of attack to make can be determined, and when firefighters are able to get to the Survivable Spaces in a private dwelling.

As can be seen in the above UL video’s Tactical Considerations, if there is little to no visible fire showing, then you have to get inside to find it and get after it. Conversely, if there is heavy fire showing near the entrance, then you have to do something about the fire, first. Regardless of whether or not you’re conducting an interior or exterior fire attack, the focus has to be protecting the primary means of egress so that searching firefighters can operate in and off the path that the occupants will use and or be near. Bedrooms and living areas are always near a stairwell, so the principal operation of the engine is to make sure we can operate there as soon as possible. This means immediately putting water on the fire to allow the engine to advance their hoseline, unimpeded. That means the truck has to wait until the engine has taken care of the fire, or can protect them, uninhibited, while trying to find it (coordinated search). Getting inside before the hoseline, when heavy fire is present, creating a flow path without water, and then getting chased out due to heat conditions before you even get to a bedroom (open or closed door) is simply marginal firefighting. And remember, always check the basement, first, before advancing into the first floor or above, particularly in newer dwellings. Basement fires are often a cause of heavy smoke on the first floor with no visible fire. Never go above without being certain of what’s under you.

When conditions allow, and the fire isn’t located and defined, a coordinated search in conjunction with the hoseline’s advance is the fastest way to get to victims with the lowest FDE exposure. The engine officer must ensure that the truck doesn’t get too deep into the dwelling so that the nozzle firefighter has to worry about them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve held up water because I didn’t want to steam-out the truck that was out of my purview. Remember, once you’re inside the door, and a window near the fire area is open, you’re in the flowpath and so are the victims. Advance with the truck, if possible, open up on the fire, when found, and protect the truck as they remove any victims by keeping the hoseline between the fire and the rescuing firefighters.

If an exterior attack is needed, in the event the entire floor is involved, or the engine officer knows that there is no chance of operating via the interior stairs, due to the venting, visible fire, then hit the fire and give it the whack that it deserves. The truck should be ready to go as soon as it’s darkened-down and get in there to the living areas, post-haste. This will still be a comparable timeframe to the other scenario, but the engine officer makes the call as to what’s going to happen when heavy fire is showing upon arrival. Remember, if the Chief shows up and people are bailing out, then he or she is likely going to “call it,” go defensive, and we’ve wasted the opportunity to reach those in Survivable Spaces due to an avoidable, bad decision – keep it coordinated and it usually goes according to plan.

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