Learn from the wild side

Published:  01 June, 2008

Structure firefighting is among the most hazardous tasks, fraught with dangers both visible and hidden. In the fire service we constantly strive to improve the safety margin through better equipment, hazard recognition, training, standard operating procedures, and the Incident Command System (ICS). And progressive fire service leaders look to implement “best practices” wherever they are found.

  One often-overlooked place for structural firefighters to look at is the wildland firefighting fire discipline, which - partly as a result of numerous multi-casualty firefighter fatality incidents over the years - has developed a plethora of safety-related protocols and practices that can be applied (with appropriate adjustments) to the structural fireground environment.

Guiding wildland concepts like “watch out situations”, the “standard firefighting orders”, and “LCES” (lookout, communications, escape route, safe zone), “look up, down, and around”, are examples of bona-fide efforts by the wildland firefighting community to improve firefighter safety.

Standard Firefighting Orders

The Standard Firefighting Orders for wildland fires are listed here. Read them and consider which of them (with appropriate adjustments for conditions) might be applicable to structural firefighting:

• Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts.
• Know what your fire is doing at all times.
• Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.
• Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.
• Post lookouts when there is possible danger.
• Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.
• Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.
• Give clear instructions and insure they are understood.
• Maintain control of your forces at all times.
• Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.

Doesn’t it make sense to understand how weather conditions might affect fire and smoke behavior in high rise fires, “large box” fires, and wind-driven urban fires speading from building to building? Or to know where the fire is currently burning and where it’s likely to spread based on fuel load, fuel configuration (multistorey buildings, etc), ventilation (or lack thereof), wind direction and velocity, and other factors? Or to base all your actions on the current and anticipated fire behavior (protecting avenues of escape for occupants, fire attack, search, ventilation, etc)?

Doesn’t it make sense to maintain situational awareness and know which direction to go if conditions deteriorate and you need to make an emergency exit, or if you come upon a downed firefighter or civilian who needs to be carried outside or to a safe zone if your path is blocked?  Or to post a lookout if there is a dangerous condition like an unstable wall above firefighters, making a life-saving rescue, or an aerial lookout (in a helicopter) during a major high rise fire?

Does not the wildland firefighting adage, “be alert, keep calm, think clearly, and act decisively” also apply to structure firefighting? And isn’t it self evident that “maintaining prompt communication with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces” is a good idea in structure firefighting?

How about giving “clear instructions and ensure they are understood”, maintaining control of your forces at all times, and fighting fire aggressively after providing for firefighter safety? A cursory review of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders demonstrates very clear parallels between wildland and structure firefighting. 

“Watch out” situations
• Fire not scouted and sized up.
• In country not seen in daylight.
• Safety zones and escape routes not identified.
• Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.
• Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.
• Instructions and assignments not clear.
• No communication link with crew members/supervisors.
• Constructing line without safe anchor point.
• Building fireline downhill with fire below.
• Attempting frontal assault on fire.
• Unburned fuel between you and the fire.
• Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.
• On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.
• Weather is getting hotter and drier.
• Wind increases and/or changes direction.
• Getting frequent spot fires across line.
• Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult.
• Taking a nap near the fire line.

The Watch Out situations for wildland firefighting can be directly correlated to actual incidents in which firefighters have lost their lives. They are, in effect, an embodiment of lessons learned the hard way. And, once again, there are strong parallels between the wildland fire environment and structure firefighting; helpful tidbits we can keep in the back of our minds as we confront fire in the structure setting.

If the Incident Commander hasn’t had a chance to “scout” (size up) all eight sides of a structure fire scene (four sides, the top and bottom/basement, a rotary survey of overhead hazards like power lines, and a rotary survey of ground-level hazards like gas leaks), isn’t that a situation that shouts “watch out”?  How about if the building hasn’t been seen by your or your crew before, and you don’t know the floor plan or basic construction details or even the occupancy?

What if safety and escape routes aren’t evident? Or what if you and your crew are somehow unaware of the Incident Commander’s strategy, and the tactics that are currently being employed? Or if your assignment has not been made clear to you? Or if there is incomplete communications between the firefighting crews and their supervisor?
Most of us would probably agree that these would be considered “watch out” situations whether we’re in a wildland fire or at the scene of a structure fire. And we’ve only covered seven of the eighteen “watch out” situations. Let’s comment on some of the others.

“Look out” situation #8 is “constructing (fire) line without a safe anchor point.” In a wildland fire, this refers to the need for crews to begin at an “anchor” point, like a road, a clear patch of soil, a lake or stream, or some other point where the fire can’t hook back around you and trap you from below. Can the same be said for a structure fire scene?  Don’t we try to secure our path as we progress through a burning building by hitting the fire in a way that knocks enough down so that it won’t flare back up behind us and possibly cut off our escape? Don’t we try to protect egress routes for victims, by doing things like keeping fire out of the stairs and other exit paths? These are similar principles, applied differently because of the different environments. But it still means that we don’t want to get trapped by fire hooking around behind us, and preventing us from escaping or removing occupants.

“Look out” situation #9 is when we are “building fireline downhill with fire below, a clearly hazardous endeavor in the wildland environment, where literally dozens (if not hundreds) of firefighters around the world have been trapped by fire flaring up from below, and outrunning and cooking them in chimneys and draws and uphill slopes. But don’t firefighters encounter parallel dangers when descending into a cellar or basement fire, or when they must fight their way down from upper floors if fire takes hold of floors below them? Or firefighters being inserted on the roof of a burning high rise building to conduct search, rescue, ventilation, and firefighting operations?

The “watch out” protocols don’t say that we shouldn’t be attempting these tasks ever (although building fireline downhill with fire below is usually contraindicated except for very specific situations), but they do remind us in clear terms that these tasks are extremely high risk and that they should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary, and with appropriate precautions and backup plans and observation of LCES.

Fireground “Watch out” situation #10 is “attempting frontal assault on fire”. Now structural firefighters may say to themselves, “don’t we always mount frontal attacks on our fires?” Maybe so, when there are lives threatened by fire, when search above or beyond the fire must be conducted, and in our effort to limit the ongoing damage to contents and the structure.

But frontal assault is not the only modus operandi of structural firefighters: sometimes we arrive to find the building so far gone or in danger of collapse with no lives to be saved, that we “go defensive” from the beginning, using deck guns, ladder pipes, and other defensive tactics to limit fire spread and contain damage to the original occupancy or building(s).

And sometimes our offensive operations reach a limit after search has been completed and all occupants removed, if the fire cannot be controlled and is beginning to impede the structural integrity of the building, and the Incident Commander orders an operational retreat of personnel and hoselines from within the structure, and a transition of offensive to defensive operations. In its way, this is a parallel to the “watch out” situation for frontal assault, an evaluation of risk vs gain that sometimes causes us to adopt a more defensive posture.

Wildland “watch out” #11 is “unburned fuel between you and the fire”, which is a natural enough situation for structural firefighters, who typically arrive to find tons of unburned wood, contents and other flammable material between them and the fire.  But what if that unburned fuel is petroleum product or chemicals in an industrial fire, or toxic material, or pressurized containers? Does that not make us stop and take note of the likely risk and reevaluate our strategy? It’s yet another example of “watch out” situations in wildland and structure firefighting environments.

“Watch out” #12 is “you cannot see the main fire; and you’re not in contact with someone who can.” Now, who has not experienced that feeling in a structural fire? Who hasn’t crawled in on their belly with thick smoke down to the floor, searching for the seat of the fire, with flames sometimes lapping overhead but unseen, not knowing if this is actually the main body of fire (or if it is worse in another part of the building, possibly traveling to multiple levels and even below you in a basement or crawl space)? Or operating in a large warehouse or “big box” store in thick smoke, trying to determine where the fire actually is, not knowing whether it’s running through enclosed void spaces above your head or elsewhere, and without clear contact with someone who actually has found the main body of fire (maybe you’ll be the first to encounter it)? In many ways, this is a familiar feeling for structural firefighters who often find themselves operating blind unless they have a thermal imaging system, and until effective ventilation is established.

Of the remaining “watch out” situations, we can agree that structural firefighters should be aware of changing weather conditions, of fuel igniting below their positions, of wind changing direction and velocity (especially in high rise fires and in wind-driven fires with exposures), “spot fires across the line” in the form of fire spreading to exposures through fire branding, direct flame impingement, etc. And we can agree that “terrain and fuels making escape to safety zones difficult” would be a “watch out” situation in (or on the roof of) a burning building. And do we even need to mention “watch out” situation 18 (“you feel like taking a nap near the fireline”)?

  • Operation Florian

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