Sunday, October 18, 2009

Houston's 10 Rules of Survival

I read where the Houston Fire Department implemented ’10 Rules of Survival’ in the aftermath of multiple line of duty death incidents. I think they are on the right track, so long as these rules become institutionalized and are reinforced in an effort to change their culture.

The one thing that was noticeably absent from the list was the need to conduct a risk-benefit assessment prior to committing firefighters to an interior attack. Part of the risk assessment means evaluating if the fire has began to consume the structural components of the building (e.g., rafters, joints, beams, studs, etc.). It is also essential to assess the speed at which the incident is moving. To accomplish this, the officer/commander must look at the fire’s progress in the context of the passage of time. Under stress, you can lose your perception of the passage of time (temporal distortion is the term for it). Paying attention to the passage of time (even if it is just seconds or a few minutes) and looking at how fast the fire is progressing and how quickly the smoke is building and moving helps you understand the speed of the fire and whether or not your resources (firefighters and water) can get ahead of it. There is a limit as to how fast your firefighters and your water can move and if the fire is moving faster, your firefighters will be overrun but it. It’s a pretty simple concept, but one that is so often overlooked in the size-up phase of the fire.

The second part of the risk-benefit assessment is determining the benefit of engaging firefighters in an interior structural attack. Now, before the comments start flying about wimps and sissies, I will go on the record that I am a proponent of aggressive attack. However, it cannot be blind aggression. It must be a calculated attack – assessing what is to be gained from it. Is there a savable life inside? For those who may not know, skin begins to melt at 160 degrees. Crawling through a super-heated, zero-visibility environment with the objective being “search and rescue” is a misnomer. In this environment, it would be “search and recovery.” Even if you were able to extract the body before death occurred, third degree burns over 80% of the body are not injuries compatible with life and the victim will succumb to their burns.

To engage firefighters in the highest risk environments should be predicated on what benefit comes from that risk – and be realistic.We are firefighters. We are in a risky business. However, we should not be taking excessive risks to save unsavable lives and unsavable property. Nor should we be engaging in firefights when our resources (firefighters and water) are outmatched by the volume and speed of the fire.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP

[Note: This was also posted on the Kitchen Table blog.]

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