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Let's Talk Fire: Back To The Basics

Basic training can prepare you for a lot of tough situations.

Pay attention and use what you learn.

Pay attention and use what you learn.

The Early Days

Can you remember your first couple months on the fire service? I take a great deal of value in those early trainings and teachings. Those first few training sessions you receive as firefighters are probably the most valuable you will receive. Sure they may seem repetitive and at times a bit mundane but in the long run they can be the difference in going home after a nasty fire or having what we like to call a bad day!

Sadly one only has to look around our field to see that some firefighters are ignoring those early stage lessons. Too many of our fire brothers and sisters are having close calls, getting hurt and ultimately getting killed because of being way to lax on these rudimentary firefighter skills.

A quick peak at NIOSH reports will reveal that. Firefighter falls through floor and dies. Firefighter trapped in room succumbs to smoke inhalation. These reports go on and on and unfortunately for us they are very saddening but at the same time we must utilize the mistakes and misfortune of our fallen to better equip ourselves with the knowledge to overcome the same situation should it present itself to us.

This time around we are going back to basics! We will focus on four very basic skills that almost every firefighter is taught from day one. These skills are often so simple that we forget to do them which is why training must be done to ensure that firefighters are using these basic techniques and ensureing that every crew member knows how to perform them and how vital it is to the safety of life on scene.

Size-up and Reading Smoke

Brycelin Street

Firefighters acted based on front view only, failing to realize the structure contained a below surface section.

Firefighters acted based on front view only, failing to realize the structure contained a below surface section.

The Fire on Bricelyn Street

  • The fire on Bricelyn Street
    Even with the passage of decades, our most tragic fires still hold lessons that can keep present-day firefighters safe

Size Up Every Scene

Every scene, scenario, event or happening needs to be approached a specific way. Before any action is ever taken the scene needs to be sized-up. Size-up forms the foundation that our tactical building blocks will rest on. A solid foundation equals a solid building and in the same regard a poor one means iminate collapse. Any time I find myself discussing size-up with my crew I am always taken back to Bricelyn Street. This was a fire that resulted in tragedy and could have possibly been avoided by simply getting a good 360 degree view of the fire structure. A lack of a size-up put that scene into a very bad set of motions that ended up being one of the worse days that department could ever face.

I have heard war stories and have even been unlucky enough to respond to a few scenes in which the first crews arrived, pulled hose and went right to fighting the fire. I know that in many eyes that is what we do and who we are, right? The problem is to fight an enemy, any enemy you must understand it and somewhat predict it's next move. These first in crews may have felt the priority was getting the fire out and that is one of our tasks but what happens when they fail to see that 500 gallon gas tank in the back yard, or maybe they neglect to pay attention to the downed power line sitting on a chain link fence?

Any firefighter worth their gear knows the key to successful firefighting is getting that initial size-up. Every tactic, strategy and approach we take will be dependant on that observation. Get eyes on the scene! Key in on hazards, egress points, strange sites, if possible the fire itself and start formulating how this fire can be resolved the best way. Know what the smoke is telling you. Is the smoke brown and indicating you may have a structure fire? Is it thick and black letting you know you are dealing with a heavy fire with some serious fuel to deal with?

Firefighting is a two way conversation. The size-up is our way of engaging that conversation. Listen to what the beast is telling you and act accordingly. If you have a size-up that reveals the fire is confioned to a back bedroom don't storm the front door! Pay attention and coordinate your actions based on what that size-up is telling you!

A simple but efficient size-up may locate the fire, indicate rescue needs, help predict building stability and collapse potential and ultimately help keep you safer in the long run! Always perform this task prior to your attack efforts.

Try Before You Pry

Great thing to think about.

Great thing to think about.

Try Before You Pry

This topic covers an issue that is both a matter of training and a matter of firefighter ethics! I will first say yes, kicking in a door is both fun and exciting. It is still the wrong way to approach the issue though! There will of course be times when forcing a door is a priority and must be done but let me give you a thought. Just because a door is closed does not mean that particular door is locked.

Many times all we need to do is simply try the knob. I am always shocked at how quick guys want to tear a door apart before they even attempt to open it the normal natural way.

Remember the three basic priorities we have as firefighters.

  1. Life safety. This means us first, crew second and civilians third.
  2. Scene stabilization. Get the fire out, get the cars off the road, get things back to normal or as close to normal as you possibly can.
  3. Property conservation. Protect the home, car, and any other item that needs it.

It is number three that we need to put a very firm emphesis on when thinking on and speaking to those notorious door kickers that stalk the fire ground in search of a fresh wooden victim. Fire is expensive and regardless it is going to cost the homeowner a significant amount of money to repair the damages left in it's wake. As firefighters we are responsible to reach scene stabalization by doing the least amount of damage as we can. Now do you think caving in a $300 door that was already open is really going to put us in the good graces of the people we serve?

It also factors in that initial priority of life safety. We know that air flow greatly affects the intensity and spread of the interior fire. By kicking a door off it's hinges we lose any capability of closing that opening that we had when the door was intact. Now we have vented the fire whether we intended to or not. Keeping the door in tact allows us to control that aspect of the fire flow. If the door needs forced rely on training and use the tools you have on the truck. A good haligan will get a door open just as quickly as a swift mule kick will, but it will do so with minimal damage to the door itself.

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The Pick Head Axe

The FUBAR, a firefighter's best bud!

The Tool Is You

All firefighters making entry into a structure for any reason need to bring a tool in with them. This is such an important thing to remember. The tool is your lifeline in case things on the fire scene go south. That tool becomes a part of your person and should be trained with any time an opportunity ti do so presents itself.

The key is finding the tool that works for you. For years I carried a haligan bar. Now I realize that particular tool leaves a few options I may need out. My current set up is a pick head axe and a Stanley FUBAR tool. THis allows me to have an access to a wide variety of uses for that tool.

Look at your situation. Often it is the situation that dictates what tool a firefighter should grab. Overhaul may merit a drywall hook or a trusty pike pole but during search operations that may not be as reliable of a tool. Many times we have to ask what we are assigned to do and than make our tool selection based on that task.

When choosing a tool ask yourself a few simple but very important questions.

  1. Can and will this tool help complete the task you are attempting?
  2. If things go south can I use this particular tool to get myself to safety?
  3. Can I function and complete actions while carrying this tool?

I have seen a lot of newer guys try and carry a set of irons, all the while not realizing the heftiness of such a set up. They end up losing the hose or abandoning one or both of their tools do to exhaustion carrying them. Be real about your tool selection. As firefighters we must know what works best for us and how we can use it to better our safety.

As I said I like a FUBAR tool. It has great potential for wall breeches and window removal and in the event I have to bail out it makes an amazing anchor for a window corner. This tool does me well. I like the axe because I may need to cut myself out of a bad situation and a pick head axe can be the best option in that scenario.

Tools help extend yor reach during search operations, free yourself from dangers and this brings me to the next topic, sound the floor.

Sound The Floor

Despite this being drilled into us from the very beginning so many firefighters are way lax in performing this rather simple task. Before you ever advance into a burning structure or any structure that has had it's integrity threatened by fire you need to take your tool and strike the ground. Really hit the floor and listen and look.

If the floor sounds hollow and weak it may be in the best interest of you and your crew to not advance that way. I want to stress this is not a love tap or a gentle pop. Really hit that floor! You are looking for indications of structural weakness that may be the thing that sends you into a burning basement.

I see a lot of guys who make the initial entry and sound the floor right at the door and off they go like little bats out of hell looking for a grub. This is not effective whatsoever! Sound the floor and advance a few feet, now sound again. Remember one section of that floor may be so intact the company slob can roll in there with a burger in the hand and jump up and down while another section may have suffered enough damage that the slightest weight could send it crashing to the basement below. Don't ever assume you are on solid ground.

Look for sloping or wavy floors. If you see drooping or bowing than you know this is not a stable surface to be advancing across, find another access point or switch to a defense operation. The same goes for roof operations. Always sound before you step.

Wrap it up.

Sometimes we don't need fancy meters and infrared cameras. We just need to go back to basics and focus on the task at hand.

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Sam Little (author) from Wheelwright KY on May 24, 2017:

Thank you so much.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on May 23, 2017:

Great advice, Sam. I was a volunteer fireman back in the late 80s and learned a lot. Solid training and sometimes a little scary (I actually hated the smokehouse as I was claustrophobic).

Keep up the good work. Sharing.

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