Friday, March 16, 2012

FDIC 2012 - Interior Benchmarking Class

Any interior firefighter who spends enough time in an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere will eventually encounter some type of bad situation. Unfortunately, interior firefighters can become overwhelmed under these conditions and unable to escape the hazard. Part of the reason for these problems may be our ever-increasing budget cuts and the resulting lack of personnel on arrival, which leave officers no choice but to ask the responding firefighters to multitask. There are too many “bad situations” to list. The focus here is on lost and disoriented firefighters and identifying severe thermal insult conditions.

“Interior Benchmarking” for greater firefighter situational awareness can assist us when we are caught in a bad situation. Over my fire service career, I have found that if firefighters can adopt this behavioral modification and acknowledge interior benchmarks, they can be safer interior firefighters or fire officers.


Interior benchmarks are situational points we acknowledge at every fire. Locating the fire, knocking down the fire, completing the primary or secondary search on a floor, pushing down the basement stairs for fire attack, advancing to the floor above for fire attack or searching for extension are all traditional interior benchmarks.

With my interior benchmarking concept, the interior crew acknowledges the benchmark and completes a quick firefighter safety and situational assessment. The next time you enter an IDLH atmosphere, stop yourself and your crew. Ask for quiet, gain control of the adrenaline rush, and assess the atmospheric conditions. This approach is as valuable for recruits as it is for seasoned veterans. To use the interior benchmarking concept, you must obtain baseline information you can use to compare with your next interior benchmark.

Ask yourself these potentially lifesaving questions: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel? Where am I? What is the floor made of? Is my crew intact? Do we have a personnel accountability report (PAR)? What is our remaining SCBA air pressure? Let’s break down these questions in detail.

What Do I See?

Can I see the fire? Is there rollover? What are the smoke conditions like? What does my thermal imaging camera read? Can I see thermal layering or smoke travel? Is the fire already rolling over my company? What is the floor made of?

Should you become lost, disoriented or experience a floor collapse, you should use your last interior benchmark for comparison. Did the floor construction change? What is the construction now and where am I? Am I in the kitchen, living room, bathroom, or cellar? All these rooms typically have distinguishable flooring or more common floor plans and window configurations. Identify them and report your location.

What Do I Hear?

Do I hear the fire crackling to my right or left? Many times we are too eager to enter and stick to a left- or right-hand search pattern, following basic habits instilled as a recruit. What if you stopped for a second and really listened? Listen as if you were a blind civilian searching for day-to-day directional cues.

If you still can’t determine the direction, cover one ear with a gloved hand. Does the sound get closer or farther away? Your uncovered ear will lead you to the fire or victims more quickly.

Also, pay close attention to the audible response from sounding the floor with a tool. Thermal imaging cameras have given our vision back to a degree, but the vision has created some bad habits, such as forgetting to sound the floor.

What Do I Feel?

This is a big one. What was the heat like on initial entry? Think back to your last building fire; now, ask yourself how much time was spent getting off the truck and gaining entry. Most of us will say, “As little as possible” This is a great attitude to have, but let’s face it: Sometimes rapid entry without making mental notes creates bigger problems for us in the future. The American fire service prides itself on quick, aggressive interior fire attack. Our forefathers created this tradition, and we should carry it on, but we must change our behavioral traits. Let’s face reality: We have fewer building fires and less live-fire experience (firefighters and officers included). We are now wrapped up in greater head-to-toe protective clothing. Our battle with the red devil entails a much greater thermal insult from quick burning fires, and we all too often operate in underventilated structures because of tighter, energy-efficient homes. So I ask you: Can we really afford this “rush-in” mentality?

The interior benchmarking question “What do I feel?” provides a baseline for future heat-index comparisons. Without the baseline input, you have nothing to compare until the seat of your pants computes, “Damn, it’s really hot in here!” By taking note of the thermal insult during a benchmark, maybe we can identify rapid heat build up before it is too late.

Completing the Company PAR

The fire officer must maintain control and be held accountable for his crew’s actions. The crew members must also have discipline and confidence to communicate their own individual hazardous situations. Never ignore situations such as not feeling well, a lack of crew integrity, firefighter disorientation (report it early), entanglement, or a low-air warning alarm.

SCBA Air Consumption and Management

The last component of the interior benchmarking process is the constant monitoring of your air consumption. How much air was used to get to your current location? Do you have enough air to make it back to the entry door? Calculating the distance traveled on the air already consumed drives the decision of whether you continue to advance; back out; or give a clear, concise, and early Mayday report. Given the right set of hazardous circumstances, sometimes our SCBA’s low-air warning alarm provides a false sense of security and will not give us enough time to safely evacuate the building.

• • •

Note I did not mention “What do I smell?” We cannot operate as our predecessors did. We cannot allow ourselves to go in too deep and not have enough air to safely exit the IDLH environment. Nobody can tolerate a few breaths of superheated gas and the ever-present hydrogen cyanide from the modern but routine building fire.

If you implement the interior benchmarking concept at your next building fire, you will have ascertained an incredible amount of potentially lifesaving information. If you should encounter a bad situation, the more information you have the more likely you will feel you can manage conditions that are rapidly spinning out of control. Constantly compare your last download of information with what you are now experiencing, and make educated decisions. As you advance to locate your victims or the seat of the fire, continuously ask yourself these same interior benchmarking questions. If you do this on a regular basis, you not only will increase your situational awareness, but you also will find victims quicker, extinguish fires faster, and greatly increase your personal safety.

We will be in Indy teaching "Interior Benchmarking" on Thursday April 19th, 2012. We look forward to meeting everyone who chose to attend the greatest conference in the world! Take care and stay safe brothers. Billy

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Turning Down Time Positive

Today during some down time between runs I took my company out on a building familiarization tour. The tour included looking at a really large, 4 story lightweight residential dormitory being built in our first due. The tour affords firefighters with the opportunity to get out and mingle with contractors, see new construction materials or techniques and really get to see behind the walls of a specific dwelling before they are covered up. A fire service x-ray of the structural support system(s). Firefighter survival within the modern construction era is the responsibility of progressive fire service leaders. History is played out time and time again within our service. NIOSH reports do not lie and many of us whether we are volunteer, paid-call or career continue to not learn from our "brothers" unfortunate incidents.

Fire sprinklers are designed to provide the occupants of a dwelling the chance to get out when a fire strikes. The protection industry has produced some wonderful results and often the system controls the fire to the point of total fire extinguishment. That said, the fire service must remember that the sprinkler system was not designed to extinguish every fire within that same building. There are many voids within a dwelling that are not protected by the sprinklers. Pipe chases, electrical conduit holes, heating / ventilation duct work, and the structural support materials themselves may afford lateral heat, smoke and fire spread underneath your feet.

We all know that drop ceiling tile construction is loaded with many, many feet of grid wire which can entangle us firefighters. With the advancement of newer fuel efficient forced hot air furnaces (high pressure FHA for example) newer construction contains miles of basically "dryer vent hose" in the walls and ceiling. As the ceiling tiles drop and the plastic burns off the vent hose the wire is exposed. We are now faced with being entrapped in a gigantic slinky. Any of us who owned a slinky can appreciate just how difficult it was to untangle the coils when they became twisted. Imagine being literally trapped inside the coils while wearing our full PPE and SCBA.

Getting out and seeing a building in the early stages of construction will produce a huge amount of life saving information. Things like that nice exterior brick or block wall from the street may not actually be true ordinary construction. There are many really lightweight exterior wall finishing’s or “facades” that are really cost effective and go up relatively quickly today. This type of information will be important during the operational decision making process during a large fire.

Newer single or multi-family and even commercial construction are now using lightweight laminated I-Beam or Box Truss materials. The height of these beams (from top chord to bottom chord) are determined by the strength needed to hold up the weight above and the span from bearing wall to bearing wall. This dimension in turn, creates a larger than usual void space compared to our traditional 2” x 10” (or) 2” x 12” floor joist construction. Not only do we have to worry about the burn rate and collapse time of the lighter materials used for glue-laminate or I –beams, but the increased voids are now holding miles and miles of slinky duct work waiting for us as well.

Today's firefighter needs to carry wire cutters and a rescue knife, both of which that can be operated with your gloves on. We must be proficient in self-disentanglement to the extreme and not just wiggling by some small diameter rope tied off to the bannister railing in training. Don't be fooled by the fire prevention officer's creed of "I want to sprinkle everything". Remember sprinklers are designed for life safety - to provide time for the occupants to egress the building before we arrive. A relatively small fire in any one of these void spaces listed previously may go undetected and uninterrupted by any sprinkler head.

Maybe we do not burn the place down, but losing a company or two to an early, no warning, lightweight construction failure should be a concern. So get out and tour your construction sites before they are completed.

Take Care and Stay Safe Brother and Sisters… See you all in Indy!

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