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Fire News in Focus
by Adam K. Thiel

LODD offers clear, and not so clear, lessons

This line-of-duty death provides few easy answers that will work for every fire department in every situation

By Adam K. Thiel

Editor's note: Chief Adam K. Thiel examines a recent NIOSH line-of-duty death report and weighs the pros and cons of its recommendations. 

Firefighter line-of-duty deaths are always tragic, but they don't always have clear-cut solutions when it comes to preventing similar losses in the future.

From personal experience, I think that while it's critical to discuss lessons learned from other departments' incidents, it's important to remember the benefits of hindsight versus actually being there on the scene. I also hope that we always take time to honor our fallen brothers and sisters, as well as their surviving family members and fire departments, before participating in discussions about the events that claimed their lives.

After reading the entire NIOSH report on this incident, which I highly recommend by the way, and reviewing FireRescue1 readers' comments, I believe this is one of those cases where we're not going to find easy answers that will work for every fire department in every situation.

To be sure, a few of the recommendations are crystal-clear and probably applicable to most incidents in most fire departments' jurisdictions:

  • Ensure that the incident commander conducts an initial size-up and risk assessment of the incident scene as outlined in NFPA 1500 before beginning firefighting operations and continually evaluates the conditions to determine if operations should become defensive.
  • Ensure that the incident commander establishes a command post, maintains the role of director of fireground operations, does not pass command to an officer not on scene, and does not become involved in firefighting operations.
  • Ensure that a rapid intervention team is established and available to immediately respond to emergency rescue incidents.

However, any discussion about vertical ventilation as a tactical option, and the associated procedures for doing it safely, quickly becomes extremely complicated. I know some departments that have completely outlawed the practice, while others make it part of the first-due truck company's assignment, no matter the situation.

My sense is that while we're always looking for the "always or never" answer, it's probably not going to be that simple — especially given the many variations in building construction and resource availability (apparatus and staffing) across, and sometimes within, local fire departments' response areas.

So let's at least agree that vertical ventilation is potentially dangerous and, with a working fire underneath, definitely qualifies as a low-frequency/high-risk evolution for most fire departments in the United States. Be honest.

With (hopefully) that in mind, what are some of the tactical considerations about vertical ventilation that we could, perhaps, legitimately debate?

Facepiece or no facepiece
Hopefully there's no argument about wearing SCBA on a working fire, whatever your location on the scene. I can understand, and generally agree with, the rationale that facepieces should always be worn on the fireground, regardless of the situation.

However, considering the challenges of conducting vertical ventilation on a pitched roof in often limited visibility, I can also see why some firefighters argue against wearing a facepiece (unless standing in smoke), preferring to keep their vision unobstructed as long as possible.

Roof ladder or no roof ladder
Again, to me it generally makes sense that deploying a roof ladder on a pitched roof offers a number of safety benefits to those working on it. Still, I can understand the counter-argument that "speed is the key" to safely performing vertical ventilation and anything that slows down the task, such as throwing a roof ladder, could have unintended negative consequences. 

Pre-plans or no pre-plans
This is a tough one. Again, it's hard to argue that a current (note that word) pre-incident plan for a building provides a great tactical and safety advantage. However, an out-of-date pre-incident plan can provide a false sense of security and cause companies to miss recent structural or occupancy changes with potential to radically affect the risk-benefit equation.

This is why we constantly harp about area familiarization as a continuous and daily (24/7/365) process, versus annually (or less) performing company inspections or occasionally updating pre-incident plans.

What do you think?

Stay safe!

About the author

With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel FireRescue1's editorial advisor is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.



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