It is easy to take overhaul lightly; it is also an easy way to get hurt
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Although overhaul certainly isn't the most glamorous part of what we do, it is critically important to the overall goal of saving property. It's also a function where many of us tend to start to get a little relaxed; this leads to increased risks of injury.
Overhaul happens at on a different time scale than initial attack and fire suppression. The fire is at least under control if not in fact out when this activity begins, and we need to recognize that this change provides us some opportunities to increase safety.
As we transition tactical focus to overhaul, there are three key items to help ensure firefighter safety: evaluation, rotation and operations. By focusing on each of these as unique stages in the changed timeframe of post-fire confinement and suppression we can limit unnecessary exposure to our members.
I'm often surprised when incident commanders refuse to commit crews to an interior attack, but as soon as the fire is knocked down from the exterior they send crews in right away. After the initial suppression the structural integrity of the building has been insulted by fire and large amounts of water that have often far exceeded the load designs of the building. Yet, crews are committed to the inside without even a cursory check of structural stability.
An inspection of the building for structural damage to bearing elements, holes in floors or stairs, sagging ceilings and roofs, pits or holes filled with water is paramount. Also, remember that overhaul is likely being performed by a crew that wasn't involved in the interior attack (if one occurred) and may not be familiar with the building or its hazards.
Hazardous areas need to be communicated both verbally and marked off so that as overhaul crews change or move, those hazards are identified.
Lighting is a huge issue as well; assigning crews to provide proper lighting can truly help. Safety officers can be a major component in ensuring that this information is conveyed and acted upon.
Often, firefighters have a great desire to keep working and get done. Crews that just finished working on other intensive activity are close at hand to the fire building. Some undisciplined members may assign themselves to overhaul, or commanders may see them standing close by and send them back in to perform these functions.
Establish a staging system during the initial suppression operation. Continue to use staging to provide fresh personnel to the task.
Overhaul is also a great way to learn about how fire travels through buildings and the impact of ventilation, so don't pass up this opportunity. Allowing newer members to learn with more seasoned firefighters at this time is a good way to pass along knowledge.
Even scenes with outstanding accountability during suppression can begin to get a little relaxed during overhaul. Suddenly, multiple members are entering the building, possibly through multiple entry points. There may be multiple disciplines may be entering such as police, and cause and origin teams. In this sudden increase in traffic flow, we must still keep track of accountability.
The actual actions of overhaul — the search for and extinguishment of confined fire — requires at least some light demolition. It is important that these members understand what they are supposed to do and not to create more damage than necessary.
We also need to make sure members are paying attention to any unsafe areas we've designated during our evaluation of the building. Safety concerns also include things such as unstable appliances or hanging HVAC units, glass, wiring and other trip and entanglement hazards.
And finally, during operations it is important to use all PPE. It's easy to get lazy in these moments, which makes it easy to get hurt as well.
SCBA is one item in particular that members tend to be casual with during overhaul. Again, were looking for confined fire. Although it may diminish with time, there is certainly plenty of smoke from the inefficient combustion occurring at the beginning of overhaul.
This smoke contains lots of respiratory irritants, asphyxiates and carcinogens such as acrolein, carbon dioxide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxide and phosgene. I had a personal run in with phosgene at a basement fire where I wasn't wearing my mask during overhaul; I came to regret it the next day.
Many are familiar with the story of Mark Noble, a 19-year veteran firefighter from Olympia, Wash., who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2002. Noble started researching cancer rates among firefighters and found a higher rate than the general public. His research also led to the high level of toxins found in smoke, particularly during overhaul.
In 2005, Noble lost his battle, but not before leaving all of us an invaluable lesson, if only we listen. Click here to check out an interview Noble did.
Evaluation, rotation and operations are keys to safe overhaul operations big and small. Keep them in mind for your ladder company operations and training.
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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