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Fire News in Focus
by Adam K. Thiel

Part of the job

However a department decides to address the issue of search operations, it will be required to justify its decision

By Adam K. Thiel

Editor's note: With a city defending its response to a fatal N.Y. fire, our Editorial Advisor Chief Adam K. Thiel looks at the wider issues involved.

Perhaps like many of you, I've been thinking a lot lately about when we should, and should not, commit firefighters to perform searches in unoccupied, abandoned, and vacant buildings. (I assign these categories somewhat arbitrarily, since there doesn't seem to be a generally agreed-upon fire service definition.)

On the one hand, we know that many firefighters have been killed and injured over the years in abandoned buildings. I'll never forget standing outside the Worcester Centrum (now the DCU Center) at the December 1999 funeral for our six brothers who died in the vacant Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse.

Since then, a number of Worcester firefighters have traveled the country sharing their story. (If you've never attended one of their seminars, GO! It's vital information.) The December 2010 deaths of our two brothers in Chicago reinforces the hazardous nature of fighting fires in such buildings.

On the other hand, I was taught — as were many of us — that we can never assume a building is vacant until/unless we search it. The recent fire in New Orleans that claimed eight lives in an abandoned warehouse supports a concern for people who might be taking shelter inside structures that are not intended for human habitation.

While a potentially vacant apartment in an otherwise occupied building is a slightly different scenario from the above incidents, this latest story from Schenectady, N.Y., suggests that however a fire department decides to address the issue, it will be subjected to intense public scrutiny and required to justify its decision.

It's all too easy for people to Monday morning quarterback after a civilian or firefighter is killed or injured in a fire. Those of us who've made go or no-go decisions in front of burning buildings understand how difficult it can be with limited, incomplete, and often incorrect information.

Whatever you decide, rest assured that you will be questioned, second-guessed, and held accountable for the results; it's part of the job.

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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