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Fire attack: Keeping the proper distance

Being too close or too far from the seat of the fire can compromise firefighters' effectiveness and safety

We have been discussing the different roles of the attack team and how they contribute to the success of extinguishing the fire. All positions on the attack line play an integral role in moving the line quickly and efficiently. Doing so provides for a timely attack on the fire, which allows for conditions to improve for our firefighters and any trapped victims.

In the time since posting these different articles the question has been posed about how close we should be before we actually put water on the fire. This is an interesting question and one that has more than one answer and one that requires some decision making on the part of the company officer.

When I teach recruit classes, we discuss natural cover fires. Although we don't have the massive, fast moving fires that they have in other parts of the country, we still deploy certain tactics to deal with those fires.

No, this article is not about natural cover fires, but there is an important parallel between how we handle natural cover fires and structure fires. 

Cover fire lessons
New firefighters, when dealing with natural cover fires, will try to get to the head of the fire and make a direct attack on it. This creates a hazard for the firefighter and causes them to work extremely hard, dealing with heat, smoke and blurry eyes. But, when attacked from the flanks or the burned side, the job is much easier, safer and effective.

This relates well to attacking fires of any kind. Every situation is different and officers must use experience and training to make the best decision on how to attack a fire. 

In the fire service there is not a "one size fits all" tactic for every situation. The sooner we understand that, the more effective and dynamic we will be when handling incidents.

Smoking helmets
I have witnessed live burn scenarios where the students were shoved as close to the fire as possible and sat down to watch the fire's behavior. Helmets come out smoking and deformed and face shields melted. There is no need to get that close to or expose firefighters to that kind of heat.

First, the behavior is not the same. The burning materials are much different and the interior environment is much different. In addition we are teaching our firefighters that this is how we make our attacks, which is not always the case.

On an interior attack on a building fire, we move towards the heat, sound and sight of the fire. We should have already done an exterior evaluation of the building trying to identify the source of the fire.

As we move to the fire, conditions will likely worsen. More heat and black, thick smoke may present itself, making our push more difficult.

Ensure that the nozzle is set appropriately before making entry. And, understand the capabilities and limitations of the type of nozzle. With that information we should know what kind of reach we have and the depth of the penetration. This is critical to make an effective attack.

Wet stuff on hot stuff
The attack crew should begin flowing water once they see the body or seat of the fire. There is no reason to move right on top of the fire before opening the nozzle.

We also should not be indiscriminately flowing water without a reason. The flow of water has to be meaningful and directed at the known body of fire.

Moving too close to the fire puts firefighters at risk for no reason. Temperatures increase as we approach the fire; keep in mind that the weakest link in personal protective equipment is the facemask. Temperatures between 350 and 400 degrees F can cause face shields to fail.

Firefighters can also miss critical information by moving in too close. We don't want to overlook any fire spread by getting tunnel vision and moving in too close to the body of fire that we see.

Conditions can change and the structural integrity at the main body of fire could be compromised. Moving in too close could expose firefighters to floor failure or ceiling collapse if structural members have been exposed to fire.

Use the nozzle's reach and penetration power to make an effective attack from a safe distance that is effective. There is no determined distance that is desired. The bottom line is to attack the fire when you find it and see the body of it.

Experience as a teacher
Are there times when you may have to cool ceiling temperatures above your head? Absolutely, and you may not see fire when doing this. This is where experience and quality training become so important.

Firefighters must understand building construction and fire behavior in order to put an effective attack on the conditions they observe.

Sometimes we may have to pull the reigns back on some hard-charging, young firefighters. That is part of their learning process and how they gain experience. Use appropriate tactics for the situation at hand and share your knowledge.

Keep training and thanks for reading.

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