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Firefighter survival: 10 ways to stay safe

Houston’s ‘Rules of Survival’ offer take-home messages for every firefighter

By Tom LaBelle

It’s often said that when we teach at a drill or class, we know the student has learned when they exhibit a change in their behavior or activity. I’ve often said that I learn best through bruises, either yours or mine, but I’d prefer you took the bruise and I learned the lesson. To this day I remember how I learned not to leave your hammer on top of the ladder when you’re working — some bruises and lessons last longer than others.

The Houston Fire Department suffered a tragedy in April last year when they lost two members, Captain James Harlow, 50, and Probationary Firefighter Damien Hobbs, 30, at a house fire that rapidly deteriorated. Original reports indicated an elderly couple was still in the building and a few days ago the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office issued its report on the LODDs.

Following the loss, the Houston Fire Department gathered together and developed its 10 Rules of Survival, which it released to members late last year. First and foremost, the department and its leaders of all ranks are to be commended for both providing the opportunity for their members and for each of us to learn.

I say opportunity because learning is shown through changed behavior, and as I review the rules I’m willing to admit there have been times when I haven’t always lived up to them.

While the rules were designed by and for Houston, there are lessons to learn for all by going through the 10 Rules of Survival in turn and seeing how they apply to us:

Seat belts — Use of seat belts is mandatory any time the vehicle is in motion.

Pretty straightforward and I know that I am, I believe, now in full compliance, although it wasn’t always the case. Learning how to effectively hook up your SCBA while belted goes a long way in helping with this. The front half of the apparatus really sets the pace on this. If you’re the driver or officer, demand it and lead by example.

Speed Obey all traffic laws; obey all HFD policies; do not bust red lights or intersections; non-emergency response is acceptable.

It’s VERY easy to let this slide, but it’s not at all acceptable. If responding in your personal vehicle on a call back or as a volunteer, you can be so busy listening to the call and thinking of other things that you can easily forgot how fast you’re going. There are effectively three speeds; under the speed limit, at the speed limit and over the speed limit. If you go a little over, before you know it, you could be going a lot over.

PPE Only HFD issued PPE; no extra layers for insulation; weakest part of PPE ensemble is the SCBA face piece.

The use of PPE every time seems a pretty simple concept, but each year there are lots of injuries that never needed to occur because people did not wear all of their PPE. There are lots of excuses, and in lots of departments it’s very hard to get properly fitting, useful PPE. It’s very easy to skip certain parts of our PPE and even I’ve done it before. There were days when I didn’t wear my hood but I learned my lesson. I even wore street shoes at the station one day and discovered that the new wheel chocks had moving parts. Let’s just say my foot modeling career was over at that point.

We must also always remember that our PPE is only as good as our weakest link. Before my department issued bailout equipment, I was purchasing my own ropes and carabineers. While purchasing components at the local mountain climbing store, the salesperson asked me what I was getting the carabineers for. When I told her, she mentioned that the metal might melt or warp at a fairly low temperature. So, I asked at what temperature the rope would burn through, too.

Size-up Perform a 360; accurate arrival reports; use TIC for temperature reading prior to entry, communicate via radio.

I’m a big believer in at least the team leader, if not every person, seeing the big picture. So take the time and take the walk. Even though we teach that size-up begins long before the call, you need a personal, visual reference. We can often feel that we don’t have the time; we’ve been given an order and need to get in the building fast.

When we look at LODDs in structure fires, many happen at residential properties where a 360 wouldn’t be that hard to accomplish. If you’re an officer or team leader, it’s a must. And if you’re sending teams into harm’s way, you should make sure they’ve taken the walk before they go in.

Water before you go Goal to have an uninterrupted water supply before entry.

Not that long ago our district only had hydrants in a small percentage of the area. We went to plenty of fires, others and ours, where if the water hadn’t been figured out it simply took us longer to lose the fight. As first due units it’s easy -- and again I’ve done it -- to get so focused on getting even a limited amount of tank water on the fire that you forget to ensure a plan for an uninterrupted supply. A blitz attack, darkening it down from the outside makes sense, but command, the hydrant man, the chauffer, and the guy on the nozzle all need to make sure we’re bringing water to the fight, with more than we need in reserve.

Low-Low-LowOn entry; inside; on exit.

When I joined the fire service, I had a great instructor by the name of Tom Maloney. Tom was always adamant about this tactic. It’s a habit that many of us lose over time. Heat, especially from hidden fire, has a way of increasing without us realizing it. And on this issue, we’re kind of like lemmings: once we see one firefighter standing up, we tend to all stand up.

Ventilation Goal of first ladder is ventilation; release heat and smoke to benefit firefighters and survivable victims.

I could go on for hours on this. Until recently I was the captain on the Truck in our department and I truly believe many departments have lost the art of coordinated ventilation, and are much too focused on getting the line on the fire first.

RIT RIT on every incident; in place ASAP.

The speed and complexity with which events can occur simply makes this a necessity. Keeping the RIT available for each call will become a habit, a learned behavior over time. Not unlike the water supply rule, the time when you most need it isn’t the time to find out you don’t have it.

Crew integrity Not an option; critical to incident accountability; call Mayday early.

Freelancing is dangerous to you and me, so knock it off. We often see people do it and don’t want to be the bad guy. Let’s be honest, most of us are type A, get it done people and don’t want to stand around. What we don’t convey enough (myself included) is that when you freelance, you screw me up — so stop it.

We must also realize that the building and its contents are less forgiving of human errors. The amount of time we now have to realize that we’re in trouble and get ourselves out is much less than it was 15 years ago. Situational awareness, knowing your own condition and conveying it up the chain, is paramount to self-survival. We must make early Mayday calls socially acceptable in the firehouse.

Communication Throughout incident; interior and exterior progress reports.

We all have the folks in our departments who people feel talk on the radio too much. It happens and newer members see us roll our eyes and begin to learn that talking on the radio is bad. I’ve thought it myself and I’m sure I’ve conveyed it.

There is no way for command to know what is going on and how we are doing if we don’t provide feedback through communicating or progress reports. If you’re on the outside, demand reports. If the interior crew isn’t providing the right information, make them repeat it. Do it enough and you’ll get what you need each time.

The above rules are basic, but sound. There are lots of rules; the key is to truly learn them.

Learn how to make your department a safer place in Tom LaBelle’s FireRescue1 column, ‘The Butcher’s Bill.’ LaBelle provides tips, advice and opinions that balance accomplishing strategic objectives with making sure every firefighter goes home.
Mayor Donna Holaday presented the city’s desire to operate its own ambulance service staffed by firefighters already trained as EMTs