5 life-saving things to do during overhaul

Overhaul is a time when many of us exhale, and that letting the guard down invites catastrophe

The tones drop and a working fire is reported. We start our mental size up before we even get on the rig. As we are responding, we know we are first due and will be evaluating the situation to determine what our initial actions will be. Normally, it is either attacking the fire or performing a search for a known victim. 

All of these thoughts get our blood pumping with a little extra adrenalin mixed in. We are ready, both mentally and physically, for what we are about to encounter. 

During fire attack, search and the other initial operations at the height of the incident, our acuity is high to what is going on around us, and the risk is real.

We know what could happen, but we have prepared and trained for these circumstances; extreme heat, thick black smoke, limited use of our senses and the possibility of victims needing rescue. This all usually plays to our advantage during the fight.

Taking it easy
The fire has been extinguished and the search for victims was negative. We are ventilating the building for smoke and heat. Everyone takes a deep breath, gets a drink, drops a tank and relaxes.

Now it's time to overhaul, and hopefully it goes quick. Units are being returned and hose lines are being picked up and repacked. Basically, we're done. The fire is over. 

Or is it?

Overhaul is that time during the fire that is easy to let our guards down. The excitement of the raging fire and the anxiety associated with the possibility of victims is gone, leaving us with a feeling of accomplishment; it becomes very easy to get complacent. 

As we all know, complacency leads to bad things happening at times when we least expect it. But should we really not expect it?

There are several issues associated with overhaul that at times are overlooked. One is hand lines.

The hand line
Once the main body of the fire is knocked down it is not uncommon for hand lines to get picked up and put away. In most instances, we can get by with a booster line or water can. But, what about the fire that is hidden and doesn't show itself until we start opening up the building?

A recent discussion with a St. Louis firefighter really drove this point home. He and his partner were forced to bailout of a third-story window during a "food on the stove" call that unknowingly spread into the walls and into the attic. 

The crew went to the third floor to open windows. When they did, conditions changed rapidly. There were no other signs until the fire showed itself in the attic space.

Don't be in too big of hurry to pick up your lines. They are already on the ground and in the building. Keep them accessible.

The crew
Another item that gets overlooked is crew resources. At many fires we are quick to release companies after the fire is knocked down. Some of this is due to lack of coverage and we want to get companies back to their response areas. Another reason is that we feel we can handle the call from this point on because the fire is over.

What often happens is that crews who were on the initial attack, ventilation, search and other labor-intensive operations end up performing the overhaul as well. It can be very taxing for firefighters, especially when we consider the weather, type of building materials and the duration of the initial actions.

Keep later-arriving companies around to help with overhaul, and maybe even keep a RIT on the ready until we leave the property.

SCBA is another item neglected in overhaul. We have all seen the firefighter or officer who during overhaul takes off the SCBA and lights a cigarette.

First, I'm not sure how appropriate that is to begin with, but more importantly there is some crazy bad stuff floating around in that building that requires us to keep our SCBA units on and operating.

We have learned over the years that there are deadly levels of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide present during and immediately following a working fire. It can take a significant amount of time to lower those levels to point that is safe to work in without the protection of an SCBA.

Research has linked these levels to heart attacks, stroke and even death in firefighters. We must set guidelines and policy that requires the use of SCBA during overhaul until air monitoring can determine that the air is clean enough to operate in without SCBA.

The building
Building construction represents another danger spot during overhaul. Overhaul takes place when the building is arguably at its weakest. It has been attacked by fire, water and aggressive firefighters. Take into account the new low-mass building materials that do not hold up well to fire conditions, and we have a recipe for disaster. 

We must understand that the building we are physically attacking to find hidden fire may be ready to submit to the demands it has been placed under.

All buildings have a limit that they were built to perform within. Gravity alone tests those limits on a perpetual basis. Now, add fire attacking structural members, the weight of hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons of water and the beating it takes from the firefighters looking for hidden fire; it is tired and wants to come to rest on the ground. 

Understand how these buildings are put together. Decrease loads of water by cutting holes in floors or diverting large volumes of water to stairwells. Inspect areas for structure instability before beginning overhauling that area. 

Keep sounding floors like you would if the building were still burning. Keep working in crews and continue to take accountability seriously. These are all important for survival during overhaul.

Additionally, don't be in a hurry to send your RIT crews home. Since this is still an active fireground and we have determined that bad things are still very likely, keep your RIT in place during overhaul.

A building collapse is still going to be just at taxing and difficult if it happens during overhaul. It may not be a popular decision, but one that may just payoff if something happens.

Don't let your guard down; be smart during overhaul operations. We can't prepare for it if we don't believe it can happen. Believe and prepare.

Stay safe and I'll see you next month on the Fireground.

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