Keep your guard up during overhaul

It is easy to take overhaul lightly; it is also an easy way to get hurt

You're tired. You fought hard. You have barely any energy left, but you still need to muster the strength to conduct overhaul.

This is the part of the job when fire suppression is complete. You are told to pull ceilings and open walls in search of hidden fire, embers, or signs of further extension. During this phase of fireground operations, firefighters have a tendency to let their guards down.

In reality this is the time we should have our guards up the most. During overhaul we must be aware of potential collapse hazards and overhaul related injuries. We also must learn to communicate and understand the dangers of operating in an IDLH (immediately dangerous to life or health) or unknown atmosphere.

If we remember the basics and understand that we must continue to assess and reassess the scene, we can prevent many of these hazards from becoming injuries.

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When conducting overhaul, firefighters must remember that fire load weakens structural members. Beyond the weakened framing elements, we have most likely introduced thousands of gallons of water to the structure in question.

This leaves us with water load applied to compromised structural members. These weakened structural members were not likely designed to support these greater loads.

Take this information seriously and carefully consider how many members you are committing to the overhaul operation.

Tread lightly
Author, lecturer and retired FDNY Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn recommends that overhaul begin at the origin and work outward. In a typical residential building, one firefighter can easily overhaul a room. When two firefighters are working in close proximity of each other, an officer should always supervise and coordinate work to prevent injuries.

Continually assess the structural conditions. Check for signs of collapse, and continually sound or check the floor for signs of structural deterioration.

If there is any doubt of the structural integrity communicate immediately to the incident command and back your members out to safety. If an area is compromised, overhaul operations should be abandoned or relocated to a different area.

While working inside, firefighters must wear full PPE — including SCBA and eye protection. The potential for falling debris and collapse are the highest during overhaul.

When opening up walls and ceilings, firefighters will often come in contact with gypsum board, plaster, lathe, splinters, rusty nails, light fixtures, duct work, and many other sharp and hazardous objects. Without full protection we are setting ourselves up for body, hand, and facial injuries.

During this period of fireground operations toxic gases also can be at their highest levels. Firefighters must wear full SCBA until the area has been determined a non-IDHL atmosphere.

Assuming your department's meters clear the space, don't assume that the area is clear to breath freely. What about asbestos, dust particles, or new toxic gases disturbed during further overhaul operations?

Other dangers can include existing gas and electric utilities. Incident command will need to insure utilities are shut off or firefighters can be electrocuted, overtaken by toxic gases, or caught in an unexpected explosion.

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We know that communication is critical during fires. But during overhaul, firefighters have a tendency to let their guards down and forget the basics.

Good communication will prevent injuries. Firefighters should communicate to incident command of progress and potential collapse or hazardous situations. Good communication will also prevent firefighters on the outside getting injured by firefighters on the inside.

While performing overhaul, always communicate to the exterior if throwing debris out the windows, and be sure the area is clear before discarding any debris from windows above.

Incident command may establish an area for debris removal. The area below could be taped off to prevent firefighters walking under an area that objects may be coming in from above.

Vincent Dunn writes, "If it is absolutely necessary to throw a piece of rubble out of an upper-floor window:

  1. The company officer must first notify the officer in command of the fire. Request permission to discard material out the window.
  2. The incident commander or the officer directs a firefighter as a guide at the base of the window.
  3. The guide insures no person can walk in the area where the debris is to be thrown.
  4. The guide informs the officer of the company when it is safe to throw the material out the window. Only after receiving the "all clear" from the firefighter guide below is the smoldering rubble thrown out of the window."

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Finally, firefighters must consider themselves as the hazard. Are you in shape? Have you pushed it to far?

Firefighters are not the type to quickly admit defeat. It is ingrained into the service to push hard, go the distance and not complain. This is what makes firefighters such amazing individuals, but it is also the thing that often kills them as well.

In the larger scheme of things, fire departments can limit some cardiac-related deaths by providing a medical evaluation to all firefighters. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health also recommend that firefighters are cleared for return to duty by a "physician that is knowledgeable about the physical demands of firefighting, the personal protective equipment used by firefighters, and the various components of NFPA 1582".

Part of the annual physical examination should be respirator fit testing. NIOSH also recommends medical clearance to wear SCBA and a department-sanctioned physical ability test as well.

The reality is departments have manpower issues and all these NFPA and OSHA rules aren't making it easy on the departments. The smaller departments are not following or enforcing the recommendations because they are afraid to lose their membership.

What can they do at a minimum to prevent deaths? Rotate crews. Continually assess the firefighters operating on scene. Firefighters are put under physical stress, emotional stress and heat stress. Fight the temptation to be a hero. Know the signs of exhaustion, and remember to stay hydrated.

Dunn says it best, "It's a well known fact that exhausted and overexerted firefighters make poor decisions on the fire ground. Many fire ground injuries that occur during the overhauling stage of firefighting are caused by firefighters, officers and chiefs whose judgment is impaired by exhaustion."

So remember the basics. Wear full PPE, stay alert, get in shape, and stay on the offensive. Don't forget to communicate and understand the dangers of operating in an IDLH or unknown atmosphere. If we remember the basics and understand that me must continue to assess and reassess the scene, we can prevent injury and firefighter fatalities.

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For more information read FEMA report on the Manhattan Fire Department Firefighter Safety During Overhaul Operations and Firefighter Suffers Sudden Cardiac Death During Structure Fire Response.


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