Preparing for the Unexpected

We are being surprised by explosions, flashovers and collapse situations all too often in fires. It begs the question of whether we are really doing the necessary 360 size-up and continuously evaluating the progress of the fire. We need to start the size-up immediately when the job comes out, or even earlier. You may wonder how you can achieve this if you don't know where or what type of fire you're responding to.

But each member covers a specific jurisdiction, town or neighborhood — know your neighborhood or the area your department or station covers. Go out with a crew and study the local construction and building types. Set up a drill with your company to just drive around and size-up the area. Ask yourself such questions as:

  • How would we attack this building?
  • What should we watch out for?
  • Is this building occupied?
  • What times of the days are these buildings occupied?

You may find things you never would expect. For instance, a battered old building actually has a large LPG tank on the back side; a four-story vacant actually houses some squatters; the old man down the road stores paint supplies in the back garage; buildings empty during the day are occupied in the evening; commercial spaces house one operation during the day, and an entirely different operation at night.

Other important items to focus on are:

  • Occupancy Type: Assembly, mercantile, business, etc.
  • Construction Type: Bowstring, truss joists, timber, conventional, etc.
  • Hazards: Fuel Tanks, gas tanks, hazardous materials, etc.
  • Attack: Access, water supply, etc.

All these and more help paint a picture of what you may encounter at a fire, and how you can gear your operations around potential existing hazards. This absolutely limits the chances for injuries and unexpected surprises. Granted you cannot prevent all accidents, but if we do our homework we may decrease our odds of on-the-job injuries.

The first video below highlights an explosion from the interior of a taxpayer-type commercial building. Our "drive-by" drill idea earlier may have discovered a placard or a hazardous contents situation, which may well have triggered a more cautious approach on the attack. This video clearly shows the firefighter was not expecting the contents to explode. If we know what type of businesses we are encountering in advance of fires, we may be better prepared for an atypical firefighting situation:

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The incident took place in Florida and the department was called to a burring barrel of water. The firefighter begins making the attack with a fire extinguisher, but, as you saw, before he gets to the barrel it explodes as a result of a chemical reaction between the water and metal shavings inside.

In addition, check out the following video on "Let Burning Metals Lie."

The following video highlights the dangers of not doing a continual size-up and being mesmerized by the red. Dave Dodson, from " The Art of Smoke Reading," says it best: "Don't be mesmerized by the fire, the smoke is telling you what is about to happen." Continual size-up and awareness to the smoke conditions will allow you to be able to alert the firefighters making the attack that there is an increasing probability for backdraft conditions:

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The next video highlights more continual size-up and reassessment of the scene conditions. The building shows obvious signs of collapse. It should serve as a reminder to take the necessary precautions immediately when you see conditions like this to prevent firefighter injuries and fatalities:

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And be sure to check out Vincent Dunn's perspective on masonry wall collapses.

We have all heard the importance of size-up by our training instructors and our officers. But we need to expand this process to before the fire is even called in. Train in your local communities and fire protection area. Study the local construction fabric and hazards. With these tools, we can arrive further prepared and ready to fight. The end result will be less firefighters being injured or even killed.

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