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Lighting up the fireground

Scene lighting needs to be a new incident management strategy

The Seven Fundamentals of Firefighting were first codified by Lloyd Layman back in 1954. Remember these?

  1. Size-up
  2. Call for help
  3. Rescue
  4. Protect exposures
  5. Locate and confine the fire
  6. Extinguish the fire
  7. Overhaul the fire

The seven fundamental strategies must occur sequentially while the strategies of salvage and ventilation are implemented anywhere those strategies are needed to support the other seven.

We’ve now arrived at a point — probably arrived a while ago, but didn’t fully understand it — where we must add a third parallel strategy: illuminate the scene.

The American National Standards Institute and the Illuminating Engineering Society are a couple of the organizations that develop information and standards regarding lighting, and workplace lighting in particular.

ANSI is a federal agency, while IES is a collegial community dedicated to improving the lighted environment.

The emergency scene is our workplace and it only makes sense that we should view it as such and make it more safe by improving the quality and consistency of our illumination efforts. This also will improve firefighter efficiency and effectiveness.

Delivery of the necessary useable light commensurate with the tactical requirements of the incident action plan is the scene illumination benchmark. ANSI and IES define useable light as the minimum level of light necessary to perform a task safely, effectively and efficiently.

By achieving the scene illumination benchmark early in the incident, we can have a more positive influence on tactical operations. Here are four areas where proper illumination will influence the scene.

  • Improve ongoing assessment of the incident scene
  • Reduce reflex time — the time between arrival of personnel and their engagement in assigned tasks
  • Improve apparatus and equipment positioning
  • Improve tactical operations’ execution

A quick physics refresher is probably helpful before moving forward. Wattage is the measure of the rate of energy conversion or transfer, that is, the power required to operate a fixture or appliance. Lumen is the measure of the total amount of visible light emitted by a source.

According to R.O.M. Lighting Systems, there are two common myths regarding useable light: increase the wattage and you increase the useable light; and increase the lumen rating and you increase the useable light.

Both are inaccurate according to the First Law of Thermodynamics. In its simplest form, the First Law of Thermodynamics states that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed. Since available wattage is converted to both light and heat during an operation, the only way to increase the amount of useable light from a given wattage is to improve the ability of the fixture or appliance to convert wattage into light rather than heat.

R.O.M. commissioned a third-party test using IES standards comparing its emergency scene lighting equipment to that of its competitors. Not surprisingly, the results reported favored the R.O.M. products.

According to those results, a 900-watt fixture can deliver more useable light than a 1,500-watt fixture. It does this by reducing the heat buildup in the fixture, using a lens that is 100% transparent and using a housing that maximizes the outward direction of light energy rather than allowing the housing to absorb that light as heat.

For the fire officer tasked with illuminating the incident scene, the necessary equipment includes — but is certainly not limited to — portable lights, support stands for those lights, electricity supplies, power cords and junction blocks.

Scene illumination equipment manufacturers are responding to the requirements of today’s emergency responders with products that go beyond lights using power cords running back to an apparatus-mounted generator. These products are light-weight, portable, and designed for quick deployment anywhere on the emergency scene and extended operating times.

Some of these new free-standing technologies include:

  • Pole light combinations powered by rechargeable, 12-volt sealed lead acid batteries using Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology. These units weigh 25 to 30 pounds, can deliver 2,000 lumens and have eight to 15 hours of burn time between charges.
  • Tripod-mounted pole light combinations powered by rechargeable Li-ion batteries, weighing 20 to 30 pounds, and capable of delivering 4,000 lumens. Some of these units have both spot- and area-lighting capabilities.
  • Generator and light and frame combinations that provide a stand-alone units that are still portable — weighing 50 to 70 pounds depending upon the weight of the generator — yet capable of delivering more than 20,000 lumens. These units are capable of powering one or two pole lights and have run times of more than 10 hours without refueling.

The inability to clearly see the incident scene, and properly evaluate that scene for potential risks, has to become one of the primary risks that we address early in the incident lifecycle rather than later.

Illuminating the incident scene should be the third “concurrent incident management strategy” taking its rightful place alongside salvage and ventilation. If we can’t see the risk, we can’t address the risk.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.

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