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Video: Why cops shouldn’t enter a burning structure

It’s admirable to want to rescue occupants, but the gamble elevates the risk for firefighters and prolongs fire operations

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For every structure fire that we respond to, police officers also respond, often arriving first on the scene. When that happens, their next actions can either help or hinder firefighter efforts – it’s up to you to decide which one occurs more often.

Law enforcement search of structure fires

If police officers arrive on a fire scene first, they may decide to enter the structure and search it, with the goal of assisting any occupants who may be still inside.

In this month’s video, a car fire is extending into the attached garage of a house. You can see not one, not two, but three police officers enter the structure to search it – all with the responding fire department’s chief officer on site and in command. This is done prior to any arriving fire apparatus and personnel. As the police officers exit the structure, they indicate that no one is inside.

So, what is the harm in their actions? There are several factors to consider.

Creating additional victims. One concern is that police officers become the would-be rescuer in that situation. By entering an environment that is immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH), police officers may need to be rescued themselves; they contribute to the problem by adding to the occupant count to be removed from the structure.

Unreliable search methods. The fire service cannot rely on law enforcement’s report on this important benchmark of the operation, as they are not trained to search a structure while it is under fire, like we are. We know:

  • where to start our search;
  • how to conduct a primary search; and
  • where we commonly find occupants during the primary search.

If we take law enforcement’s word that the structure is clear with no one inside, we are only compounding the problem by neglecting our duty to the community and to the occupants of that structure.

On-scene duty designations

So, how do we handle these types of situations when police arrive early to fire scenes?

First, we must always search the structure ourselves; it is our job to search, locate and remove any occupants. It’s also our job to extinguish the fire, which may be done while searching the structure if we are making a fast attack.

Second, we need to try and keep the police out of our structures. This will require educating police officers about the dangers of an IDLH environment, and a strong command presence to keep them out. Assigning police on scene to other duties – traffic control, perimeter security and information gathering from neighbors or from occupants who were able to exit the structure – can direct them to a safer way to contribute to the operation.

Training time

After watching this video with your company, company officers should take time to hit these training topics with their crews:

1. Review best practices for collaborating with other public safety agencies at different emergency scenes, including:

2. Reach out to and collaborate with local police on the dangers of IDLH environments and how law enforcement can support fire operations at structure fires.


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Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.