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Water first or people first? A critical question for the first-arriving crewmember

The decision isn’t always so simple, particularly with buildings involving many occupants

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There are three priorities on the fireground: life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation. The most important of these is life safety.

Life safety is a broad category encompassing both civilians and fire personnel. Fire crews must ensure that all individuals are accounted for, individuals are removed from the structure or protected in place until they can be removed, and that their injuries have been handled by EMS.

The first-arriving officer or firefighter on scene needs to quickly size-up the situation and then determine which way they are going to go – life safety first or incident stabilization first. In the case of our discussion today, crew had to consider whether to apply water first or deal with the people who needed to be removed from the structure.

The corresponding video highlights this tactical decision. The incident involves heavy/advanced fire conditions in one wing of a resort that is going to be occupied with multiple people.

As you watch the video unfold, you will see two people escaping a fire unit by jumping down to a lower unit’s balcony. Imagine that this is what the first-arriving officer sees upon arrival.

So, what does the first-arriving officer do? Do they put water on the fire or do they start to search and remove the occupants from the building?

If an all-hands rescue is initiated with the first-arriving units to address the life safety component of rescuing people from the building with no water on the fire, then the fire will continue to grow and become a bigger issue to deal with as time progresses.

On the flip side, water is put on the fire right away to address the incident stabilization component, then the main problem will be decreased in size and scope, allowing for the search and removal of people to be accomplished easier.

The answer is, of course, situational, dictated by the type of building involved and the number of people who are involved as well as the department’s response capabilities. There are many factors that will dictate what the first actions will be – putting water on the building first or rescuing people first. This decision will ultimately come down to the first-arriving officer’s or firefighter’s knowledge of their own department’s resources and capabilities.

There are domino effects attached to each decision. The fire gets bigger and traps more people, making it difficult to access them, or fire gets reduced in size with some people perhaps succumbing to the effects of the fire in the meantime. In a single-family residential structure, most times we will go after the people first to get them out then deal with the fire, but in buildings that house multiple people, which way do we go – water first or people first?

Training time

After watching this video and reviewing this article with your company, consider the following ways to train on this decision-making and tactical process:

  • Review the department’s standard operating procedures and/or guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) on responses to muti-occupancy structures to see what tactics are recommended or direction is given for the department to initiate.
  • Preplan the station or department’s first-due area to identify which buildings are multi-occupied. Do a walk through to get familiar with these buildings.
  • Have a roundtable discussion on the question of “water first or people first” to gauge each member’s thoughts on tactical approach.

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.