Flashover and Firefighter Survival Skills

Firefighter survival skills, MAYDAY, and rapid intervention training have received a great deal of emphasis over the last several years. These skills are critical. Firefighters must react correctly when faced with a breathing apparatus malfunction, structural collapse, or extreme fire behavior event. However, the most effective approach to survival is to prevent or reduce the probability of firefighters from facing these conditions.

My last several posts have examined the events surrounding a multiple firefighter injury incident that occurred at a residential fire in Loudoun County, Virginia on May 25, 2008. The report prepared by Loudoun County Fire, Rescue, & Emergency Management took a systems approach to examining this incident and the investigative team made 123 recommendations for improving department operations, firefighter safety, communications, behavioral health, training, apparatus and equipment, uniforms and personal protective equipment, and other considerations. This post will examine four of those recommendations that deal with firefighter safety and training. Read the report for additional detail and to examine the other recommendations.

Recommendation: Reiterate the importance of visualizing the entire structure prior to making entry [whenever possible].

Recommendation: Develop a system-wide training program that focuses on situational awareness, particularly how to “read” interior and exterior smoke conditions to identify the location and predicted spread of the fire.

Recommendation: Implement ongoing, mandatory, system-wide training on Northern Virginia MAYDAY procedures and self-survival techniques. In post incident interviews, all four interior personnel credited their escape from the structure with ongoing self-survival training.

Recommendation: Develop and implement system-wide, entry-level and ongoing firefighter self-survival training that at a minimum addresses RIT, flashover, MAYDAY procedures, crew integrity, ladder bails, emergency SCBA procedures, firefighter drags and carries and practical scenario-based evolutions.

These recommendations are excellent, but do not go far enough!

Visualizing the entire structure whenever possible and “reading” smoke conditions on the exterior and interior are a critical component in developing awareness of incident conditions and predicting anticipated fire development and spread. However, smoke is only one fire behavior indicator; a more comprehensive approach integrates assessment of Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame (B-SAHF) indicators along with a sound understanding of practical fire dynamics.

Flashover training often focuses on recognition of late (interior) indicators of this extreme fire behavior phenomena and last minute control efforts to increase the chance of escape and survival. In discussing the flashover training attended by the Loudon County firefighters and officers involved in this incident, the report states:

If flashover is imminent, firefighters are taught to practice aggressive cooling with a 30o fog pattern to the right, to the center, and to the left.

If this tactic fails, firefighters are directed to get as close to the floor as possible, open the nozzle fully, on a wide fog pattern, and rotate the nozzle about their head in a circular pattern.

Unfortunately, many flashover training programs teach these methods, but do not substantively address use of gas cooling and ventilation tactics to control the fire environment and prevent the occurrence of flashover or other extreme fire behavior phenomenon.

Several years ago, Phoenix Fire Department implemented an initiative that placed 75% of the effort into training to stay out of trouble and 25% into getting out of trouble if it happened. The same principle applies in addressing the hazards presented by potential for extreme fire behavior such as flashover. In addition to survival skills, firefighters must receive training and education to develop the ability to:

  • Understand and apply practical fire dynamics on the fireground
  • Read critical fire behavior indicators, understand the impact of tactical operations, and predict likely fire behavior
  • Understand and skillfully apply fire control and ventilation strategies on a proactive basis to mitigate hazards and control the fire environment

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

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