Situational Awareness is Critical

Damaged Helmet
Photo by Mark E. Brady, Prince Georges County Fire/EMS Department

Experienced Judgment

Firefighters frequently base their expectations of how a fire will behave on their experience. Wildland fire scientist Harry Gisborne’s1948 observations about wildland firefighters experienced judgment can be paraphrased to apply to structural firefighters as well:

For what is experienced judgment except opinion based on knowledge acquired by experience? If you have fought fires in every type of building with every different configuration and fuel load, under all types of conditions, and if you have remembered exactly what happened in each of these combinations your experienced judgment is probably very good

Unfortunately this is rarely the case. Firefighters and fire officers often have limited experience and do not have sufficient understanding of fire dynamics to recognize potential for extreme fire behavior.

Riverdale Flashover

Two firefighters from the Riverdale Volunteer Fire Department in Prince Georges County Maryland recently were surprised by a flashover in a small, single family dwelling. Probationary Firefighter Tony George captured initial operations in a series of four photos taken over a period of two minutes.

In the first photo, firefighters from Engine 813 and Truck 807 prepare to make entry. Note that the front door is closed, the glass of the slider and windows are darkened, and smoke can be observed in the lower area of the front porch.

Initial Fire Conditions

  • What can be inferred from these observations?
  • What is the stage of fire development and burning regime?

Six seconds later it appears that the front door has been opened, flames are visible through the sliding glass door, and the volume of smoke in the area of the porch has increased. However, the smoke is not thick (optically dense).

Fire Conditions Six Seconds Later

  • Has your perception of fire conditions changed?
  • Why did fire conditions change after the door was opened?

Forty eight seconds later, as the crew from Truck 807 makes entry to perform horizontal ventilation the volume of smoke from the front door increases and thickens (becomes more optically dense). The crew from Engine 813 experiences a burst hoseline, delaying fire attack.

Fire Conditions 48 Seconds Later

  • If the fire was ventilation controlled prior to opening the door, how are fire conditions likely to change?
  • If the truck crew increases ventilation by opening windows, how will this influence fire development?
  • What is the potential impact of the delay in deployment of a hoseline to attack the fire?

Two minutes after the first photo, and shortly after the crew from Truck 807 made entry, flashover occurred.


According to a press release from Prince Georges County Fire/EMS Department Chief Spokesperson Mark Brady:

The engine from Riverdale Heights arrived first and advanced a hoseline to the front door and paused to don their personal protective equipment (PPE) and self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). The house was vacant and a small fire could be seen in the front living room. The ladder truck from Riverdale Fire/EMS Station #807 was the second to arrive, almost at the same time as Riverdale Heights. The crew from Truck 807 donned their PPE and SCBA and entered the structure to begin ventilation by removing windows. As the engine crew from Riverdale Heights prepared to enter the structure and extinguish the fire their hoseline sustained damage from glass or debris and was cut; rendering it useless. As additional arriving firefighters stretched another hoseline into position, a flashover occurred.

Two firefighters involved in this incident were seriously injured, FF Johnston was treated and released. FF Blazek was admitted to the MedStar Burn unit. Visit the Riverdale Volunteer Fire Department Web Site for updates on FF Blazek’s condition.

Things to Think About

Near misses and injuries such as occurred during this incident happen all too frequently. All too often, firefighters and officers consider this to be part of the job. Fire behavior is extremely predictable. It will do the same thing every single time under the same conditions. The problem is that the conditions are seldom exactly the same and our experienced judgment is not perfect.

What can you do to reduce the risk of being surprised by extreme fire behavior? Become (or continue to be) a student of your craft and develop an improved understanding of fire dynamics and the influence of tactical operations on fire behavior. Practice reading the fire (see my earlier post Reading the Fire: B-SAHF) using photos, video, and every fire you respond to.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

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5 Responses to “Situational Awareness is Critical”

  1. Blog Archive » Decay Stage Fires: Key Fire Behavior Indicators | Compartment Fire Behavior Says:

    […] While these phenomena are different, both present a significant threat to firefighters. Rapid fire progress due to ventilation induced flashover or backdraft is not an instantaneous process. Depending on a number of variables such as the location of the fire, current level of involvement, temperature of the smoke (hot gas) layer, and extent of the increase in ventilation these rapid fire progress phenomenon may take some time to occur. However, when it does, fire development will be extremely rapid! Firefighters entering a compartment or building containing an under ventilated fire must be aware of and manage the hazards presented by the potential for rapid fire progress. Remember, many if not most fires that have progressed beyond the incipient stage before firefighters arrival are ventilation controlled and present the potential for rapid fire progress with increased ventilation (see Situational Awareness is Critical). […]

  2. g Cec yre Says:

    they dont have to open the door, because they were not ready to step in, no door opening,
    No ventilation necessay at that time, it’s seem a little fire in the leaving room

    The fire of Terre Haute and the Gary Indiana are two lost fires attack by imcompetent firefighters
    anybody can do better than these fireman,not qualify a bit.very sorry
    I see the keystonecups to fight a fire.
    They are not professional, not wearing their full gear suit and SCBA, the first mission is to oppen the roof,nothing else the only to évacuate the gaz the heat and hot smoke,from the roof and the inside of the house, ready to step in with the rignt flow rate to absorb the heat of the fire and go in to knock down the fire, in on place not in front ,and the side B et in the front
    No horizontal ventilation at the beginning, keep the place close ,it’s always the same think on every fire no ventilation, and they opened all door and window. and opening feeds the fire, close the door,dont brake windows pane etc,it’s will be heasy to extinghuish that fire. the most important thing is to make the roof ventilation to eliminated the gas. the heat,and hot smoke from interior and the interior wall and ceiling,all the closes spaces,evacuate to the outside it’s not complicated. do it

  3. Blog Archive » Influence of Ventilation in Residential Structures: Tactical Implications Part 2 | Compartment Fire Behavior Says:

    […] Note: Photos by Probationary Firefighter Tony George, PGFD The crew from Engine 813 experienced a burst hoseline, delaying fire attack. Two minutes after the first photo, and shortly after the crew from Truck 807 made entry, flashover occurred. For additional information on this incident, see Situational Awareness is Critical. […]

  4. Blog Archive » Control the Door and Control the Fire | Compartment Fire Behavior Says:

    […] see Situational Awareness is Critical for another example of the importance of understanding practical fire dynamics and being able to […]

  5. Tony Blazek Says:

    Would like everyine to known that this is extremely short version of the full story. No time was anyone trying to ventilate anyting, at no time did the engine company communicate to the truck company that the end of line was out of OOS due to damage. I see nothing about the mention of squatters inside which was the cause of the fire. So this was a potential people trapped situation. Do you want to know the true story ask the people that were there.

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