You might be looking at the title of this article thinking, “Not another opinion piece with a catchy buzzword!” Actually, “survivability profiling” is not an opinion—or even a buzzword; it’s a concept. And it’s not an easy one—with a 20-plus year career as an interior structural firefighter, even I’m not 100% comfortable with the concept. However, the facts speak for themselves. And why should we—you—care? Because it’s the emerging leaders of the fire service who will be required to make educated, informed and safe decisions on the fireground, as they’re the ones who may be held accountable when a firefighter under their command is injured or killed in the line of duty.
What Is Survivability Profiling?
Over the past five years, 120 U.S. firefighters have been killed in the line of duty at structural fires. This figure does not include auto accidents, heart attacks, strokes, etc.—it only includes firefighter fatalities that occurred during direct fire suppression activities. Only six civilians were killed in those same structural fires that took 120 firefighter lives. This dichotomy is the focus of survivability profiling.
Survivability profiling is defined as the art of making an educated and informed decision, based on known events or circumstances, to determine if civilians can survive the existing fire and smoke conditions inside burning structures. No action plan can be accurately developed until we first determine if the victims can survive the fire and toxic smoke conditions before rescuers search for and locate them, remove them and attempt to revive them.
I first developed the concept of survivability profiling in 2009 while attending the Executive Fire Officer Program; you can view the complete research project at www.usfa.fema.gov/pdf/efop/efo44310.pdf. That project received validation when it was cited in the NIOSH report on the line-of-duty death (LODD) of Firefighter Brian Carey in Homewood, Ill. (www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face201010.html).
The springboard for survivability profiling stemmed from the fact that in the 19 years I’d been with the FDNY at the time, 32 LODDs had occurred during structure fires—yet not one civilian was killed in any of those fires. It should also be noted that each of those 32 firefighters was performing fire suppression operations (e.g., primary searches, overhaul, checking for extension and/or initial fire attack).
Other studies back up this trend. In 2005, The Boston Globe investigated the federal reports of 52 fires that killed 80 firefighters between 1997 and 2004. Each firefighter died fighting building fires. Although the article cited contributing factors in the fatalities, such as reduced firefighter staffing and inadequate response times, more startling facts were presented. In only 14 of those 52 fires was there even a suspicion that someone might be inside. In only six of those 52 fires were people in the building at the time of the fire department’s arrival, and, once again, not one of the 52 fires resulted in a civilian fatality.1
So, what makes survivability profiling different? Well, the difference is that it goes beyond our traditional size-up criteria and the mindset that there’s a life inside every burning structure that we respond to. Although there have certainly been civilians saved by this thinking, the sobering fact is that this assumption has also killed many firefighters. The research supports the fact that in many fires where firefighters have been killed, we, after entering the structure, were the only life hazard that existed. Conversely, even in situations where we know or are reasonably certain that civilian lives are inside a burning structure, we must sometimes look at the fire and smoke conditions and conclude that some trapped occupants are just not savable. This extremely difficult and unpopular decision will require us to attack the fire first and conduct search and/or rescue, and/or body recovery, when it’s relatively safe for our operating forces to do so.
The Need for Cultural Change
So, does that mean we should just surround and drown all structure fires that we respond to? Of course not, nor does it mean that we should stop interior firefighting operations. It means that we must slow down and rethink the way we do business in certain situations, especially in understaffed departments—an issue that many emerging leaders are dealing with as a result of budgetary cutbacks and political restraints.
We need to be more honest with ourselves and professional enough to reach educated conclusions regarding civilian survivability at some structure fires. That is why the IAFC’s Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting have been adopted on a national level. They provide guidelines on go/no-go decision-making and firefighter safety and survival.2
It appears that our past size-up techniques just do not go far enough. Brian Crawford (chief of the Shreveport, La., Fire Department) has written about the “Firefighter Duty to Die Syndrome (FDTDS).3 Chief Crawford examines the relationship between LODDs and the psychological factors that create a cultural belief that dying in the line of duty is part of the job. He defines FDTDS as “a firefighter’s behavior that reflects a sense of obligation and duty to unnecessarily risk personal and others’ safety above what is appropriate or required.” Without serious discussion as to why some fire department cultures, groups or individuals believe that unnecessary risk and unsafe behaviors are an acceptable part of the occupation, Chief Crawford believes that the fire service is missing the mark and possibly a chance to save the life of one or more of its own.
Put simply: The U.S. fire service and its emerging leaders must develop an attitude that does not accept LODDs as part of our profession. This is a common theme throughout the UK fire service, where they recently held rallies in protest after the first LODD in eight years. In Asian fire services, an LODD is recognized as a failure of the system and is intensely scrutinized.
To effectively implement survivability profiling, firefighters and officers must understand how long people can survive within fires. Two studies give factual insight into the concept: “Respiratory Burns: A correlation of clinical and laboratory results”4 and “Theoretical evaluation of burns to the human respiratory tract due to inhalation of hot gases in the early stages of fire.”5
Individually (and 38 years apart), these studies concluded that civilian survival times in fire conditions are limited to approximately 10 minutes. These estimations were generated based on the studying of human fire victims and laboratory mice exposed to heat and toxic smoke environments. Neither of these studies have been disputed or replicated since their publication.
As part of my research, I also consulted several city and county medical examiners and fire marshal offices throughout the country. From them I learned that estimating the times of death for civilian fire victims can be extremely accurate. It takes into consideration evidentiary information such as discovery of the fire, receipt of the initial call, fire department dispatch and response times, the time the victim was found, the victim’s location and physical body position, and the time the fire was brought under control. This same practice has been routinely utilized in homicide investigations for decades.
Take It to the Next Level
Risking our lives to save others is certainly a noble calling. Thousands of lives are saved every year in this country because firefighters are willing to risk it all. Calculating that risk is where we need improvement. Survivability profiling is not much different from our traditional size-up. However, it takes basic size-up to the next level.
Traditional size-up asks, “Are there people in there?” It is based on several factors such the time of day, type of structure, etc. Survivability profiling asks, “Are people ALIVE in there?” In situations where people are unlikely to survive the existing fire and smoke conditions, survivability profiling leads us to extinguish the fire first and attempt searches when it is relatively safe for our operating forces to do so.
An NFA instructor I once had told me, “History repeats itself. Therefore, history is predictable. If history is predictable, then it’s preventable—and if it’s preventable, then it cannot be an accident.”6
We and our future leaders owe it to ourselves, our fellow firefighters, our departments and our families to help reduce preventable LODDs. It’s my hope that survivability profiling will assist in that goal.
- Dedman B. (2005). Fewer resources, greater risk for firefighters. In BostonGlobe.com. Retrieved July 29, 2001 from www.boston .com/news/specials/fires/fewer_resources_greater_risk_for_firefighters.
- International Association of Fire Chiefs (2009). Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting: Increasing Firefighter Survival—Project Overview. Retrieved July 29, 2011 from www.iafcsafety.org/downloads/Rules_of_Engagement.pdf and www.iafcsafety.org/image/ROE_Poster.pdf.
- Crawford BA. (May 1, 2007). Firefighter duty to die syndrome. In Firechief.com. Retrieved July 29, 2011 from http://firechief.com/leadership/firefighting_die/index.html.
- Corbitt JD, Given KS, Martin JD et al. Respiratory burns: A correlation of clinical and laboratory results. Ann Surg. 1967;165(2):157–168.
- Liu J, Yong-Gang L, Zhang J. (2005). Theoretical evaluation of burns to the human respiratory tract due to inhalation of hot gas in the early stage of fires. Burns. 2006;32(4):436–46.
- Fletcher E. (2007) National Fire Academy training presentation.