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When Do You Back Out?


One of the hardest things to do in the fire service is to back out of a building and let it burn. 

We train for hundreds of hours planning on what we are going to do when we get that big fire and if things don’t work out we may have to back out and turn to a defensive type of operation.  That situation can be very hard to deal with, especially when there may be victims involved in the fire.

We are supposed to be the brave well trained crew that everyone calls upon in an emergency to make everything better.   It can be difficult for the residents to watch their property burn but it is even harder for firefighters to back out and let something burn.

One difficult situation involved a house with a fire in the basement.  The house was occupied by an elderly woman who happened to be a hoarder.  It was one of those houses with the piles of stuff all over and little aisles to navigate through the house.  The first crews tried to enter the house and had trouble with all the clutter. 

As the basement fire grew the incident commander decided it was best to let the building burn instead of send any more crews inside to search for the fire.  The resident was outside already and the decision was made that we weren’t going to “risk a lot to try and save a little”.  

I am all in favor of safety but I think sometimes we use the slogan “Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little” too freely.  No contents of a building is worth a firefighters life, but I had a tough time thinking we couldn’t get inside there and put out that fire, with very little risk.  We spent the next few hours letting that fire burn

There are a lot of times when we do need to back out and let things go, and yes we should always measure the risk versus the gain.  Interior and exterior conditions of the building need to be monitored during any structure fire.  If you are inside there are a few things that should turn you around.  Any sign of weakness or sagging of a floor is a sign you need to head for the exit. 

When leaving the building it is usually best to follow the same path you came in by following your hoseline.  If that floor gives way you can use your hoseline to keep yourself from falling through the floor, or you can use it to get yourself up through the floor.  Stay next to the wall on your way out, the floor is most stable near the wall.

Working on a roof is extremely dangerous.  Sagging roof sections, smoke coming through the shingles or roofing material are signs that the roof is about to fail.  Any of these signs should be relayed to the incident commander while you are on your way down.  Don’t wait to be told to come down, there is not time for that. 

You don’t need to open that roof because it won’t be there much longer in that condition.

Peer pressure is a tough thing in the fire service, we all like to poke fun at the guys that let things burn.  In reality we all know there are some fires that we just can’t put out. 

There is no shame in respecting the power of the fire in a well involved structure.  Controlled aggressive firefighting does not mean you cross the line of putting yourself in danger for no reason.  There is no reason to risk your life to save someone’s property,  and there is no reason to risk your life to recover a victim that has no chance of surviving the fire. 

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