Newest NIOSH Alert: Preventing Deaths and Injuries of Fire Fighters at Structure Fires

NIOSH released it’s latest Alert on Firefighter Risk Reduction. Fire fighters are often killed or injured when fighting fires in abandoned, vacant, and unoccupied structures. These structures pose additional and sometimes unique risks due to the potential for fire fighters to encounter unexpected and unsafe building conditions such as dilapidation, decay, damage from previous fires and vandals, and other factors such as uncertain occupancy status. Risk management principles must be applied at all structure fires to ensure the appropriate strategy and tactics are used based on the fireground conditions encountered.

Fire fighters should take the following steps to minimize their risk of death and injury while fighting structure fires:

  • Report conditions and hazards encountered to your officer, incident commander, or incident safety officers
  • Recognize that maintaining your safety is a shared responsibility
  • Comply with your department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) / standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and safety rules.
  • Be constantly aware of your surroundings and changing conditions.

Fire departments (chief officers, company officers and policy makers) should take the following steps to protect fire fighters:

  • Develop and enforce risk management plans, policies, and standard operating procedures and guide-lines (SOPs/SOGs) for risk management.
  • Train incident commanders, incident safety officers, and fire fighters in the fire department risk management plans and SOPs/SOGs for risk management.

Develop and implement fire department policies and SOPs/SOGs for emergency response and fire-fighting activities in and around abandoned, vacant, or unoccupied structures.

  • A thorough size-up and risk analysis should be performed before conducting operations in any burning structure.
  • Fire-fighting operations should be limited to defensive (exterior) strategy if the structure is judged to be unsafe and in any situation where the risks to fire fighter safety are excessive.
  • Offensive (interior attack) operations should only be considered when sufficient resources are on scene to conduct offensive operations with a reasonable degree of safety, including the ability to perform essential support functions (i.e., water supply, ventilation, lighting, utility control, accountability, rapid intervention teams).
  • Additional size-ups and risk analyses should be performed before changing strategies, including any decision to conduct interior overhaul operations following a defensive fire attack.
  • Have adequate resources available on scene to per-form rapid intervention team (RIT) duties anytime personnel are operating at any structure fire.
  • Inspect and preplan buildings within your jurisdiction. Note the type of construction, materials used, presence of trusses and/or lightweight construction in the roof and floor, type of occupancy, fuel load, exit routes, and other distinguishing characteristics.
  • Enter preplan information into the dispatch computer so that when a fire is reported at a preplanned location, the critical information is provided to all responding units. Adopt and enforce a standard system of marking dangerous abandoned, derelict, and vacant buildings, based on a prefire assessment of their structural conditions and other risk factors, in cooperation with municipal agencies and local authorities such as local housing authorities.
  • Train fire fighters and officers to recognize the marking system and incorporate the information into their size-up considerations. Additionally, local authorities should ensure programs are in place that provide for the demolition and removal of structures deemed unsafe by code enforcement.
    • Make sure that the incident commander conducts an initial size-up of critical fireground factors before beginning fire fighting efforts and continuously re-views and reevaluates these factors during all fire-ground operations. A 360-degree size-up should be conducted for all abandoned, vacant, or unoccupied structures.
    • Ensure those in charge of fire incidents (e.g., incident commanders, chief officers, safety officers) are fully trained to fulfill their responsibilities and obligations in the execution of their duties.
    • Educate the public on the need to have home fire drills and designated meeting places in the event of an emergency. The location of designated meeting
    • places should be communicated to the fire department as a way to help confirm and verify building occupancy status.

Incident commanders (IC) and incident safety officers (ISO) should do the following:

  • The IC should conduct an initial size-up of each incident weighing critical fireground factors (i.e., occupancy status; occupant survivability and rescue potential; vacant building markings or indicators; size, construction and use of the building; age and condition of the building; and the location, size, and extent of the fire in the building) against the department’s risk management profile to determine the initial incident strategy (offensive or defensive). The IC should develop an incident action plan before beginning firefighting efforts and continually review and reevaluate the factors and the risk management plan throughout the operation.
  • The IC should use appropriate risk management criteria to decide whether an offensive or defensive strategy should be employed to attack a fire. The IC should attempt to determine whether the building is occupied or not. Signs to look for include vehicles in garage, driveway, or parked nearby; people at windows of apartment or office buildings calling for help indicates the possibility of other occupants as well; time of day; type of occupancy; and reports from occupants who have escaped the burning structure. Reports from neighbors and bystanders may also provide valuable information.
  • The IC should consider the number of fire fighters, the amount and type of apparatus and equipment available, and the stage of the fire when determining the type of fire attack.
  • Follow departmental policies (risk management plans, SOPs/SOGs) for risk management.
  • Establish, clearly mark, and monitor an exterior collapse zone at structure fires where there is a risk of collapse.
  • Use effective and universal evacuation signals when command personnel determine that all fire fighters should be evacuated from a burning building, as well as during the initiation of defensive operations and during overhaul and salvage operations.


NIOSH Publication No. 2010-153:

NIOSH Alert: Preventing Deaths and Injuries of Fire Fighters using Risk Management Principles at Structure Fires, HERE

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