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The Trainer’s Corner: Understanding ‘structural triage’


December 17, 2007
By Ed Brouwer

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The public has come to expect much from professional fire fighters and rightly so. I use the word professional to describe both full-time and paid-on-call/volunteer. We in the Canadian fire service have a lot to be proud of. We certainly have moved past (although not always willingly) simply putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. Aside from fighting fires, we expect our members to deal with an ever-growing list of emergencies.

The latest addition is the response and operational challenges posed by wildland/urban interface fires. These incidents can quickly overwhelm even the most experienced of agencies.

Since 9/11 the public perception of fire fighters has changed. Now more than ever, fire fighters are looked upon as heroes. The 2003 wildland/urban interface fires in British Columbia only added to this perception. Local structural fire fighters were hailed as hometown heroes, complete with parades and speeches. The problem with this “unwanted” title is that it brings about an unrealistic expectation for fire fighters to rush into every emergency incident no matter how hazardous or ill prepared they may be. This is just wrong!

Competence and bravery – yes, suicidal foolishness – no. For a fire fighter to risk injury or worse, there must be something worth saving.

The public and fire fighters must team up when it comes to dealing with wildland/ urban interface incidents. The public (homeowner, property manager, contractor, regional district managers) can, and I believe should, play a major role in pre-incident preparedness. The fire fighter must be trained (given permission) to “write-off” a house if it meets a certain “hazard” criteria – what we call “structural triage.”

Stay emotionally detached
One way for us as fire fighters in dealing with this subject is to stay emotionally detached. Houses need to be viewed as fuel rather than homes. This is difficult, especially when the fire fighter has to walk away from a house owned by another fire fighter, family or friend. Fire fighter safety should never be compromised by making exceptions to triage guidelines, i.e. for local politicians’ homes (it does happen). It is fuel!

Fire fighters must also learn how to decide when to let houses burn. In the structural triage process, homes are classified as “saveable” or as “write-offs.” In a wildfire situation, a home is classified as a write-off if it is already burning when the fire fighters arrive, or when it is not safe for the fire fighters to stay and fight the fire.

Houses are typically triaged based on the intensity of the fire, the proximity of vegetation, the flammability of the house and fire fighter safety. Houses with cedar siding and roofs, wooden porches and vegetation growing close to the house are more likely to be written off. The number one triage factor should be “fire fighter safety.”

If the house is at the end of a narrow driveway with no turnaround and no safe place for the fire fighters to fight the fire, it also stands a good chance of being written off.

Research shows that several key factors have a great influence on the survivability of a structure. The mnemonic REDS may help:

  • Roof construction,
  • Easy access to property by fire fighters,
  • Defensible space, and the
  • Slope of the land.

Proper size-ups
This is a good time to reiterate the importance of proper size-ups! Fire fighters must be trained to evaluate the survival chances of structures threatened by wildfire. At a higher level, incident commanders must understand how much risk is “acceptable” for their crews. Shouting, as one crew leader did in the Okanagan Mountain Park fire, “Let’s go boys, today is a good day to die in a fire,” is totally unacceptable!

Triage explained
The following is from a paper prepared by a student at the National Fire Academy’s Strategic Analysis of Fire Department Operations course (U.S. National Fire Academy, 1990): “ ‘Triage’ originates from a word meaning to divide into three parts. Basically, it amounts to: 1) eliminate the hopeless, 2) ignore the unnecessary and 3) deal with the rest. While we, as fire fighters, hesitate to write off any threatened structure, triage is necessary to prevent futile waste of effort. Trying to save more than you can realistically might very well result in the loss of everything, including homes you could have saved. Forget the structures that are impossible or too dangerous to defend; leave those that are too well involved to save. Ignore, for now, the structures needing little or no protection. Concentrate on seriously threatened but saveable structures.” – Brown, Structure Triage During Wildland/Urban Interface/ Intermix Fires, 1994.

During a major interface fire, there are going to be far more homes needing protection than there are fire department resources to protect them.

Not everything will survive
While dealing with a rapidly escalating wildland/urban interface situation, fire fighters may have to triage houses much like a medic assesses mass casualties on the battlefield. It is a given that not everyone will survive. Efforts must be concentrated on those that stand a reasonable chance. Those that are essentially hopeless will be passed over in order to save those that can be saved with the time and resources available.

This philosophy applies to houses exactly as it does to victims. If fire fighters do not stand a reasonable chance of saving the house, they must move on to the next house.

Sending a single fire fighter down a long driveway to check it out or backing apparatus down the driveway is time consuming. We should not chance getting to the house only to find there is no way to turn around. Our first priority is to be able to get in and out safely.

“I can feel the earth move beneath my feet” . . . Avoid driving or parking on lawns. Too many fire apparatus have become stuck and stranded by sinking into soft ground or, worse yet, old septic tanks. Do not chance getting stranded! You, your crew and your apparatus will become a liability rather than the much-needed asset.

Look for hazards
In your triage size-up, look for low power lines, above-ground fuel tanks, multiple outbuildings (full of who knows what), and vehicles parked all over the property, contributing to the fire load and possibly blocking apparatus.Propane tanks, unless surrounded by large amounts of flammable materials, are not a major concern. If mounted on wooden supports above ground, diesel or gasoline tanks can become a problem. Fire fighters will have to take time to remove combustibles from beneath or around these. Remember, time is against you!

Pre-identified risks
During a wildfire, time is crucial and resources are limited. Depending on the situation, fire fighters may have to pre-identify homes that cannot be saved during a wildfire incident. During the spring, get your members to do some area familiarization. Write some pre-plans for your interface area. Identify the “Wildfire Hazard Zones” within your protection area. Talk with home owners and educate them in regards to their own particular hazards. Show them those places around the house where leaves have collected indicating that this is where thousands of sparks are going to collect as well. Woodpiles stacked against buildings, open decks, unscreened eave vents, combustible debris scattered around the property and abandoned vehicles are all areas of concern. Tactfully tell them (and, yes, you can) that fire fighters will do what they can, but if there is too much to do in the few minutes before the fire arrives, they will not be able to safely defend it. In which case, the fire fighters will be forced to move on.

Many departments have instigated a “rural address signs” program. Whether it is a fire or medical emergency, minutes count and a visible address can mean the difference between life and death.

Nine wildland/urban interface “watch-out” situations
  1. Wooden construction and wood shake roofs.
  2. Poor access and narrow, congested one-way roads.
  3. Inadequate water supply.
  4. Natural fuels closer than 30 feet to structures.
  5. Extreme fire behaviour.
  6. Strong winds.
  7. Need to evacuate the public.
  8. Structures located in chimney, box or narrow canyons, or on steep slopes among flashy fuels.
  9. Inadequate bridge load limits.

I have built a form for a triage checklist that you can customize it to fit your program (see image). E-mail me at ed@thefire.ca and I will gladly send it to you as a Word document.

Ed Brouwer is the Fire Chief/Training Officer for Canwest Fire. The 17-year veteran of the fire service is also a Fire Warden with Ministry of Forests, First Responder III instructor/evaluator for FNESS (First Nations Emergency Services Society), Local Assistant to the Fire Commissioner as well as a fire service motivational speaker and chaplain.

E-mail ed@thefire.ca.


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