Fire Fighting in Canada

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Trainer’s Corner: A study of dangerous tactics

Canada: the world’s second-largest country; more than 5,000 kilometres wide; 31 million residents spread through 10 provinces and three territories. This is our beloved land for which we, the Canadian fire services, stand on guard. Each department will be called on to deal with different dangers.

November 14, 2008
By Ed Brouwer


Canada: the world’s second-largest country; more than 5,000 kilometres wide; 31 million residents spread through 10 provinces and three territories. This is our beloved land for which we, the Canadian fire services, stand on guard.
Each department will be called on to deal with different dangers. Our rural, east coast departments will not often experience the risks our southern Ontario departments face in operating on the floor above a fire.
Urban Interface fires pose a greater danger for west-coast departments. A 20-pound propane cylinder fire is not a big deal for departments in Canada’s oil and gas country. With all these variables, it would be unrealistic to think any one column could address each department’s training needs.



Vincent Dunn’s book is highly recommended as a complete study on dangerous firefighting tactics.

Assessing variables is crucial


Fire service speak: Always getting it right


We can certainly help, but the responsibility to identify firefighter hazards and fire-ground dangers associated within your particular area remains on your shoulders. If you keep a good record of your calls and the dangers those incidents posed, you should be able to create your own fire-department risk-management scale. When you have that, it will be easy to develop your own firefighter safety and survival tactics.

This article will be among several regarding dangerous fire-fighting tactics. For a complete study on this subject, I recommend Vincent Dunn’s book, Safety And Survival on the Fireground. This hardcover book, published by PennWell, is a must have for your training library. Dunn, a retired NYFD chief, has probably forgotten more about fire fighting than most of us will ever hope to experience. He lists the following dangerous firefighting tactics.

1. Collapse rescue operations;
2. Responding and returning to alarms;
3. Searching for a fire;
4. Advancing an attack hose line;
5. Operating on a peaked roof;
6. Operating above a fire;
7. Cellar fires;
8. Propane gas fires;
9. Wildfires;
10. Aerial ladder operations;
11. Forcible entry;
12. Master stream operations;
13. Outside venting;
14. Fire-escape operations;
15. Overhauling.

Here, we will look at the first dangerous fire fighting tactic. According to Dunn, “Collapse rescue operations are considered a dangerous firefighting tactic because most collapses are accompanied by fire. Rescue operations after a building has collapsed are dangerous because there is danger of a second collapse burying rescue firefighters. Furthermore, after a collapse there is great potential for a delayed gas explosion and fire, trapping firefighters who are on top of the pile of rubble, searching for victims.” A building collapse rescue operation is one of the most dangerous tasks in which a firefighter may be involved.

Firefighters must rely on their knowledge of building material, building construction principles and an understanding of fire effects on buildings in order to predict or anticipate collapse. Waiting for a visual sign that a building will collapse is dangerous, especially in new buildings. There are, however, some factors and observations that can be used to help anticipate collapse. These include:

  • Overall age and condition of the building;
  • Deterioration of mortar joints and masonry;
  • Cracks in anything;
  • Evidence of building repair including reinforcing cables and tie-rods;
  • Large open spans;
  • Bulges and bowing of walls;
  • Structural members pulling away from walls;
  • Sagging floors;
  • Abandoned buildings;
  • Large volume of fire;
  • Long firefighting operations (remember gravity?);
  • Smoke coming from cracks in walls;
  • Dark smoke coming from truss roof or floor spaces (brown smoke indicates that wood is being heated significantly; black smoke means combustibles have ignited or are near ignition);
  • Multiple fires in the same building or damage from previous fires.

There are two rules about structural collapse during fire operations that every firefighter must understand. The first is that the potential for structural failure during a fire always exists. The second rule is to establish a collapse zone, which is an area around and away from the building where debris will land if the building fails. As an absolute minimum, this distance must be at least 1.5 times the height of the building. The walls may crumble into a pile or they may tip out the full height of the building. You also need to provide extra space for cascading debris.

There was a line of thinking that said you have at least 20 minutes for firefighting operations within a building. However, tests have shown that this no longer accurate. Roofs and walls can collapse within minutes of fire given certain conditions. An overloaded (due to improper storage or other factors) truss can collapse immediately when heated. Once a building has been searched for occupants the risks firefighters take to control the fire should be reduced. After all, now it is just a building.

Many firefighters have been killed or injured fighting interior fires, only to have the building torn down after the investigation. Outside (defensive) fire fighting operations can be equally dangerous if firefighters don’t mind the collapse zone.

It would be of great benefit if you can get your firefighters into buildings within your jurisdictions to survey and explore how they are being assembled, remodelled and used in the real world. Buildings under construction are losers from a firefighting point of view – they collapse quickly.

Hope this has helped. Stay safe and remember to train like lives depend on it, because they do.
References: Essentials of Firefighting and Emergency Response; Building Construction for Fire Suppression Forces: Wood & Ordinary Construction, NFA; Essentials of Fire Fighting IV; Safety And Survival On The Fireground by Vincent Dunn.

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and the training officer for West Boundary Highway Rescue. The 19-year veteran of the fire service is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a wildland interface fire suppression instructor/evaluator and a fire-service chaplain. Contact Ed at

A list of safe operating procedures
1. Stretch a hose line to protect rescuers from sudden explosion or flash fire.
2. Follow the standard collapse rescue plan: site survey; collapse rubble pile surface search; void search; selected debris removal: tunnel/trench to specific locations; general debris removal.
3. Shut off utilities.
4. Temporarily withdraw rescue workers from the pile. Continue selected debris removal after serious secondary collapse, fire and explosion dangers have been eliminated and use fewer firefighters.
5. Obtain portable lighting for night operation.
6. When there is danger of secondary collapse, use a transit (surveyor’s device) to measure any movement of the structure. If a wall shifts more than a quarter inch, workers should be removed and the wall shored or removed by a crane.
7. Set up a command system.
8. Designate a collapse rescue co-ordinator. Notify all agencies that the co-ordinator is temporarily in charge of rescue operations.
9. Assign an officer to record data on victims including name, location found, diagn-
osis, physician name, facility to which transported, etc.
10. Do not use mechanical equipment to remove collapse rubble from the same area where hand digging is going on.
11. When there is danger of secondary collapse, do not pull down structures in danger of collapse with wire cables. Shore them up, or before selected debris removal begins, remove them with a crane after rescue workers have been recalled from the pile.
12. Secure the collapse site before leaving the scene.
13. Photograph the collapse operations to use as future visual training aids.
14. Never give up hope of finding victims. People have a good chance of survival if rescued within 24 hours; individuals have been buried in collapse rubble for as long as 11 days and lived.
15. Do not stop selected debris removal until all victims reported missing have been accounted for. During general debris removal, examine all rubble taken from the collapse for the remains of persons buried but not reported missing.
-From Safety and Survival on the Fireground

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