Alternative rescue options

Ben Klaene and Russ Sanders
NFPA Journal

Apr 30, 2007 20:00 EDT

FIRE DEPARTMENTS are trained and equipped to use several different methods to rescue occupants trapped in a burning building. Occupants should be rescued by the shortest, easiest, and most direct route available. When removing occupants from the upper floors of a building, interior stairs are by far the best rescue choice, provided hallways and stairways are safe for occupant use. Unless damaged by fire or made untenable due to smoke or fire, the stairways provide the most stable and least threatening path to the outside and safety. When hallways and stairways are smoky, extinguishment and proper venting can reestablish exit pathways as a safe and preferred means of egress. Mobile occupants who are not incapacitated by the fire can safely walk to safety using the interior stairs with little assistance from fire fighters. Immobile or incapacitated victims will require assistance in using the stairs and may need to be carried out of the building.

There are times when fire intensity, smoke conditions, and structural damage make it impossible for occupants to use the internal stairways. When this occurs, other rescue methods must be considered. Conditions and building arrangement will determine the best alternative rescue options. Most buildings are not equipped with fire escapes, and oftentimes in buildings that are equipped with fire escapes typically older buildings - the structural stability of the fire escapes is questionable. However, if a structurally sound fire escape is available, it is usually the second rescue option. Fire escapes do not require fire fighters to place ladders or other rescue equipment in place, and a structurally sound fire escape can provide a safe means of egress for large numbers of people. Building occupants are generally familiar with the location of the fire escape. Fire fighters should expect to find occupants attempting to use the fire escape when the interior stairs are untenable. And, even though for many occupants the fire escape is a more threatening egress path, these same occupants may use the fire escape as their first preference due to proximity even if the stairways are clear of smoke.

If smoke or fire makes the fire escape untenable, it may be possible to protect the fire escape with hose lines, or it may be necessary to use an aerial device or ground ladder to remove victims from a fire escape when fire or smoke conditions cannot be controlled. Aerial devices are considered the third priority rescue method. Aerial devices provide a more stable platform than ground ladders; and in the case of an aerial platform, an unconscious victim can be efficiently lowered to the ground. It may be necessary to carry a victim down a straight stick aerial ladder, but even this option is safer than using a ground ladder and requires fewer fire fighters.

Some buildings or parts of buildings are inaccessible to aerial devices and may require the use of ground ladders. Ground ladders require more effort to place in position and are less stable; and many occupants will be reluctant to climb out a window onto a portable ladder. When the use of ground ladders is indicated, it may require the efforts of a full fire company to rescue a single occupant. Many occupants will need help in gaining access to the ladder from inside the building or require assistance in descending the ladder. Incapacitated and/or disabled victims may need to be carried down the ladder, which is a labor intensive and dangerous tactic. Thus a full fire company may be needed to assist a single victim down a portable ladder, as fire fighters would likely be needed to assist on the floor inside the window, on the ladder itself, and at the heel of the ladder.


An interesting question arises regarding the use of elevators for rescue. Fire safety professionals discourage the use of elevators by occupants as a means of escape under fire conditions. However, there are circumstances where elevators could be used to remove occupants when under the fire department's control. The use of elevators for evacuation may be justified in buildings that are subdivided by fire-resistive construction. If an elevator is remote and separated from the fire area with an auxiliary power supply, using it for rescue purposes, especially to evacuate immobile occupants, may be the best option. The use of an elevator in the immediate fire area is hazardous to everyone and should be avoided.

Before attempting any rescue, determine if committing limited resources to rescuing occupants is the best option. A defend-in-place concept is used in some occupancies, such as high-rise buildings and health care facilities, where occupants are moved away from the fire area but remain in the structure. Many large buildings are constructed in a manner that would allow a defend-in-place strategy. The following should be considered: Would it be safer to leave occupants in place in sections of the building that have not been contaminated by the products of combustion? Or would it be better to evacuate these occupants through smoke-filled corridors and stairwells? As more difficult rescue methods are considered, the question of the necessity of the rescue becomes critically important. If the fire can be rapidly extinguished or if the building is protected by a sprinkler system, defend-in-place strategies may be the best alternative. If, however, the Incident Commander's size-up indicates that occupants should be rescued, then determine the safest and most efficient means of removing occupants.

If it is necessary to remove people from a multi-story building, use the interior stairways as a first choice. When a decision has been made to remove occupants from the building, always use the safest and most efficient means available.

Source: NFPA Journal


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