Focus on what you know

Post date: Mar 26, 2015 10:17:45 PM

We had an incredible training exercise a couple of weeks ago that really left me thinking (explained shortly). To prepare for the exercise, we began by removing all of the big trucks from the station and then laid out a very simple, symmetric course comprised of 9 coiled up hoses of varying length and diameter oriented like this

Each coil of hose was spaced approximately 15 feet apart from the next and placed on top of each coil was either a 1/2" diameter piece of tubing about 4" long or a 1/2" diameter 90 degree elbow.

The task was simple, navigate from hose to hose collecting each piece as you go and then once at the finish, assemble them to make a square. Easy enough huh?

These were the conditions:

1) Full bunker gear. Gloves had to be fire (very thick) not utility and could not be removed during the exercise

2) BA (breathing apparatus) and helmet had to be worn. You were given a full tank

3) You were given a halligan tool (for search) and a radio (emergency phone a friend)

4) The mask was fitted with a blanking insert that completely obstructed the view

5) Finish in 7 minutes

Oh, I get it now. Blindfolded!

The purpose of the pipe pieces was to add a component of stress to the event and test dexterity. As you were moving along, someone would ask: How many pieces do you have now?; and Where are you in the room?

There were quite a few people there that night so I got to spend a little bit of time observing (learning) before taking a crack at it myself. Before I get to that though I want to talk about why this exercise really had me thinking.

As most of you know, I read quite a bit and the content that interests me the most with regards to the fire service are the case studies associated with incidents. At one point in time I happened across this piece (thanks Lloyd)

"Three Firefighters Die in Pittsburgh House Fire"

As far as the title is concerned there is nothing out of the ordinary, a surprising amount of Firefighters die every year. What made this article in particular burn into my brain was this picture


Even though I have read the report and have seen this pictures a dozen times, I can't help but think, how on earth?!

That is a pretty tiny spot and it was not involved (albeit smoke filled). Simply knowing the typical width of a stair tread will quickly give you the rough dimensions of this place. It's tiny.

From the report:

All three firefighters died from asphyxiation, which involved both carbon monoxide inhalation and

oxygen deficiency. This occurred as a direct result of exhausting their air supplies and being unable

to find an exit from the family room. It is assumed, but it cannot be confirmed, that all three were

using their SCBAs, with facepieces in place, for the entire time they were inside the house until their

air supplies were depleted.

It is known that the three crew members from Engine 17 exhausted their air supplies and that their

vision was fully obscured by heavy smoke, at least during the period when they were running out of

air. The fire did not involve the room where they were found; after the fire there was only moderate

heat damage at the upper levels of the room and their protective clothing and equipment showed no

signs of damage or deterioration caused by exposure to the fire.

I encourage you to read the entire report.

Back to the present.

It was the third or fourth person that launched this report back into my consciousness. They started out like everyone else but missed the first landmark completely, performing a large arc to the left of it. They were SO close to finding it on a few occasions; just grazing it with their search tool but not registering it. When they finally found a hose coil it was the one in the centre of the room. In their mind where were they? and where to next?

It was this that made me think not only of this report but also more generally, what if those coils were victims? (OK, perhaps too dark) Honestly though, watching the tip of the halligan just grazing the coil gave me goosebumps, because there was no doubt in my mind that this has happened numerous times before but not with a coil of hose.

As people went through the mock course these were the dominant themes (listed in order of frequency):

1) A single mistake quickly made your entire world fall apart

2) A single mistake quickly made your entire world fall apart but luck revived you (a good chance you missed a puzzle piece though)

3) You made it but it was sketchy at best

4) You took advantage of what you knew and worked the problem in reverse (more on this in second)

It was ugly. People came close to running out of air. People misread landmarks (or didn't leverage them at all) and most took far too long.

The most interesting part though was how incorrectly I was initially reading things. The first person to go did very well up until point #7 but then things started to unravel. They got lost and ultimately tripped their low air alarm. It wasn't until observing a few more people that I finally got it.

I was comparing everyone to this landmark; point #7. It turns out that it had nothing to do with how far you made it, just whether or not you got lost and how you dealt with it when you did.

As for me? I took advantage of the room to orient me. Instead of swinging my halligan almost immediately (as most people did, which I think contributed to them going off course) I took long deliberate strides and only started swinging when I knew (well, thought I knew) that I should be right on top of one. I would then climb on top of the coil and rotate to what I thought was 90 degrees and then set out. I did this because I figured I would be going off course anyway so starting from the center would limit the deviation.

Once I made it to #5 I knew I was good. I went straight for the wall and moved along it. To go out from #6 to #7 I used the wall to square my launch which helped me quickly find it. All I needed to do from here is make it back to the wall, even a huge error here wouldn't matter because I really couldn't miss the wall. Knowing that my next stop was almost in the corner of the room I headed to where I thought that might be. Once I found the corner I again knew exactly where I was. I then just followed the front wall of the room to the finish.

I did fumble quite a bit trying to put the puzzle together (damn gloves) even dropping it at one point. I got it though, and had plenty of air left :)