A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I had the privilege of hosting a wonderful group of noders. One of the activities that was provided was the ability to dress up in fire gear and spray an honest-to-goodness firehose. One of the interesting observations I made was that most of the noders had no idea exactly what a firefighter does, or what it is like to fight a fire. This writeup is intended to help clear up some misconceptions and offer a glimpse into the world of firefighting.
Disclaimer: If your dumbbutt goes out and tries any of this without proper training, equipment, and authorization you will be killed or seriously injured. Do not enter a house that is on fire for any reason. You have been warned.
Firefighters are an interesting bunch. Rarely do you find a group of dedicated men and women willing to go into buildings that our common sense - and the sight of cockroaches running out of - tells us not to go into. Firefighting began as a group of people who had buckets and would run to the fire with no protection to try to do whatever they could. It has evolved into a highly specialized field full of training, tools and technology. Before a firefighter ever steps into a burning building there are hundreds of hours of training and preparing they must go through. Once they enter a building, there are several critical steps they must perform and signs they must watch out for to come out alive. Once the fire is controlled, a salvage and overhaul stage comes into play where the fire department does their best to save whatever is left. This entire process happens on every fire that they run, though at different levels based on the size of the fire.
Training is the single most important aspect of firefighting. Similar to how the military personnel function, firefighters should be able to react to common situations without having to think through the steps. The level of training that is provided to the firefighters varies significantly not only from state to state, or country to country, but even between two departments in the same region. Training also varies between the career and volunteer firefighters. Most departments that are going to pay a firefighter want them to have the full minimum standards (currently a 480 hour class given at community colleges), along with their Emergency Medical Technician License or higher. In addition, they may require the firefighter to have a Fire Science degree. For example, a person wanting to get hired by the City of Tampa Fire Department would need to go through the 480-hour minimum standards (about 6 months), plus EMT school, plus Paramedic school, plus have 30 hours of college credits. Contrast this to the minimum standards for a volunteer firefighter. They have the same opportunity to attend the training classes, but are able to begin firefighting after a 160-hour Firefighter 1 class. In fact, some rural departments allow firefighters on the truck with *no* experience - "get on the truck if you're goin'."1
These training classes give you the basics of firefighting. How not to push a fire through a house. How to watch for warning signs of flashover. Basic Hazardous Materials training. The real training comes once the firefighter joins a department. Here they learn the specifics of the trucks, equipment and area. Perhaps their unit has a thermal imager the firefighter needs to become accustomed to. Maybe the Engine Captain prefers to lead the crew into the house fire. Maybe he prefers you to be on the nozzle to gain experience. The firefighter also learns the emergency signals they need to listen out for. In our department three blasts from an air horn signify that the firefighter at the hydrant can turn it on. Long continuious blasts from the air horn signify danger - for example signs of loss of structural integrity - and any firefighters working inside should immediately evacuate the building. They also learn the limitations of their fire gear. Fire gear can only take so much heat, and some gear is better at it than others. Finally they learn the area. Whether they have a good supply of water that can allow them to keep fighting the fire. What dangerous places that they may respond to. Specialized challenges they may come across.
This training all leads up to the moment they receive the call for a structure fire. We'll use an example dispatch call to set the scenario and help explain the next sections (We are Engine 24 for this example):
BRRRRZZZTTT - Engine 24, Engine 14, Engine 14A, Ladder 14, Rescue 24, Batallion Chief 2 - respond for a reported house fire at 1234 Maple Lane. Caller states smoke showing and possible persons trapped inside.
(Note: In our department, a house fire receives a response of three engines, a ladder company, a rescue car, and a chief. This may vary from department to department, and is also dependent on the initial reports of fire and the type of building.)
Upon hearing the tones, the firefighter would immediately go to the fire engine and place on his gear. This consists of fire boots, pants, jacket, nomex hood and helmet. In addition, they will prepare their air pack and mask. The air pack supplies compressed air to the firefighter while he is inside the structure (In house fires temperatures can reach 1200 degrees F at the ceiling which will kill you with one breath). The engine captain will map out the fastest route to the call, and they will respond.
Upon the fire truck's arrival several processes happen simultaneously. The engine captain will quickly overview the house and report back to the dispatch what type of structure it is, the level of fire, and the actions they are going to perform. A typical response would be: Engine 24 on scene. We have a single-story residential construction with heavy smoke showing from the rear of the house. Passing command and making an interior attack with an 1 3/4" line. This lets dispatch, and the responding engine companies, know that he has a real "working" fire, and that he and his crew will be pulling a fire hose off of the fire engine and entering the house. At the same time, the firefighter has gathered up any tools he will need, pulled the hose line off of the truck and extended it to the door of the house. The driver of the fire truck is at the pump panel preparing to flow water through the hose that the firefighter pulled. Meanwhile the captain has gathered his tools and goes to the door of the house. They signal for the driver to flow the water, attach their air lines to their mask, force open the door, and enter the house.
(In order to accurately explain what happens inside, we will now switch to first-person view, from the firefighter's standpoint)
The first thing you will notice is that you were knocked almost to the floor. As mentioned above, the temperature at the ceiling can be upwards of 1200 degrees F. Even with fire gear on, this is hot. The air is much cooler at the floor (between 200-300 degrees F) so you will immediately drop to your hands and knees. Besides being extremely hot, you will not be able to see. At all. The best you can hope for is to look for a glow somewhere. This is your fire. Though you can't see, you will be able to hear. You will hear your own breathing. You will hear the fire engine revved up trying to give you the water you so desperately need. You will hear the fire. You will hear the radio. And you may hear screams.
You will move as quickly as you can on your hands and knees, dragging the fire hose with you. In this situation, your fire hose is your way out. If you lose it, you are probably going to be killed. You will have to constantly look up towards the ceiling to see if fire is starting to "lick" over your head. This is the first sign of flashover, which *will* kill you. If you see this, spray short squirts of water at the ceiling which will knock the fire back some. Once you have located the fire, it is your job to extinguish it. The method you use is critical as the wrong way can kill you, your crew, and any survivors that are still inside. (For more information see putting out fires).
A second crew should have arrived already and will be inside performing a primary search trying to find victims. They will usually not have the luxury of a hose line to lead them out, and will use patterns to keep track of where they are. The most common pattern is a "right-hand search" where one crew member keeps some part of his body against the wall, always going to the right, while the other firefighter locks arms and goes out as far as she can feeling for victims. If they do locate a victim, it is their job to get that person out. Once the fire is under control a second crew will perform a secondary search to go back over and make sure the first crew didn't overlook any victims.
Once the fire is knocked down, the process of Salvage and Overhaul comes in to play. This is a two-part process. The first, Salvage, is an attempt to save as much of the belongings in the house from damage as is possible. For example, the firefighters would put covers over couches to protect them from water damage. They would remove pictures and other belongings and place them outside if there is the chance they would get damaged. During the Overhaul process, the firefighters ensure that the fire is completely extinguished. This may mean tearing out ceiling, walls, and wherever else the fire may be. The worst call to get is to go back to a house that had a fire several hours before because the fire flared back up. During overhaul ventilation fans would also be placed in the doorways to try to remove as much smoke as possible. Through all this, the firefighters have to make sure they protect the scene for the investigator. On any suspicious fire an investigator comes out and is able to reconstruct where the fire started, how it started, how long it burned, whether accelerants were used, etc. Watching these guys work is amazing because they take something we have destroyed and can rebuild it to paint the picture of the fire.
Once the fire is extinguished and salvage and overhaul are finished the firefighters have to break down and roll up all of the hoses that were used, clean any tools that were used, and go back in service. Once in service they head back to the station where they hope to get a shower and change before the next call comes in.
1). The state of Florida recently passed a law requiring all firefighters to be a minimum of 160 hour certified. This requirement will differ from state to state, so check your local fire department.
Information taken from personal experience.