Blue Flower

The "Firefighting" magazine has continued publishing my articles in November 2018 issue, specifically it came out with an article about resolving team separation and disorientation emergencies. In this article I give rigorous and combat-applicable definitions of these two types of fireground emergencies and then discuss sequences of actions that increase your chances of resolving the trouble before it leads to a non-survivable event.

Team separation and disorientation are two types of fireground emergencies that belong to the same class of troubles – loss of situational awareness. They also resemble each other because on their own, they do not kill firefighters, they just open the door for something else to kill us. This presents both a challenge and the opportunity – a challenge because often firefighters die as a result of a panic (and subsequent mask removal) when they become disoriented or separated; and the opportunity, because with simple, but recurring training, one can overcome these tendency for irrational response and calmly resolve both of these problems.

As always, I am providing a summarized translation of the article from Russian:

  1. Definition: Disorientation is a fireground emergency in which a firefighter, while operating in IDLH atmosphere and, possibly in zero or reduced visibility, does not possess correct information about safe egress route traversable before the depletion of own air supply. Sounds fancy? Here is a simple version: you are oriented only when you know a way out that is short enough so that you don’t suck your mask to the face. Not knowing any way out is disorientation. Knowing only a way that is too long for your remaining air supply is disorientation. The longer you work in IDLH conditions on the same cylinder, the shorter your way out should be. Time is air, and air is life on the fireground.
  2. 1-2-3 rule set of disorientation prevention : one navigator per team (not two, not zero), two means of egress at all times, three thirds for managing your air (first third of pressure for getting in, second third for getting out, third for unforeseen delays and emergencies while getting out).
  3. Definition: team separation is a fireground emergency in which there is a loss of all three types of contact – visual, voice and tactile – between any subgroup of a team and all team members not belonging to that subgroup. Sounds fancy again? Here is a few examples: a team of four separates into two subgroups of two – this is separation, an emergency, because a team leader has no control over half of its team. A team of three loses track of its member #3 – this is a separation, because one person (a sub-group of one) has no contact with all other team members, and therefore works alone. Here is a counterexample, though: in a team of three there is a contact between #1 and #2, and also there is a contact between #2 and #3. This is not a separation because there is no subgroup that has loss of contact with all others. Rather, it is a chain contact. By the way, you should avoid chain contact as it is less reliable and much slower. And by the way, if you always work in teams of two, then there is no need to worry about all the intricacies of this definition, as a simple loss of contact between the only two members of the team tells you there is separation. This is another reason to use two-person teams. If you still insist on using teams of three, the team leader should at least decide and announce what form of team continuity will be used: complete (everyone is in contact with everyone) or chain.
  4. Disorientation and team separation are not dangerous on their own, they are dangerous because should something else go wrong, you won’t be able to get out or you won’t even have anyone else around you to help you get out or at least call for help on your behalf. This is why, on one hand, you should take both of these emergencies seriously and call Mayday right away, but on the other hand you should train yourself not to panic in these situations and instead methodically improve your chance to recover from these emergencies and get out alive. This training should be regular, realistic, and always done in full PPE and zero visibility.
  5. Here is how you recover from disorientation step-by-step: 1) stop moving, 2) think about what happened and how it happened, 3) “roll back” – move backwards few steps, you might come across something familiar, 4) select any direction and move along a straight line until you bump into the wall, 5) call Mayday from there, 6) select any direction along the wall and move until you encounter a door or a window, give update Mayday on your new location,  and 7) stay there, conserve air. This sequence works and every component of it progressively increases your chances of regaining orientation or being found. Notice you need to move from the middle of the compartment to any wall because there is less walls that square feet/meters in any building and RIT will be moving along the walls and also notice that you want to then find a door or a window because there is even less doors that feet/meters of walls in every building. So basically you want to position yourself where it will be easier for others to find you.
  6. Here is how you recover from team separation step-by-step: 1) stop moving, 2) think about what happened and how it happened, 3) “roll back” – move backwards few steps, you might bump into your colleagues, 4) make intermittent noise and listen, 5) call Mayday, 6) if nothing helped and you know a way out – start getting out calmly on your own. This sequence works and every step of it increases your chances of regaining team continuity or getting out alive.
  7. As you can see, both sequences start with the same universal steps: stop, think, roll back. These three steps put you on the right track to recovery and they prevent a panic reaction and/or other irrational actions.

If you do understand Russian, you can either download and save a copy of the article in PDF format or you can view it right here on this page.

Download a copy of the article in PDF format