The most basic principle of firefighting is that human life takes precedence over all other concerns.
This rule may sound obvious, yet at times it is overlooked—not intentionally, of course!
Still, on occasion, certain actions taken during the course of extinguishment can endanger occupants.
Other times, actions that are overlooked can have the same effect.
Many of these variables will be discussed in the chapters on engine and ladder company operations.
Still more will be covered in the chapters dealing with fires in specific occupancies.
For the present, a discussion of various principles that support the emphasis placed on human life will point out some of the generalities that apply under almost all circumstances.
When sufficient personnel are not available to effect both rescue and extinguishment at the same time, rescue must be given priority.
Assume that a single engine company is first to arrive at a working fire on the first floor of a two-story private house.
The unit is staffed (understaffed) by a driver, an officer, and one firefighter.
On arrival, an adult female is visible at the second-floor front window. She is shrouded in smoke, screaming hysterically to the firefighters to save her baby.
Before the members have even gotten off the apparatus, she and the child slump back into the room, apparently overcome by the heavy smoke that is pouring out of the window over their heads.
What actions should this unit take while fighting this fire?
The answer will depend on the resources that can be brought to bear immediately.
Several options are possible, but with the limited personnel described above—only three firefighters—simultaneous fire suppression and rescue is not an option that will work.
In this situation, all three members will be required to perform the rescues.
A portable ladder on the pumper provides the fastest, safest, and most direct access to the victims.
In addition, unless fire is blowing out directly below the window, this is the only access that doesn’t require hoseline support.
Removing an adult victim via portable ladder is a very difficult task, requiring at least one person on the ladder and one in the room with the victim.
In addition, you must remove the child.
These three firefighters will have their hands full, but it can be done.
If the victims survive, the firefighters will have been successful even if the house burns to the ground.
In fact, rescue is the only practical alternative. You must at all times learn to put human life above property losses.
Attempting to approach the victims by way of the interior means passing the fire, which means stretching hose lines. If conditions are serious, it may not even be possible to get past the fire and up the stairs at all.
Under the best conditions, even after the fire is knocked down enough for firefighters to ascend the interior staircase, one member will have to remain on the hoseline to protect the escape route while the others each attempt to remove a victim.
This is a much slower and more dangerous approach.
Due to the limited personnel, the interior approach faces a much greater chance of failure.
Similarly, trying a ladder rescue and simultaneously attacking the fire almost ensures that, with the three-member crew, neither operation will be successful, since there aren’t enough firefighters to perform all of the needed tasks.
But it is still an attempt at rescue. The last possible option would be to commit all of the members to a rapid knockdown of the fire, forcing the victims to await rescue by later-arriving personnel.
This solution is unsatisfactory unless additional personnel are immediately available, since the victims will almost certainly perish before anyone can reach them.
After 4 minutes without oxygen, the victims are likely to suffer brain damage. Any longer than that, death is nearly certain.
It is important to carefully consider the scenario described above: This is a one-family house, with only two known victims at a specific location, and there are sufficient personnel (three) to perform this very limited task. That is what makes this scenario work.
If the building was larger, and contained more victims, say 8 or 10, or if the victims’ locations were not immediately known (which would require an extensive search), the most important priority would be to try to get the hoseline operating between the fire and the victims.