September 22, 2023

Lessons Learned from a Civilian Rescue



This story was recently sent in by BY SEAN GRAY (author). The following article is from his post in Fire Engineering Magazine, check it here.

THIS IS A MOMENT MOST OF US envision from the time we start recruit academy-the time we hope all of our training will come to fruition and our bodies will be able to perform what our minds are telling us to do. Most of us may never get a chance to be part of a situation like this. I am proud to write about a career-changing event that was 17 years in the making for me and may not ever happen again.

At around 0200 hours, Cobb County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services Company 19-A was dispatched to a possible townhome fire. In the initial report, there were no significant reports of any persons trapped or multiple calls from neighbors indicating this would be a working fire. The dispatcher reported, “The caller stated, ‘My house is on fire,’ and hung up the phone.” We’ve all been dispatched to a call similar to this one, and it turned out to be nothing.

As we approached the entrance to the subdivision, a person in the roadway was flagging us down. This is usually a good sign of a working fire. The flagger told us that his house, at the end of the street, was on fire.


We arrived on scene to find the end unit of a six-unit, two-story townhome with flames venting out of two windows on the A side, first floor. Our truck officer assumed incident command while the truck crew went to the front door to force entry for the fire attack crew and then was assigned search and rescue by the incident commander (IC). The fire attack crew entered through the A side front to extinguish what appeared to be a kitchen fire. The search crew entered immediately after the hoseline and started searching for the stairs leading to the bedrooms.

There were no indications of any victims prior to entering the structure. No cars were in the driveway, and the flagger had not mentioned that someone was still inside. However, staying true to our training, since it was 0200 hours and there is always a chance of a possible victim, we performed our search on the first floor in moderate smoke and heat conditions. We passed the fire room to our left and found the stairs on our right (photo 1). The stairs were approximately 10 feet inside the front door. Because of the time of day, we chose to proceed upstairs toward the bedrooms. If there was going to be a victim, this would be where we were likely to find him.

Photos by author.
Photos by author.


As we climbed the stairs, we were met with zero-visibility conditions and elevated temperatures. We dropped to the floor and started crawling. As the search crew leader, I followed in the rear using the thermal imaging camera (TIC) and maintaining constant verbal contact with the two firefighters who were searching. The lead firefighter found a victim unconscious on the stairs. As I attempted to make the call on the radio, we were met with heavy radio traffic from the second-due engine, which was attempting to locate a hydrant. I wasn’t able to communicate to command that we had found a victim, but we couldn’t waste time attempting to make the call on the radio.

When you’re not expecting to find a victim, you’re caught off guard when you find one! The victim was lying face down with his head on the landing and feet upward in the stairwell. We found it difficult to move him. Three firefighters in full gear were all trying to grab and pull in an unorganized effort. As our adrenaline took over, we pushed and pulled the victim to the bottom of the stairs in a bundled-up mess.

We quickly regained our composure and developed a more organized plan for victim removal. Most of us in the fire service have lifted an unconscious person from a bathroom floor on emergency medical service calls. We typically grab underneath the person’s arms from behind and start dragging the person to a place where the paramedics can start working on him. This can be tough even in the best of conditions with perfect visibility and no heat. The problem is that the patient usually falls through your arms like a slippery noodle.

The same thing happens in fires. To make matters worse, we had on full turnout gear with self-contained breathing apparatus and were in a superheated, low-visibility environment. The victim slid right out of our arms after we made a couple of attempts to drag him from behind. This was when we soon realized that removing a 240-pound half-naked unconscious victim was not as easy as we had been shown in training drills.


After all of the rapid intervention team and firefighter-removal training exercises we had conducted, the Training Minutes videos we watched on, and the victim-removal drags we learned, we were still at a loss. Nothing worked. I have carried webbing in my gear for 15 years because a mentor had shown me what he carried in his pockets. So I copied him and assumed I was prepared to use it. Not so.

Through my years of experience and training, I felt as if I had mentally prepared for this event, having run so many scenarios through my head many times. However, this wasn’t the case. All we could focus on was getting this guy out of the immediately dangerous to life or health environment as quickly as possible. Something we don’t typically train for is pulling out civilians. Our training dummies have handles and turnout gear in place, but that isn’t very realistic. Unconscious civilians don’t have handles attached to them-or clothes, for that matter-at 2 o’clock in the morning.

After a couple of futile lift attempts, two of us grabbed the victim’s wrists and pulled while the other firefighter pushed at the victim’s legs. We were finally moving, and out we came through the front door. We dragged him down the front steps into the driveway and placed him at the command post on the A side. The fire attack crew followed us out and immediately went to work on the victim. The engine pump operator retrieved the advanced life support (ALS) equipment. The victim was unresponsive with agonal respirations.


Possible Second Victim in Vicinity of First Victim?

While the engine crew started to revive the patient with assistance from ALS Rescue 5’s crew, we reentered the structure and went back to the place where we had found the victim. An afterthought from the lead firefighter was that he wished he would have initially searched the area immediately around the victim for a second victim (i.e., infant/small child). There was NO second victim. Although the landing area was very small, this was a lesson learned: Check for secondary victims in the nearby vicinity of the initial victim.

Oriented Search

Once we made it back to the landing, we went back up the stairs, again in zero-visibility conditions. We discovered a bedroom immediately to the left. Prior to entering, we came up with a quick search plan: classic oriented search with the TIC, just as we had trained on in the past. One person would stay at the room’s entrance with the TIC and the other two would search the voids not seen by the TIC. A TIC can be a valuable tool, but do not rely on it for a complete search. You must physically search the areas you cannot see. The TIC also provides the crew leader with a tool to help maintain crew accountability.

Since we knew the fire attack crew had knocked down the fire, we decided to horizontally ventilate by breaking out the windows as we located them. This took time away from our search, but it provided fresh air and better visibility, which in turn sped up our search. We did this with careful consideration, knowing that there were no ventilation efforts in place or on the way. We quickly learned another valuable lesson while breaking a few of the windows for ventilation as we were met with disgruntled voices from those working on the victim in the driveway: Position the victim far enough away from the building so that, when ventilating a window, glass will not fall on the victim and those medically treating him.

After clearing that room, we moved on to the next bedroom and bathroom and stayed with the oriented search plan. I crawled in first and went down the left wall, spreading out to cover as much of the room as possible. I heard a noise, maybe a voice or a groan of some type. I stopped, called out, and reached for the bed. I felt nothing on the bed. As I continued to search the room, I slammed into a television that was ON. I realized at that moment I had mistaken the TV for the voice of a victim. I felt like an idiot. After moving past the TV, I came to the window and ventilated. The smoke quickly lifted, and we were able to get back on our feet and quickly complete the primary search.

After completing the primary search, one of the firefighters wanted to go back to search one of the rooms again. He has an eight-year-old daughter and realized that the occupant of the room we had previously searched was a young girl. Knowing we hadn’t seen a young girl outside, he wanted to check the room again. We found nothing but stuffed animals and Justin Bieber posters. Luckily, the little girl who normally sleeps in this room was spending the night with a friend. This was an emotional moment for all of us on the fireground; the thought of her possibly being in there really hit home with the firefighters who had young children.

All of us had been assigned as a search crew in the past; however, it’s easy to become complacent when you have never found a victim before.


We later discovered that the guy waving us down in the street was the teenage son of the victim we found. He was able to self-extricate from the burning home and run down the street to flag us down. It would have been nice if he had told us that his father was still inside the home, but this is just another example of why we should never take the possibility of savable victims for granted.

As an engine/truck company that takes pride in our work, we beat ourselves up over this incident. Things had gone great in the eyes of our chief, and we had saved a civilian. But from our perspective, we felt as if there was more to learn from this incident. We obtained several abandoned structures and created training drills to share our mistakes and provide a lessons-learned approach to this incident. We didn’t want others to have the same problems we had. So, we replicated the event and practiced victim-removal techniques (photos 2-5).

photo 2photo 3photo 4photo 5This fire was a great learning experience for everyone on the fireground that night. Tactically, the fire went very well. All of the tasks were completed in a timely manner. This entire incident was under control in less than 10 minutes.

It was handled by one engine and one truck, eight firefighting personnel, along with two personnel from an ALS rescue. ALS Rescue 5 reported that the victim had become combative after resuscitation and was talking prior to ambulance transport. The victim made a full recovery and was released from the hospital a few days later.

Our Recommendations

  • Stay alert, and always be ready. Assume that you’re going to find a victim every time until proven otherwise. Stay focused on the task at hand.
  • It’s never too late in your career to continue learning. Be a student of the fire service. GO TRAIN!

Special thanks to Firefighters Chris Baines, Reggie Jenkins, and the other crew members of Cobb County Fire Stations 19 and 5 involved in this call for making this a seamless civilian rescue. In spite of the points made in this article, the incident went very well and is a great example of teamwork.

SEAN GRAY is a 20-year veteran of and a fire engineer with Cobb County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services Station 19-A shift. He has an associate degree and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in fire safety engineering. He has taught at FDIC and has been published in Fire Engineering.

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