Making the call on entering burning buildings

(WTNH) – When should firefighters enter a building full of smoke or fire?

That question has surfaced with an intent-to-sue notice filed recently against the Southington Fire Department, charging firefighters there with negligence regarding a fire in which a woman died last year.

It is usually a judgment call, according to two fire departments in Connecticut. One department, Bridgeport’s, is a paid service, while the other, Shelton’s, uses volunteers. But their answers were the same.

“It all depends on the condition of the building,” said Bridgeport Deputy Fire Chief Dominick Carfi.

The first arriving officer at the scene makes the determination. If firefighters are told or think that someone may be inside, and the building is safe enough to enter, they will make “every attempt humanly possible” to locate the person, said Shelton Asst. Fire Chief Nick Verdicchio, spokesman.

But if there is too much fire, they may have to extinguish some of it before entering. Each commanding officer makes a “risk versus benefit” assessment at every fire, according to Carfi.

It can be a tough call to make, Carfi said. He recalled a 1999 warehouse fire in Worcester, Mass., where six firefighters died searching for possible occupants. The building turned out to be empty.

If there is doubt of occupancy, such as when no one is outside of the burning structure, a search is conducted as soon as it is safe to do so, Carfi said.

And even if people are found, they still may have problems. Carfi said it takes a 60 to 90 seconds for a person trapped in a fire to lose consciousness from smoke inhalation, as the fire consumes all the oxygen in the room.

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