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Was that Really a Structure Fire?


If you check the definition for a structure fire in the NFIRS guide, you will find a few choices. Some of those choices are things like a fire inside a building that involves a garbage can.  That means there could be a small fire in a garbage can that doesn’t spread to anything in the building, or involve any structural part of the building burning.

Technically that would be a 118, which is in the structure fire category. There are some good reasons for that coding, and I am not trying to pick on the NFIRS people.  What gets me is when firefighters talk about making a hot on a structure fire, and all the really did was put out a small fire in a garbage can.

If you have ever filed out a NFIRS report, you know that all those tabs light up if you use a structure fire code.  That means a lot more pages of information to fill out.  Sometimes we talk ourselves into using a different code, just to avoid paperwork.  One the flipside of that, we go to that same small fire and in the mind of some firefighters, they went to a structure fire.

Garbage can or appliance fires can be fun.  We get to go in some smoke and do some work.  In my mind, a structure fire needs to involve a lot of the contents, like furniture or the structure itself, like the wood in the walls.  I do not consider a refrigerator, dishwasher or garbage can a structure fire.

EMS responders seem to have some of that same terminology.  When we respond and find a patient with no heartbeat, we have a lot of work to do, IV’s, intubation CPR and a lot of medications.  The intention of all those medications and work is to get that patients heart beating again.  The common term used for getting that patients heart going again is a “save”.

Even when we get a patient’s heart beating again, they don’t always survive in the long run.  Sometimes the return of that heartbeat is short lived, and there has already been significant brain damage.  In some instances, those patients make it to intensive or cardiac care but don’t ever go home from the hospital.  I once heard a paramedic describe having participated in thousands of saves. When I asked him about his last one, it was a call that the patient did not survive past the emergency room.  In my opinion a save is when a patient regains a heartbeat and goes on to live a normal life.  Even better is when that patient comes to visit at the firehouse.

The last term that gets improperly used is rescue.  When coming to work one morning after a very large rainstorm, someone told me that they had three rescues overnight.  I was kind of surprised to hear that so I asked for some information.  An underpass had flooded a little, like 30 inches and some cars tried to get through but stalled.  The people in those cars called 911 and the firefighters walked to the car and helped carry the people to dry ground.  All those firefighters did was prevent a few shoes from getting wet.  A rescue to me means that if we didn’t go help that person they would have died, not got wet feet.

We are all proud of our accomplishments and like to be able to do the things we are trained for.  Instead of exaggerating terms we should be proud of doing things right.  We can do a good job on a garbage can fire, and we can also be proud that we helped someone from a flooded car.  We need to be proud that we gave that person that didn’t make it a good chance to live.  No one is impressed by your terms, call it what it is.

By John Morse

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