By: Frank Cardinale
The mission statement of every fire department requires, at the very minimum, that we protect lives and save property. A great deal of emphasis has recently been placed on the saving of life, and rightly so. The Rapid Intervention Crew training, which recently took place at Treasure Island, is essential, not only for saving other firefighters, but for civilian victims of fire as well. And I don’t need to remind you of all the EMS training we have had through the years.

Little or no training, unfortunately, has been done on the protection of property. Along with quickly extinguishing a fire, the saving of property is accomplished through proper salvage procedures. When was the last time you heard anyone mention salvage? “Salvage work in the fire service consists of those methods and operating procedures allied to firefighting which aid in reducing fire, water, and smoke damage during and after fires” (Essentials of Fire Fighting, 1990, p.301). Salvage begins the moment you arrive at the scene of any incident. How will you enter the building? Is forcible entry needed? Do you force the lock or just kick in the door? Is ventilation necessary? Do you cut holes randomly in the roof or do you start with one hole and enlarge it as the situation dictates? Do you break skylights or do you try to remove them first?

Some skylights are easily removed while many are very difficult. If it is necessary to break a skylight, use the proper method that will minimize injury to the firefighters below. With the pick of an axe or the Halligan tool, strike the corner of the skylight in order to break a small area. The small amount of glass falling to the floor below will serve as a warning to the firefighters the skylight is about to be taken. Wait about 2or 3 seconds after the initial blow, then take the skylight trying to pull as much glass as possible onto the roof.

When you reach the seat of the fire, do you bleed the air out of the nozzle slowly to avoid fanning the flames, or do you wait for the line to be charged and then open it fully, letting the air escape at once onto the fire causing it to flare before extinguishment?

How much water do you use? That can be a tough one. Use as much water as necessary to put out the fire, but no more. Water damage is almost always worse than fire damage.

When opening up walls and ceilings, do you think about moving furniture and personal belongings out of the way to protect them from falling debris and water damage? Do you roll up the carpets, where possible, to save them from damage? Put yourself in the victim’s shoes for a moment. Wouldn’t you want your personal items saved? During overhaul, do you throw out everything in a room, regardless of its value or lack of damage, such as clothing, stereo equipment, books, photo albums, and computers? Fighting fires does not give us the right to indiscriminately destroy property.

Salvage, unlike extinguishment, ventilation, forcible entry, or overhaul, is not merely one task. Rather, it is all functions of fire ground activities. Proper use of water to extinguish a fire is good salvage practice. Ventilation, without the excessive damage to roofs, windows, and skylights, is good salvage. Remember, any damage you create should be commensurate with the size of the fire. A simple pot on the stove can be vented by opening the window. At a serious fire, the entire window may have to be removed.

If you are fighting a fire in a rental building, the occupants probably do not have insurance for their belongings. The possessions you save for them may make the difference in their coping with the stress of this disaster. It can also build tremendous goodwill for your department. And goodwill translates into votes on election day.

Forcible entry, if done properly, without undue damage to doors and windows, is good salvage. Attempt to open a door or window before forcing it. Many times, doors are left unlocked by fleeing occupants. I have been caught on this one once or twice myself. If force is needed, use the proper tools instead of destroying the door to gain entry. Battalion Chief Ted Corporandy has written several articles on the proper tools and methods of forcible entry and ventilation, all of which are good salvage practices also. All the knowledge in the world will not help you, however, if you don’t bring the proper tools with you. At least one member of the truck company must bring the forcible entry tools to every incident.

When performing overhaul, think of the building as your own. What would you try to save if the contents belonged to you? Family pictures are the one irreplaceable possession for most of us. How many times have you thrown pictures out with the debris, not giving it a second thought?

Every engine and truck company carries salvage covers, but rarely are we called upon to use them. Mostly, they are used to cover autos in front of fire buildings to protect them from debris we toss out the windows during overhaul. Occasionally we will cover a roof or some windows. We have become complacent knowing the owner will probably hire one of the board-up companies who also do some damage control, saving us the work we used to perform as a matter of course. As a chief, I find myself looking for them the minute the fire is under control and assist them in getting phone numbers for the owner of the building. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is a job we used to perform ourselves. Are we giving up a part of our job thereby hurting ourselves in the long run? We once had Salvage Companies which responded to fires with the sole purpose of protecting and securing property. The salvage companies would be working on the floors below the fire, protecting property from water damage by throwing covers over furniture and diverting the water out of windows, down stairs or into tubs and toilets. Those jobs have been lost through budget cuts. Salvage has since been assigned to truck companies, but I don’t see anyone drilling on salvage practices.

A few years ago, during a working fire in an upper Victorian flat, the Incident Commander assigned me as Salvage Officer with the primary purpose of protecting the property in the lower flat. I immediately assigned an engine and truck company to assist me. Both companies were visibly disappointed. Fortunately, I had two excellent company officers who worked diligently with their crews bagging floors and stairways, forming chutes to direct water from light fixtures out windows, and covering furniture. Very minimal damage was done to the flat. Had we not done our job, thousands of dollars of damage would have occurred and the tenants would not have been able to return to their home the same day.

Incident Commanders must once again think of salvage at fire scenes. Water damage is usually far greater than fire or smoke damage at most incidents. Much of this damage is preventable with good salvage practices. Companies must be assigned early on to perform salvage. Company officers assigned to salvage operations must realize that their job is an important one. They should take pride in the fact that they have saved the occupants their belongings, no matter how expensive or insignificant they might be to us. If more resources are needed, then a call for an additional alarm or single or multiple unit resources is necessary. It is even advisable for the Incident Commander, when calling for additional help, to specify that they are needed for salvage. This way the responding companies can prepare themselves for the task ahead. It is incumbent on all of us to consider salvage at every incident to which we respond.


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