Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer



By Audrey Fraizer

Residential or dwelling fires are the most common and most deadly type of fire almost everywhere in the world, far outnumbering other types of fires in terms of numbers, injuries, and fatalities. Moreover, “Fire is the third-leading cause of death in the home,” right after falls and poisonings.

While residential fires are only a portion of the overall classification of structural fires, the numbers are startling, particularly considering these statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): Despite residential structure fires accounting for 25 percent of fires in the U.S., they account for a disproportionate share of losses—83 percent of fire deaths, 77 percent of re-injuries, and 64 percent of direct dollar losses.1

Check a clock. Start at the one-second mark and pause at 64 seconds. During that time, one minute and four seconds, a fire department somewhere in the United States is responding to a structure fire.2

That is the 2014 statistic from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the numbers tend to climb each year. In 2014, there were 494,000 structure fires in the U.S., causing 2,860 civilian deaths and $9.8 billion in property damage; one home structure fire was reported every 86 seconds, and one civilian fire injury was reported every 33 minutes.3

In New Zealand, there were 5,434 structure fires in 2012–2013, which represents a 36 percent increase over the 3,406 structure fires reported in 2011–2012.4 In the U.K., of the 154,700 fires reported between April 2014 and March 2015, nearly 20 percent (28,200) were accidental structural fires (called dwelling fires).5 The Office of the Fire Marshall and Emergency Management in Ontario, Canada, reported 59,353 fires from 2009 to 2013, of which 47 percent occurred in residential structures (25 percent occurred in non-residential settings, such as business buildings). Of the remainder, the majority was wildfire.6

The truth behind fires

Although we all know that structure fires can be dangerous incidents, common misconceptions about these situations can lead to increased danger for lay people and bystanders on the scene.

The first misconception is that fire spreads throughout a structure slowly enough to allow time to gather belongings or even stay in the building until the fire department arrives. In reality, structure fires can spread extremely quickly. Remember, “A fire can double in size within seconds.”

In addition to underestimating the speed of a structure fire’s spread, many people also underestimate the danger caused by smoke. Because fire creates light, we often believe that a fire-filled structure will be very well lit. This is far from the case. In fact, a structure that is on fire will likely be filled with black smoke so thick that it is often impossible to see. Even firefighters must often feel along the edges of walls to find their way through the dense, obscuring smoke.

People also underestimate the danger of fire.

If a fire alarm sounds, or if smoke is seen inside a building, many people won’t leave immediately. They look around to see what others are doing. If others aren’t leaving, they may assume the situation is safe. Each person is reinforcing the unsafe behavior of the group.

Many people rush back into fires to save loved ones or rescue pets when, in reality, this is a common way that people die in fires. It is important for the EFD to emphasize the Victim’s First Law of Survival: Once you are out, stay out!

Dispatch Life Support (DLS)

The safety of responders and people on the scene is always the priority. This is why the protocol often prompts the EFD to provide PDIs and PAIs to callers as soon as possible to help them get to safety or avoid danger.

In this article, we will look closely at life safety and DLS Instructions—PAIs and PDIs—the EFD provides when using the Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS) Chief Complaint 69: Structure Fire.

PDI-a is “I’m sending the fire department to help you now. Stay on the line, and I’ll tell you exactly what to do next.”

PDI-a can provide enough assurance to calm an excited caller and move the case forward more effectively. Additionally, letting callers know that you will tell them exactly what to do next may relieve the anxiety associated with not knowing what to do and give them the confidence they need to keep themselves safe.

PDI-b is “If it’s safe to do so, leave the building, close the doors behind you, and remain outside.” Remember that the caller is the only person who can truly determine the safety of his situation, which is why this instruction includes the phrase, “If it’s safe to do so.”

Many people are unaware of the significant difference closing a door can make. Depending on the construction of the door and the structure, a closed door can contain a fire within its room of origin for an extended period of time.

Note that this PDI includes the Pre-Instruction Qualifier, “(Inside building or Appropriate).” Anytime you believe the caller may still be inside the structure, provide PDI-b to help guide him to safety.

PDI-c is “Do not try to put the fire out.” Many people wonder why the EFD would not encourage the caller to put out a fire, particularly if it is small. There are several reasons for this instruction. First, the EFD cannot know exactly how large or small the fire is and therefore cannot know how dangerous it might be for the caller to try to put it out. Second, although the fire may be small enough for the caller to put it out herself, the EFD should always avoid providing instructions that may lead the caller into danger.

In many cases, it is the person who attempts to put out the fire that is injured or killed. Remember, fires spread faster than most people believe. Always provide PDI-c if any fire or smoke has been reported.

PDI-d is “Do not carry out anything that is on fire.” Many people, especially homeowners, will attempt to mitigate the fire damage by carrying flaming items out of the building. For example, if a trash can catches fire or there is burning grease in a pan, they might attempt to carry the item out to try to contain the fire. In fact, this is far more likely to spread the fire than to contain it, and it may well injure the person in the process. Providing PDI-d can help contain the fire and reduce the potential for injury.

PDI-e is “If it’s safe to do so, activate the alarm as you leave to warn others. Do not use the elevator.” This PDI includes a Pre-Instruction Qualifier indicating that it should only be provided when the caller is reporting a fire in a commercial or industrial building or in a multi-dwelling structure such as an apartment building.

Although in many cases a fire alarm will already be sounding, this is not always the case. Sometimes, fire and smoke detectors are placed rather far apart, or they may not be placed in the location of the fire.

Protocol B provides instructions for Fire and Hazards Rescue. Instructions for a number of different types of fire and hazard situations are included on this protocol. The instructions for a first-party caller trapped in a building fire appear first, in Panel B-1.

The instructions begin with two questions that help you gather information that will help the rescuers locate the trapped person. Ask these questions first, then provide the instructions, starting with the instruction “If it’s safe to do so.” This leaves the caller with the ability—and the responsibility—to determine whether it is safe to execute the instructions.

NAE Fire v6.1Notice that these instructions are primarily intended to help the caller avoid the smoke and heat of the fire for as long as possible, including instructions to “Stay low to the floor,” “Close the door immediately,” “Cover the cracks in the doors with wet clothes, towels, cloths, drapes, or anything else that is readily available,” and “Cover the air vents, if needed.”

The instruction to not break any windows is based on the fact that air feeds a fire; opening a window can actually increase the spread and intensity of the fire.

The instruction “Do not use the elevator” reminds the caller that elevators may not work, may suddenly fail, and may be otherwise dangerous, in a fire.

Finally, the last instruction reminds the caller to “Make yourself known to the firefighters when they arrive—wave, call out to them, yell for help.” In some cases, callers may not know that they are not visible, or they may be so busy hiding from the fire that they forget to call out. This instruction reminds them to help the rescuers find them.

If you have time, you should return to the questioning sequence to gather further information from the caller before responders arrive on the scene.

Perhaps the most important and potentially lifesaving instruction on B-2 is, “Once you get outside, do not go back in under any circumstances.” Providing this instruction can help prevent this very dangerous behavior.

Also, notice that if the caller answers “yes” to the question “Can you take the phone with you?” you should return to the sequence. If the caller cannot take the phone with her, you should provide the instruction “Call us back from a safe location, if possible. If you can’t call us back, make yourself known to the firefighters when they arrive.” This will help ensure that the person who made the call is accounted for and can provide additional information to responders.

If they cannot take the phone, you will end the call after providing this instruction.

The Person on Fire PAIs in Panel B-3 contain instructions for putting someone out who is on fire. You may recall that these same instructions also appear as Case Entry PDIs. The Case Entry PDIs help you to provide these crucial instructions early on if someone is reported as on fire at the beginning of the call. Keep in mind, however, that it is possible for a person to catch fire at some point during the call, especially if a fire is spreading quickly. Therefore, you may need to provide the Person on Fire instructions at or near the end of the call, not always at the beginning.

If the caller has indicated that hazardous materials are present, you should link to B-4 to provide instructions regarding possible contamination. Remember that the caller must spontaneously provide hazardous materials information. Only use these instructions if the caller has mentioned HAZMAT and no other, higher-acuity instructions are applicable.

Note the Pre-Instruction Qualifiers on B-4 that determine which of these instructions you should provide.

If none of the other DLS Links apply, you will link to X-2 to stay on the line with the caller or X-3 to make an urgent disconnect. In general, you should stay on the line with structure fire callers to provide instructions if it becomes necessary to do so and continue to gather information if the scene or situation changes.

Information from the CDE Advancement Series was included in this article.


1 “Residential Structure and Building Fires.” Federal Emergency Management Agency. U.S. Fire Administration. 2008; October. https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/residential_structure_and_building_fires.pdf (accessed April 4, 2016).

2 “Fires in the U.S. National Fire Protection Association.” 2016. http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fires-in-the-us (accessed April 4, 2016).

3 See note 2.

4 “The New Zealand Fire Service: Emergency Incident Statistics (2012–2013).” New Zealand Fire Service. http://passthrough.fw-notify.net/download/252775/http://www.fire.org.nz/About-Us/Facts-and-Figures/Documents/Emergency%20Incident%20Statistics%202012-13.pdf (accessed April 4, 2016).

5 “Fire statistics monitor: April 2014 to March 2015.” GOV.UK. Department for Communities and Local Government. 2015; Aug. 20. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/fire-statistics-monitor-april-2014-to-march-2015 (accessed April 4, 2016).

6 “Loss Fires by Property Class.” Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM). 2014; November. http://www.mcscs.jus.gov.on.ca/english/FireMarshal/MediaRelationsandResources/FireStatistics/OntarioFires/FireLossesCausesTrendsIssues/stats_causes.html (accessed April 4, 2016).