A preplanned and understood route firefighters take to move to a safety zone or other low-risk area. When escape routes deviate from a defined physical path, they should be clearly marked (flagged).
- NWCG Glossary
An area cleared of flammable materials used for escape in the event the line is outflanked or in case a spot fire causes fuels outside the control line to render the line unsafe. In firing operations, crews progress so as to maintain a safety zone close at hand allowing the fuels inside the control line to be consumed before going ahead. Safety zones may also be constructed as integral parts of fuel breaks; they are greatly enlarged areas which can be used with relative safety by firefighters and their equipment in the event of blowup in the vicinity.
- NWCG Glossary
A situation where personnel are unexpectedly caught in a fire behavior-related, life-threatening position where planned escape routes or safety zones are absent, inadequate, or compromised. An entrapment may or may not include deployment of a fire shelter for its intended purpose. These situations may or may not result in injury. They include “near misses.”
- NWCG Glossary
The fire shelter has long been considered a last resort. However, it can also protect you from falling embers, thick smoke, or be used as a heat shield while escaping from a fire. You should not hesitate to use your shelter to protect yourself. Do not worry about the cost of the fire shelter, the possibility of investigations, or the perception of others — your safety is always the highest priority. If you feel your situation could be improved by using your fire shelter, use it.
Firefighters train to recognize and utilize escape routes and safety zones. Throughout their shift, or as fire behavior changes, these are reevaluated.
Crew supervisors must identify escape routes and safety zones, and make sure they are known by everyone on their crews. Changing environmental conditions or work progression should trigger reassessment of planned escape routes and safety zones. The reassessment may require new escape routes and safety zones be identified if work in the area is to continue. You should always know the location of your escape routes and safety zones. Remember, in a true safety zone, you do not need your shelter to protect you from heat.
Escape is your first priority. If your escape seems unlikely or impossible, locate the best deployment site you can and prepare to deploy your shelter.
Time is critical during an escape. You will have to decide quickly whether you have time to escape or if you feel entrapment is imminent. As soon as you realize your escape is compromised, drop your gear. Take your fire shelter with you. Keep your tool if there is a chance you may need it to clear a deployment site. Drop packs, chain saws, or anything else that might slow you down. Firefighters have died carrying packs and tools while climbing a hill to escape fires. You can move up to 30 percent faster without your gear. This can easily mean the difference between life and death in an escape.
“[W]e weren’t going make it. We had the…the slope was against us. The wind was against us. The fire was already bumping our side. We were both taking a considerable amount of heat. So, at that point, I looked at my firefighter and I said, ‘We need to deploy now.'”
As you move along your escape route, stay alert and talk to other crewmembers. Talking helps relieve stress and ensures hazards are communicated quickly. Be alert for deployment areas as you move. If it becomes apparent that you are not going to reach a safety zone, do not pass through an effective deployment site only to get caught later in a more hazardous area. Keep in mind that it takes 15 to 20 seconds to deploy a shelter under ideal conditions, longer in turbulent winds or if you have to remove your pack (another reason to drop your pack). Leave enough time to get on the ground and under your shelter before the heat arrives. Firefighters have been injured or killed because they waited too long to deploy and get into their shelters.
If the fire is closing in behind you, get your shelter out and partially unfold it. Use the shelter to shield you from the heat if necessary. Don’t drop the shelter, allow it to blow away, or snag it on the brush.
“If I was in that exact same situation again, I would use my fire shelter when I was trying to get through [the fire to escape]. Maybe even a little bit earlier. We never really train with running with a shelter, using it as a [heat] shield. Maybe we should.”
Be ready to grab the shelter by an edge and get into it. You will have to recognize when your only option is to deploy your fire shelter. You must be decisive. If you are with a crew, follow the orders given by your supervisor. If you are in charge, be sure to give clear instructions and to make sure they are understood.
Firefighters have both survived and perished while using vehicles to escape from fires (see Figure 1). If you find yourself taking refuge inside a vehicle during an entrapment, you may need to deploy your shelter and be prepared to leave the vehicle.
Past situations have shown that vehicles can catch fire rather easily, cab windows can shatter or fail to stay closed, and cabs can quickly fill with toxic smoke. These situations can force firefighters to hastily exit the vehicle into non-survivable conditions.
If you are entrapped inside a vehicle, unfold the shelter to reflect heat, and be ready to quickly exit and deploy the shelter on the ground.
Figure 1 Fire engine on fire from flame front passage. Two firefighters caught in the cab by the flame front were able to escape by deploying a shelter inside the cab and using it as a heat shield to escape to safety.
Face and Neck Shrouds
Shrouds offer additional protection against radiant heat during an escape. Shrouds should not be used to work in areas that are so hot you could not work there without them. If shrouds are worn, they should be attached to the helmet for quick deployment when they are needed. Do not rely on shrouds to protect your airway from hot gases.
Why You Should Toss your Fusees Before an Entrapment
- Firefighters have worked close enough to radiant heat to melt goggles and helmets. These plastics melt at about 320 °F.
- Fusees ignite at 375 °F and burn near 3,000 °F.
- If an entrapment transitions to a deployment, you will not have time to think about items in your pack that could be dangerous.
If you are in an entrapment, protect your lungs, and airway at all costs. Most firefighters who perish in fires die from heat that damages their airway, not from external burns. One breath of hot gases can damage your lungs, causing you to suffocate.
Your entrapment site may meet the definition of a safety zone, but wind and slope can create the need for a larger safety zone than the standard four times the flame length calculation. Terrain, slope, and wind impact how a fire burns through an area. Because of these factors, be prepared to rapidly deploy your fire shelter if your safety zone turns out to be inadequate for the conditions. For more information, review the 6 Minutes for Safety publication on safety zones.
Be alert for signs of hot gases. These gases may not be smoky or dark. Your only warning may be air movement, an increase in temperature, and/or embers blowing past. If gases get hot enough to burn you, it is past time to get under your fire shelter.