Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tactical Safety: Kneeling Down

“The fire service’s weekly safety column”

By: Ray McCormack

Tactical Safety examines the process of firefighting to see if there is a better and safer way to operate.

Kneeling Down

“If you can not see, then you should be crawling.” This adage makes a lot of sense, and allows firefighters to be more effective. Just because the fire has not taken away your ability to walk, does not automatically equate to operating in an upright position. Granted, we do not have to crawl all the time, however, staying close to floor level combined with the ability to move quickly is an unbeatable, tactically safe combination.

Some will claim that our gear, due to its protective properties, allow us to walk around more than before. I would say that walking is more of a choice than an unintended outcome of advanced PPE. We all make choices, however, kneeling down and advancing is much safer than being upright. As we enter the fire area, we should be low so that we can use smoke-lift to our full advantage. I believe it is much easier to maintain a sense of direction and object recognition when I am closer to items at floor level.

As we enter the fire area, we do not always know the path to the fire; it must be developed as we move along looking and feel for clues. There is so much to lose and miss when we are not close to the floor such as our balance and victims. When we are upright and we bump into something, our forward momentum can cause more problems than just an abrupt stop. If a stair railing is encountered, I would much rather bump it with my shoulder than my hip and flip over it. Being top-heavy is a concern even when we crawl. By having one leg stretched out in front of us, we can avoid a lot of balance problems and hazard issues that come with fireground operations.

For the nozzle firefighter, using the one-leg-forward technique allows for rapid identification of: steps, collapsed mattresses, holes in floors and other obstructions. It also allows most of the firefighter’s weight to be placed behind them on the kneeling knee while using the outstretched leg as a sliding indicator to identify what lies ahead.

Crawling firefighters will be better able to locate victims, because they cover a larger area than a firefighter who walks around. When you’re low to the floor, you can incorporate using your tool or hands to enlarge your search area sweep.

It is all a matter of what we are doing and the conditions we are in at the time. If you walk into someplace, then it should be virtually smoke-free, or the degree of visual limitation is minimal. The converse is also true when the smoke is down to the floor; then so should you be! We all want to complete our tasks rapidly; as time is always working against us, we must use techniques that are efficient so that we are not just bouncing off objects like a pinball. Many times operations are started in a walking position and then conditions change, and we are forced down and are now examining new territory. If you do walk around, at least stay mindful of lower landmarks, so when your vision is lost you will be much more prepared.

Remember, most victims are either on the floor or have fallen to a lower position; the ones you find standing just need direction, not rescue. The ones you miss while walking around will eventually be found by someone who knew enough to kneel down.

Next Tactical Safety – Talking Fire


  1. Very early on during our training as firefighters, we are taught to crawl on our hands and knees. Then later on, we are taught to keep an eye on smoke and fire conditions above and behind us. We are told to maintain verbal contact with our partner. How am I supposed to look up and behind me while crawling on all four, when the interaction between my helmet and my SCBA bottle does not allow my head to move around?

    Notice how we tend not to turn towards the person we are talking to when crawling around. That leads to the difficulties we have understanding each other.

    In contrast, a firefighter that moves around with one knee down and one leg forward can look up, look behind or talk to his/her partner by simply slightly pivoting the hips.

    A firefighter on all four commits about 50% of his weight on the front. If the front limbs were to go through a hole in the floor, it takes a tremendous amount of core strength to keep himself from falling in. A firefighter advancing a line on his knees has 100% of his weight committed to the only two points of contact he has with the ground. That same whole will likely take him down.

    In contrast, a firefighter advancing with one leg forward has 90% of his weight on the back leg. This allows him to feel the hole with the front leg and lean back, needing minimal core strength to avoid falling in the whole, allowing him to warn his partner of the danger ahead.

    The body position is just as low and therefore protects us just as well from the heat. The firefighter has the option to switch from one knee to the other in case of fatigue or extreme heat being felt on the one knee.

    Remember, the quicker we put the fire out, the safer the scene is for everyone. The quicker we locate victims, the better chance of survival they have. Moving with one leg forward is much faster, especially while advancing a line.

    For those of you who never tried it, give it a try it next time you are on the training ground. I’ll never go back to crawling on all four.

    Claude Duval
    Kingston Fire & Rescue
    Ontario, Canada

  2. Ray, allow me to share my story about standing up. Many years ago, I singlehandedly stretched a line to the back of an icehouse that was on fire. While waiting for my partner to show up from the hydrant, I decided to head in the back door of the place. My captain was not far behind me at the door. It was cool but smokey, so I was standing up. About 30 feet inside the door, it dawned on my that I couldn't see my feet, so I squatted down. What I saw next sent a chill through me. I was on a two foot wide catwalk with nothing but cooling coils below me. If I had stepped either direction, I would've fallen into that maze of crap and surely been killed. Never again.

    Incidentally, I was taught (later) that another good way to move is to squat with all your weight on your back foot and use the front foot to sound in front of you. Works great.

  3. I call it "crab crawling".. as one almost always faces sideways with their leg out in front of them.

    Moving in this fashion also allows for better grip and control of whatever sized handline one is bringing in with them,

  4. Hey Lt. Great post!

    What we teach in the academy these days is this. If you can't see your feet, then crawl (whichever method you prefer, although I too prefer the one leg out) This goes for anywhere on the fireground. If you are on the roof and conditions deteriorate to the point of not being able to see where you are walking, then get down and start feeling your way. If you put a hand off the edge, you are much less likely to fall off of the roof then if you step off the edge! Same for the interior of a building. And while you should ALWAYS have a flashlight, if you find yourself in a zero light situation, it is wise to get down and crawl to avoid walking into a hole, staircase, swimming pool, whatever...

    The part that I wanted to add though is this. Many of the "Old Timers" from the 60's and 70's always taught us to crawl on our bellys. Why was this? Think about the fires and the PPE from those War Years. Most of the fires involved wood, cotton, and wool. All natural products that produced much less heat and smoke than todays fires. What about the PPE? Most often times it was Levi's, Hip Boots, and Duck or Rubber coats. And SCBA? Right..... So those old timers (which by the way have seen more fire than I EVER will) crawled on there belly because thats where the good air and lowest heat was. It made perfect sense to crawl that low.

    Now look at todays fires and PPE. The average room and contents fire is much hotter than those of the War Years. And the smoke is much more combustible. Flashovers occur at least 10 times more often now then they did in those days. And how about our PPE. Kevlar PBI mix with thermal protection propreties that are through the roof. Carbon fiber hoods, and gloves that are as thick as Chief Norman's "Fire Officers Handbook of Tactics". This PPE, along with our SCBA, is allowing us to travel farther and deeper into fire areas that maybe we should not be going into without support. At least by staying up in the kneeling position we can feel the change, hopefully, before it is too late. Allowing us to know when we need to stop and change tactics. Be it calling for ventilation, cooling the superheated atmosphere, or retreating to an area of refuge until conditions improve enough to continue. I am not saying that going to your belly should not be done. sometimes it is neccesary. But traversing the entire fire area may put you in deeper than you should be.

    Long winded I know but here is what we teach.

    If you can see your feet, Walk
    If you can't, Kneel or crawl.
    Only go to your belly if the heat drives you there. And if that happenes strongly re-evaluate your tactics before proceeding.

    Great topic Ray. The Magazine looks great, and I look forward to future editions.

    Stay safe and Have fun,