I Have Always Done Victim Survivability Profiling

VSP is one of the hottest topics of conversation in the fire service today.  Captain Marsar’s research has taken the fire service by storm and has created an interesting “new” flavor of the month for those who feed on “firefighter safety through spectatorship”.  Maybe it was because of my animosity for the “let it burn” folks within our profession that I was initially against the concept of deciding if a building is searchable from the front yard and was unfairly biased.  However, the more I read about and discuss it the more I realize that I HAVE ALWAYS PERFORMED VSP!

  • What conditions do I have, where are they and where are they going?
  • What time is it and where are the people inside?
  • Where and how can I get in to this building?
  • How do I get out of this building?
  • Do I have enough resources to do what I need to do now?
  • What can I do now?
  • Is this an offensive or defensive fire?

Is this a size-up or Victim Survivability Profiling (VSP)?

Our priorities of life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation (LIP) are one of the first things that you learn when you get into this job.  As our training continues, we learn about phases of fire, flashover and how to “read” smoke.  Then, hopefully, someone taught you about Lloyd Layman’s tactical considerations of RECEO VS (rescue, exposures, confinement, extinguishment, overhaul… vent and salvage… in that order).  What is supposed to happen is, you take all this knowledge, fight a few fires, learn from them, reapply as necessary then repeat.

As this process continues over years, you hone your skills, learn from your misreads, mistakes and close calls (or better yet someone else’s) and get better and smarter.  After time, you become the “senior man” or the officer in charge and get to use that knowledge and experience.  YOU decide mode of operation, where and how to position the first line and where/how to start a search.  NOW YOU GET TO DECIDE WHO LIVES AND WHO DIES.  If a civilian dies at one of “your” fires, DID YOU AND YOUR CREW (as an extension of you) DO EVERYTHING IN YOUR POWER TO PROTECT THEIR LIFE in the manner you were taught your first week of fire training?

TENABLE versus VIABLE, THERE IS A DIFFERENCE.  Tenable may depend on smoke, heat, flame and interior layout of the occupancy or any combination.  Things are NOT always as they appear from the exterior.  Viability MAY be related to tenability, however occupant age, health and relative location to the fire all impact how long someone may be “viable”.  For that matter, our actions may directly impact tenability and how long someone may be viable.

How efficiently the first line gets stretched, advanced and water gets on the fire will have the greatest impact on tenability.  The time it takes us to get the smoke out of the building will also directly and greatly drive how long someone may be viable.  However, the only location on the fireground that is the most tenable AND protects viability is OUTSIDE.  Getting IN, searching tenable areas and pulling people OUT of the buildings is the only true way of holding up our end of the deal.

One of my favorite quotes from Chief John Salka is “You don’t know what you don’t know.”  We live and work in the unknown and OUR REALITY is making decision based on limited or unknown information.  Sometimes a situation leads us into some dangerous areas based on conditions, information and YOUR gut feeling.  These factors may lead you through or around “untenable” areas into those “voids” where panicked civilians seek refuge when faced with no exit and certain death.  They are not condemned to death; they are just waiting for us to come in a get them.  That’s where our training, experience, discipline and professionalism are put to the test.  It is not our job to decide who lives and who dies.  It is our job to do our job by getting water on the fire, letting the smoke and heat out and helping the helpless.


  1. “Can They Be Saved? Utilizing Civilian Survivability Profiling to Enhance Size-Up and Reduce Firefighter Fatalities in the Fire Department, City of New York.”  , Stephen Marsar
  2. “Survivability Profiling: Applying What We’ve Learned”, Stephen Marsar, Fire Engineering July 2011
  3. “‘Survivability Profiling’ is Key to Ending Preventable LODDs”, Stephen Marsar, FireRescue Magazine November 2011
  4. “Muliple Rescues in Fatal Lewisdale Fire”, from www.hvfd.com
  5. “…Report Critical of Pasadena Fire Department’s Failure to Find Woman’s Body After Fire”, from Pasadena Star News Online
  6. “Sometimes It’s Not So Simple”, from www.backstepfirefighter.com




  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    The difference between your “VSP” and what is being discussed is this…

    Under Marsar’s VSP we are supposed to determine viability based on smoke conditions from the front yard. There multiple accounts of folks that have been rescued and survived from apparently untenable fire conditions showing from the street, VSP proposes that we don’t commit to search based on apparent untenable smoke conditions.

    “You don’t know what you don’t know” – Exactly. And you can either go in or you can’t. Not going in and not searching should not be based on the status of the victim.

  • Robert Isbell says:

    I agree with Salka, you have to continue with the mission at hand, right up until your intel tells you it’s a no-go..  We need to be training on running right up to that point and then having the mental awareness to stop if needed..  Risk v benefit all the time. My family doesn’t want to trade for poor odds, neither do I. 

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