BA guidelines – time to say goodbye?

BA guidelines have been a formal procedure since 1943. In that year the Manual of Firemanship stated that: ‘Men in BA should always work in pairs. On occasions it may be desirable to trail a bobbin line to enable men to retrace their steps’. In 1969, Fire Service Circular 46/69 provided a standard specification and procedures for BA guidelines – this specification and the operational procedures have been largely unchanged since then.

The purpose of a BA guideline is to enable a BA team in a risk area to retrace their steps to the BA entry control point; subsequent BA teams to readily locate a team of BA wearers or the scene of operations; and/or subsequent BA teams to enter and search large/complex structures.1

Many FRS’s started to remove BA guidelines totally or in a restricted manner from on-call crews since 2010. The key reasons cited included:

  • The training for BA guidelines took up almost half of the Initial BA course
  • Initial BA course failures were mainly due to the use of guidelines
  • The maintenance of competency was time consuming for on call crews.

This, together with the introduction of thermal imaging cameras, positive pressure ventilation (PPV) and with most services activity risk assessment for the operational use of guidelines showing it as a high risk activity, this seemed a sensible consideration, limiting their use to wholetime crews. But with some FRSs now removing their use entirely, is it time to say goodbye to this 60m length of line?


“BA guidelines pose a significant risk to firefighters due to the complex nature and environment of their use. The training need is significant and the skills fade is large”


New Technology

Since their introduction, enhancements to PPE, technology and BA procedures have incrementally but significantly reduced the requirement for guidelines at any incident. Changes detailed in the Foundation for Breathing Apparatus (NOG) make the use of BA guidelines more resource intensive and add further degrees of complication, whilst recognising them as a high-risk last resort strategy. They require the use of firefighting media in all circumstances, increasing resources required, numbers committed into the risk area, and set up time. With a team laying the line having to be accompanied or equipped with firefighting media and not working ahead of any firefighting team, this will slow progress within the risk area, bringing into question the validity of any risk/benefit assessment of their use at an incident.

Firefighter Fatalities

The safe and effective use of guidelines has been a debate since the two firefighter deaths at Gillender Street, London in 19912. A simultaneous guideline and firefighting deployment was utilised during the incident at Leo’s supermarket in Bristol 19963. Whilst guidelines use did not directly lead to the firefighter death, neither did it function as a safe system of work in preventing it. The time required to put in place guidelines may have contributed to the delay in firefighting that allowed the fire to develop to the point of flashover.

In the last decade only one firefighter death resulted from becoming disorientated within a structure, (Balmoral Bar, Edinburgh 20144). The nature of fire and structure involved, suggests that the use of guidelines at this incident would have been unfeasible. This death, as with others, occurred in properties that would not have necessitated the use of guidelines, nor would their use have assisted operations.

The firefighter fatalities that happened at Atherton-on-Stour in 2007, occurred in a premises where guidelines may have been considered in the initial tactical plan, (large industrial premises). Two guidelines were laid later into the incident, by two BA emergency teams, as part of the initial search and rescue attempts to locate the four missing firefighters. These guidelines were used only as a means to locate the scene of operations in the first floor lobby area. The report5 stated that the crews in an emergency team ‘experienced extremely hot temperatures when removing their gloves to tie off the guideline. They encountered another guideline which became entangled with theirs… they follow this guideline out of the building’ (p36). Another emergency team stated that ‘their hose reel and guideline became tangled and this hampered their progress and they had to withdraw’ (p38). One of the recommendations in the report was ‘The practice of using guidelines alongside hose lines should be re-assessed and guidance issued clarifying if guidelines use is necessary’ (p80).

Approved Document B limits travel distances to a point of safety to a maximum of 45m where no fixed installations are present to remove smoke from a premises or aid evacuation. Escape travel distances under BS9999 and BS7974 may allow these distances to exceed beyond 100m, providing other compensatory factors, such as fixed installations are present. Travel to fire compartments is therefore at least partially protected and the risk of casualties remaining within the property is low, reducing the need for offensive firefighting in large buildings with the potential for collapse. Newer and re-fitted properties are also less likely to have appropriate tie-off points to secure a guideline on, as pipe work and protrusions are boxed in to prevent accident and heat loss.


“The use of BA guidelines is resource intensive, arduous, high-risk and slow to implement. The survivability of any casualties being searched for with a BA guideline is at best questionable”

Modern Firefighting Techniques

Surely, the removal of smoke and fire gasses by natural or forced ventilation, ability to create alternative access points into buildings, external means of firefighting with fogspikes, Cobra or Stinger and the introduction of BA crews with thermal imaging cameras, following the thermal footprint of their hose lines, removes the need for modern firefighters in the 21st century to, in effect, ‘trail a bobbin line to enable men to retrace their steps’? (MoF 1943)

Guidelines exist as a procedure within the Foundation for Breathing Apparatus, but are not detailed anywhere as a control measure for any activity within NOG6. BA guidelines do not represent the safest available option for carrying out operational duties in structures with limited visibility. There is also a risk that they place a greater number of personnel in the hazard zone and may encourage deep penetration at incidents rather than identifying alternate entry points, external aggressive attack options or defensive firefighting.

BA guidelines have been used extremely rarely, with many FRS’s only citing one or two occasions in the past 20 years, and most of these were either in non-fire situations or just as a means of locating the route to the scene of operations.

At present BA guidelines are regularly taught and trained in isolation, without the addition of a hose line, thermal imaging camera or PPV, all accompanying control measures for their use.

Other industries, such as the MOD, Police and HART, have introduced methods of maintaining egress and finding routes to work areas; these have embraced new light rope technology that are now widely available for the fire and rescue sector with several USAR teams already using them.

Risk to Firefighters

In conclusion, BA guidelines pose a significant risk to firefighters due to the complex nature and environment of their use. The training need is significant and the skills fade is large. Incident commanders now have a large range of tactical options available to effect a search of a building, including thermal imaging cameras and PPV.

The use of BA guidelines is resource intensive, arduous, high-risk and slow to implement. The survivability of any casualties being searched for with a BA guideline is at best questionable, which would affect the risk assessment for their use and most probably lead to another, more appropriate tactical option. There is no or very little organisational memory on the operational use of BA guidelines to draw upon for current BA wearers.

Twenty-first century firefighting involves fixed installations, passive fire protection, smoke curtains, fire escape hoods, PPV, thermal imaging, fogspike, Cobra, Stingers, drones and robotics – not a 60m length of line.



2 Home Office Publication 11/94 ‘An Investigation into a high technology alternative to BA guidelines’, Kirsty Booth, Fire Research & Development Group, 1994.

3 Report of the Brigade investigation into the death of FF Fleur Lombard, Avon Fire Brigade, 1996

4 Fatal accident investigation report into the death of FF Ewan Williamson, Fire Brigades Union

5 Report on the fire at Atherstone-on-stour November 2, 2007, Warwickshire FRS, 2014

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