Close Calls: A "Bad Day" on the Fireground – Part 1

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A fire department in Texas had a “bad day” on the fireground, with two firefighters suffering burn injuries, but there is no question it could have been much worse. However, because the officers and members took a critical look at what happened at that house fire – what they did, how they did it and what they could have done better – they improved their operations and are helping the rest of us by sharing their story.

Believe it or not, there have been – and still are – fire departments that have suffered serious injuries and even line-of-duty deaths, yet have done little or nothing to learn from the tragedies. Some departments just “write off” their losses as “part of the job.” While a “bad day” on the fireground may very well be “part of the job” at times, ignoring an opportunity to learn from it is not “part of the job.” After this close call, a good boss did what was necessary to determine what went right and what went wrong, recognizing the responsibility we all have to “take care of our own.”

 

A Growing City

Located between Round Rock and Taylor, the City of Hutto, TX, is only 25 miles from the state capital of Austin. While it is rare in most areas of the United States these days, primarily due to the economy, the Hutto community is actually experiencing incredible growth.

Hutto Fire Rescue serves a 63-square-mile area that has experienced an explosive population growth. In 2000, Hutto had a population of 1,250 with an estimated population in the coverage area for Hutto Fire Rescue of approximately 5,000. But by the end of 2005, the City of Hutto’s population was estimated to be over 12,000 and the Hutto Fire Rescue coverage area to be over 32,800. Current estimates now show the City of Hutto at approximately 17,500 people while the service area for Hutto Fire Rescue is estimated to be 39,000 people. By the year 2030, the population of the City of Hutto is projected to be more than 60,000, with the entire Hutto Fire Rescue coverage area at around 80,000. This unprecedented growth has been driven in large part by the construction of State Highway 130 (SH130) through Hutto. SH130 parallels the Interstate Highway 35 corridor, which runs through Austin and central Texas.

Hutto Fire Rescue is a combination paid/volunteer fire department with 10 full-time employees, 32 part-time employees and 15 volunteer members. The department is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by six “on-duty” firefighters. Firefighters are equipped and trained to assist in fire and rescue situations as well as emergency medical calls. Hutto firefighters act as first responders for Williamson County EMS and all full- and part-time employees are trained to at least the EMT level. Our sincere thanks to Chief Scott Kerwood and the firefighters and officers involved in this incident from Hutto, Taylor, Wilco EMS, Weir, Georgetown and Round Rock for their cooperation in sharing their close call.

 

Initial Dispatch

At 07:48 A.M. on Sept. 5, 2011, Williamson County Emergency Communications received a 911 call for a structure fire at 300 Lemens Ave. in Hutto. The initial dispatch assignment included Hutto Engines 1 and 2, Taylor Quint 1, WILCO Medic 43 and Hutto Chief 1. Additional responders included Hutto Tender 1, Weir Tender 1, Weir Chief 2, Georgetown Engine 1, Georgetown Battalion Chief 1 and Round Rock Tender 7. At 7:49, Hutto Fire Rescue was dispatched to the above reported fire in a residential structure’s attached garage. The weather at the time of the call was approximately 79 degrees Fahrenheit with 41% relative humidity and winds from the north at 25 to 30 mph.

While enroute, Hutto Engine 1 identified a single hydrant a quarter-mile from the structure. Hutto Engine 1 arrived on scene at 7:57 to find heavy smoke coming from a medium-sized, two-story residential structure with composite shingles over wood on a concrete slab. The officer of Hutto Engine 1 established Lemens Command and gave an initial size-up reporting heavy smoke coming from the D side of the structure. The D side is the attached garage on the north side of the residence. The A side is the front of the house, which faces east.

Command ordered an initial offensive attack from the A-side front door with a 1¾-inch line through the house to the fire room on the D side. The tactic employed by command was to stop the progression of the fire through the residence, which was being driven by a 25- to 30-mph wind from the north.

Three firefighters from Hutto Engine 1 forced entry through the A-side doorway. Two firefighters from Hutto Engine 2 brought additional tools and equipment to the A-side doorway. Visibility was good and the smoke was light as the three firefighters from Hutto Engine 1, the attack crew, proceeded into the kitchen and then into the utility room. A door from the utility room to the attached garage was opened slightly to observe the progression of the fire. Here, they found heavy smoke and moderate heat. The utility/garage door was closed as the hoseline was continued to be pulled up in order to make entry.

As the utility/garage door was opened to make entry into the fire room, visibility in the structure began deteriorating quickly. The attack crew proceeded into the garage through the utility/garage door. The first attack crew member sounded the floor with a halligan tool and maintained contact with the right-hand wall, the second member advanced with the nozzle and the third member pulled hose into the garage. All three firefighters advanced low, but not crawling, into the garage as they proceeded in search of the fire. One firefighter from Hutto Engine 2 remained at the A-side doorway, feeding hose into the structure, while the officer from Hutto Engine 2 proceeded to the kitchen/utility door.

 

Advancing the Line

The three firefighters of the attack crew continued advancing until they came in contact with the exterior garage door, the D side of the structure, continually getting lower to the floor due to the heat conditions. The heat was reported to be high, but not unbearable, and during this advance, the seat of the fire was not readily visible due to the heavy smoke. When the attack crew reached the exterior garage door, a significant amount of heat was felt coming from the opposite side of the garage (the C/D corner) from their location. Fire then became visible in the C/D corner of the garage and there was a brief rollover of flames across the ceiling.

The attack crew opened the nozzle in short bursts to try to reduce some of the heat, stop the rollover of flames across the ceiling and extinguish the fire. A relief valve from a cylinder located around the C/D corner began to vent and burn, which then progressed into a large amount of fire rolling across the ceiling and behind the attack crew. The amount of heat in the room increased considerably.

At approximately the same time, command was informed of an acetylene bottle in the garage and noticed a change in the fire and smoke conditions. The officer from Hutto Engine 2 advised command that heavy smoke conditions now existed in the structure. Command ordered the interior crews to exit the structure and return to the outside. The officer from Hutto Engine 2 yelled at the crew from Hutto Engine 1 to exit the structure about the same time the attack crew was already leaving the garage due to the high heat.

As the attack crew was exiting the garage, the heat quickly became untenable. Visibility throughout the structure at that time was bad due to the smoke pushing from the garage. The firefighters from Hutto Engine 2 provided voice contact for the three firefighters from Hutto Engine 1 to exit through the A-side doorway. The attack team followed the hoseline out of the garage and out of the building. Immediately, as the firefighters exited the structure, the officer of Hutto Engine 2 advised command that all personnel were out of the structure and a personnel accountability report (PAR) was obtained. The five firefighters then reported back to command, who initiated an exterior attack through the D-side garage door. It was not until the rehab stage that injuries were discovered by the two firefighters from Hutto Engine 1 who had made entry into the garage when the acetylene cylinder vented.

 

Post-Fire Report

The following are findings and recommendations from Hutto Fire Rescue.

The weather was a tactical factor due to strong winds out of the north. Rather than going in from the north through the garage (side D), command assessed that the crew could safely go in from the east through the residence (side A) and stop the fire in the garage without pushing it through the building. This decision was reaffirmed by the lack of smoke in the structure when the crews from Hutto Engines 1 and 2 made entry into the occupancy. Within a short period, command was advised of the acetylene bottle, noticed a distinct change in worsening smoke conditions and ordered a withdrawal from interior firefighting operations. At that time, the acetylene cylinder flashed the smoke-charged garage and fire enveloped the crew. Immediately, the crew began to crawl back through the garage to the utility/garage door. As the firefighters retreated from the garage, they closed the utility/garage door behind them, confining the fire to the garage.

Two firefighters, identified as Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2, were transported to the emergency room. Firefighter 1 was released to return to work with just minor burns to his arm and face. Firefighter 2 was released, but was not allowed to return to work due to second-degree burns to his neck, ears and mid-forearm.

All of the interior crews were wearing their personal protective equipment (PPE) properly. There was no failure of any PPE on either of the injured firefighters. The PPE did its job; it limited the severity of the injuries. When looking at the combination of each firefighter’s hood, helmet and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) facepiece, it can be seen where the heat, fire and embers rained down on these two individuals.

The initial injury examination identified the following:

1. Firefighter 1 – The burn on his arm was due to conducted heat through the coat to the snap between the liner and the outer shell. This in turn conducted heat to the firefighter. Minor burns to the face/neck area were from the buckles on the SCBA facepiece and heat/flames to the hood.

2. Firefighter 2 – The burns on both arms mid-forearm were from conduction through the coat and making contact between the skin and the liner. There was no failure of the glove wristlet/coat-sleeve gauntlet. Again, the only burns were to the mid-forearm, but there was no damage to the sleeves of the coat. As for his ears and neck, the burns were from fire, embers and heat directly to the hood.

After further examination of the PPE and the injuries, individual written reports from each firefighter of Hutto Engines 1 and 2, as well as reenacting the events on the scene, the following was determined:

1. Burn injuries to the arms of Firefighter 2 were actually caused by steam due to their location, the firefighter’s position on the nozzle and the condition of the PPE.

2. Only one firefighter had a radio when making entry. Each firefighter had a radio at his apparatus seat, but did not pick it up before entering the building.

3. This incident occurred at shift change with mixed crews. Not everyone was in their complete uniform nor was their complete gear on the truck when the tones dropped.

4. Firefighter 2 had a thinner National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)-compliant hood than Firefighter 1.

Next: Questions and recommendations

 

On behalf of my family to you and yours, I wish each of you a happy, safe and healthy 2012 and I look forward to seeing you soon.

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