If you are a firefighter, you (hopefully) went through a fire academy or a training program to qualify you to do this stuff. Assuming that would be most of you, some of your instructors made a real difference. They led you, pushed you and were tough on you so you would understand how serious this job is. I consider myself really lucky to have had men like Eddie Bennett, Lou Cafone, Ed DiMonda, Nelson Finkelman, Leon Kane, Ralph Lynch, Pat McGrath, Joe Morris, Artie Rypka and Herman Wiegand train me in the early 1970s. These instructors made an impact on me and, as this month’s close-call firefighter discusses, taught us to survive.
We extend our sincere appreciation to the officers and members of the Peoria, IL, Fire Department. Specifically, we thank Firefighter Blaise Steffen and his wife, Shannon, for their personal accounts and Chief of Department Kent M. Tomblin, Assistant Chief Greg Walters and Captain Richard Booth for their assistance.
The Peoria Fire Department is staffed by more than 200 career firefighters responsible for fire suppression, rescue, emergency medical service, hazardous material mitigation, fire prevention education, fire investigation, inspections and community relations for a community of just under 120,000. The department has 12 stations running more than 17,000 calls annually. The Peoria Fire Training Academy is a regional training site for the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI).
The following account is by Firefighter Blaise Steffen:
I always wanted to be a firefighter. When I was real young, my dad got hired onto the fire department. I loved to go to the firehouse and see the trucks and the guys he worked with. I joined a volunteer fire department and took fire classes on weekends and during the summer. I went to college to get a degree in fire science and tested everywhere I could.
When I got a call from the Peoria Fire Department, I took the job and went straight to their academy. The instructors were great. The very first week, they had us put on our gear and timed us to see who could do it the fastest. As soon as we were done, they checked us inch by inch to make sure we had everything on perfect and if we didn’t we started over. We did burns and drills in the fire tower and every time, the instructors preached about wearing our gear in full and properly. They always talked about “Maydays” and what to do if we were ever in that situation. They would randomly pull someone off to the side and tell us to go lie in a corner until a crew found us. We always had to be alert because if we heard that PASS (personal alert safety system) device going off, we knew we had a downed firefighter.
Another drill we did was orientation and what to do if we got lost. They taught us to control our breathing, set off our PASS device and immediately call for a “Mayday.” They taught us to pay attention to our surroundings. None of us realized that our fire academy training would help save my life three years later. Our fire instructors mattered.
Seven weeks later, we graduated from the fire academy and went on duty. I walked into the firehouse around 6:20 that morning for a shift that started at 7 o’clock. I introduced myself to the firefighters and went down to check out my machine (apparatus). At 6:40, the tones went off for a house fire. I was nervous and excited at the same time. I knew if I was getting my first fire 20 minutes before my first shift started, this was going to be a great career. Later, I was stationed on a truck. We worked out together, trained together, watched dumb movies together – typical firehouse. Life could not have been any better.
One Saturday, I went into work like any normal day. As I went to bed that night (of course, hoping to get a fire) around 10, I called my wife and told her about the day and planned what to do tomorrow. Then I went to sleep.
I awakened around 12:30 A.M. to the sound of our tones. There were reports of a basement fire and we raced down to the machines and out the door. As I was riding in the back, I finished putting on my gear. The dispatcher reported someone might be inside. I made sure I had everything I needed and that every button of my PPE (personal protective equipment) was done up.
When we pulled up on the scene, we could see fire shooting out the B-side basement windows. As I went toward the front door, I was stopped by a woman saying a guy lived there alone. Other neighbors said if his car was home, so was he and his car was there. The engine crew from our firehouse opened the front door and took in a line. I put on my mask, pulled up my hood, strapped my helmet and followed my captain in the front door to search for the owner.
There was no visibility and little to no heat. We searched off the hoseline in the front room into the second room, which was the dining room. It was like searching in a small hallway with all the clutter. As we made our way toward the back of the house to the third room (the kitchen), we ran into the engine crew. They were having trouble finding the stairs to the basement. My captain told me to turn around and follow the hoseline out so we could set up ventilation.
As we backed out, we heard three bursts of the air horn signaling for everyone to evacuate. I made my way through the kitchen and dining room with the hose in my left hand and my ax in the right. As I got partway through the front room, fire shot up right beside me. I assumed it was room contents on fire and stopped to tell the captain we had fire. We didn’t want the engine crew trapped inside. As I followed the hose through the room, I got to a loop in the hose. I stopped and followed it with one hand. When I got to its crossing point, I looked in the direction it was headed and could see the outline of the door six or eight feet away.
I took another step and all of a sudden the floor fell away underneath me. All I could see and feel was fire and an unbearable heat. All I could think of was no, not here. This isn’t how I wanted to die. I started asking God to relieve the pain and help me out. So many thoughts went through my head from what will happen with my wife, how will I be remembered and how long would I have to suffer through the pain until I passed on. The heat was so unbearable I would have gone at any time if I could have. I crawled over into a corner as far from the fire as I could and curled up to shield myself from the heat. The heat suddenly went from unbearable to tolerable. I started thinking I have a chance and all my training kicked in.
I knew the first thing to do was call a “Mayday.” I reached for my radio mic and it was gone. It had ripped off when I fell. My PASS device activated because I had been still for so long. I felt down the wall with my right hand. My pack clicked like it was low air, but just once, enough to tell me I was breathing really hard. I slowed it down, taking slow, steady breaths. I felt what I thought was the bottom of some stairs. As I went to find where they started, I got hit on the back with a hose stream. This instantly cooled me off and I thought this is my way out.
I went straight into the stream as fast as I could. I saw a light the chief was shining in the window. I reached up toward the window. I was lifted off the ground and pulled halfway out. I heard a captain say I was tangled in wires. He pulled wire cutters out of his pocket and cut me free, then pulled me the rest of the way out. I looked up and saw all the faces asking how I was. I kept thinking I can’t believe I made it out and thanked God over and over.
After they pulled off my pack and helmet, I told the guys I’m all right and to stand me up, I could walk. I walked to the ambulance, where they took off my glove. That’s when all the pain kicked in. They took off the rest of my gear and put me in the ambulance. My captain rode down with me and kept saline on my burns to ease the pain. When I got to the ER, they put me on pain meds and IV. The chief of department was there, as well as my wife, who took care of me through this entire ordeal. I was moved to a burn unit. After 12 days in the hospital and skin grafts on my left hand, both arms and both flanks, I was released.
I am home now and have been off full duty for five months. I spent two months in therapy and one month of home health care, but feel great. I have to wear pressure garments for one to two years over my flanks, arms and hands. I know none of it could have happened without great training, support from my wife and the grace of God.
To be continued