A firefighter was injured when he and another firefighter entered this mobile home to search for children who were reported by neighbors to be inside. The children were not at home at the time.
It's so often a combination of small "things forgotten or ignored" at a fire that can lead to tragic outcomes. In this month's continued close call, we learn how firefighters from Frederick County and Carroll County, MD, properly understand the importance of being fully prepared. As you will recall from part one (November 2010), this house fire was one with reports of three children trapped.
Worthy of review is the pre-fire preparedness, the "being ready" plan that every fire department must employ. Being ready doesn't mean waiting for the tones to go off and then taking it from there. Being ready means looking at your community and your department, and then matching the two to ensure you are genuinely ready. Being ready takes on several levels of importance. Being ready means:
- Pre-planning. Pre-plan the buildings, the area, the neighborhood, the community and the risks you respond to. Ask yourself, "What's the worst that can happen in our community?" Now plan for it.
- Pre-determined staffing. We must know how many firefighters we will have at anytime. We cannot tone it out and wait to see who shows up.
- Alarm assignments. Match your known resources to your known risks. Planning before the run comes in so that we are able to match our response to the incident potential is what the public and our members deserve.
This account is by Chief Gary Keller of Frederick County's New Midway Volunteer Fire Company, who was the incident commander:
The New Midway Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched (as a part of a full first-alarm assignment including numerous departments from Frederick County and Carroll County) for a mobile home fire with reported persons trapped. I could see smoke visible from my home. Receiving updates enroute, there was a possibility of three children trapped inside. An officer from Carroll County Company 8 (Union Bridge Volunteer Fire Department) said neighbors reported three children as residents.
There was a report that a gate across the property was chained and locked. I arrived on the scene and tried to break down the gate with my own personal vehicle, but I could not. Because the gate was locked, we lost precious time to size-up the fire and rescue situation. It understandably ramped up the frustration and intensity of the call.
I set up command and I did my size-up. At this point, it was still unknown whether there were children or anyone else inside that structure. Neighbors were trying to confirm for us that the children were inside. We could not find any information as to their exact or even estimated whereabouts. As I was giving my size-up to the Frederick County Emergency Communications Center, two firefighters from Carroll County opened the trailer door to do a quick search of the property, at which time the fire came down on the two firefighters who entered. The first firefighter's gear became engulfed with flame. The second firefighter quickly removed him from the doorway. We immediately put his gear out with minimal injury to the firefighter. Without question, personal preparedness, properly worn gear and proper gear being used saved him from further injury.
This account is by Lieutenant Steve Schultz of the Frederick County Department of Fire & Rescue, who was the covering safety officer:
I responded as part of the assignment to Box 09-11 on Keymar Road for the reported mobile home on fire. Enroute, communications advised that one of the callers reported that there may be children trapped. Any time you take in a call, you have, of course, the safety of all your folks in mind, but the remote location of the incident, the type of structure involved and now reports of children trapped heightened my anxiety level.
"Driving in Slow Motion"
I had approximately 17 miles to get to the scene and felt as though I was driving in slow motion. Communications reported receiving multiple calls. Some of the first-due companies were late getting out due to a lack of personnel. The first-due medic unit from a neighboring jurisdiction, responding as part of the first-alarm assignment, was reporting smoke showing while still approaching the scene. These reports and issues only served to intensify my anxiety and desire to get to the scene quickly.
I listened to the radio traffic and knew that the first-due engine would be on the scene for some time before any additional units arrived. As units responded, I became increasingly concerned about the amount of radio traffic being produced by units not on the scene. Through the traffic, I thought I heard the incident commander (whom I've known and respected for years) calling "urgent" and something about "firefighters involved." Involved in what!? My heart began to sink as units continued to cover the incident commander's calls to communications. He called again and I could hear great concern in his voice as if he was working hard while trying to talk on the radio. He again reported that he had firefighters involved, but I didn't hear what they were involved in. I, of course, assumed the worst.
Approaching the scene, I saw a large column of smoke and the radio reports didn't sound as if the units were making very good progress. I arrived and parked my unit out on the road approximately a quarter-mile from the driveway in order to let units in and out. Several units were now on the scene and it was beginning to sound like they were getting the fire knocked down. An ambulance was coming down the road toward me. I was walking toward our division's chief fire marshal, Bureau Chief Marc McNeal, when the ambulance stopped and the fire marshal, Battalion Chief Michael Dmuchowski, got out. He reported to McNeal and me that the ambulance was transporting an injured firefighter for treatment and evaluation of minor burns to his upper torso. The chief also reported that two firefighters had been caught in some type of event.
I made my way to the incident scene and reported to command. He advised me that two firefighters had been caught inside the trailer when fire conditions suddenly deteriorated, causing one of the firefighters to be "enveloped" in flames. A chief officer from our division (county fire and rescue) as well as from his own department both were enroute to the hospital. At the time, in coordination with command, I immediately went to work with my normal "incident safety officer" fireground functions. As the fire was brought under control, I shifted my attention back to the incident that had occurred with the first-due engine.
I spoke to the incident commander and he related the event to me from his perspective. I also located the injured firefighter's personal protective equipment (PPE) that had been removed by EMS (see photos in part one). Since this gear was property of another department, I felt it very important to photograph it as soon as possible before it was taken back into possession by that department.
The firefighters involved were from an outside jurisdiction. As the safety officer, I don't do much in the way of investigation or reporting for incidents that don't involve one of our career or volunteer members. But when I saw the amount of damage that the injured firefighter's PPE had sustained, I felt that it would be in our best interest (and to assist the primary fire department) to conduct interviews and document the scene.
I received permission from the injured firefighter's chief (who was now on the scene) to interview the other firefighter involved, who had remained on the scene. I asked him to explain in detail what had happened from the time their unit arrived on the scene until after they were both out. He explained that when their unit arrived, they found the first-due chief and medic unit attempting to deal with the locked gate at the end of the driveway. They were also advised by the medic unit that they had been told by a neighbor that three children lived in the trailer, but didn't know whether anyone was home.
With this report, the crew realized they had a very narrow window of opportunity to conduct a search. The firefighter and his partner climbed over the fence and ran back the driveway, while the rest of the crew forced the locked gate. Once they got to the mobile home, they saw fire showing from the Charlie side at about the middle of the unit and heavy smoke pushing from the rest of it. They forced the front door, and heavy fire greeted them, rolling out the door. They realized there was only one place in the home they were going to be able to search due to the volume of fire and the slim chance of a civilian surviving.
He stated they were in agreement that they were going to attempt a search of the bedroom to the right of the front door and in the Delta end of the mobile home. Fire was venting above them out the front door when they entered. They made it five to six feet in the door when they made the turn to enter the bedroom. He stated that at that moment, the fire seemed to change dramatically. He looked back to verify the exit. When he turned again, his partner began complaining of the intense heat and was "suddenly enveloped in fire." He stated that at first he thought his partner had fallen through the floor and that the fire was coming from beneath, but then quickly realized that his partner was literally on fire. He grabbed his partner and turned him toward the door, but needed to assist him out due to the heavy damage to his PPE and the amount of pain he was in. He pushed his partner out the door.
Other personnel who were stretching an attack line immediately went to the search crew's aid. The incident commander and other members dragged the crew away from the burning home. This firefighter had no injuries and remarkably the injured firefighter had only minor burns. I was absolutely mystified that the injured firefighter was not seriously burned.
I remained on the scene until operations were terminated and I returned to my station to make my report. I immediately issued a safety briefing in which I included the pictures of the firefighter's PPE and used this as an illustration of why wearing our PPE correctly matters. We don't get to pick the time or location of our battles, but we always must be ready to fight. Being ready should include wearing all of our PPE and wearing it correctly.
The following comments by Chief Goldfeder are based on discussions with those involved in the incident:
So much of this account speaks about preparedness, but also brings up issues related to "expecting the unexpected." While we should conduct post-action reviews of serious incidents, there are the "Murphy's law" scenarios. In this case, the fence created major obstacles for firefighters. How would you have handled that? When there are reports of occupants trapped, we should take extreme measures (based on size-up and conditions) to do what we can to help those who may be trapped.
In this case, the firefighters from Frederick County and Carroll County had numerous challenges, with the focus on the children reported being trapped being paramount. And while they were forced to take some extreme risks to conduct their quick search, this is yet another example of firefighters being "personally prepared" (by properly using and wearing their PPE as it was designed to be used) and the outcome being a positive one.
So what about the children who were reported trapped? It turned out they were not at home at the time of the fire. They apparently stay at home alone on a regular basis and the neighbors had not seen them outside at the time of the fire, and this led to the insistence of neighbors that the children were in the trailer. Not a particularly unusual ending and their assumption was a reasonable one. It isn't all that rare that we are told "occupants possibly trapped." When we are so advised or have reliable indications related to the possibility (in coordination with command and operating companies), we must size-up the fire and related conditions and immediately determine our priorities, which more likely than not will be attempting a search.
When we are placed in the situation requiring rapid size-up and an almost immediate need to search for possible victims, it is then when our personal and organizational "pre-fire preparedness" is put to what may be the ultimate test.
On behalf of my department, my family and all of us at Firehouse® Magazine, best wishes for a happy holiday season and a healthy and peaceful 2011.
WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.