Rapidly Changing Conditions — Part 2

On June 24, 2010, a smoke explosion occurred during a multi-family dwelling fire in Harrisonburg, VA, forcing six firefighters to rapidly evacuate through an interior stairwell and second-floor windows. Our thanks to Harrisonburg Chief of Department...


On June 24, 2010, a smoke explosion occurred during a multi-family dwelling fire in Harrisonburg, VA, forcing six firefighters to rapidly evacuate through an interior stairwell and second-floor windows. Our thanks to Harrisonburg Chief of Department Larry W. Shifflett, Deputy Fire Chief Ian...


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The smoke explosion occurred due to the method of construction used in the roof. A reverse gable was placed on the rear of the exposure Bravo townhouse. This gable was added onto the roof after it had been decked and created a concealed void space with only a two-by-four-foot air-exchange hole between this space and the attic area. The complete decking of this space was not anticipated in this newer construction. The fire had extended to this void space and burned freely for a while, although with very minimal smoke production. The incomplete products of combustion found their way into the attic via the air exchange hole. When the mixture of these gases and the air created by pulling the ceiling entered the flammable range, the smoke explosion occurred producing a large fireball extending from the attic down through the attic access hole into the second floor.

Several important lessons were reinforced in this incident:

  • The importance of a strong command and control presence using a well-organized incident management system, including accountability. This was in place in Harrisonburg and allowed for a rapid evacuation of personnel and almost instant accountability of those personnel that had been assigned to the Bravo exposure.

    In several recent close calls as well as firefighter line-of-duty deaths, command, control and accountability are blatantly missing and then become direct contributors to tragic outcomes. Every incident must have strong command and control from the start, no matter what the rank or status of the first-arriving personnel. The goal is to manage the risk of firefighters, equipment and people from being un-commanded, un-coordinated and out of control because when that happens, the fire controls us. As a part of that, companies must maintain strict discipline and do what they are ordered to do, be it stage, stretch a line, search, establish water, vent — or don't vent. The fire scene is not a democracy. Your training, your policies and your direction from command must be performed with strict discipline.

  • The importance of having ladders in the vicinity of all possible egress points when personnel are working in floors above ground. More and more, firefighters understand the importance of "throwing" ground ladders (as applicable) to allow access, but more importantly, egress, when members have no other way out. And while in this case ladders were moved (having been thrown initially), they were quickly replaced. Departments should consider the clear role of what companies will be throwing ladders upon arrival, well before they are needed. Ground ladders may not seem to be a "big deal" until you are the one inside suddenly needing them outside.
  • How personnel must maintain their situational awareness at all times. All personnel inside the structure had kept in mind possible egress points in the structure and were able to rapidly find these points when the situation quickly deteriorated. Where am I right now? I remember an old boss of mine reminding us to always be able to answer that question. A recent "Mayday" that led to some seriously injured firefighters showed a very positive example of an officer trapped by fire inside the dwelling being able to identify what corner and floor of the house he and his crew were on. That's a big deal when the clock is ticking.
  • The seemingly routine tasks we take for granted become critical in a sudden event. Having ladders available, charged hoselines in place and wearing full protective clothing, including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), all were implemented and critical in the successful outcome of this incident. The event happened so quickly that there would have been no time to complete these tasks before the smoke explosion occurred.

    The Harrisonburg Fire Department "gets it" and its members were prepared for this by having the hoselines in place, ladders initially placed, members in full personal protective equipment (PPE) and an adequately staffed first alarm. It's easy for any fire department to get "comfortable: and, in most cases, it doesn't create a big problem. However, when we are unprepared and things go south, it is too late for us to take the needed action. Always consider the value of doing more, being more prepared, stretching more lines, adding more companies to be well "ahead" of the fire, as you can always reduce it when the situation is clearly under control. But if you don't, the outcome will eventually be a repeat of fire service history, one you do not want to be a part of.

  • While it is easy to become complacent in the everyday training activities of a fire department, it is those mundane and repetitive training activities that build the skills and abilities that firefighters need in order to react instinctively when things go wrong. All of our personnel had recently undergone "ladder bail" training as part of their daily training program. Training never ends. Period. The Harrisonburg Fire Department understands that — and it paid off.