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 Larry W. Shifflett, Deputy Fire Chief Ian J. Bennett, the officers and members of Hose Company 4 (Rockingham County) and especially the members of the Harrisonburg Fire Department for their help in preparing this column.

The following accounts are by firefighters who were operating in the fire building at the time of the emergency:

Firefighter Derek Showalter, Engine 28 (operating in the area of the stairwell) — Engine 28's crew was given the assignment to check the Bravo exposure. We encountered clear conditions on the second floor and light smoke conditions in the attic. After a few moments, we noticed a small amount of fire in the attic. A 1¾-inch hoseline was stretched to the attic access in the hallway near the top of the stairwell. After attempting to extinguish the fire in the attic, conditions in the attic grew progressively worse (less visibility and higher heat). Firefighters in the rear bedroom called for the hoseline to try and attack the fire through holes they had pulled in the ceiling. While I made my way down the attic ladder, the attic flashed, engulfing the hallway and ladder that I was on. The firefighters in the Charlie-side bedroom had to do ladder bails out windows due to the fire blocking their access back to the stairwell. I was able to make my way to the stairway and escape with minor burns to my left ear.

Firefighter Chad Smith, Tower 1 (in the rear bedroom pulling ceiling) — Master Firefighter (Jamie) Rickard and I were assigned as the two inside guys on the tower. We had just finished securing utilities for the two townhouses and were assigned to salvage in the exposure Bravo building. As we reached the second floor of exposure Bravo, there was no smoke present and everything seemed normal. Master Firefighter Rickard and I started moving the furniture in the rear bedroom into a pile so we could place a tarp on it.

Around this time, someone advised us over the radio that we had fire above us in the attic. We donned our facepieces and I started helping Master Firefighter (Bradley) Clark pull the ceiling in the bedroom. While we were doing this, a hoseline had been moved to the hallway on the second floor and Firefighter Showalter was trying to knock the fire down from an attic ladder. Once we had a hole in the ceiling, the smoke conditions started getting worse and continued to do so. It appeared that the water was not reaching the fire from the hole we had created. The hoseline was handed to me and I knelt down in the doorway to the bedroom and started flowing water through the hole.

A short time later, the smoke got real thick and banked down to the floor. Seeing this, I shut down the nozzle. The next thing I knew the hallway ignited with flames and extended to the doorway where I was standing. Knowing that we were cut off from the stairway due to fire, Master Firefighter Clark and I ran for the windows in the bedroom. When I reached the window, there wasn't a ladder at that particular window, so I rolled out the window holding myself with my left leg and left arm on the inside part of the window sill. A few seconds later, a ladder was thrown and I descended the ladder head first to the bottom, where three people stopped me. Master Firefighter Clark exited the window on a ladder that was thrown from a deck on the first floor. Chief 2 approached us to see if we were OK. A couple of minutes later, we went to the front of the building and rested in rehab.

Firefighter Tyler Burgoyne, Engine 28 (operating in the area of the stairwell) — We were sent to the second floor of the Bravo exposure to check the attic for extension. There was light smoke in the attic with no flames visible. We checked the attic several minutes later and found some fire visible near the Charlie side. I extinguished the fire from the attic access and stayed in the access hole. The temperature was rising in the attic. I kept spraying water, but the temperature was not getting any cooler.

I came down the ladder and Firefighter Showalter went up and found the same conditions. Several others started pulling ceiling and they needed the line as smoke started to come from the attic. Fire blew down from the attic access. Firefighter Showalter was on the ladder and I was holding the ladder. I fell to the ground, crawled to the stairs and exited through the front door.

Master Firefighter Bradley Clark, Engine 28 (in the rear bedroom pulling ceiling) — We were assigned to check the Bravo exposure for extension into the attic. At first, we found light smoke and no visible flames in the attic. After a few minutes, we had a small flame in the attic, where the roof meets the soffit. A line was placed in service and we were able to extinguish that fire. We were not aware of the reverse gable above us where the fire was free burning and our hoseline was unable to access. As this fire burned, it was filling up the attic with superheated gases and smoke. The fire eventually ignited the gases, forcing it all down the attic access hole.

I witnessed total flame engulfment of one firefighter and my escape was cut off. I was not sure if a flashover was occurring, so I retreated to the nearest window and called for a ladder. Another firefighter and I were able to exit the building via "ladder bails" from the second-story windows.

Master Firefighter William Drury, Engine 28 (operating in the area of the stairwell) — We were initially asked to pull a handline off Engine 26 to exposure Bravo. There was no smoke in the exposure building. I was at the bottom of the stairs while others went upstairs to check for extension. Eventually, the line was used to provide a stream to the attic space. I was standing halfway up the stairs feeding hose to the firefighters on the second floor. I suddenly heard a boom and experienced a sudden smoke and extreme heat explosion that overwhelmed me and threw me down the steps to the first floor. At this time, the evacuation tones were being sounded and we were moving to the outside of the building with the help of others.

Master Firefighter Jamie Rickard, Tower 1 (operating in the area of the stairwell) — Upon arrival at the structure fire, Firefighter Smith and I were assigned to secure utilities, search and ventilation of the fire building. We entered the fire building and secured the utilities and did a primary search of all three floors. We then exited the fire building and entered exposure Bravo and secured utilities and did a primary search of all three floors. There was no visible smoke on any of the floors, just a light haze in the attic. We exited the building and secured the electrical utilities at the main disconnect on the exterior of the building. Command then assigned us to salvage work in exposure Bravo. We took some salvage covers and plastic to the second floor of exposure Bravo and began covering the contents of the rear bedroom.

Engine 28's crew came to our location and advised there was some fire on the exterior of the building. Master Firefighter Clark put an inspection hole in the bedroom ceiling and Firefighter Showalter was in the attic operating a 1¾-inch handline. We had some smoke coming from the inspection hole and called for the handline out of the attic to hit the fire from the inspection hole. Master Firefighter Clark made a bigger inspection hole and we noticed smoke pushing from the ceiling and pulling back into the attic.

As Firefighter Showalter was exiting the attic access hole, a smoke explosion occurred from the attic. Four of us were able to exit down the stairs and we noticed Master Firefighter Clark and Firefighter Smith were not with us. Firefighter Showalter and I began to go up the stairs when we were told that they had bailed out through the windows on side D.

The following conclusions and related discussion are based on input from the Harrisonburg Fire Department members in communication with Chief Goldfeder, along with observations and general comments:

This fire, while a close call, resulted in nothing more than a close call and that generally happens in a disciplined fire department that is well led and well trained. The cause of the fire was determined to be a cigarette that had been placed in a plastic trash can that was on the rear deck up against the building. The trash can caught fire and the fire extended up the exterior of the structure via the vinyl siding.

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.

As an example of how training cannot ever end, no matter how long you have on the job, I recently went through a new command and control on the fireground certification training program, far beyond the National Incident Management System (NIMS) 300/400 courses that we have all taken. The training also consisted of a required 24-hour "group exercise and evaluation" on as realistic a simulator I have experienced. The program focused on Type 4 and Type 5 incidents — the incidents that you and I respond to regularly.

I took the 75-hour "Blue Card" certification program (www.bluecardcommand.com) as a directive from our chief of department for all of our command officers. It is new. It is different. It forced me to think a bit differently and while that was a challenge, it works really well. It allows us, as command officers, to take a much more in-depth look to better understand hazard zone management and the protection of our firefighters.

Who has 75 hours to give up these days? Well, if you are going to be a fire command officer, be it this class or anything else, we must continue our education. From the probie to the seasoned firefighter to the apparatus operators, the company officers and the chiefs, continuing training and education, both classroom and hands-on training specifically related to fireground operations, is mandatory for the good of our members and our customers.

In the case of the Harrisonburg Fire Department, the members do understand how complacent everyday training activities of a fire department can get. But they also understand that it is those mundane and repetitive training activities that create an effective department that has a better chance of reacting instinctively when things go wrong, as they did in June. Their efforts paid off.

Good questions for discussion are: "If this were my fire department, how would this have worked out?" "What would have been our first-alarm assignment?" "What is our staffing?" "Do we 'know' the buildings in our response area?" "Can our hoselines reach our buildings?" Can we simultaneously perform the required tasks when we arrive at a working structural fire?" Asking the questions now and then training and planning ahead greatly minimizes our risk to our members and the public.

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