Mayday at Single-Family-Dwelling Fire

On Nov. 21, 2009, two firefighters who comprised the interior attack crew from the Wheat Ridge, CO, Fire Department became trapped and initiated a Mayday while operating on the interior of a fire in a single-family dwelling.

The Mayday was transmitted in response to an increasing lack of visibility, uncontrolled growth of fire conditions within the room, a loss of the primary means of egress and the lack of necessary equipment to extinguish the fire. The two firefighters eventually exited the structure under emergency conditions via a window in the room of origin and with the assistance of firefighters on the exterior of the structure. The two members of the attack team and a firefighter working on the exterior of the structure sustained minor injuries and were transported to a hospital. All three firefighters were treated and released from the hospital the night of the incident.

From time to time, readers of this column inquire about more thorough details about some of the close calls. You will note that in this fire, we do have very detailed information, which is not always the case. Readers are encouraged to review all the details due to the fact that, as is often the case, many close calls are a combination of several seemingly non-critical factors leading up to the incident, as opposed to one specific factor. These details and especially the ones in this close call provide a great opportunity for you to "dissect" the run and apply the incident and the lessons learned to your own departments during training as well as policy development. Keep in mind, that these firefighters, like us, thought they were responding to a seemingly "bread-and-butter/routine" house fire that within seconds became anything but. Their willingness to share their story lets all of us apply their lessons learned, instead of repeating history.

The Wheat Ridge Fire Department (WRFD) is a combination department with a volunteer membership of approximately 100 personnel and a career administrative staff of six personnel. The department staffs two stations and covers an area of about 9.5 square miles with a population of 29,000. In March 2002, fueled by a desire to provide unsurpassed emergency services, the WRFD initiated a program that would better manage its volunteer resources. This program requires firefighters to sign up for shifts and these shifts are operated out of the two stations. This was a significant change to the volunteer system of old, but in a very short period, the merits of this shift program were evident.

Today, the WRFD is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year with around 100 firefighters responding out of both firehouses. The department is updating and expanding its standard operating procedures (SOPs) and developing standard operating guidelines (SOGs). Our sincere thanks to Chief Steven Gillespie and the members of the Wheat Ridge Fire Department, West Metro Fire Rescue and Pridemark Paramedic Services for their willingness to share their story in the interest of firefighter survival.

The fire overview:

At approximately 5:30 P.M. on Nov. 21, 2009, the WRFD was notified by dispatch of a possible structure fire in a single-family home at 6855 West 33rd Ave. in Wheat Ridge. Six fire apparatus with 20 firefighters from the WRFD responded under the command of several officers. Ultimately, a second alarm was called in, which brought three more fire apparatus with 11 additional firefighters and a district chief from West Metro Fire Rescue.

Upon arrival, the crew from Engine 271 advised of no visible hazards ("nothing showing") from the Alpha side of the structure, established command and initiated an investigation into the cause of the reported smoke. Tower 71 arrived next and the company officer from that unit assumed command. Firefighters from Engine 271 and Tower 71 were teamed up and assigned interior attack crew. Upon investigation the interior crew noted brown-tan laminar smoke in the kitchen area. They donned their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and deployed a 1Ā¾-inch hoseline into the main entrance on the Alpha-side residence and requested a thermal imager (TI).

The interior crew re-entered the structure prior to obtaining the TI and, in the course of their continuing interior investigation, encountered a room-and-contents fire in the southeast bedroom on the Alpha side. The interior crew requested ventilation over the radio. Conditions in the room began to deteriorate rapidly and at some point the interior crew identified that they could no longer locate the door through which they originally entered the bedroom. In addition, the crew identified that they had left their hoseline in the threshold from the kitchen to the hallway and that they had no means of extinguishing the fire in the bedroom. The interior crew therefore initiated a firefighter Mayday call over the radio due to the increasing lack of visibility, the uncontrolled growth of fire conditions within the room, the loss of a means of egress and the lack of necessary equipment to extinguish the fire.

The Alpha-side windows were vented by an exterior ventilation team at the same time command was transferred to Chief 71. Chief 71 repeated the Mayday radio traffic and requested a second alarm. West Metro Engine 1, Tower 3, District 1 and Safety and Medical Officer (SAM) 1 responded to the second-alarm assignment. The Engine 271 crew identified the ventilated window from inside the bedroom and initiated an emergency escape through that same Alpha-side exterior window.

The interior crew was accounted for and a personnel accountability report (PAR) was completed by command that accounted for all fire department personnel operating on scene. The interior crew, consisting of two personnel, was evaluated by Pridemark Paramedic Services on scene and subsequently transported to Exempla Lutheran Medical Center. In addition, one firefighter on the exterior of the structure sustained minor injuries while helping the interior crew exit through the window. This firefighter also was transported to Exempla Lutheran Medical Center. All three firefighters sustained minor injuries and were released from the hospital that evening. Following the Mayday, the fire was brought under control without incident by the remaining units on scene and with the assistance of the second-alarm assignment from West Metro. Primary and secondary searches were complete, the structure overhauled and the fire declared out at 6:53 P.M.

The training and experience of the two firefighters who initiated the Mayday:

Victim 1 is a 28-year-old male volunteer firefighter with three years of firefighting experience, all with the WRFD, at the time of the incident. This member was current with the following certifications at the time of the incident: Colorado State Certified Firefighter I, Colorado State Certified Hazmat Operations, EMT-Basic, ICS-100, IS-700 and IS-800. The most recent live-burn training attended by Victim 1 was in May 2007. Victim 2 is a 25-year-old male volunteer lieutenant, also with three years of firefighting experience and all with the WRFD. This member was current with the following certifications at the time of the incident: Colorado State Certified Firefighter II, Colorado State Certified Hazmat Operations, EMT-Basic, ICS-100 and IS-700. The most recent live-burn training attended by Victim 2 was in June 2009. In addition, the department has regularly provided training to members on topics such as the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), SCBA, search and rescue, and fire attack.

The victims' personal protective equipment:

Both of the victims were wearing PPE consisting of full firefighter turnout gear, including bunker pants, bunker coat, boots, gloves, helmet, protective hood, SCBA with a full tank of air and an integrated personal alert safety system (PASS) device. At the time of the incident, both firefighters had donned and activated their SCBA and were breathing tank air. In addition, both were in possession of handheld radios. While some of this equipment appeared to sustain damage as a result of this incident, there were no reports or physical evidence of equipment malfunction prior to or during the incident.

The fire building and site information:

The home sits on a half-acre lot and faces south with direct access to a public street to the south. The building is of Type V construction consisting of conventional wood framing, horizontal composite lap siding and a composite asphalt shingle roof. A utility shed is in the backyard, but was not involved in this incident. A vehicle was parked in the driveway and another vehicle was parked on the property just to the east of the structure. Neither vehicle was involved in the incident.

The dwelling was an approximately 1,152-square-foot, ranch-style home with a 432-square-foot attached garage. Nine rooms plus the garage are present, consisting of three bedrooms (one each on the north, southeast and southwest sides of the structure), a kitchen, laundry room, dining room, living room and a half bathroom that is immediately adjacent to a full bathroom.

Five entrances are present: two on the south side (garage and front door) two on the north side (door to the garage and door to the north bedroom) and one on the northeast side (second door to the north bedroom). Interior construction was of fair quality and consisted of wood studs with gypsum wallboard walls and ceilings. The floors consisted of carpet or other floor material over concrete slab on grade. Contents of the structure were unremarkable with the exception of the number of exotic pets maintained in aquariums. Contents were consistent with a residential structure of this type and the reported number of occupants.

Next: Details leading up to the Mayday event and the subsequent investigation

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a FirehouseĀ® 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 Goldfeder may be contacted at