You Really Just Never Know

There are no firefighter line-of-duty deaths in this country that I am not aware of or involved with, one way or the other. Be it through the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Safety, Health and Survival Section, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) or by other means, such as this column or even through or, I am privileged to help out. And while close calls and near-miss events can only be tracked as reported, the line-of-duty deaths are all tracked by various, coordinated means.

In most cases, while all line-of-duty deaths are tragic, once in a while, one shakes me and reminds me that we simply never really know fully what we are getting into. I don't care if you are a brand-new probie, a senior member or a chief, it's the combination of experience and training — never-ending training — that keeps us as sharp as possible. And training — especially in these zero-budget days — does not have to cost a lot of money, or any money at all. There are numerous free resources and opportunities to get practical training right in your firehouse.

One aspect of training is learning to be prepared and doing our best to "expect the unexpected." In many, many cases related to firefighter line-of-duty deaths as well as significant close calls, the end result was predictable if training had been conducted and applied and if policies had been followed or enforced. That is the case, most of the time.

Our sincere appreciation to the members of the St. Anna, WI, Fire Department and Chief Robert Thone, Assistant Chief Adam Schuh as well as the members of the Lewisville, TX, Fire Department and Chief Rick Lasky and Firefighter Brandon Thetford for their assistance with this month's Close Calls column.

The "shaking" event I am talking about is the recent line-of-duty death of 15-year veteran Firefighter Steve "Peanut" Koeser of the St. Anna Fire Department while operating at a dumpster fire. Eight other firefighters were injured. The St. Anna Fire Department is an all-volunteer department with 25 members with an excellent reputation for professional service to their community.

Dumpster Explodes

St. Anna firefighters responded to the scene of that dumpster fire at Bremer Manufacturing in St. Anna after a police officer on patrol noticed a fire around 7:20 P.M. on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009. The dispatcher advised responding members that the dumpster contained metal shavings. The firefighters arrived and had bluish-green flames out the top and a "very hot" burning glow on the side of the dumpster. The members stretched a line, flowed water for a while and, after limited progress, flowed foam.

A few minutes after they flowed the foam, the dumpster exploded with such force that it was literally blown apart. It should be noted that the firefighters initially pulled a 1¾-inch line, flowed about 600 gallons of water with no problem, other than limited fire knockdown, then they switched to foam due to little progress on the fire, and they then increased it up to 3%. About 100 gallons of foam had flowed when the explosion suddenly occurred. The entire event happened within 10 minutes of arrival. In the news media, the Calumet County sheriff described the scene that Tuesday night as, "A routine fire call, I guess you could call it, which turned deadly."

There are no "routine responses." Ever.

Firefighter Koeser tragically died in the line of duty from blunt-force trauma at the scene and eight other firefighters were injured. Koeser was pulling a second hoseline, was fully geared with personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) when the explosion occurred. Investigators said it appears aluminum shavings, floor sweepings and several 55-gallon drums of slag (impurities and byproducts of aluminum castings) were burning in the eight-by-six-by-12-foot dumpster. When water was added, the fire appeared to be just a stubborn dumpster fire. The decision was made to flow foam, to get at the seat of the fire, and shortly after that, the explosion occurred. Firefighter Koeser leaves behind a long-time girlfriend, a daughter, two brothers and a sister-in-law who work at Bremer and, of course, the St. Anna firefighters. The state fire marshal, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and NIOSH continue to investigate.

That fire fatality could have been you. It could have been me. It could have been literally any firefighter anywhere responding to that dumpster fire — a dumpster filled with materials that, perhaps, should not have been in that dumpster. But you really just never know. This investigation is not complete, so we will comment on only what we know. Our sincere condolences to the members of the St. Anna Fire Department and the family and friends of Firefighter Koeser.

The Unexpected

I have personally responded to dumpster fires where items such as propane tanks were tossed. One firefighter wrote me recently saying he has found homeless people sleeping in dumpsters. We have all been "surprised" at what we find in dumpsters. I am sure you have found "stuff" in dumpsters that you didn't expect to find there. But we have to expect anything.

I know that, you know that and the St. Anna firefighters knew that too. But who really knew? Who knew that by doing what we do by stretching a line and putting water on the fire with no problems, and then adding foam to the fire, an explosion would occur? It's easy now to say we know that, but who among us would have thought about it that evening? I am sure that someone out there will say yes, but our data shows differently, as we have files and files of thousands of photos and videos of firefighters "hitting" dumpster fires every day. Most are in full PPE. Not all; most. Some are in a fire department T-shirt and a ball cap. Not all, some. Most are wearing SCBA. Not all; most.

While operating with anything less than full PPE, SCBA on air and a line to protect your crews is unacceptable at any fire department, in this case, it would not have mattered. The dumpster exploded like a bomb. It was a bomb. And when the water and then foam was applied, it reacted. Should the (or any) manufacturing company have had the metal shavings in there? Is that an appropriate and legal means of disposal? Should dumpsters be marked with placards when anything other than Class A combustibles are in there? Should our pre-planning include identification of hazardous and non-hazardous disposal? While the answers to these questions are obvious, at least to us as firefighters, the reality is that no matter what we do, we will have situations where we simply just never know. We can have all the laws and policies for the public to follow, and sometimes they just won't. You never know.

What is the solution? Firefighting is dangerous and there will be risks we sometimes must take and other times do not have to take. But again, in the above case, I am sure someone will write in saying we should deck-gun dumpsters or whatever, but that is not what we do. Right now, there are firefighters fighting a dumpster fire, fully geared, on air, with no exposed skin (remember that Firefighter Koeser was in full PPE) not really knowing what is in there. In almost every case, it is not a problem...until one explodes.

The answer is to do our best in being as prepared as possible. It's all mentioned above. Training. Standard operating procedures (SOPs). Proper response and staffing. Leadership. Experience. Pre-planning. You know the answers. As long as we are aggressive in doing that as humanly as possibly, we will minimize the unnecessary risks. I write unnecessary risk because we will never eliminate all the risk in this risky job, but we do want to minimize it as best as possible. No one wants to get hurt. The calculation (size-up) of the risk should generally be on the side of generally "worth it" (someone is reported to be in a house fire, for example) versus generally "not worth it" (a house is fully involved, has been burning for 30 minutes and most of it has collapsed, for example). There are no "hard-and-fast" answers, every run operation depends on conditions and resources.

The Unexpected, Again

Being prepared and trained as best as possible is the general consensus, but even then we encounter the unexpected. Such was a recent case in Lewisville, TX, where firefighters responded to a medical emergency at 2:16 A.M. When they entered the house, they were surprised at what they saw. Imagine if this house was on fire.

The following account is by Firefighter Brandon Thetford of the Lewisville Fire Department:

The owner of the house is the owner of a tire business in town. Most of us know what a tire store looks like, but who would have thought that a house would have been very similar? I spoke with the owner and he said that the business had been robbed recently and he was using this house as a temporary storage location for tires, and that they had been there for only a few days. A police officer confirmed that the business had been robbed before, but it was months before. The house had been vacant for some time and the police officer said the tires likely had been in there for a long time. The owner also said that his family sleeps there on the weekends and they were getting ready to sell the house. There were no fewer than six kids and two adults in the house that evening, so along with the fire load on the weekends there is also a life hazard. The photos speak for themselves — because we just never know!

The following comments are by Chief Goldfeder based on discussions with those involved at the two incidents:

Be it in St. Anna, WI, or Lewisville, TX, we just really never fully know. While that will never completely change, as long as we do the best we can to be as well trained and as fully prepared as possible, we can minimize some avoidable risks. Incidents like these remind us not of just the importance of getting as much information prior to a run (such as through pre-plans when dealing with non-single-family dwelling incidents), but also finding out as much as we can as we size-up the run. Thinking about (or knowing) what is manufactured in a facility, what civilians on the scene may be able to tell us and what dispatchers can find out when asking questions when a fire is reported can all help us get as much information as possible prior to arrival or upon arrival.

In the case of a single-family dwelling, asking questions of the occupants or neighbors (who may be waiting for us outside), including who or what may be in the house, can help us draw a clearer picture as we prepare to commit companies. Naturally, there will be times when we simply cannot find out all there is to be known, but having as much information as possible prior to and upon arrival as we size-up the incident can go a long way in helping us minimize the "you never know" factor.

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 Goldfeder may be contacted at