"It Felt Like a Bomb Went Off!" — Part 1

As firefighters, unless you work in a metro downtown or inner-city area, odds are your most common structural fire involves the single-family dwelling. In addition to building construction concerns related to firefighting (that we have discussed before in this column), the issue of "what's inside" is also a major factor that can lead to close calls, or worse, for responding members.

While we must search to determine who may be "in there," other very significant dangers exist specific to what the occupants have brought into their own home. Firefighters have entered homes to find surprises such as dozens of poisonous snakes, car engines, meth labs, pot-growing rooms and even large airplane parts. Simply put, anything can be found in a single-family dwelling — and we have to act and expect literally anything to create further problems for us when operating.

In many respects, operating at commercial, industrial and other public buildings can be tactically more predictable because we are allowed to inspect and pre-plan with the law letting us do so, but we cannot inspect or enter single-family dwellings — so the question of "what's inside" is wide open to literally anything being in there. One of the more common "anythings" is the presence of home oxygen. In the case of this close call, eight oxygen cylinders were inside at this working house fire.

The Independence Fire District is in northern Kentucky, just outside Cincinnati, OH. The members serve the City of Independence and an area of unincorporated Kenton County covering 44 square miles with a population of 29,000. Staffing is made up of 41 full-time employees, 16 part-time employees and 12 volunteers responding out of three firehouses with three engines and one truck along with EMS and support equipment.

On this close call, the first-alarm assignment consisted of three engines, one truck, two advanced life support (ALS) ambulances and two command officers. Additional companies included two mutual aid departments, the Erlanger and Edgewood fire departments, when there were further indications that there were oxygen bottles in the home.

Our sincere thanks to Independence Fire District Chief Richard A. Messingschlager and all the officers and members operating at this fire, including Assistant Chief Jeff Armstrong, Captain Dave Murphy, Lieutenants Chad Dietz and Ron Crone, Firefighters Bryan Claybern, Larry Gross, Paul Heringer and Steve Maselli, Firefighter/Medics Darlene Payette, Joshua Cox and Rick Sturgeon, and Captain John Bidwell, who assisted with this column.

This account is provided by Lieutenant Ron Crone, the first-due officer:

I was the officer on Engine 453, which was the first engine on the scene of the fire. All fire units were informed while enroute that there were oxygen bottles inside the residence and our assistant chief advised units to go defensive for safety purposes. Squads (ambulance) 463 and 464 had arrived on the scene before Engine 453.

Upon Engine 453's arrival on the scene, I had a single-family, one-story house. The house had heavy smoke coming out the front door (side A) and eaves. I also observed heavy fire coming out a window on side D. After I gave my size-up, I did a 360 walk-around. I observed two closed windows on side A, near side B, with no smoke coming out of them, a door that was open in the middle of side A, with heavy smoke coming out, no fire, and a two-car garage with the door closed on A, near side D, no smoke or fire coming out. On side D, there was one window, near side C, with heavy fire coming out of it.

To gain access to side C, I had to open a gate in the fence. Upon entering the fence into the side-C area, I saw that the grade of the yard went down and the first floor was 10 feet above the ground level. I could see into the basement — the lights were still on and I observed that there was no fire or smoke there. The first floor on this side had two windows in the middle and a deck on side C, near side B, with a door coming from the house onto the deck. There was no fire or smoke coming from the windows or door. There was smoke coming from the eaves on side C. Walking to side B, I observed a door going into the basement, which was closed on side B, near the side-C corner; I did not see any fire or smoke coming from this side of the house.

Upon completion of this walk-around, I observed that a 2½-inch hoseline had been pulled off Engine 453 and laid to the front door. I met Captain Murphy, who had arrived on Engine 451, on side D and informed him of my findings. While I was doing this, a 1¾-inch hoseline was pulled off Engine 451 by Firefighter Gross and laid to the window on side D. Upon completion of my report to Captain Murphy, he had me stay with Firefighter Gross on side D and fight the fire from the window on side D. The window was about four feet off the ground and I was able to see inside the room. At this time, most of the room was on fire. Firefighter Gross started spraying water into the room. I heard something hissing on the left side of the room and the fire intensified.

Firefighter Gross continued spraying water into the room and the fire started to darken down and then there was another hissing sound coming from the left side of the room again and the fire intensified again. Firefighter Gross continued spraying water into the room and the fire darkened down again.

I then observed that most of the ceiling started falling down. I also observed there was still some fire on the right and left side, just inside the window, and an orange glow on the other side of the room. Firefighter Gross was attempting to put out these fires when I was informed that a crew was entering the house through the front door. I had Firefighter Gross stop spraying water into the window. I was then requested to go to side A and assisted with the hose that was going in the front door. As I got to side A, I heard and felt an explosion coming from inside the house and observed Lieutenant Dietz and Firefighter Claybern exiting the house. I assisted them with getting away from the house and checking to see if they were injured. Upon hearing command call for a squad and when Firefighter/Medic Payette came to their aid, I returned to assisting with fire suppression.

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.