Property-Damage Accident Unfolds Into Disaster Within Seconds

Editor's note: A close call that occurred at the scene of a motor vehicle accident taught firefighters in Maryland not to take any call for granted and even prompted them to develop standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for automobile accidents. As the...


Editor's note: A close call that occurred at the scene of a motor vehicle accident taught firefighters in Maryland not to take any call for granted and even prompted them to develop standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for automobile accidents. As the author, who was the commanding officer at the...


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Safety Officer 6 advised me that Firefighter Robert Rountree Jr. (RJ) had entered the vehicle to attempt to release the hood. Their plan was to release the hood and disconnect the battery to secure the vehicle (which would cause the fan to discontinue running). Safety Officer 6 advised that RJ pulled the release once, but the hood did not release. Before he could pull the release a second time, the gasoline vapors and fuel ignited in a fiery explosion. The driver of Squad 6, Firefighter/Squad Driver Robert Rountree Sr. (RJ's father), was standing beside the vehicle when it exploded. He found his son inside the burning vehicle, curled up into a ball and attempting to protect his face from the flames. Rountree Sr. and Safety Officer 6 pulled RJ out of the vehicle seconds after the explosion. Rountree Sr. was wearing only a T-shirt, protective pants and protective boots. He was not wearing his turnout coat, gloves or helmet.

Firefighter injuries — After dragging RJ and noticing his burns, Safety Officer 6 noticed that Rountree Sr. was burned more severely than his son. Prince Frederick Volunteer Fire Department Squad 2 arrived and rendered medical aid to the burned firefighters. Prince Frederick Volunteer Fire Department Engine 22 arrived and established the landing zone for Maryland State Police Trooper 2 and Trooper 7. Tanker 6 provided a water supply to Engine 62. Ambulance 69 transported the drivers of both vehicles to Calvert Memorial along with Medic 102. Ambulance 68 and Prince Frederick Volunteer Rescue Squad Ambulance 48 provided medical aid to the burned firefighters along with Medic 105. Both firefighters were flown to Med Star hospital in Washington, DC. Units operated on the scene until 6:30 P.M.

Aftermath — Units that participated on the scene met immediately afterwards at the Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department for a post-incident debriefing. In addition, the Calvert County Critical Incident Stress Management team was at the station.

The cause of the fire was determined to have been ignition due to a ruptured fuel line inches from the hot muffler exhaust. RJ was released from the hospital one day after the incident and made a full recovery. His father was intubated for precautionary reasons due to possible inhalation burns. After three days in intensive care, he was also released and has made a full recovery. Both firefighters remain active members of the Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department.

Lessons learned — Following this incident, the department developed its automobile accident SOG, with or without extrication:

  1. The first priority is the safety of rescue personnel. Members on the scene must wear personnel protective equipment (PPE), including turnout coat, pants, boots, gloves and helmet.
  2. Where patients are trapped in the vehicle and it is on fire, first water should be applied to protect the patients and permit rescue.
  3. Stabilization of vehicle or vehicles shall be performed before any rescue personnel enter or work on vehicle.
  4. It is imperative that if there are any flammable liquids on the ground, personnel must use extreme caution. If operations must be performed in the general vicinity, a hoseline must be charged for the safety of all responders. Additionally, in the event that extrication operations are required, a 1¾-inch handline must be pulled and charged to protect rescue crews and patients.
  5. Rountree Sr. had not donned full PPE. If he had been fully dressed, his injuries might have been less severe.
  6. Because of the gasoline leak, the hot muffler and the vehicle fan still running, firefighters should have used extreme caution working around the vehicle.
  7. Because all occupants were out of the car and due to its instability, no firefighters should have entered the car in an attempt to secure the battery.

JONATHAN RIFFE is a firefighter for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department and chief of the Huntingtown, MD, Volunteer Fire Department. He has an associate's degree in fire science from the College of Southern Maryland and a bachelor of science degree in fire science from the University of Maryland University College. Riffe teaches firefighter training through the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI) and holds Firefighter II, Fire Officer IV, EMT-B, Hazmat Technician and Instructor III certifications. He is also the founder of Box Alarm Training (www.boxalarmtraining.com).