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 author, who was the commanding officer at the scene, noted, "We had many SOGs in place, but had never adopted an auto accident SOG in writing. We took these accidents for granted because there had never been a significant firefighter injury as a result of an auto accident response. Hopefully, nobody makes the same mistake twice and we all come home."

At 5:15 P.M. on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005, the Huntingtown, MD, Volunteer Fire Department, Prince Frederick Volunteer Fire Department Squad 2, and Prince Frederick Volunteer Rescue Squad Ambulance 48 and Medic 102 were dispatched for the auto accident with an overturned vehicle at Bowie Shop and Hunting Creek roads. Within one minute, Firefighter/Medic John Borden and I (then assistant chief) arrived on the scene of a two-vehicle accident with one vehicle on its side and the driver out. I assumed command of the incident as Borden began his evaluation of the patient of the overturned vehicle. The driver, who was alert and oriented, advised us that he was alone in the vehicle and was not injured. The 20-year-old driver of the second vehicle also was not injured and refused medical treatment.

Vehicle descriptions — The vehicle on its side was a 1992 Ford Tempo. The vehicle came to rest on the driver's side beside a green electrical box and a telephone pole. There was significant damage to the passenger compartment and a small amount of gasoline was on the ground beside the vehicle's undercarriage. The leaking had stopped prior to the fire department's arrival and appeared to involve less than one gallon of gasoline. The vehicle was not running and the only concern was that the radiator fan was still running. The pickup truck received only apparent damage to the front bumper. The truck was not running and was parked on the roadway less than five feet from the car. It was pulling a horse trailer that received no damage. The truck appeared to be a 2003 or 2004 Ford extended cab.

Altercation — While both drivers were being evaluated, the owner of the pickup truck (the father of the driver) was in the middle of Hunting Creek Road, yelling at apparently nobody. I walked up to him and asked him what was wrong. He replied, "Look at my truck. That's what's wrong!" He was asked to calm down because both parties were OK and the truck was in drivable condition, but continued his rampage. His wife also asked him to calm down when he began to yell at her. With this occurring, two firefighters from neighboring fire departments arrived on location. While they were attempting to calm the man, he directed his anger at both firefighters, striking one in the face.

Fire department arrival — Squad 6, Ambulance 68 and Ambulance 69 arrived as the altercation was taking place. Crews began to evaluate both patients and the squad crew informed me that they were going to secure the overturned vehicle.

Minutes later, the Ford Tempo exploded into flames. The grass around and under the car was on fire. Flames immediately began to appear out of the windows. Engine 62 was arriving as the vehicle burst into flames. The crew quickly stretched the front bumper line and extinguished the fire. Safety Officer 6 yelled that two firefighters had been severely burned. Communications was advised of the nature and an additional engine, two helicopters, a third ambulance and a second medic unit were requested to the scene.

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 (