A Wake-Up Call

Fire Prevention Week for 2009 held more promise than just about any other one that I can recall over my career. There were the detailed plans for many demonstration events and a lot of additional work hours. There were many television appearances over the weekend, early-morning ones as well to talk about our city's fire prevention activities. The extra effort seemed to be worth it to get very important information out to our community. There were, however, several major setbacks that would surprise and dampen the spirits of many in the department.

As final preparations were being made for the annual fire prevention celebration, the department responded to a rowhouse fire late one afternoon. The first-in engine arrived just a few minutes after dispatch to report heavy smoke showing from the roof. Engine Company 5 moved in with a 1Ā½-inch attack line to extinguish the room and contain the fire, while Truck Company 2 vented and laddered the home.

Minutes after the fire was located and attacked, the companies made the discovery of an elderly woman who perished in the blaze. The fire is under investigation, with the likely cause being improperly discarded smoking materials. This situation may be the 17th fire fatality for the Nation's Capital (currently the death is undetermined, awaiting the city medical examiner's report). We spent most of the Saturday of that week meeting with the deceased woman's family and installing smoke detectors in the neighborhood that experienced this tremendous loss. A loss of human life is always a sad situation, but during Fire Prevention Week there is an added degree of difficulty.

A Disturbing Near-Miss

For about a month prior to Fire Prevention Week, our Community Relations Division had worked in cooperation with Gallaudet University to host a full-scale smoke detector and residential fire sprinkler demonstration. Using the Campus Fire Watch construction plans, two typical college dormitory rooms were constructed. One of the rooms would serve the purpose of graphically showing the results of fire in a non-sprinklered building. After the non-protected room reached flashover, the engine company standing by would extinguish the mock-up, so that the second room could be ignited to demonstrate the effectiveness and efficiency of the residential sprinkler system.

Disaster nearly struck when the engine company crew approached the dorm room mock-up to extinguish the blaze. At this point, approximately five minutes after ignition, the room reached flashover. The rapidly spreading flame front across the ceiling set the entire contents of the mock-up on fire. This was the point for the attack crew to extinguish the blaze.

As the officer and two firefighters advanced the hoseline toward the mock-up, all seemed to go well at first. The fire was being knocked down and it seemed to be so routine, until the crew neared the opening of the prop. A makeshift "draft curtain" (a device to collect heat and smoke to cause automatic fire protection systems to function) was added to the front roof line of the mock-up to retain the heat and smoke to allow the protection devices to function properly. The draft curtain was a thin sheet of Plexiglas material. The Plexiglas sheet had begun to liquefy and drip burning hydrocarbon material on the attacking crew. Within seconds, the three members were on fire. I couldn't believe what I was seeing! To add to a very difficult situation was the fact that the three members were not aware that they were burning. This is a great testimony to having the best turnout gear and wearing it correctly; however, my guys were burning and they didn't seem to react to impending disaster.

The flames were on their upper torso and helmets for about 60 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity to me watching. One of the members became aware of the other two folks burning. It was at this point that he redirected the hoseline to extinguish the fire on our members. The situation was relatively minor, but the potential for harm was at the extreme level.

The demonstration for the several hundred college students was very impactful. The viewers were also given the opportunity to witness the capability of the protection provided by our turnout gear. As well, the ever-present danger of being a firefighter was clearly demonstrated that day. All three firefighters were transported for observation to the Washington Hospital Center Burn Unit. Two of our members were checked over and, thank goodness, not injured. This was a real testimony to the quality of the turnouts and wearing all of the component parts properly.

Our company officer was banged up a little. He received a facial burn close to his ear. Further, the top of his hand had a minor burn. Because of the location of these two wounds, the sergeant was held overnight at the burn center for observation. He is doing well and is expected to make a full recovery returning back to full duty soon. To my surprise, the turnout gear and airpacks were cleaned, inspected and placed back into service. Only the one Nomex hood and glove that our officer was wearing was not usable. Both were "dissected" by our Safety Office to determine whether they performed satisfactorily, in that this was the one where the second-degree burns occurred. Our safety chief, Deputy Fire Chief William Flint, is conducting an investigation to help us learn from our mistakes. Look for this report to be added to our website soon or obtain a copy by contacting him at william.flint@dc.gov.

Personal Reflections

This was a very difficult day for me, both personally and professionally. I need to state that I take full and complete responsibility for everything that happened during this fire prevention demonstration. Our members engaged in extinguishing activities performed properly and within our protocols. In fact, I am deeply in the sergeant's debt. He insisted that all members properly use their gear and because of his actions, the injuries were very minor. I express my appreciation to our Community Relations and Public Education Division for doing a great job with the demonstration preparation and execution.

So, you are asking, what failed and caused such a graphic near miss? I would submit to you that simple everyday complacency got the best of me that day. A few fire service leaders have contacted me to ask whether the subordinate members who set up the demonstration knew their jobs. The answer is of course! We have trained 300 to 400 recruits in the past three years without incident, so trust me when I say our department knows how to conduct live-fire training based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1403.

It is not a question of trusting the preparation work, but better described as verifying that all items were handled correctly. Several items were forgotten or missed, such as a back-up line with a crew and an incident safety officer. I should have taken the time to verify that all aspects were covered before I stepped up to the podium. I did not do that and I do regret not confirming that all aspects of the 1403 were covered. Some folks (mostly bloggers) are going to be critical of me and describe this action as micro-management, and perhaps it may be. However, my role at an emergency incident is to verify everything that I can as soon as I can. At the demonstration, I should have taken the time before starting. Another difficult lesson, but with a reasonable positive outcome. Again, my apologies for allowing this to happen. Pay attention at all times and remember your life may depend on your attention to details.

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a FirehouseĀ® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.