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...


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...


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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 1½-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.

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