Lessons Learned at One Fire Prevent a Similar Tragedy at Another

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Part 1 - How Two Ohio Firefighters Were Killed in the Line of Duty

On Friday, April 4, 2008, Captain Robin Broxterman, 37 years old and a 17-year veteran career firefighter and paramedic, and Firefighter Brian Schira, 29 years old, a six-month probationary part-time firefighter and emergency medical technician, of the Colerain Township, OH, Fire & EMS Department died in the line of duty after the floor they were on collapsed at a fire in a single-family dwelling.

Following that tragic loss, the department issued a preliminary report with initial details on what happened based on the information available at the time (for a copy of the preliminary report, please go to www.coleraintwp.org/fire.cfm). A more in-depth final report is being developed and is expected to be released in 2009 along with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report.

As stated in the preliminary report, "The department will never forget the ultimate sacrifice made by Captain Robin Broxterman and Firefighter Brian Schira in their service to the community. By sharing the knowledge gained from this very tragic and painful incident, the department will ensure their sacrifice was not in vain and hope that other fire departments can avoid a similar tragedy" - but little did they know how directly their report would impact firefighters in less than a year; firefighters just three hours north of Colerain Township, in the City of Defiance, OH.

Each month, this column is about learning from events that could have been worse. On occasion, we look at line-of-duty deaths and what can be learned from them as well so we can avoid close calls. Every line-of-duty death has lessons learned, but the fact is that firefighters and officers must take the time to learn, study, train and apply those lessons learned so that history doesn't repeat itself.

I had the opportunity to speak with Chief Bruce Smith of Colerain and Chief Mark Marentette of Defiance together and discuss both fires and the comparisons between the incidents. While the report from Colerain is not final or public as of this writing (nor is the NIOSH report), Chief Smith was clear in wanting to get several points across to our readers, specific to size-up.

When Captain Broxterman of Engine 102 arrived at the fire, she did not do a 360. While she did size-up the front, or A side, of the building, including her report of "smoke showing," she had only a "one-dimensional" view of the fire problem. Her side-A observation was an incomplete picture of what she and her crew were dealing with. She was not aware of the fire problem or the conditions related to the fire or the structure itself.

Comments (during the investigation) from the officer of Engine 109, the next-due engine, are interesting and important to note. He stated that when he saw the A side, he would not have thought there was any problem with heading in through the front door - in other words, from the single-dimensional view on side A, there was nothing unusual or alarming. There was "simply" smoke showing. However, he then proceeded away from side A and did conduct a 360 of the B, C and D sides. When he sized-up the B side, he saw the heavy fire condition in the basement that was extending.

He immediately had a totally different and much-clearer understanding of the fire problem. At that point, he realized that entering on the A side did not provide the best tactical vantage point and he advised command to "contact (Engine Company) 102, have them pull out of this first floor, redeploy to the back. It's easy access. Conditions are changing at the front door." This radio transmission was the result of the first of several observations and events as a part of this incident resulting in the tragic line of duty deaths of Captain Broxterman and Firefighter Schira.

It is absolutely critical for readers to understand that this, like many close calls and line-of-duty deaths, was a "typical" single-family-dwelling fire resulting in horrific losses; losses that we have an opportunity to learn from - as the firefighters from Defiance did.

During our discussions, Chief Smith reiterated, and rightfully so, that firefighters responding to single-family-dwelling fires must perform a 360 as a part of their size-up prior to being able to make strategic and tactical decisions. If a 360 is not initially conducted, it is impossible to properly define the fire problem, perform a size-up and afford the best chance for firefighters to survive when operating interior. Officers must also think to themselves when sizing-up the incident (and continually sizing-up) that "this incident could go to hell at anytime, so what does that mean to my crew and what can we do to minimize that potential?"

My sincere thanks to the officers and members of the Colerain Township Fire & EMS Department and the City of Defiance Fire Division for their assistance and cooperation with this column. A special thanks to Chief Bruce Smith and his staff and to Chief Mark Marentette and his staff for providing their passionate insight and sincere desire to share all the facts of both of these fires. While the tragic loss of Captain Broxterman and Firefighter Schira cannot be reversed, clearly their losses were not in vain, not only in this case, but in so many other cases we don't even know about due to firefighters, officers and chiefs reading and learning from fire reports. This column is dedicated in their memories, as their tragic loss and the information provided by the Colerain Township Fire & EMS Department about their loss has already directly resulted in the saving of firefighters lives.

A synopsis of the fire in Colerain Township, OH, in which a fire captain and a firefighter lost their lives:

At 06:11:23, the Hamilton County, OH, Communications Center (HCCC) received notification from the American District Telegraph (ADT) Alarm Co. reporting an automatic fire alarm activation from the first-floor smoke detector and basement carbon monoxide detector at 5708 Squirrelsnest Lane.

The two-story single-family dwelling measured approximately 2,046 square feet. The structure was built in 1991 in a conventional style of traditional wood-frame and brick-veneer construction with a gable roof with composition shingles and a poured foundation with a finished walkout basement. The main-level (first-floor) flooring system was comprised of two-by-10-inch wood-joist constructed 16 inches on center with three-quarter-inch oriented strand board as the subfloor. The structure was heated and cooled by means of natural gas and electricity.

An automatic fire alarm response complement of two engine companies (Engines 102 and 109), one ladder company (Ladder 25) and a battalion chief (District 25) were dispatched to investigate at 06:12:45. At 06:13:43, a second notification was received from the female homeowner reporting a fire in the basement of the structure.

At 06:20:43, a third notification by means of a cellular phone from the female homeowner to HCCC routed through the City of Cincinnati dispatch center was received. At 06:22:41, the initial response complement was then upgraded to a structure fire response complement to include one additional engine company (Engine 25), a rescue company (Rescue 26) and a squad unit (Squad 25).

Engine 102, with assigned four personnel (one captain, one fire apparatus operator and two firefighters) arrived on the scene at 06:23:45 reporting moderate smoke showing and established Squirrelsnest Command. Verification was made by the Engine 102's fire apparatus operator through face-to-face communication with the male homeowner that all occupants were out of the structure, which was then relayed to Captain Broxterman. District 25 arrived at the scene at 06:26:18, and assumed command from Captain Broxterman.

At 06:26:29, Captain Broxterman, Firefighter Schira and Engine 102's Firefighter 2 deployed a 1¾-inch pre-connected hoseline through the front main entrance toward the rear of the structure. The fire was determined to be located in the basement of the structure. At 06:27:35, Captain Broxterman reported, "E102 making entry into the basement, heavy smoke." At 06:34:20, Engine 25, the designated rapid assistance team, having just completed a 360-degree size-up around the structure, encountered Engine 102's Firefighter 2 in the front yard of the structure, who reported that he had lost contact with his crew. It should be noted that the first-due company, Engine 102, had not done a 360 of the dwelling as a part of its size-up.

At 06:35:10, the incident commander identified a potential Mayday operation due to no contact with the interior crew. The rapid assistance team was deployed at 06:36:30. An official Mayday operation was declared at 06:37:23, and an immediate request was made at 06:37:30 to the HCCC for a second-alarm complement of firefighting resources. At 06:41:43, the rapid assistance team entered the basement from the rear of the structure. At 07:00:12, E26's personnel entered through the front main entrance of the structure and into the basement by means of the interior stairway. It was noted that during the search efforts, no audible signals from either victim's personal alert safety system (PASS) devices were heard.

Both firefighters were located in the basement. Captain Broxterman was located at 07:08:05 and Firefighter Schira was located at 07:29:28. Both firefighters were buried under collapsed structural components and contents. Captain Broxterman and Firefighter Schira were declared deceased at the scene as a result of their injuries.

The initial run was dispatched at 6:11. Between 06:30:20 and 06:34:20, it is the belief of those investigating that one or more catastrophic events occurred within the structure, including failure of the flooring system near the B/C corner of the structure's main floor.

Next: Months later, a fire and the lessons remembered and applied at a single-family-dwelling fire in Ohio.

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.

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