"You Have Firefighters Jumping Out the Rear of the House!" - Part 1

On Sunday, May 25, 2008, a dwelling fire would change the way the Loudoun County, VA, Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management (LCFR) would operate forever. Odds are, readers will be able to relate to this fire — the circumstances and the lessons learned.

Due to a series of issues including companies in the first-due area being on other runs, size-up/360 walk-around, staffing and other factors at this single-family-dwelling fire, seven members of the Loudoun County fire-rescue system were injured, four of them seriously with burns. The department is sharing its story and the report with Firehouse® Magazine Close Calls readers in an effort to reduce and prevent firefighter injuries and line-of-duty deaths (LODDs).

Seven Loudoun County fire-rescue personnel were injured at the Meadowood Court incident — four while performing initial interior firefighting operations and three later on the fireground. Six of the injured have returned to work, but one firefighter who was severely burned continues to recover from the injuries sustained at this incident.

At around 1 P.M., LCFR received a 911 call for a structure fire in the 43000 Block of Meadowood Court in Leesburg. Fire-rescue personnel (a total of six firefighters initially from a tower ladder and an engine) arrived on the scene to find heavy fire coming from a two-story single-family home. The fire spread rapidly as fire-rescue personnel performed fireground operations. Four firefighters quickly searched the home for occupants and initiated a fire attack while the two apparatus operators conducted exterior tasks.

Minutes after the first units from Fire Station 6 and the incident command staff (two chief officers) arrived, a rapid and catastrophic change of fire and smoke conditions occurred in the interior of the house. Four personnel from Reserve Engine 6 and Tower 6 became trapped on the second floor. A Mayday transmission was made by the crews because of the life-threatening situation. Due to the intense fire, heat and smoke conditions, firefighters were forced to self-rescue from the structure.

My sincere thanks to all the members of the Loudoun County fire-rescue system (my alma mater) for their assistance in providing this information so that others may learn. Specifically, my sincere thanks go to Chief Joseph E. Pozzo, Battalion Chief Corey Parker, Captain Micah Kiger, Lieutenant John Earley and Chief Fire Marshal W. Keith Brower, all of LCFR; and to Deputy Chief Jonathan R. Starling of the Sterling Volunteer Fire Company; and to Firefighters Brandy Lapole and Jackie Shingleton, and Technicians Joshua Yoder and David Allen.

In discussions with LCFR Chief Fire Marshal Brower, he stated the following about the fire cause: "The fire was caused by careless disposal of smoking materials on the outside deck (Side Charlie). The cigarette ignited nearby combustible materials and spread rapidly up the exterior wall that was clad with combustible exterior siding. Beneath the siding was combustible sheathing that fostered fire development. The fire extended quickly into the attic, where immense quantities of flammable fire gases built up and were heated until they flashed. This rapid attic fire involved exposed lightweight component roof truss assemblies, causing structural collapse. As firefighters moved to the second floor to combat the fire, the fire also burned through the exterior wall on the first floor, where it ignited a fuel package that contained carpet, overstuffed furnishings and other common household items containing synthetic materials. The overall flashover occurred on both floors, trapping the firefighters operating on the second floor."

The following are comments and observations by Deputy Fire Chief Jonathan R. Starling of the Sterling Volunteer Fire Company, Stations 11 and 18 of LCFR, who was the incident commander:

I was on duty as the fire chief of the Sterling Volunteer Fire Company. It was a beautiful day in the middle of the Memorial Day weekend. At approximately 1 P.M., I heard a structure fire dispatched for a department store in the Leesburg area. None of my units were dispatched on that initial call, but it did take the majority of resources from the center of the county — four engines, two trucks, one heavy rescue, one EMS unit, one battalion chief, and the safety officer.

Approximately four minutes later, I heard alert tones being sounded yet again, this time for a reported house fire, also requiring four engines, two trucks, one heavy rescue, one EMS unit and one battalion chief. The dispatch location was on Meadowood Court, also in Leesburg. Leesburg is west of Sterling. This particular neighborhood is made up of single-family homes ranging from 3,500 to over 5,000 square feet. The units for this assignment were drawn from a much farther distance, up to eighth due, I believe.

The first-due engine (Sterling Engine 18) marked "enroute" and the dispatcher relayed to him that he believed this was going to be a "working job." I marked "enroute," and then began trying to track which units were enroute and where they were coming from. I knew that several units had an extended response time. Ashburn Reserve Engine 6 and Tower 6 were diverted from the department store fire to this house fire. Upon marking "enroute," the officer of Engine 6 stated that he had smoke on the horizon.

As Reserve Engine 6 arrived on scene, he gave an initial report, stating that he had a two-story, single-family dwelling with a possible fire in the attic or running Side Charlie (rear). He followed this up with a statement to the truck officer-in-charge that no one was outside to meet them, so they would need to do a search. He then gave additional information to communications, confirming a fire on the second floor. The engine officer-in-charge established Meadowood Command and stated that he would need to transfer it as quickly as possible.

I arrived on the scene approximately three minutes after Engine 6. I noted heavy smoke from the roof and obvious fire showing on side Charlie. I positioned my command unit across the street where I was able to view Side Alpha (front) and Side Delta (right side) of the house. I made contact with Command (who was interior at this time) and stated that I was direct on all his radio traffic and was ready to assume command of the incident. He stated to go ahead and take it and confirmed there was fire in the attic. At this point, I could see fire from the ridge vent. I assumed command of the incident and relayed the location of the command post over the operations channel.

Shortly after I assumed command, Battalion Chief 1 arrived on scene and reported to the command post. I assigned him as Charlie Division and asked him to give me a report from Side Charlie and let me know if we need to go defensive. Around the same time Engine 23 arrived on-scene, pulled a 1¾-inch backup line to the front door and began masking up. I was able to see some steam production and occasional sprays of water from Engine 6's attack line coming out of the attic near the ridge vent.

Engine 6 asked for a report from outside stating that he had zero visibility on the interior. I advised that it looked like he was getting to the fire, but that there was still fire showing from the ridge vent. Once I gave him the report, I began to use my command board and track unit assignments and status. Other units, Rescue 13 (heavy rescue squad) and Safety Officer 1 marked "on-scene" and began taking their assigned positions. Up until this minute, it appeared that this was a fairly normal house fire.

Then my heart felt like it stopped when I heard, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Engine 6, Tower 6, second floor". As I turned and looked at the house, I noted heavy, thick, black smoke from all windows on the second floor and some on the first floor. Fire was visible from two windows on the second floor, the ridge vent and the fire on Side Charlie was much greater and rapidly growing. I acknowledged the Mayday and instructed Rescue 13 to make entry for RIT (rapid intervention team activation). I was able to observe Engine 23's crew attempting to make entry through the front door with fire now visible in the doorway and several windows on the first floor. Engine 18 arrived on-scene and was instructed to report to Side Charlie.

Almost immediately, the Charlie Division (Battalion Chief 1) gave a verbal report of a structure collapse in the rear and said to evacuate the structure. I gave a verbal order to evacuate the structure. I also made the announcement that we had a RIT activation and needed accountability on Reserve Engine 6 and Tower 6. I was still operating alone at the command post and was attempting to track accountability of personnel and track unit assignments and locations.

At this point, I heard Reserve Engine 6 say that they were cut off on the second floor and to get a line up there. I told him that we had a ladder on Side Alpha, he responded that they needed them at the Side Baker and Side Charlie corner. Following that transmission, I heard a garbled message that crews came out via a ladder. I attempted to confirm that message and determine if all crews were out, but didn't get an answer.

Units on the exterior were still attempting to make entry to the structure, but were unable to advance very far due to the rapidly spreading fire. Engine 23 had relocated their handline to Side Charlie in an attempt to make entry. That was when I heard the Charlie Division state that he needed a medic unit for a firefighter down in the rear. I requested a second alarm, additional EMS units and that a helicopter be pre-alerted. The fire was still rapidly growing and consuming more of the structure. Additional reports of firefighters evacuating from windows in the rear were relayed to me over the radio by communications. Two crew members from Reserve Engine 6 and one from Tower 6 self-evacuated by ground ladder from a bedroom on the top-floor rear, while the officer of Tower 6 was cut off in a different room and forced to evacuate from a window on the top floor without a ladder. The crew from Engine 18 saw the officer land on the ground with his PPE (personal protective equipment) still burning. The crew used their gloved hands and bodies to smother the flames until Engine 23 could use their handline to assist.

Due to the untenable fire conditions, the decision was made to sound the evacuation tones and switch to a defensive mode of operation. One crew advanced a short distance into the structure during the rescue attempt, and promptly evacuated when the tones sounded. Master streams and handlines were placed into operation on the exterior.

At this point, the priority was to account for all personnel who exited the structure and determine whether anyone was still inside. Personnel had exited at different points and were now being moved away from the building. At the command post, I was attempting to find the accountability tags for all personnel. I sent runners to each unit on the fireground to gather accountability tags. It took several minutes for all of them to be sorted and personnel accounted for by name and unit assignment.

Battalion Chief 3 arrived at the command post and was beginning to coordinate suppression operations while I continued the accountability process. I did not have tags for the first-arriving units and sent personnel to retrieve them from the engine and tower.

Numerous attempts were made over the radio to account for the personnel. After several minutes, we determined that all personnel were out of the structure and accounted for. The injured firefighters were being moved to EMS units for treatment and transport. The initial report was two severely burned and two with moderate burns. EMS Battalion Chief 1 assumed the EMS Group and coordinated their treatment and transport. The two critically burned personnel were transported to the Washington Hospital Center Burn Unit by helicopter, the two other burn injuries were transported by ground to a local hospital. Additionally, three other personnel suffered minor injuries on the fireground, one requiring transport.

Operations on the fireground were now focused on hitting the hot spots and beginning overhaul operations. Personnel were attempting to determine the stability of the structure for interior overhaul and fire investigation operations. The command staff conducted a face-to-face meeting at the command post to discuss and reassess the incident. New incident priorities were developed and resources assigned.

After the incident, I pieced together the timeline of events. I arrived on-scene and assumed command at 13:13:33 hours, the Mayday was called at 13:16:4, the first report of firefighters exiting the building was at 13:18:54, second report was at 13:19:39 and all personnel were accounted for at 13:26:30. I had three minutes, 10 seconds to perform a size-up and develop an action plan before the Mayday. It took nine minutes, 47 seconds to account for all personnel after the Mayday was initiated. It seemed like a lifetime…

Next: Interior operations and lessons learned

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.