One of the great challenges facing firefighters these days is the staffing issue. In some fire departments, staffing is generally consistent day or night — such as in a career department or an in-house-staffed volunteer department. But for departments whose members are responding from work or home, generally, the rule of thumb is that the traditional daytime response is going to be less than who may turn out in the evening.
We'll discuss staffing and response below, but another "rule" is that if you know your fire department may have a less-than-adequate response, get more companies on the road — the sooner the better — in order to be ahead of the curve (ahead of the fire) in assuring adequate staffing for the required tasks when dispatched to a house fire. After all, there are a minimum of required tasks that must be performed at even the smallest dwelling fire and it takes firefighters to get that done quickly and safely.
The South Farmingdale Fire Department is a two-station volunteer fire department in eastern Nassau County, Long Island, NY. There are 81 members responding to 275 fire runs and 750 EMS runs annually. Nearly all of the fire departments in Nassau County are volunteer (two communities have fulltime career firefighters in combination departments) and most provide fire and some level of EMS. EMS is also provided by the Nassau County Police Department ALS Emergency Ambulance Bureau. Fire Communications for the South Farmingdale Fire Department and much of Nassau County is handled by the 911/Fire Communication Center (Fire Com), the county government-operated dispatch center. Some fire departments also have their own dispatchers.
Our thanks to Chief Steven Mormino, Deputy Chief Carl Schreiner, Ex-Captain Chris Klein, Ex-Captain Mike Dauth, and the officers, firefighters and commissioners of the South Farmingdale Fire Department for their cooperation.
The following account is by Deputy Chief Carl Schreiner:
On the morning of Jan. 2, 2008, the South Farmingdale Fire Department was alerted for a report of a house fire. The fire building is a 1½-story, wood-frame Cape Cod-style private dwelling with a rear dormer and a family room/den extension out the first-floor rear.
Responding from his residence to the firehouse the officer of the first-due engine (9-7-1), Ex-Captain Chris Klein, noticed a considerable amount of smoke over the horizon near the address of the fire building. With this visual confirmation of a "job," he contacted Fire Com requesting mutual aid for a truck company from North Massapequa (6-6) and an engine company from Farmingdale (9-2). While responding to the scene, I heard a chief from the Farmingdale Fire Department transmit information of heavy smoke showing. Upon arrival at the scene, I confirmed with Fire Com the need for the initial mutual aid request.
My initial size-up showed heavy smoke pushing out of an open front door on side A and heavy smoke and fire out the rear (side C) of the structure. It was later revealed that a neighbor opened the front door in an attempt to get a dog out. The neighbor could not locate the dog because of the heavy smoke and heat and left the front door open.
First-due South Farmingdale Engine 971 and Truck 978 arrived on scene and commenced their operations. Recognizing that fire conditions would require additional resources, I contacted Fire Com for a truck company from Bethpage (9-0). Subsequently, an engine from Bethpage was also requested.
Police on scene indicated that there were no occupants in the building. Neighbors confirmed this, but also indicated that there was a dog inside. Ex-Chief John DeBatto was on scene and assisted 971 with water supply. Ex-Chief Rick Bylicki acted as aide to command. North Massapequa responded as the rapid intervention team and Massapequa (6-3) provided an engine and ambulance to stand by at our headquarters. Farmingdale's Chiefs Jack Scherer and Keith Ryan assisted on the fireground. Chief Scherer handled operations at the rear of the building and Chief Ryan assisted at the front.
The crew from 971 stretched their 1¾-inch initial-attack line to the front door. There was a slight delay in getting water to the first line as Firefighter Mike Passaretti was knocked over by the water surging through the five-inch supply line when it was initially charged. This resulted in a delay in breaking the coupling at the hosebed and connecting it to the discharge. As soon as the line was connected and charged, an interior attack was initiated. However, the wind was pushing the fire from the rear to front making it extremely difficult to advance the line. The initial attack line seemed to have little effect on the fire.
During this initial phase, the fire rolled over the interior teams from 971 and 978. The officer (Klein), nozzle (Firefighter George McFarlane) and backup (Firefighter Lenny Mormino) firefighters were instantly exposed to fire from the rollover. The extreme burst of heat and fire caused significant damage to their personal protective equipment (PPE). The integrity of the officer's PPE (helmet, ear flaps, hood, SCBA and turnout coat) was severely compromised. There was damage to the PPE of the other firefighters on the line, but not to the same extent as the officer's.
Acting quickly, 978's exterior team stretched an additional 1¾-inch line to the front door and began an aggressive attack on the fire. Ex-Captain Joe Barrow assumed the officer position on the first attack line with two Farmingdale firefighters and they entered the structure at the front door. Another 1¾ line was stretched to the rear by Farmingdale Engine 923. (Communications were in place to ensure that opposing lines did not occur.)
With vertical ventilation accomplished by 978 over the fire room and a quick shot of water from 923's line directly into the fire room, we began to make significant progress against the fire. Bethpage Ladder 3 was assigned to the second floor and Bethpage Engine 907 was assigned to stretch a backup line to the rear. Operating with these additional resources, we were able to quickly gain control of the fire and extinguish it. Preliminary and secondary searches were conducted and confirmed that the building was unoccupied except for the family dog, which was located under the dining room table. The dog had perished before it was found.
A post-fire examination of the fire's extent revealed significant damage to the family room, kitchen, dining and living rooms, which were laid out back to back. This confirmed that the fire was pushed from the back to the front, aided by the open front door and the wind conditions of that morning. Line placement to protect the interior stairs kept the fire from extending to the second floor and closed doors kept the fire from spreading to the first-floor bedrooms.
Two members from Engine 971 were examined at the scene by Nassau County Police EMS for burns received following the rollover. Firefighters McFarlane and Mormino were transported to the Nassau County University Medical Center burn unit for evaluation and treatment of minor burns. Firefighter Passaretti was transported by 977 to NUMC for possible injuries to his back resulting from being knocked over by the five-inch supply line. All firefighters were treated and released the same day.
An investigation by the Nassau County Fire Marshal's Office determined that the fire started in the rear family room as the result of a faulty electrical supply cord to a lamp. The fire was fueled by the contents of the room and wood paneling in the original fire room. With the fresh source of oxygen from the open front door, the fire quickly took off. Once the fire self-vented, the wind pushed the fire from the rear to the front of the house.
The high heat and heavy smoke being pushed from rear to front made it difficult for a single line to advance and subsequently led to the rollover. Had the firefighters not been wearing their full PPE, the consequences could have been far worse. This is an example of the protection afforded to firefighters when they wear and properly use full PPE.
The following account is by Ex-Captain Chris Klein, who was on Engine 971:
As the officer of Engine 971, I had Fire Com mutual aid one engine and one truck to the scene before we arrived. I was unaware that Chief 9702 was on the road, but I knew it was a job and the extra resources would be needed.
Engine 971 stopped at a hydrant and dropped a five-inch line and proceeded to the fire building. The crew stretched a 1¾-inch handline off the rear hosebed to the front door. Once the line was charged, we made our way in. We lost the backup firefighter due to an injury and the control firefighter had to take the backup position once he was finished at the hydrant.
The front door was open prior to our arrival. We went in and to the left three to four feet and operated the handline in the living room. The inside team of 978 was behind me at the doorway. There was a decent smoke and heat condition where we were, like a lot of fires. At some point, I felt quite a bit of heat through my bunker coat and went out the doorway onto the porch. I was told by the inside team of 978 that I turned to go back into the house, but I was turned back around and onto the front lawn where I was helped to remove my mask and bunker coat since my gear was smoking and burnt. At this point, Ex-Chief Barrow took my radio and took over 971's handline.
The following account is by Ex-Captain Mike Dauth, who was on Truck 978:
As the first-in truck company officer, my role was to gain access through the front door and find the fire. When I arrived at the door, we found it already open with a high heat and heavy smoke condition from it. Upon trying to make entry, we were forced back by a rapidly advancing fire condition. Once the hoseline was charged, we began a push inward with the hose stream having no effect on the advancing fire. At this point, the fire rolled over us and out the front door. We were forced to make a stand at the threshold of the door; this did, however, prevent the fire from extending to the second floor via the interior staircase.
My additional observations were as follows. From the A side, we had no way of knowing the extent of fire conditions in the rear. The reports from the outside vent firefighters were crucial. The wind conditions of the day were pushing the fire from the fully involved rear extension, through the house and out the front. Making a search of the fire floor was initially impossible, and accessing the second floor from the interior stairs was not recommended given the heavy fire conditions. Once second and third lines were in service, the third line knocking down the fire from the rear, we were able to get a hold on it and make an entry. Upon searching the structure, it was found that the fire did in fact blow straight through the house from rear to front. Closed interior doors kept the fire from extending into the first-floor bedrooms. Horizontal ventilation and hose stream placement kept the fire from extending to the second floor. The truck company also accomplished quick vertical ventilation over the initial fire room and controlled the services to the building.
These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with South Farmingdale Fire Department Chief Steven Mormino and others regarding this close call:
When Chief Mormino and I discussed this incident, his specific concerns and thoughts about this fire were (my comments follow in parentheses):
Additional manpower, but that's probably every volunteer chief's request.
(The South Farmingdale Fire Department officers called for help immediately after dispatch. Another effective solution is automatic mutual aid where other companies and departments are dispatched simultaneously by, in this case, Fire Com based on initial telephone reports. Fire officers must remember that until adequate staffing arrives on the scene, tasks must be limited to what can be done safely, realistically and effectively. Additionally, if a building is confirmed unoccupied, any further search considerations may have to be delayed or abandoned.)
Strong consideration of the use of 2½-inch line. Even though it was a private dwelling, we had an advanced fire and a heavy wind blowing in from the exposure C side of the building.
(While many departments rarely pull a 2½-inch line for a dwelling due to its maneuverability, in some cases, it is warranted. Other departments use two-inch lines with great results, but either way the goal is more water quickly and a well-placed 2½-inch line provides that.)
Quick deck gun knockdown through the front window, as occupants were confirmed out of the house. This would have been difficult due to the location of interior walls and room separation.
(I am a big fan of the newer-style lightweight mini-ground monitors that can be deployed with minimal staffing and can quickly flow 500 gpm in addition to the chiefs' good thoughts of simply hitting it hard with the deck gun.)
The success of the operation was initiated by knocking down the fire from the rear while trying to protect the interior stairs from the front door without entering. When conditions permitted, entry via the front door was made to complete extinguishment.
(While the crews attempted to go from the unburned to the burned sides, because the wind helped the fire move so quickly, access with the wind to their backs may have made for a quicker knockdown.)
Experience and training. I thank God that some of my best members were available and responded that day along with some excellent mutual aid personnel. Given a different set of circumstances, we may have had some personnel, as well intentioned and dedicated as they may be, who do not have the experience to recognize the conditions.
(This situation can exist in any fire department — as we sometimes hear, "it all depends on who is working or who responds." To help solve that problem, an aggressive automatic mutual aid program can increase the experience levels with mutual aid command officers, and your fire department can provide the same thing back — that's why it's called mutual aid. Less-experienced members can be trained on what to do and more specifically what not to do when in doubt.)
Additional comments by Chief Goldfeder: When discussing "wind-driven fires," most firefighters think of high-rise or wildland fires. In this case, we have seen that wind-driven private-dwelling fires present an extremely dangerous situation and serious consideration needs to be given to think outside the box. Given this same fire on a calm day, it would have been more of a bread-and-butter and more predictable operation.
Bunker gear selection should figure for the worst-case scenario. Just because you are a small department in a small town does not negate the possibility of an extremely hot, smoky fire and the danger of being caught in a rollover or flashover. There is nothing but bunker gear between the firefighters and the fire — especially when it turns ugly. The best protection at a cost that reflects the best design features must be the priority. Whether a department has one working fire a year or 100, bunker gear must be a top priority. But no matter what brand of gear you buy, full, proper use, care and cleaning of your gear is critical and can directly relate to your ability to survive or not. Prior to operating, make sure you and all your members are using all of their bunker gear — head to toe — gloves included, with absolutely no exposed skin — ever.
More and more, fire departments are understanding the risk-vs.-benefit model and the fact that firefighting is task oriented and that we must have enough firefighters on the fireground initially to perform the needed tasks. Having the right amount of firefighters on a first alarm allows us to much more effectively determine and manage the risk to your members vs. the benefit of taking that risk. If adequate staffing is not initially available, the incident commander must immediately determine what the firefighters can and cannot do, based on conditions. This factor is also critical when planning for responses.
From establishing water, to pumping, to commanding, to stretching the right amount of lines, to forcing entry, to venting, to searching and all the other required tasks, it takes firefighters. The more firefighters we have on the first alarm, the more effectively and safely a department can operate and gain control over the fire — and when we have the fire under our control, the risk to our members is reduced. Calling for mutual aid or more alarms as soon as we know we might need help is good. Having a system in place that sends help automatically can be better. By developing plans with mutual aid departments, dispatchers can automatically send a heavier response based on what is reported, time of day, conditions, etc. And all that extra help doesn't have to come from one fire department either. If two engines and a truck (each with four firefighters) are desired as an extra mutual aid part of the first alarm, three different fire departments can provide that as opposed to one mutual aid department having to muster those resources.
Naturally, the goal of any fire department is to help people with a problem without becoming part of the problem. The South Farmingdale Fire Department had the insight to get extra help quickly, was fortunate to have senior members with years of experience and training turn out for the run, and used multiple lines to gain control of the fire and stop it from spreading up the stairs — while also experiencing their close call.
Firefighters must always reasonably consider the worst-case scenario when planning before any run. From water supply to gaining access to staffing to equipment and so much more, we have to expect the worst by planning and responding that way. If conditions had been different at this fire, such as people trapped, the outcome might have been different as the tasks would have been even more challenging. But because of the willingness of the South Farmingdale Fire Department to provide this report, we can all learn and consider how "we" might have done it before — and how perhaps we might change after reading this close call.
WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-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.