Maine Firefighter Trapped: Part 2 - The Post-Incident Analysis

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What Went Right and What Didn't When the Mayday Was Called

The December Close Calls column began a report about a Mayday for a firefighter down that occurred during a fire in a three-story wood-frame structure in the town of Mexico, ME.

This account is by Chief Scott Dennett of the Dixfield Fire Company:

At the time of the man-down incident, I had arrived on scene and had been appointed as staging officer. I was in the area that had been established for staging prior to my arrival. Prior to going to the building, one of the firefighters in the three-man team informed me of their assignment. They would go the third-floor porch and attempt to observe and attack any active fire they could from the outside. He indicated they were not going inside. I was then involved with trying to relocate the staging area because it was in a high-noise area and communication was difficult.

My first indication that something was going on was the blasting of horns from Mexico's engine. I had not heard the Mayday call, I feel at least in part because of the close proximity to the noise of the apparatus. As I looked to the building, I could see one of the firefighters enveloped in smoke, obviously summoning assistance to his location.

As I moved toward the command area, I could hear that there was a man down. My assumption at this point was that one of the firefighters had succumbed to a physical condition or exertion. Numerous firefighters were already responding to the third floor to assist. I estimate that in less than five minutes they were removing the downed firefighter down the stairs where he was immediately loaded onto a stretcher and moved toward the waiting ambulance.

I was asked to assume command to allow the incident commander, a deputy chief, to remove himself from the incident. Once the commotion had subsided, I moved to resume fire operations, somewhat in an effort to get the minds of the remaining firefighters off what had just happened. After a few tactical changes with hoselines, apparatus and remaining manpower, we completed the incident.

I credit the rapid response of firefighters in accomplishing the rescue and the expertise of medical personnel involved in reviving our firefighter.

The following are lessons learned and comments by the writers from discussions with Chief Goldfeder related to this close call:

When we discussed this fire, the writers commented about the importance of always underestimating the abilities of personnel who are not fully trained and certified. But also do not overestimate the capabilities of "experienced" and trained personnel. And while I agree with that, we also must know who we are working with. It is critical for personnel to have the right training and experience, but it is also equally important to know (through training) all members of your department and especially those mutual aid departments you respond with on a regular basis. A working fire is not the time to get to know one another personally as well as to determine the training and capabilities of that "other" department.

Also, recall that the initial incident commander was overwhelmed and asked for help; an unusual, but appropriate response. Unfortunately, there have been and are command officers who will continue to "fiddle while Rome burns," without having the experience to ask for resources and personal assistance. It isn't about "being in command"; it's about commanding the incident and making it get better as quickly and safely as possible, as the initial incident commander did simply by passing command.

Some concerning observations about this fire:

  • Crew integrity - Firefighter 2 (the company officer) has stated that with Firefighter 1's (the victim) background and experience, he was comfortable with leaving Firefighter 1 on the nozzle by himself, at the door, and in a static situation. The decision by Firefighter 1 to enter the structure altered his operational condition from static to dynamic; at a minimum, this should have been communicated to the company officer. Always work in pairs. Always! If the staffing will not allow it, then you are unable to perform additional tasks. It's that simple.
  • Decision making - Firefighter 1 exceeded the operational plan by entering the structure. Also, the need to even enter the structure was highly questionable.
  • Situational awareness - Firefighter 2 said he yelled to Firefighter 1 from the doorway to "Get out of there!" because he observed conditions of imminent collapse, and while wrestling with the decision not to enter the structure and physically remove Firefighter 1, the collapse occurred.
  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs)/standard operating guidelines (SOGs) - Regarding fireground operations, none. Operating without SOPs is like a football team operating without a game plan - the loss is almost guaranteed. There are numerous sources of sample SOPs and SOGs; for example, www.FireFighterCloseCalls.com.

    Additionally, keep in mind the difference between an SOG and an SOP. An SOG is just that, a guideline allowing some discretion by firefighters and officers. An SOG is a strongly suggested guideline that allows for decisions to be altered based on conditions. An SOP is much more firm and strict. It is a procedure and should rarely allow for discretion. In other words, the SOP is what the fire chief wants done, and rarely should it be altered.

  • Staffing - A rapid intervention team was established with only two personnel. Realistically, all that two firefighters can do in this position is size-up, throw a few ladders and call for more help to establish a properly staffed rapid intervention team. All but two of the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)-qualified personnel on scene were involved in the rescue.
  • Training - In the River Valley (comprised of seven fire departments), only seven individuals are known to have formal rapid intervention team training.
  • Tracking firefighters - The days of firefighters doing what they want are over - or should be. Discipline on the fireground starts with discipline during training and on every run, no matter how minor it may seem. No matter what, the officer responsible for tracking (which starts with the company officer tracking his or her crew) firefighters must always know who is doing what - and where. That is a joint responsibility between the firefighters, the officers and your tracking/accountability officer.

Some positive observations about this fire:

  • Training, training, training - Firefighter 1 had all personal protective equipment (PPE), with SCBA in place and operating properly. Although not formally trained in rapid intervention team operations, the personnel assigned to the team kept up with training and had picked up enough knowledge along the way to make the team effective.
  • Mayday procedures - Mayday procedures and rapid intervention team drills are regularly incorporated in structural fire attack and search-and-rescue drills. It showed!
  • Task allocation - All personnel properly re-evaluated the priority of their assigned task before involving themselves with the rescue effort.
  • SOP/SOG - On July 9, 2007, Mexico and Rumford signed an automatic mutual aid agreement. That mandates biannual mutual training.
  • Situational awareness - Probably because of training; Firefighters 5, 6 and 7 had been doing continuous size-ups and have remarked it seemed to accelerate the decision-making process when the Mayday was called.
  • Incident command - A stationary, dedicated incident commander. Great effort has been expended over the last couple of years on the importance of a dedicated incident commander to coordinate the fireground. If not for the organization before the Mayday, how quickly could assets have been redeployed?

    By far, this was one of the better-run fires the River Valley has experienced but, the Mayday call shook the incident commander badly; it was in his eyes, it was in his voice and he knew it. The incident commander asked another Mexico chief officer whether he should turn over command. The chief officer said he thought it was a good idea and together they asked the mutual aid Dixfield chief to assume command. Those involved strongly believe this decision allowed for the continuation of an otherwise safe operation. Forget egos and who "gets" to be in charge - what is the best decision for the safety of the members and the fire being brought under control? The Dixfield chief basically wrote off the personnel involved in the Mayday for further operations and called in all fresh troops.

  • Communication - The Mexico and Rumford fire departments have evolved over the last year to the point that maintaining radio communication discipline and "span of control" is now a norm for most officers.

Lieutenant Dixon further provides additional general thoughts for all firefighters (call, volunteer or career):

About 2½ years ago, as training officer, I reviewed all non-medical line-of-duty death reports at single-family residential structures and compared how we at Rumford Fire operated to those that had experienced a firefighter fatality. Communication, command presence, rapid intervention and a focus on the basics were areas identified as needing significant improvement.

Programs to address areas of concern were implemented. A lot of hate and discontent was generated and some were adamantly against the direction the department was now going. But with the continuous support from then-Chief John Woulfe, most of the department, and some of our mutual-aid firefighters, eventually bought in, and the grief has been worth it.

I believe there is no such thing as the perfect fire operation; something always goes wrong. By training and training, hopefully, the bad stuff is minimized and more things go right than wrong. On the morning of June 28, we experienced the pitter-patter of small successes vs. small mistakes that lead to a line-of-duty death. The statement has been made a dozen times over since the incident, "If this had happened a year ago, we would tragically have been looking for 'Firefighter 1' in the basement."

Chief Goldfeder's final comment:

Like so many departments nationally, the Rumford Fire Department's budget and staffing have been cut as of this writing. Unfortunately, these economic times have hit so hard in some areas that either there are no choices (which I find very difficult to understand until other areas have been severely cut or eliminated) or the elected officials simply don't "get it" as far as the local community's first line of defense, which is the fire department. Like a poorly written insurance policy, almost everyone feels "good" (or pretends to) until there is a problem - and then it may be too late. You get what you plan and pay for.

While establishing water, running pumps, stretching lines, venting, entering, searching, rescuing, supervising, tracking and commanding, establishing a rapid intervention team and the related very basic but essential first-alarm tasks are critical, when the local "powers that be" decide to cut, they (and the public) must be fully educated by the fire chief as to what those cuts actually will mean. No fluff. No spoonfuls of sugar. The public and elected officials must be fully informed on the facts before they make their decisions to vote on potential cuts.

Simply put, if 25 firefighters are needed in the first five minutes to handle a basic first-alarm single-family-dwelling fire, and due to budget cuts or other reasons, the first-alarm assignment can deliver only 10 firefighters in the same period, it must be made clear what the fire department can do and what it now (with possible cuts) cannot do.

For a chief, commissioner or elected person to claim that more can be done with less and that cuts will not affect service is wrong, provides a false sense of security to the community, and places firefighters in ridiculous and unexpected levels of risk. We are brave when needed, but we are not stupid - it takes resources with well-trained and well-led firefighters to be a fire department. Anyone claiming, "Don't worry, we can do as much as we used to, these cuts won't affect service, your family is in no danger" with less firefighter staffing and delayed response/task performance such as patient care for EMS runs or hoseline deployment at a fire is almost always lying and dead wrong. Make sure everyone understands the facts before voting on something that very well may affect them or their loved ones (and us) on what may be their worst day.

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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