Maine Firefighter Trapped: Part 1 - "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!"

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"Back Out! Get Out! I Want You on the Ground, Now!"

The towns of Rumford and Mexico are rural "mill-town" communities separated by the Androscoggin and Swift rivers in the mountains of western Maine. The population of Rumford is approximately 5,000 and Mexico's is just over 2,000. The Rumford Fire Department has two stations (one staffed and one call) with four engines, one truck and one rescue. The Mexico Fire Department has one station and operates two engines and a truck.

Our sincere thanks to Rumford Lieutenant Rob Dixon for his assistance, along with the cooperation of Mexico Fire Chief Gary Wentzell, who is also serving as Rumford's chief. Additionally, our thanks to all of the officers and members of the Rumford Fire Department and the Mexico, Dixfield, Peru and Canton fire departments and MedCare EMS for their cooperation in sharing this story so that others may learn.

At the time of this incident, fire protection covering the 70 square miles of Rumford was provided by a combination department that employed 11 full-time firefighters, with one as an acting chief, and 11 paid-call members. All full-time members are required to be certified Firefighter I as a minimum, and the department had four call-force members cleared for interior structural firefighting. The Rumford Fire Department (RFD) provided first-response EMS and handled approximately 1,000 combined calls for service per year.

The Mexico Fire Department (MFD) covers 24 square miles. MFD has three full-time driver/operators and 29 paid-call members with 15 cleared for interior structural firefighting, including the chief. MFD handles an average of 150 calls for service per year. As of this writing in November 2008, RFD has been reduced to minimum manning of two per shift Monday-Thursday and three per shift Friday-Sunday. This is down from four per shift just a year ago. Additionally, RFD no longer provides first-responder EMS for politically fiscal reasons. MFD has adopted RFD's annual competency program and Wentzell, the Mexico chief, is also serving as Rumford's chief on a part-time paid basis.

This account by Lieutenant Rob Dixon of the Rumford Fire Department, who initially arrived on Engine 7:

On June 28, 2008, at 1:01 A.M., the Rumford Fire Department was dispatched on automatic mutual aid to 14 Holman Ave. in the town of Mexico for a reported structure fire. Rumford responded with Engine 7 with a driver/operator (D/O) and officer and Ladder 2 (D/O), Mexico responded with Engine 1 (D/O), and a MedCare (third-service EMS) ambulance provided ALS.

At 1:04, a Rumford call firefighter arriving in his privately owned vehicle radioed the first size-up, describing a three-story wood-frame with fire showing from the third floor. Thirty-four seconds later, Mexico Engine 1 (D/O) radioed that he would be out checking the building for occupants and to have Rumford come in on Dix Avenue. Engine 7 and Ladder 2 arrived on scene at 1:07.

The Ladder 2 D/O dressed the hydrant. I exited Engine 7, and as the Rumford officer-in-charge, crossed over to meet with the Mexico incident commander at the front of the structure, while Engine 7 laid in to the A-B corner of 14 Holman Ave. I observed the C, B, and A sides of the structure. Lights on the first and second floors were on and provided a clear view showing no intrusion of smoke. A significant "glow" was visible through the third-floor window at the front of the building on the B side and heavy smoke and the appearance of heavy fire through the roof. Mexico Engine 1 was positioned on the A-D corner with two 1½-inch pre-connects off (not operating). The incident commander stated that everyone was out. We quickly discussed tactics and strategy, which we both agreed was an outside-defensive fire and we expected to burn the roof off. The initial tasks were to bring Ladder 2's pipe into operation and I confirmed fireground communication would be TAC-1.

Ladder 2 was placed outboard and forward of Mexico Engine 1, putting the aerial off the A-D corner. Ladder 2 was supplied via a four-inch line from Engine 7. Once a water supply was secured for the ladder, I moved to supervise B-side operations, where a 2½-inch pre-connect had been deployed to suppress fire through the right-side third-floor window by firefighters who arrived via privately owned vehicles.

As the incident progressed, my observations indicated that we were chasing the fire through the cockloft. To help prevent downward extension, I advised the incident commander that I wanted to deploy ground ladders to the B-side third-floor windows and operate a 1¾-inch handline off the ladders. The incident commander acknowledged the plan. The 2½-inch line was shut down and a 1¾-inch pre-connect was deployed off Engine 7. Before personnel ascended the ground ladders, I checked with the incident commander to ensure that personnel operating master-stream devices knew we had people "at the windows." The locations and positions of B-side personnel were continuously updated.

After a call for more resources, Mexico Ladder 14 (D/O) and Dixfield Engine 3 (D/O, officer and firefighter) arrived on scene at approximately 1:50 A.M. The Ladder 14 D/O advised command that if the Engine 7 supply line was shut down, he could position his ladder to cover the C side. The incident commander acknowledged and ordered all units affected to "make it happen." No fire was visible through any of the B-side windows, but fire was beginning to burn out a vent at the roof line. B-side operations shut down along with L-2's pipe.

During this time, the SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) members of my crew got fresh bottles while the others repositioned a ladder. Also at this time, I heard radio traffic that a rapid intervention team (RIT) had been established and a crew of three was going to the third floor to operate off the D-side porch and that these members would be operating from the outside only. At 1:56:40, water was re-supplied to Engine 7.

Between 1:56:40 and 2:04:27, I heard the incident commander radio to the crew operating on the third floor to "Back out!" This message was repeated, followed by an order to "Get out!" and then the demand "I want you on the ground now!" "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!" was then transmitted. At 2:04:27, the Dixfield fire chief radioed the communications center that he had taken over command and wanted the Canton Fire Department dispatched for manpower, followed by an additional request for the Peru Fire Department at 2:05:23.

Radio traffic from the incident commander ordering the third-floor crew to get out alternated with "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!" at least twice. I even thought the incident commander was calling the Mayday in an attempt to get the third-floor crew's attention. The third round of Maydays was very clearly followed by "Man down!" The SCBA members of my crew started to drift away. I told them to stay put and that a RIT had been established and would handle it. Firefighter 4 was adamant in believing that no one was taking any action. I moved to hold him back when the air horns sounded an evacuation. Firefighter 2 repeated his Mayday, adding that Firefighter 1 was trapped in a collapse. With the report of entrapment, and my own observation that chaos was unfolding, I told Firefighter 4 to "Go!"

I recall only snap-shots of events at this point...a chief officer (Firefighter 2) in a white helmet on the second-floor porch gesturing frantically to the incident commander on the ground...this image drove it home - this was not a drill, not a stuck foot, not an exhausted firefighter. A firefighter was in serious trouble.

I remember telling my Engine 7 D/O to get the saw. Somewhere along the way, I donned an SCBA and went to the incident commander with the intention of "managing" the Mayday. The incident commander, extremely concerned and overwhelmed, said to do "whatever you can do." I tried to partner with a firefighter just heading up the stairs, but could only match his pace. Arriving on the third floor, I came face-to-face with Firefighter 2 and asked, "What have you got?" "What do you mean what have I got? I got nothing!" was the angry reply. "What is your situation?" I asked calmly. This time, he gave a detailed account of what had occurred, who was involved and what action was being taken. A firefighter exclaimed, "They found him!" I went through a window - three-count lift and drag, good progress, again, some gain, again, no progress.

"Barrel roll him right over backwards," I said. We pushed, pulled and folded him, and out the window he went. When I came out the window, he was still on the porch. Everyone was screaming "Go! Just go!" His arm was caught on the newel post, so I reefed on his arm and he disappeared down the stairs feet first. My legs buckled. When he didn't wake up when we rolled him out the window, I thought, "This is really bad." Stepping off the first-floor porch, I was told, "No pulse." I kneeled down in front of Ladder 2 and took a moment to get my head screwed back on.

The people involved in this incident included:

  • Incident commander - Mexico paid-call deputy chief, positioned on side A.
  • Safety - One Rumford paid-call senior captain (dedicated function) on side A with D-side porch access; one Mexico paid-call captain (assumed function) with various suppression activities.
  • Rapid intervention - A two-person RIT was established consisting of one Mexico paid-call firefighter and one Rumford paid-call firefighter. One member was inexperienced, but competent. Both were familiar with RIT operations through training; however, neither had attended specific RIT training. At the time of the Mayday, they were in full personal protective equipment (PPE) with SCBA. They had a set of irons and a vent saw that was warmed-up and ready.
  • Third-floor crew - Firefighter 1 (the victim) was a Rumford full-time firefighter operating the nozzle on the third floor; Firefighter 2 (company officer) was a Dixfield volunteer assistant chief and Auburn full-time firefighter checking for extension with Firefighter 3 in an area approximately 15 feet from where Firefighter 1 was operating at the apartment door and Firefighter 3 was a Dixfield paid-call firefighter working with Firefighter 2.
  • Rescuers - Firefighter 4 was a Mexico paid-call lieutenant operating on the B side; Firefighter 5 (Ladder 2 D/O) was a Rumford full-time firefighter and Mexico paid-call captain on Ladder 2's turntable operating the aerial; Firefighter 6 was a Rumford full-time deputy chief and Mexico paid-call firefighter on Ladder 2's aerial operating the pipe by remote control; Firefighter 7 (the Rumford officer-in-charge) was a Rumford full-time lieutenant and Andover volunteer first assistant chief supervising B-side operations; Firefighter 8 (the company officer) was a Mexico paid-call captain and Roxbury volunteer chief who established the RIT and with no assignment at the time of the Mayday); Firefighter 9 was a Mexico paid-call firefighter on Ladder 2's turntable as a backup for Firefighter 6; and Firefighters 10 and 11 were Mexico paid-call firefighters with no assignment at the time of the Mayday.

All Rumford personnel have annual firefighter self-rescue training, including calling a Mayday. Firefighters 5 and 7 are RIT instructors and the Mexico incident commander, Firefighter 6 and the Engine 7 D/O are RIT trained. No other personnel on scene had structured RIT training.

Firefighter 2 noticed that Firefighter 1 was not at the apartment door and saw the hoseline going through the door into the structure. Firefighter 2 positioned himself in the door and observed severe structural compromise of the roof/ceiling and the personal light of Firefighter 1 in the room. The Ladder 2 pipe was flowing water and Firefighter 2 began yelling for Firefighter 1 to get out. The stream from the pipe knocked down Firefighter 1. Firefighter 2 observed Firefighter 1 as he began to get up, then heard a loud crack and the roof collapsed, knocking him out the door onto the porch. Dazed and trying to recover from the blow, Firefighter 2 attempted to ascertain Firefighter 1's situation. The collapse completely covered all access points. Unable to determine the fate of Firefighter 1, Firefighter 2 declared a Mayday. The RIT was activated and the Engine 7 D/O, hearing the Mayday, appropriately shut down the Ladder 2 pipe.

As the RIT approached the porch, the Rumford safety officer told them to drop the saw because they would not need it. (He thought the down firefighter had simply collapsed.) As they made the third floor, Firefighter 2 directed them to a window with about six inches of clear space at the top. Using the irons, they began to clear the window. With the Ladder 2 pipe shut down, Firefighter 5 donned SCBA and joined Firefighters 6 and 9, who were assembling at the porch entrance. Firefighter 4 joined the group to form a crew of four and took the saw left behind by the RIT. Firefighter 7 became available, donned SCBA and retrieved a saw. Just as the RIT cleared the window, Firefighters 4, 5 and 6 made the third floor and went directly into the window. Firefighter 9 posted at the window to keep an eye on the other three. Firefighter 7, with a second saw, followed Firefighter 8 up the stairs and was the last firefighter to make the third floor.

Inside, Firefighters 4, 5 and 6 faced a pancake collapse with no part of Firefighter 1 visible. Only the audible alert of his PASS (personal alert safety system) device indicated his location. On their first attempt to remove the roof section, it did not budge. Firefighter 6 found a leverage point and lifted, causing the roof section to partially break. Firefighters 4 and 5 shouldered the broken section and it was hinged over, exposing Firefighter 1's lower extremities. Firefighter 1 was face down in at least eight inches of water. He was pulled out from under the remaining roof section, rolled over and SCBA air was verified to be flowing.

Firefighter 7 was getting a situation report from Firefighter 2 when Firefighter 9 exclaimed, "They found him!" Firefighter 7 immediately joined the other three on the interior and assisted with the egress of Firefighter 1 out the window, where he was received by firefighters on the porch. Firefighter 5 initiated the removal of Firefighter 1 by dragging him feet first to the second floor, where Firefighters 10 and 11 were waiting as directed by the Engine 7 D/O to continue the egress effort. Firefighter 1 was handed off to EMS. He was initially assessed as not having a pulse, but once in the ambulance, he was reassessed as being in respiratory arrest and was revived enroute to the hospital.

Also of note during this event were the prompting by the Engine 7 D/O for the incident commander to move fireground operations to TAC-2 and the decision by the devastated Mexico incident commander to turn command over to another chief officer. Best guesses from the time of the Mayday to the receipt of the patient by EMS were eight minutes to 16 minutes.

Next: Chief's account & commentary

On a more positive note, on behalf of my family and me, I sincerely wish all of you and yours a wonderful holiday season and a safe and healthy 2009. See ya soon!

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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