Fire, Explosion & Collapse: Firefighters Trapped - Part 2

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Last month, we began a report about an incident involving the Salem and Pennsville fire departments in New Jersey in which firefighters were trapped after a backdraft occurred during a structure fire. We continue the report this month with accounts by two participants and my commentary on the incident.

This account is by Pennsville Firefighter John Boos (Charlie Division):

On our arrival on Quint 5-6, we found medium smoke showing. As our crew of a driver and five firefighters exited the vehicle, we split up. Battalion Chief Boxer was assigned to Charlie Command, Firefighter Gary Jess and I stretched a 1¾-inch handline, and Firefighters Brandon Dilks and Mike Toms placed ground ladders to the roof of the fire building and the Bravo Exposure. Once the ground ladders were in place, Firefighters Dilks and Toms performed horizontal ventilation on four boarded-up windows.

At this time, the fire had self-vented through the roof of the two-story business/apartments, and the smoke had darkened and started to forcefully push out of the windows in the rear. I started to flow water into one of the windows where fire was visible. After approximately five minutes of water flow, I shut down the line to see whether the conditions had changed. I turned to my backup man and said, "This doesn't look good at all. Let's back away a little." As I turned back around, I noticed the smoke "suck in" briefly and then heard an indescribable noise, it almost sounded like a freight train coming right at you. Suddenly, the brick wall in front of us had been blown out along with the roof of the building. It was apparent that a backdraft had occurred.

The force of the backdraft knocked me and my partner to our knees and showered us with bricks from the collapsed wall. I dropped the line and quickly moved to a safe area. The backdraft occurred so quickly that it was over before we had realized what happened.

Obviously, the effects of the backdraft caused a tremendous amount of damage and also made the fire building too unstable to perform interior suppression. The operation turned to a defensive attack utilizing ground monitors, master streams and handlines. The main concern now turned to protecting the exposures. The crew from Quint 5-6 entered the Bravo Exposure through the Charlie Side to check for extension. The first floor was clear; however, the second floor was a zero-visibility smoke condition. We pulled ceiling tiles and opened walls, and discovered that there in fact was minor extension to the building. We requested a handline to extinguish the small amount of fire, and did so without further damage. After several hours, the situation was placed under control and Quint 5-6 was released. There were no physical injuries to the crew or me. Just a lesson learned on reading smoke.

This account is by Lieutenant Mike Wilson:

Upon arriving at the station, the battalion chief and two firefighters were already there. Our engine was at the city garage for routine maintenance, leaving only our brush rig, so we mounted and responded. We had no self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) available to us. We arrived on scene and began to attack fire that was visible over the alternate entry door to H&R Block. The fire was visible over the entry door because the doorlight over this door was already gone.

Firefighter Ken Gralley hit the fire with the one-inch line from the brush truck while I began to force the door. I was unable to gain access to this door because it was blocked by an upright copier and fax machine. The ladder truck and Engine 6-1 were arriving at this time. On top of the fax machine were boxes of paper stacked nearly to the ceiling. I then moved on to take out the picture windows to attempt entry that way, but there were boxes of paper stacked there too.

A female bystander said she thought someone might be upstairs, so another firefighter brought me an SCBA from one of the arriving units as Battalion Chief Charles Wygor kicked open the door to the second-floor apartments. Firefighter Brandon Palmer and I proceeded to the second floor with a 1¾-inch line from Engine 6-1. Once we reached the floor landing, Palmer experienced a problem with his SCBA and we returned outside. I grabbed another crew of Captain Walt Cooper and Firefighter John Traini and returned to the second floor. I had the nozzle, Traini was backing me up and the captain was monitoring us while humping hose.

Smoke was relatively light near the ground level, but it grew thicker as we proceeded up the stairs. At the landing at the top of the steps, visibility was absolute zero. The heat was very intense, seemingly more so than usual. I tried to call for ventilation on my portable, but didn't hear a reply. I felt around at the top of the stairs; we were in a hallway and to the left I could feel a doorway. Then, to our right, fire breached through the wall near the floor. We repositioned to extinguish that fire, but it wouldn't go out. It was blowing with the velocity of a blow torch. Every time I hit it and stopped, it just came right back as hard as if I hadn't put any water on it. In what felt like about two minutes, the heat suddenly became so intense that I thought my SCBA was on fire. I asked Traini to check under my harness to see if burning debris was lodged underneath and burning me. My air became very hot to breathe.

Captain Cooper directed me to fire that breached the wall to our left, between Traini and me, in the stairwell about two feet back from the stair landing and about two feet above the last step from the top. As we backed up a little bit in attempt to reposition for attacking that new fire spot, the ceiling plaster and lath and embers fell on us. I knew something had just happened, but I didn't know what it was. It felt like the pressure changed. Captain Cooper ordered us to retreat. I started to slide down on my butt, but lost my balance and fell on top of Traini. As we were about halfway down, we heard the air horns outside alerting us to evacuate.

Once outside, many firefighters were assisting me to my feet and out of my gear. This is when I found out what happened. I had all of my gear on, head to toe, but my Nomex hood wasn't tucked into my collar, nor was my collar up and fastened. I had what equates to very bad sunburn on the back of my neck. My hood was black carbon, it was discolored and there light red over most of it. And my facepiece was peppered and slightly melted.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this close call:

As I stated last month, flashovers, backdrafts and smoke explosions are all hazards to firefighters. Sometimes they are predictable, but sometimes they are not, but we have to know the "warning signs." For a more detailed understanding of these events, check out websites such as www.VincentDunn.com and www.FireTactics.com, consider a course such as Dave Dodson's "The Art of Reading Smoke" (www.readingsmoke.com) or attend formal training such as at the National Fire Academy or through your local college program. According to Chief Dunn, retired FDNY deputy chief and noted veteran expert in fire behavior, untrained firefighters often confuse the terms "backdraft" and "flashover." These two dangerous violent events are different and knowing the differences helps us understand each one better. There are four main differences.

First, backdrafts do not occur often. You may experience only one or two during your entire career. Flashovers — sudden full room involvement in flame — occur often. Second, a backdraft is an explosion; a flashover is not. There will be shock waves during a backdraft that will break the confining structure around the explosion. Windows may break blasts of smoke and flame may blow out a doorway or a part of the structure may collapse. Flashover is rapid fire development, but it stops short of an explosion's speed of chemical reaction. Third, air sets off a backdraft explosion. As firefighters enter a confined smoke-filled area and bring fresh air with them, sometimes a backdraft or smoke explosion occurs. The trigger or cause of a flashover is heat, not air. The theory of flashover is that heat, which is reradiated back into a burning room from the ceiling and upper walls, raises the gases and furnishings in the room to the auto-ignition temperature and triggers a flashover.

The final difference between a backdraft and flashover is the stage of fire growth in which they occur. There are three stages to a fire: the growth stage, the fully developed stage and the decay stage. Backdraft explosions occur when there is smoke in a confined space, that is, during the first and third stages of a fire. During the growth and decay stages, smoldering, incomplete combustion can take place and generate explosive carbon monoxide gas. Flashovers, on the other hand, occur in the growth stage of a fire and signal the end of the growth stage.

Specifically, due to past and recent training, Salem and Pennsville firefighters were able to identify some warning signs and take action. In addition to the smoke explosion, other actions are noteworthy:

  • Determine the life hazard — Are there or could there be civilians inside? That is a part of the size-up and we must use all information to help determine how far "in harm's way" firefighters should be placed by the incident commander. Firefighters are very willing to go in; it's the incident commander and the rest of the command staff that determines the "go in or not go in" actions. In this case, there were indications that the building was occupied and a search was justified.
  • It's the staffing — In this case, not only was the first alarm heavy to include automatic mutual aid, but the second alarm (transmitted very quickly) brought in more resources as well. Some areas still do not understand that if you have staffing problems, you know it now and you must do something about it, now. We cannot continue to go to fires with "whatever and whoever shows up" or poor on-duty staffing and worry about it when we get there "if" we have something.
  • Size-up — Size-up includes information based on what you see as well as what others see and their reports to you as the incident commander. A final comment from the incident commander at this month's Close Call: When we spoke about what he would do differently, he indicated to me that he would have had more companies opening up more exposures to ensure that they had a full understanding of where the problem was and where it was going. While he felt confident at the time, if he were to do this again, he would not have hesitated to open up and search more.
  • Accountability — Even though it shouldn't be, in reality accountability is tough at small fires, not to mention larger-scale jobs. By establishing that sector immediately on every run, you have a better chance of tracking personnel on all incidents. In this incident, accountability was initially established at the command post, and then taken over by one of the two rapid intervention teams. When staffing is available, the logic of the rapid intervention team, or at least its commander, having immediate access to the tracking and accountability of operating personnel makes good sense.

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.

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