Fire, Explosion & Collapse: Firefighters Trapped - Part 2

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...


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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.