Protective equipment. Why is it so hard to get some folks in our business to wear it? The lame excuses can be found everywhere, from "it is too uncomfortable" (develop better specs and maybe, just maybe don't go low bid on the only stuff that may be between you and the fire) to "I want to be able to feel the heat from the fire and bunker gear provides too much protection."
Are you insane?
The lame excuses are just that — lame. Firefighters are better protected today than we ever have been. Gear is lighter, more comfortable (when it is custom fitted) and does a better job of protecting us — as long as we wear it. And, as long as we have officers who are not afraid to speak up, act like officers and require their members to be properly protected. Feel the heat? Training, and lots of it, along with experience is the solution. Additionally, these days, technology can also help solve the problem such as the use of a thermal imaging camera. Any firefighter who wants to get "just a little" burned as a way of determining whether it is too hot has never been burned.
This month, the firefighters of Hazleton, PA, give us another extremely dramatic example of why wearing our bunker gear with no exposed skin can make a difference in ending up in a burn unit or worse. This column is not a lesson about bunker gear specifically; rather, it is one of wearing what you are issued — all of what you are issued — to increase your chances of getting out alive. Our sincere thanks to Chief of Department Don Leshko, Deputy Chief Brian Mandak, Captain Thomas Tutko, Firefighter Joel Mumie and all of the members of the Hazleton City Fire Department operating at that fire for their cooperation in preparing this month's close call.
The following account is a combined effort of several firefighters and officers operating at the fire event of that evening:
The Hazleton City Fire Department is a combination department made up of three stationhouses with five volunteer companies and IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) Local 507. Staffing consists of three chief officers with 18 career firefighters and approximately 40 volunteer firefighters. The vehicle fleet consists of one 102-foot ladder tower, one 100-foot tiller ladder in reserve, three class A engines, one rescue engine, a chief's truck and deputy's truck.
The coverage area is a lot of older homes, with only a handful of newer construction, a downtown business district and an industrial park. The fixed population that we provide fire and rescue services to is now about 24,000 residents. We do not provide any EMS service at this time. Our paid staffing is 100% Pennsylvania state certified to at least the Firefighter 1 certification level; all of our chief officers are at least Officer 1, Inspector 1 and Investigator 1 certified. Our current volunteer staff is about 40% certified to the level of Firefighter 1, with about half of the staff holding higher levels or with more than one level of certification.
The evening of the fire, we had Engines 2 and 5, Rescue Engine 3 and Ladder 1 in service. The HFD was dispatched at about 12:25 A.M. and all units on scene and operating at about 12:28. Volunteer firefighters report directly to the scene. Original units on the alarm were Engine 2, Engine 5, Ladder 1 and Chief 3. When the IC (incident commander) arrived on scene, he radioed county dispatch with command. At that time, he asked for additional tones for manpower and Engine 3 to the scene for suppression. During his 360-degree assessment, the IC noticed firefighters on the front porch roof and a civilian was yelling down to them that she was going to jump. The IC moved a roof ladder closer to her and started to climb it to bring her down when he noticed a firefighter in full PPE (personal protective equipment) and SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). The IC came down and the firefighter then went up the ladder and talked the woman down.
The IC now set command at the A-D corner. The father of the trapped boys was literally pulling at the IC's arms, begging the firefighters to rescue his children, and he was assured him that we were doing everything we could. The IC also noticed the firefighter on the ladder on side D trying to do a vent/enter/search of the boys' room. Without a lot of firefighters there yet, the IC stretched a 1¾-inch hoseline to protect the ladder.
By the time the IC had returned with the line, the lower window failed and they had to abort the mission. More volunteer firefighters arrived and checked in for deployment. The line the IC had stretched was used by a non-interior firefighter to darken down the kitchen and living room. The IC had made the decision to send a crew of two to the second floor ahead of the second 1¾-inch hoseline being stretched.
The IC watched that crew (fully geared up, full PPE and SCBA) make the second floor just before it flashed over. The hoseline that was protecting the stairs from the exterior was then advanced into the house as a second line. These firefighters were in the attic area when it flashed. Other firefighters were on the outside ledge near the windows of the house when it flashed. The IC immediately ordered two more ALS (advanced life support) units to the scene, thinking that his interior firefighters were caught in the flashover; this was at 12:42. The second interior crew reached the trapped boys' room, pulled them out and passed them onto EMS care at 12:44. A PAR (personnel accountability report) check was taken and all units were accounted for. The fire was under control and overhaul in progress at 12:55.
Various accounts prior to the publishing of this article stated that there were no working smoke detectors, and this was untrue. Investigators dug out the remains of at least two smoke detectors from the ashes. After the mother was home from the burn center and they could interview her, she stated that the last thing in her mind was hearing the smoke alarm and the kids calling for help and not being able to get to them because of the smoke.
During the investigation, the water was running in the kitchen sink and a home fire extinguisher was lying in the middle of the floor. Fire officials all thought that if he would have called sooner, instead of trying to extinguish it himself, the fire might not have progressed so quickly. After the father had returned home from the burn center, he had told us that he had heard his baby awaken. He went upstairs to get him; while he was in the front TV room with the infant, the fire had started on the stove. He ran into the kitchen and threw water on it, and the hot oil had quickly spread. When he came back with the fire extinguisher, it was already too late. He could do nothing but grab the infant and leave the home. He had suffered second- and third-degree burns of the arms and head area.
The home was completely done in wooden veneer paneling. The fire quickly consumed this material. The fire had burned through a closed-in doorway at the bottom of the staircase in the middle of the home and ran right upstairs. Total amount of fire time from reported fire to extinguishment was only 30 minutes. Tragically, two children lost their lives in this fire despite valiant attempts by the Hazleton firefighters attempting entry from the interior as well as from the exterior ledge area.
The following lessons learned, comments and observations by Chief Goldfeder are based on communications with the writers and others.
One minute we are training, eating, relaxing or whatever we do prior to an alarm of fire…and within that same period, but without our knowledge, there is a fire. Residents attempt to put out a fire and, without fail, the fire extends. Eventually, someone calls the fire department and we now become a part of what will end up a nightmare — sometimes for the family, sometimes for us and sometimes for both.
In this case, the Hazleton firefighters attempting both interior and exterior access did their best to grab these babies and save their lives. Sometimes we can — and sometimes we cannot. And without question, we are impacted. While this fire created a horrible void in the hearts of the family and the community, there are things we can learn from it.
Staffing. This close call provides some unique insight to a combination fire department where numerous members may arrive on the scene separately from apparatus. While some readers may find this unusual, it is common in some areas.
Here is an account from a captain that clearly outlines the challenges faced on that evening:
"Upon arrival, I began to don my gear and was able to see a large quantity of dark-brown/black smoke coming from the second-floor sides A and D. I also witnessed Firefighter James Sharp (Engine 2 operator) remove a ladder and place it to the second-floor window, side D and ascend it to the window. I then proceeded to Engine 2 to don an airpack. While approaching, I observed a roof ladder placed to the front porch roof and two firefighters were on the porch roof with at least one, possibly two, civilians accompanying them. The smoke was moderate to heavy and the fire was venting from the top of the window on the left-most side of the fire building. Firefighter Sharp was on the ladder and reaching into the window, but was not wearing full turnout gear at this time. I proceeded to don my SCBA and continued on to relieve Firefighter Sharp on the ladder.
"Upon reaching him, I observed that the ladder was placed to the side of the bedroom window. Directly below the second-floor bedroom windows were two windows to the first-floor middle room. The windows were thermal-paned double windows with the interior panes beginning to crack and fail. There was a heavy smoke condition behind the windows with a moderate fire condition. Firefighter Sharp advised me that he was holding onto a young boy, but could not pull him out of the window. I advised him to get down the ladder so that we could reposition it and enter the bedroom. He proceeded down and we repositioned the ladder over the first-floor windows and to the ledge of the second-floor window.
"At this time, Firefighter Kevin Ruby (Ladder 1) arrived at our location and climbed the ladder in front of me and to the window sill. He reached into the window and was feeling for the victim that Firefighter Sharp had been holding onto. Deputy Chief Brian Mandak arrived in our area with a 1¾-inch hoseline not yet charged. Conditions in the bedroom were rapidly deteriorating and Firefighter Ruby could not make entry due to excessive heat. At this time, the second-floor bedroom windows began to fail along with the first-floor windows directly below and behind our ladder. The kitchen windows (side D at the D-C corner) also began to fail. Firefighter Ruby descended the ladder and I removed it from the window. Deputy Chief Mandak ordered the 1¾-inch hoseline charged.
"I took the line and began to flow water into the second-floor middle bedroom and first-floor middle room and kitchen. As the windows continued to fail, I was able to observe that the stairway leading to the second floor was in the middle room on the wall separating the kitchen from the middle room. I attempted to darken down the fire on the first floor and protected the stairway as best as I could from my position outside. I then observed two firefighters proceed through the middle room and up the stairs to the second floor. I continued to protect the stairway with my hoseline until it was ordered into the building. At this time, I turned the hoseline over to other firefighters and was ordered by the deputy chief to take Firefighter Mark Polumbo (Engine 3) and stand by at the front door to relieve interior crews
"Shortly after this, a firefighter exited the front door of the building carrying a young male child. The victim was placed down on the front porch and his vital signs were assessed. Someone then picked up the boy and proceeded to carry him off the porch to a awaiting ambulance. At this time, a firefighter then exited the front door with a second young male victim. He was placed down on the front porch and his vital signs assessed. The victim was found to be in cardiac arrest and CPR was started."
When staffing is a challenge (i.e., too few firefighters to establish water, stretch lines, force entry, vent, search, rescue, etc.) or the immediate and organized arrival of staffing is delayed, the incident commander may have to stretch lines or move ladders. Naturally, this can detract from the incident commander running the fire, even though there may be few options after arrival when the needed resources aren't there. When civilians are literally screaming to "save my babies" and you are dealing with working fire conditions, resources are at their most critical need. Solutions to these known problems can be dealt with well prior to the alarm and can be planned for.
Personnel accountability. Tracking firefighters is a challenge. Tracking firefighters at a working incident with reports of babies trapped is taking that challenge to the extreme. It doesn't matter. The best accountability/firefighter tracking system is one that is simple and requires as little "human action" as possible. Be it tags or passports, if it isn't used on every run and practiced, it won't be "human nature" and will be forgotten.
The best system may be one that is already in place when the tones go off, such as riding lists or, at the very least, tags passed to the officer PRIOR to leaving on the apparatus. Whatever system you use, you know right now whether it works or not. How do you know? Did it work on your last fire call? If it didn't, what's your plan? Don't kid yourself. When there's trouble, you will need a "second nature" system of knowing where your firefighters are — a system that can be counted on.
Tracking volunteer, recalled off-duty or call firefighters. When firefighters arrive at or are on duty at a fire station, accountability can be easy — if we apply a little discipline and policy enforcement by the officers. However, when firefighters report directly to the scene, in addition to parking, traffic and related problems, tracking and accounting for them can be a nightmare. For departments that have no other option than to do this, it is strongly suggested that members park out of the way and report to personnel staging with all their PPE so those in charge can make up crews.
Firefighters also may arrive well before the incident commander and apparatus. While in rare occasions this can be of value, in many cases it can cause problems. Even under the best of conditions, the possibility of losing track of your personnel when they don't arrive on apparatus with tools, equipment, PPE and a supervising fire officer is great.
Water on the fire. We have said it and heard it time and time again — more lives are saved on the fireground (including those of firefighters) by our ability to get water quickly and effectively on the fire than any other single action. In this case, the rescue of the children was a critical priority; after all, when parents are outside telling you that the kids are in there, rescue is the priority. And in spite of heroic efforts by the members of the HFD, these kids succumbed to their injuries. Fortunately, a line was stretched and placed in order to at least protect the firefighters operating interior. Between that and the firefighters' position, in an area above the room that flashed, they were able to escape.
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.