Fire Chief Makes The Right Call in Ohio

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Pick up any issue of Firehouse Magazine or look at Firehouse.com and it's clear that there has never been a time when there has been so intense and coordinated a focus on firefighter training. This month's column describes an incident in which basic training and fire command experience led to quick decisions that assured firefighter safety and survival.

The idea that "everyone goes home" is clear in the fire profiled this month. We look at a close call that wasn't dramatic, nothing "suddenly happened" or "nearly occurred," nothing "blew up" and no one was injured, but this close call could have had a tragic outcome. Because these firefighters and officers were prepared, however, once again we see how training paid off and everyone went home. And nearly every reader of this column can and probably will have "this" fire.

The Wayne Township Fire Department (locally known as Station 91) in Warren County, OH, is a volunteer department of 40-plus members led by a full-time fire chief (28 of those firefighters responded to this alarm). Equipment consists of three engines, a rescue, two tankers, and several brush trucks and EMS ambulances. The department operates in a suburban/rural area between Cincinnati and Dayton. As of late September, it answered 200 fire calls and 621 EMS calls.

Our sincere appreciation goes to the officers and members of the Wayne Township Fire Department for their assistance in this month's column.

At 9:15 A.M. on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2005, the Wayne Township Fire Department and the balance of its first-alarm assignment, including the nearby Massie Township Fire Department, were dispatched by the Warren County Communications Center to a reported fire at a McDonald's restaurant on Main Street. (The Wayne Township Fire department also protects the historic Village of Waynesville, a popular tourist area known for antiques stores and related businesses. The restaurant is in the heart of the Village of Waynesville business district.)

Upon arrival at 9:18, Chief of Department Paul Scherer (Chief 91) established command. Following his size-up, he reported heavy smoke conditions with the building occupants self-evacuating. High-velocity, thick, dark-brown smoke was "pushing" primarily out of the side B roof and cockloft area. The first-in engine company, Engine 91, arrived at 9:19. The crew members immediately stretched in and conducted a search with their thermal imager. Between the imager and direct observation they found heavy fire conditions in the cockloft area above the ceiling, just below the roof. (It should be noted that this is a lightweight wood-truss building with no sprinkler protection.)

Command ordered additional alarm assignments, including a truck company from Clearcreek Township and a tanker task force, to supplement to limited village water supply. The first-alarm crews attempted a knockdown with several handlines, but the volume of fire was too heavy. Based on that report, the fire and smoke conditions, and the construction of the building, the chief ordered all personnel out of the building and an exterior attack was initiated. At this point, greater-alarm companies (primarily for water supply) were responding from Turtlecreek, Salem-Morrow, Union/South Lebanon and Hamilton townships, all in Warren County.

While the restaurant is an important part of the Waynesville business community, Scherer determined the risk versus benefit of his firefighters operating inside. His decision was proven when, minutes later, the trusses weakened, the gusset plates popped and a collapse occurred. This was a completely predictable event, and due to the crews training and knowledge of the building, as well as the experience and training of the fire officers, there was not a single firefighter injury.

As discussed in, and quoting from, several National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) firefighter fatality reports, fast-food restaurants are known to incorporate trusses as a roof support system, as seen at this fire. This fast-food restaurant, like most, was designed to have large open spaces for dining. The truss system is designed to allow for large open areas.

Trusses are generally designed according to specified load amounts. The loads can include heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units, compressors, air ducts, cooling lines, rest-room ventilation fans, grease exhaust ducts, exhaust fans as well as snow, and ice. With the exception of the snow and ice, most of these factors were present at this fire. These trusses are designed to spread or distribute the loads throughout the roof system and span large openings without interior load-bearing walls. Because the trusses are tied together and designed to distribute the load, the failure of one truss places an additional load on the other trusses, which can cause a chain reaction of failure that leads to a collapse.

The "bible" of this subject, Building Construction for the Fire Service, by Firehouse Contributing Editor Frank Brannigan, states, "The metal gusset plates can also be weakened or destroyed by fire by acting as a heat collector, delivering the heat to the metal gusset plate teeth, which can pyrolytically destroy the tensioned wood fibers, which had been gripping the metal teeth. Sometimes trusses are set in multiples to cope with a concentrated load. This does not suffice in a fire because all the trusses can be exposed to the same fire conditions. An additional load not incorporated into the design can shorten the time to failure in a fire. When a fire occurs in this type of truss, it generally travels rapidly throughout them, reducing their structural integrity."

While the Wayne Township firefighters are no less "aggressive" than any others, they and their chief knew what would happen at this fire. They knew the construction and that, along with the fire conditions, created a situation where the risk of the firefighters' lives far outweighed the benefit of trying to "save" the building. How did they get that information? Training.

Without a doubt, training is a top priority at many fire departments and when they have a fire, it shows. From the newest rookie to the senior member to the officers to the fire chief, training is what normally makes the difference in determining a positive or negative outcome. When a fire department is dispatched to a building fire, the members and especially the leadership shouldn't go into shock and start yelling without having a clue about what to do. Have you ever heard that happen to some "other" fire department?

When you get a nice garage-type building and then place a sign on it that says fire department, put fire apparatus inside and set up house to be in that business, a fire call should generally not leave people requiring therapy. But some fire departments have officers who do just that, and from the minute you hear them on the radio, you have a good idea of how "that" fire is going to go.

What's missing? Primarily it's training, along with seasoned, experienced and skilled firefighters, officers and commanders who know what to expect-and plan for that before and during the fire.

Life is full of choices. We have all made some great choices and some choices have not always been the smartest. I can personally speak from experience on both the career as well as personal side of life. In this month's structural fire case study, the chief, officers and firefighters of the Wayne Township Fire Department had several choices both before this fire-and while operating at this fire. Before this fire, they had the choice to drill or not to drill, to train or not to train, and to prepare or not to prepare. It's all about priorities and the leadership of the fire department. It's about the experience and training of those in charge and those operating. Some fire departments do little to no fire training, and eventually it shows. The results can be tragic.

Fortunately, the Wayne Township Fire Department with Chief Scherer, his officers and firefighters made the right choices, and they not only trained locally on a regular basis-but attended seminars, conferences and hands-on training as well. Some fire departments have lost focus on the mission. Fortunately, the Wayne Township Fire Department did not. While they clearly understand that property loss is critical and share no joy when they can't "get in and get it," the value of a life, especially a firefighter's life, is never worth that of a building.

While all firefighters want to "get in there and get it," it is critical to remember "what for." When there is a person to be rescued, the "what for" is obvious. But when the "what for" is about a building that we have pre-planned and understand, and the fact that the "well-involved" building probably will be replaced and open for business by the time this column is printed, the choice is clear.

That kind of understanding, preparedness and ability comes from regular fire training. Fortunately, the Wayne Township Fire Department understands that.


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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