Mobile Home Fire…And An Emergency Bailout!

Fires involving mobile homes present special challenges. Our sincere thanks to Firefighter Tracy Davis, Training Officer Brandon Flynn, Chief John Childs, EFO, Chief of Operations Steve Kovalcik, and the officers and members of the Sterling Heights, MI, Fire Department for their assistance with this month's close call.

The Sterling Heights Fire Department, based six miles north of Detroit, covers 36 square miles with five stations. Sterling Heights is the fourth-largest city in Michigan, by population, and has a mix of residential, commercial and industrial occupancies that include two Daimler-Chrysler and two Ford factories. The city has a permanent population of 127,000 and about 250,000 during the day. The fire department's Extinguishment Division consists of 90 personnel, who rotate three shifts (three battalion chiefs, five captains, 16 lieutenants, nine sergeants and 57 firefighter/paramedics). The department is the primary EMS provider for the city, with advanced life support (ALS) by paramedic engines and a private contractor hired to transport.

This initial account is from Firefighter Tracy Davis:

On Oct. 29, 2006, I experienced an airpack failure while interior at a mobile home fire. I was not sure what part of the SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) failed, but this is what I recall: Normal habits tell me I opened my air bottle fully before placing my mask. I then placed my regulator on my mask. All seemed right and my airpack was functioning properly. My heads-up display was working properly.

We entered the trailer. About two minutes into our firefighting, conditions got bad. We experienced a rollover and it got very hot. While fighting the fire, my heads-up display either turned solid red or blinking red. I can't recall. My next breath sucked my mask to my face. I tried one additional breath, again sucking my mask to my face. I knew I was out of luck and made an emergency evacuation, but not pulling my mask off until I was in fresh air.

Once outside, I got my pack working again. I think I might have shut down my bottle and reopened it. Also, my SCBA was rocked around as I rolled off the porch and down some stairs to a safe area.

This account is excerpted from the first-due company's report:

Engine 5 responded to report of mobile home fire, reported fully involved. Arrived at scene, passed command, gave size-up, stated 50% involved. Directed tailboard firefighters to pull pre-connect.

Engine 5 officer viewed A, B, D sides of occupancy. A gray-colored and lighter-colored black smoke showing from A and C side soffit/gable areas, kitchen window on B side failed from fire, visible flame inside occupancy (not emitting from window). Vehicle in driveway, no bystanders present.

Engine 5 crew stretched pre-connect to B-side entry door. Battalion Chief 2 coordinated with Engine 5 officer to have other on-scene crews perform ventilation in conjunction with fire attack. Engine 5 crew encountered smoke down to approximately two feet above the floor. Crew entered crawling to left, immediately seeing fire in kitchen area. Crew lay prone on floor and a straight stream of water was applied to the seat of the fire. Engine 5's officer noticed flames in living area, to right side of crew and directed quick line application to prevent the fire from moving behind the crew. Fire attack continued on main body of fire. Flames were again noticed to right of crew, again quick water application was directed to the area. Fire attack continued to seat of fire. Flames were now over the Engine 5 crew head, ceiling was hit (with the hose stream) to cool ceiling area. Engine 5's officer suddenly had Firefighter Davis make body contact while exiting dwelling.

Engine 5 officer observed sudden flame engulfment of room. The atmosphere was warm, but not hot. Engine 5's officer immediately yelled to evacuate. Engine 5's officer reached forward and met Firefighter Ioco head-on, both "tumbling" out of doorway, and down porch stairs. Immediate roll call was done by the Engine 5 officer (also Battalion Chief 2) to account for crew. Other on-scene crews performed defensive exterior fire attack, eventually returning to offensive when main body of fire was almost extinguished.

Engine 5 crew removed their helmets, SCBA, Nomex hoods and gloves. Lieutenant Norris and Firefighter Ioco had no noticeable injuries. Firefighter Davis felt soreness to her ears. Inspection shows some redness to both earlobes.

Firefighter Davis later stated to Engine 5 officer that sudden exit was due to an SCBA malfunction. She stated that suddenly, while breathing normally, her mask "sucked" to her face. She again attempted to inhale, with the same results. Firefighter Davis held breath and kept mask and regulator on during rapid exit. She stated that she did not take off her mask or remove regulator until she was out of the dwelling. (Firefighter Davis took SCBA out of service for further evaluation.) Firefighter Davis later sought treatment for second-degree burns to both earlobes as blisters appeared approximately two hours after original incident. She was also evaluated for possible smoke inhalation/ respiratory burns, but no respiratory problems were found at that time during exam.

This account is from Captain Brandon Flynn:

On Oct. 29, 2006, at 4 A.M., Sterling Heights Engine 5 responded to a reported mobile home fire. Upon arrival, the crew of four found about 50% involvement of the trailer with a car in the driveway. The officer and both firefighters deployed a pre-connect and entered the side door near the center of the trailer, while the driver established a water supply. Upon entering the trailer, Engine 5's crew encountered heavy fire and smoke in the kitchen. Other units arrived and vented the trailer by breaking out windows. The fire seemed to intensify after ventilation, which prompted the Engine 5 crew to evacuate.

Just prior to the fire flaring up (unconfirmed flashover), one firefighter lost air to her SCBA facepiece. We think her bottle valve accidentally shut off while fighting the fire; however, she had no low-pressure alarm and the heads-up display went from all green to red. Luckily, she was still close to the door to bail out. We found that the ratchet mechanism on the bottle valve had been disabled. Further investigation revealed that all of our new bottles had the safety ratchet disabled. In summary, check your airpacks. In this fire, we lost two sets of gear, two helmets, one length of hose, one nozzle, two air bottles, and one airpack from heat and flame damage. The firefighter who lost air was off for one week with burnt ears, everyone else is OK and no one was in the trailer at the time of the fire.

Problem determination with the manufacturer of the SCBA:

We worked with the manufacturer and recently received the report back from Scott Health & Safety about the SCBA. The SCBA checked out with no problems. We have come to the conclusion through our own internal investigation that her tank valve was accidentally shut during firefighting because the safety ratchet was disabled. It was disabled in the past during maintenance for undocumented reasons. The safety ratchet is designed to prevent the valve from closing accidentally. We found 75% of our bottles in that condition at the time of this fire. We strongly recommend to all fire departments to have their safety ratchets enabled. This was not a problem or fault of the manufacturer.

The small area of the entrance to a singlewide mobile home posed a problem with three firefighters, hand tools and a 1¾-inch line. We believe, while advancing the hoseline under Tracy's right arm, the hoseline was rubbing against her tank valve, causing it to close (with no safety ratchet engaged). The second complication to this incident was the sudden influx of heat and fire. We are not sure if this was a flashover or from ventilation taking place; however, Tracy's coat, helmet and hood had to be replaced.

Our lessons learned:

  1. Wear all of your personal protective equipment (PPE). It works, and it's our policy. This year, we are replacing a coat, helmet, hood, SCBA, a length of hose and a nozzle...not a firefighter.
  2. Know your equipment and check it daily. We had no idea all of our main-valve safety ratchets were disabled.
  3. Training is priceless. Tracy kept her cool when she lost air. If she had ripped off her mask in a panic, the aftermath would have been grave.

We are currently changing our strategy for mobile home fires. These types of fires are fast and unpredictable. This fire brought this to our attention. Several factors made this structure fire unusual: a fire in the kitchen nearing the smoldering stage, a windy night that provided a "wind tunnel" after horizontal ventilation, an early-morning fire with a vehicle in the driveway, and the general construction type and contents involved with trailers.

An interesting note: The Sterling Heights Police Department went to the park to investigate a call of a distraught man trying to break into another mobile home. Police arrived to find thick smoke in the area and notified the fire department. The fire burned for a while before firefighters arrived. Police found the man ("Mr. B&E") and determined that his trailer was burning, and that he was trying to alert a neighbor to call 911. Police notified dispatch twice that everyone was out of the structure. That information, however, was not relayed to Engine 5, the first unit to arrive, which prompted the firefighters to enter the structure. We are working on this problem with dispatch.

The following comments and observations by Chief Goldfeder are based on discussions with the writer and others concerning this incident: