"I Fell Through the Floor And Was Burning"

Union Fire Company 1 (Berks County Company 61) of Hamburg, PA, protects roughly 15,000 people in Hamburg Borough and surrounding areas. The company operates three engines, a brush truck, a heavy rescue and a 100-foot quint aerial truck, and is staffed...


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Suddenly, a Mayday was called during the operations (we had the fire 50% knocked down) for a firefighter who fell through the floor and into the basement. The suppression was still being done, but another firefighter grabbed the fallen one and held him. Other firefighters went into the basement to get him out. The fallen firefighter was taken to Lehigh Valley Hospital in critical condition with a Trauma 1 alert. The order was given to evacuate and regroup after this incident. Crews were sent back in to finish the overhaul and extinguish the rest of the fire. The fire was out and all companies went available.

I detailed two firefighters to be with him and let the department know how he was doing. Trooper Yeity from the State Police Fire Marshal Unit was contacted due to the firefighter getting hurt. As soon as the incident was under control, I checked on the firefighter who was hurt. He was getting better. He was off the ventilator and breathing on his own. He had no broken bones, but was very sore. He had a touch of pneumonia and was running a fever. The hospital stated he would be OK and was sent home. He still has a long recovery time, but is doing well.

During the investigation, it was determined there was one origin area, in the mud room at the stovepipe where it entered the wall. The most probable ignition source was radiant heat from the single-walled stove pipe. The materials first ignited were the framing and paneling around the pipe. The act or omission that brought the ignition source and the materials first ignited together was accidental.

The following lessons learned, comments and observations by Chief Goldfeder are based on communications with the writers and others:

This "close call" provides a great look into a daytime, rural fire response in a typical volunteer fire department, a view unrealized by many outside that world. These departments, in so many cases, raise their own funds, have limited tax support, are challenged by daytime responses (staffing) as well as typical time-related issues common in today's volunteer fire service. And fortunately, in so many cases, provide an excellent service to the community, as is the case with the Union Fire Company 1.

For defined reasons, this incident could have resulted in the death of a firefighter, but fortunately, due to actions taken by the firefighters on the scene, he was rescued. Naturally, there is a lot we can learn from this. While reading the reports and in communication with the above members, several thoughts came to mind:

* Occupied vs. unoccupied. Once firefighters arrive on the scene, the determination must be made as to whether occupants are trapped. If they are not out of the house, or it is not confirmed, depending on fire conditions, the firefighter risk factors stay high and all possible attempts are made to search for and remove the victim(s).

* Hoseline placement. Getting a hoseline in place between the fire and those trapped is a critical factor. An engine company's ability to do that literally defines the skills of that crew. That's what an engine company does when lives are at risk. Once it is determined that there are no occupants, the factors change significantly. Keeping firefighters interior is a case-by-case decision. In most cases, we are going to operate interior and attack the fire. However, it should be done with as little risk to firefighters as possible. Does that mean we never go in? Absolutely not. It means that we should do what we can to save property with as little risk as possible to firefighters, and that risk changes as the fire progresses. Coordination and communication between the incident commander and interior crews is vital so the boss can determine the risk. Getting a line on the fire and getting a quick knockdown can directly lower the risk to firefighters. But when the factors provide doubt, get them out.

* Structural conditions before the fire. In this case, the fire was in a home that was a trailer (mobile home) that had been added onto. Yes, a mix between a mobile home and a building! The risks to firefighters in this kind of structure are clear. Voids, floors, gaps and electrical issues can create a worst-case scenario for firefighters.