Mayday! Why There's No Such Thing As a "Routine" House Fire

A single-family-dwelling fire is the most common type of structural fire to which most of us respond. While the house fire profiled this month, in the minds of these Pennsylvania firefighters, was a “standard†response, it turned out to be...


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A single-family-dwelling fire is the most common type of structural fire to which most of us respond. While the house fire profiled this month, in the minds of these Pennsylvania firefighters, was a “standard†response, it turned out to be anything but. Fortunately, all of the firefighters came home.

Comments by Lieutenant Mathew Zerr hit home: “I have taken several firefighter survival classes. I never thought I would be using one of these tactics in a real-life incident. This goes to show everyone that training is a must and that there is no such thing as a ‘routine’ fire.†Well said.

We thank the officers and members of the Liberty Fire Company of Sinking Spring, PA, an all-volunteer department with 30 firefighters. Thanks also to the officers and members of the Spring Township Fire Department, a combination department with 60 volunteers, three career drivers and a full-time commissioner.

We thank Chief Ron Wentzel and Lieutenant Mathew Zerr of Sinking Spring; Deputy Chief Michael Roth, the Spring Township incident commander; and Chief Scot Landis of Shillington for sharing their accounts; and Western Berks EMS Supervisor William Shuman and Firefighter/Driver John Masciotti of Sinking Spring for the photos.

Chief Ron Wentzel’s account:

On Sunday, March 5, 2006, at 9:59 A.M., Spring Township Fire Department Station 85-1 and Sinking Spring Fire Department Station 51 were dispatched to a reported structure fire at 528 Albert Drive. Units were advised that everyone was reported to be out of the building, but there were animals inside. Shortly after dispatch, a fire police officer who lives in the area reported a working fire.

Deputy Chief Michael Roth, 85-14, requested that Shillington Fire Department Station 67 be dispatched for its rapid intervention team. Engine 85-2 responded with a crew of four, shortly followed by Truck 51, also with a crew of four. At 10:08, Truck 51 arrived on the scene and was advised by Roth of a possible occupant unaccounted for on the second floor.

Knowing that the Engine 85-2 was not far behind, Chief Ron Wentzel, the officer in charge of the truck crew, advised that the company would start a search for the missing occupant. Wentzel, Lieutenant Mathew Zerr and Lieutenant Dennis Walton entered the building through the open overhead garage door.

The truck crew entered the garage and masked up just inside the entrance. They observed fire in the rear corner of the garage extending up to the ceiling and across the ceiling toward a door to the kitchen. It appeared that something was burning on top of a shelving unit or a refrigerator in the opposite corner. Walton extinguished the bulk of the fire with a water can. Upon entering the kitchen, conditions were very tenable, with only medium smoke. The crew was able stand and rapidly covered the kitchen. On entering the dining room toward the B side, the crew split up. Zerr headed for several rooms toward the B side and Walton continued toward the A side into a living room with Wentzel.

At that time, Wentzel noticed that the fire in the garage was starting to lap into the kitchen. After trying to get Zerr’s attention to close the kitchen door, Wentzel realized that the lieutenant was already committed to the opposite side of the first floor. Attempting to “buy time,†Wentzel found a second entrance to the kitchen. After moving large furniture items from the doorway, Wentzel leaned into and over a bar area and closed the kitchen door.

Walton advised that he found the stairs to the second floor. The crew met at the stairs and started up together to conduct a search for the reported missing occupant. While ascending the stairs, Wentzel heard the glass to the kitchen door fail and yelled to the crew, “Make it fast, we don’t have much time.â€

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