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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The outside crew happened to be the rapid intervention team from Station 67, who did see and hear Wentzel. They started to raise a two-section 35-foot ladder to the window where the crew was trapped. Seeing the ladder coming up and being closest to the window, Wentzel started to climb up into the window sill to get on the ladder, but once in the window, he was driven back inside to the floor by the extreme heat coming from behind.

Wentzel started yelling, “Kick it out, kick it out! Bail! Bail!†Luckily, the crew raising the ladder had attended a firefighter survival training program and quickly repositioned the ladder so the trapped crew could bail out. The tip of the ladder probably wasn’t even in contact with the window sill when Wentzel dove onto the ladder head first, with Zerr directly behind, followed by Walton – all three came down the ladder head first.

While the rapid intervention team was helping the truck crew exit the building, a Mayday was transmitted from the first floor (A side) of the building. Additional members of the rapid intervention team responded immediately. The crew from Engine 85-2, which entered the A side of the building, was attempting to hold the fire away from the stairs; knowing that the truck crew was still upstairs, they transmitted the Mayday. Two firefighters on the attack line exited the building via first-floor front windows after the fire from the kitchen drove them out.

The rapid intervention team chief said he could feel heat coming off the firefighters, even through structure gloves, as they came down the ladder. An EMS supervisor attempted to remove the personal protective equipment (PPE) from the crew, but he could not, because he was all but burning his hands when he touched the equipment. All three members of the truck crew made it out of the building with minor burns and some damaged equipment.

It was later learned that the primary factor in the rapid fire spread was wind. It was a very windy day with the wind coming from the C-D corner of the building blowing toward the A-B corner. Large void spaces let hidden fire be pushed toward the truck crew on the second floor and helped to drive the fire over the heads of the engine company members in the living room.

My thoughts and lessons learned:

The truck crew realizes that they never announced a Mayday. The members knew that if they could get a ladder, that would solve the problem.

Each time the truck crew yelled for a ladder to the rear, the operations officer said another ladder was sent to the rear and every window was laddered. Operations could not understand where the truck crew was and why they were not exiting the building. Somehow, the truck crew got turned around and what they thought was the rear of the building was the B side.

The truck crew did not set off a personal alert safety system (PASS) device to help the rapid intervention team find them.

Announcing the crew sizes upon response assisted greatly in determining exactly how many people were on the truck crew that was trapped and the engine crew that transmitted the Mayday.

The operations officer stated that he remembered both apparatus signing on the air with four firefighters. Once the truck crew reported that they were cut off, the operations officer quickly glanced down the street, saw the chauffeur and knew that three people were missing. Likewise, when the engine crew transmitted their Mayday, he saw the chauffeur and one crew member, so he knew he had two people missing from the engine crew.

The truck crew entered through an open overhead garage door, but did not prop it open. This door could have easily closed once they entered the garage.

Deputy Chief Michael Roth’s account:

I responded from my residence. A smoke column was visible and I requested Shillington Fire Company 67’s rapid intervention team be dispatched. I arrived on location across from the residence on the A-B side and had visible smoke showing from the C-D corner of the structure. I advised the Berks County Communications Center that I would be Albert Drive command and that Zone 4 Fire F-2 would be the fireground channel. I then exited my vehicle to put on my turnout gear. As I was doing that, I was approached by a Spring Township police sergeant who advised there may be entrapment on the second floor and that they were trying to gain access via the front of the structure to attempt the rescue of a dog that was visible to them through the front windows.