Working House Fire: We Knew The Warning Signs, So Why Did We Do That?

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While there are numerous interesting tactical considerations with this close call, the focus that the writer provides - and this is easily understood when you read this - is to manage your "confidence" at a fire while applying your size-up information based on your training. Think about what you are doing and why you are doing it, communicate what you see to the incident commander and use caution.

This close call occurred in rural Henry Township, IN. The house involved is one of about 10 in the district of this type of construction. The Henry Township Fire Department is a small volunteer department with 22 members that covers about 100 square miles of mostly farmland. The members of the department answer about 60 fire calls per year, including accidents, grass fires and carbon monoxide checks, plus another 100 EMS alarms.

At approximately 3:30 A.M. on Nov. 23, 2006, the Henry Township Fire Department, with three engines, a rescue, two tankers (3,000 and 2,000 gallons) and two brush trucks, was dispatched to a chimney fire that had spread to the rest of the house. The acting fire chief (the chief of department was on personal leave due to a family tragedy and the assistant chief was in the acting capacity) saw a glow in the sky about two miles away. He immediately called for mutual aid and advised all personnel that the fire was through the roof. The structure was a new, two-story lightweight constructed house with a full basement and approximately 3,000 square feet per floor.

Our sincere thanks to Firefighter Brooke Murphy, Firefighter Justin Gearhart, Acting Chief Marty Gearhart and all members of the Henry Township Fire Department for their cooperation.

The following account is by Firefighter Brooke Murphy:

We responded with four pieces of apparatus with seven personnel plus a tanker on automatic mutual aid from the City of Rochester Fire Department, which responded with five members and a tanker. Our first-in engine arrived with an engineer and three firefighters on board. Of the three firefighters, one had nine years' experience, and the other two had just finished Firefighter 1 and 2 class in June and had about two years' experience. The acting chief assumed command and requested water tankers and manpower from two neighboring departments. I arrived next in my personal vehicle and geared up. The Roann and Pleasant Township fire departments responded, bringing us 15 firefighters and two tankers.

As I was donning my SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus), I observed the A side of the structure and fire coming from the D-side gable end and rapidly progressing through the attic toward the B-side gable end. I noticed fire coming from a ridge vent almost half the distance of the roofline. There was a 35-foot ground ladder placed on the A side to a small porch roof just beneath the second-floor windows. One firefighter was at the A side front porch with SCBA on and had already advanced a 1¾-inch attack line to the door. Two other firefighters went to the C side of the structure. I made contact with the homeowner in the front yard and he advised me that everyone was out of the house.

The incident commander came to me and told me and another firefighter to advance to the second floor and "do what you can to stop this thing." As we made entry with a 1¾-inch line, the visibility was perfect on the first floor and the stairway was just inside the front door. This house had a vaulted-type "open concept" living room with the ceiling stopping at the attic floor and stairway.

As we advanced up the stairway, there was a medium haze of smoke in the second floor. Visibility was still very good, but enough smoke was present to burn our eyes, so we plugged in our regulators at the top of the stairway. We encountered a hallway at the top of the stairs leading to the B-D sides of the house. We went to the left, the D side, into a bedroom that measured about 13 by 13 feet. We put our short pike pole through the drywall ceiling and made a two-inch-diameter hole.

Heavy fire was blowing horizontally through the attic. I put the nozzle on a wide fog pattern and stuck it up through the hole in an attempt to indirectly attack the fire with steam. This had no effect at all. I then retrieved the nozzle, put it on a straight stream and stuck it back into the hole, letting it flail about inside the attic to stop the advancing fire. This seemed to have little to no effect on the fire conditions. My partner made a second hole about three feet from the first hole as an inspection hole. The conditions did not change. As I pulled the nozzle out of the hole the second time, I saw a "gang nail" shining in the reflection of the fire. Then reality hit me - this is a truss roof!

I told my partner we had to get out (due to the failing construction). We picked up our tools and handline and headed for the door. As we turned toward the door, I heard someone yell from the stairway area to get the hoseline out to the stairway. I saw a bright glow coming from the stairway area from my view still inside the bedroom. As we took the hoseline back to the stairway, I noticed another firefighter, whom I recognized as a 20-plus-year veteran firefighter, on the stairway about halfway up as we rounded the corner of the room into the top of the stairway.

All of the sudden, there was a loud crack. In what seemed like slow motion, I saw the ceiling come down, knocking that firefighter down the stairs and knocking us backwards about two feet. It was a lean-to-type collapse and luckily we were in the three- to four-foot void. It did not knock us off of our feet, but was enough to knock us down to a low crouch. My partner immediately started breaking out the window right behind us in the hallway. I saw a window in the bedroom we had just come from, so I went back in there and took it out. My partner was only about five feet away, smashing the window, when I grabbed him, dragged him into that room and rapidly assisted him through the window onto a small porch ledge. As soon as he exited, I followed.

As we came down the ladder that was placed for egress before we went in, I heard the incident commander yelling from the front door under the porch area that we had men trapped. As I got to the ground, I immediately went to the front door and saw the firefighter who was knocked down the stairway exit. I asked him who he was with and he said he was alone and coming to assist us. We then realized nobody else was in the structure and met the incident commander at the same time. The incident commander was handling accountability and was shook when he realized we had all made it out safely - scared to death, but safe.

The following comments continue Firefighter Murphy's observations from a lessons-learned standpoint:

I have been in the fire service for about 15 years. I am an Instructor I and an Officer I. I have preached - and been preached at - about truss construction. I have read most of Chief Vincent Dunn's strategy and tactics articles and have been yelled at in Chief Goldfeder's "Firefighters Scared Straight" seminars. I am trained. I drilled it into the heads of my partner's Firefighter I/II class. I saw this was lightweight construction with heavy fire involvement in the attic. I put it in the back of my mind and didn't let it sink in until I saw the gang nails in the attic. When I realized the potentially deadly mistake I had just made, it was too late.

We started an operation with about six firefighters on scene. We had no backup line, no rapid intervention team and no safety officer - just for starters. We thought we could "get it" with what we had. The homeowner was screaming at us to put water on it; what could we do? Nobody was watching the changing fire conditions in the attic we shouldn't have been under in the first place. I knew it was a truss before I went in, but I put that knowledge in the back of my head and went anyway.

Have you ever been down the hallway on an interior attack and thought to yourself, "Man, this thing is hotter than usual," not knowing how close to flashover you really are - and made it with no problems? We have all been in high-heat conditions, been in dense smoke, seen rollover and freeburning, but few of us have ever experienced a true "emergency" while interior. We have always been lucky and got in the mindset that, "We can cheat the grim reaper again." This time, I saw the grim reaper and let me tell you, he has an ugly mug!

Why are we putting ourselves at this much risk for a vacated house that's designed to kill us to begin with? The answer is, we are "firefighters," with the last part of that term being "fighters." We fight to win, and don't like to lose! We are fighters! That is our mentality. How many of us can stand by and wait until more help arrives? We should have, but we didn't. We have the fully encapsulated turnout suits, SCBA, high-volume/low-pressure handlines, 911 dispatch centers that provide faster responses - and an attitude of invincibility. This is a very dangerous combination. Just read some of the T-shirts on firefighters at your next fire conference or the next training night at the station: "I Fight What You Fear," "I Dance with the Devil," "I Walk Where the Devil Dances," " No Fear Firefighting" and many others. This is the attitude that almost cost us our lives that morning.

I am not against these T-shirts and there is nothing wrong with bragging after doing a good job at a working fire. Sure, it takes guts to do what we do, but risk management must be first and foremost at every scene! You can have all of the training in the world, but if you have a "We can get it, we can cheat it" attitude, and ignore even a little bit of your training, sometime "it" may come and get some payback!

Please take building construction to heart and don't let operations and a "we can get this thing" attitude overwhelm your basic training. The mistake I made nearly cost my young partner's life as well as my own. It gave new meaning to Thanksgiving as I stood looking at that house in the daylight. I could have been spending the holidays still inside that house instead of with my family. Frank Brannigan preached this for years; we need to listen and act accordingly. This was a true close call and a hard lesson to learn, but I am here to tell about it.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with the writer and others regarding this close call:

When I spoke to Firefighter Murphy about this fire, the one point he kept making was that his "attitude" is what got him on this; the attitude of "let's go get it, we'll be fine." Who hasn't had that attitude? We all have.First, a word about staffing. While there was some automatic aid on this fire to beef up the first-alarm assignment, and more help was called for prior to arrival, a "heavy" first-alarm assignment to a reported fire can get help there quicker - and the dispatcher "automatically" takes care of it based on your standard operating procedures (SOPs), making it one less thing for the incident commander to worry about. Let there be no question in anyone's mind that the lack of adequate staffing arriving as close together as possible (in order to perform tasks simultaneously) can and has led to the injury and death of firefighters.

It should be clear to any fire officer that firefighting is task oriented and it takes plenty of firefighters to perform the tasks. From water supply to the pump, to stretching lines, to forcing entry, to venting, to searching and rescuing - and critically getting a line on the fire - we need trained firefighters under trained fire officers to improve our chances at success. Now is the time to figure out your fire department's staffing needs and set dispatch plans in motion to ensure that enough firefighters and officers are dispatched on the first alarm, at any time, no matter what town they come from. In this fire, if the firefighters had become trapped for any significant length of time, if additional lines were needed or any other tasks had to be accomplished immediately, there were not enough firefighters and officers on the scene to satisfy the need.

The focus of the writer of this close call is his concern about knowing the warning signs, but not acting on that knowledge. And while I am hardly qualified to discuss the theories of "human behavior," I will try to explain my feelings in as simple a manner as possible.

Firefighters are risk takers. Firefighting is a risky business, and sometimes we should take a risk, including even risking our lives. Sometimes, not everyone goes home. But sometimes, we should not take a risk. For example, there is a risk anytime we respond to a fire, so should we not respond? Of course not, but that is the only way to eliminate the risk. So the solution is to manage and minimize the risk by taking the information we have, applying our training and operating safely.

We attend training and we are taught that a lightweight wood truss is unstable as soon as it is heated and absolutely falls apart when it is burning. We know it will collapse and fall; it happens every day. Sometimes, they fall and kill us. So why do we go in? Because we got away with it in the past. We feel, "It didn't fall last time," and we say, "Give us just two more minutes, we can get this fire." You know the statements; we've all made them.

The question is, why do we take the risk? Because we enjoy going in. We want to save their property - and nothing bad has happened so far, at least not to us. We wait for fires to happen so we can do what we do, and we get upset when we can't go. But it's not about us wanting to go in when we want to; it is about competent firefighters and officers knowing when we should be in there-and when we should not. When we should risk our lives - and possibly lose them - and when we should not. Sometimes, we must take great risks in order to save a life, and that is understood.

Here is a thought: When it makes sense to go in, we should go in. There are many, many times when we do go in to save property; the risk is minimal, and we should go in to put the fire out. But when you know the warning signs are there, don't go in. Save yourself and your firefighters for that next fire when you genuinely may be needed and have to go in - and at great risk - to save a life. If you lose your life or get hurt for a building where no lives were affected, you no longer get to go to fires (not to mention those you leave behind).

Losing your life as a firefighter when attempting a rescue is heroic. Losing your life as a firefighter for a building that clearly is in danger of collapsing is sad, is a waste of your life and is an avoidable death. As Firefighter Murphy says, don't let your attitude overwhelm your training.

Chief Goldfeder notes: I wrote this column on the evening of Dec. 3, 2006, the seventh anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire in which six Worcester firefighters lost their lives. Just days later, on Dec. 22, 1999, the Keokuk, IA, Fire Department lost three members in a dwelling fire where three children also perished. Please remember Worcester's Bravest - Paul Brotherton, Jeremiah Lucey, Joseph McGuirk, Timothy Jackson, Thomas Spencer and James "Jay" Lyons - as well as Keokuk's Bravest - Dave McNally, Jason Bitting and Nate Tuck. May they rest in peace.

William Goldfeder will present "Firefighters and Fire Officers: Scared Straight 2007" at Firehouse World 2007, Feb. 25-March 1, in San Diego, CA.

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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