How Preparation And Training Pay Off

It's obvious that more and more fire departments, firefighters and fire officers are learning from what has happened to "the other" fire departments. Because firefighter safety and survival are their top priority in actions and in words, they make their ability to provide the best service (which benefits the public, but most critically, their firefighters) No. 1, without excuse. There has never been a time in our business where there has been so much intense and coordinated focus on the issue of firefighter survival. Although it may not be happening as fast as any of us would like, cultures are changing.

When referring to some fire departments, I like to use the term "they didn't forget what they are here for." By that, I mean the department, as a whole, stays focused on its mission; the mission of what it is there for, which is the firefighters, and the public. Unfortunately, there are departments that have lost focus on their mission, be it issues such as:

  • Lack of local support either in the community or city hall.
  • Lack of regular, aggressive training to insure the troops are ready.
  • Lack of experienced, trained and disciplined leadership.
  • The prominence of personal agendas.

And, of course attitudes and cultures that refuse to change for the greater good. And the outcome of their response to fires are generally predictable. Sometimes, the building simply burns down, but even worse is when the firefighters (or their families) end up being the recipients of the failures. In this month's close call, that is not the case.

This month's account provides another example of how more and more fire departments are writing to us and providing information so that other firefighters can learn. We are going to look at a true-to-definition "close call" involving the Columbus, OH, Division of Fire that occurred on June 28, 2005. A close call, but not a tragic outcome because these firefighters and officers were prepared, their training paid off and everyone went home.

Our sincere appreciation goes out to the officers and members of the Columbus Division of Fire and especially Lieutenant Steve Robertson, a 15-year veteran of the fire service, for his outstanding cooperation in the preparing of this month's column. We also thank Lieutenant Bill Ross, an 18-year veteran (10 as a company officer), and Firefighter/ Paramedic Chad Gabriel, with 10 years of service in Columbus, for their insights.

On the day of the incident, the Engine 3 crew consisted of Ross, Gabriel and John Dewitt (13 years of experience), Jason Vincent (nine years) and Ryan Sweetman (three years). Engine 2's crew consisted of Robertson and Firefighters John Barrett (18 years), Jason Bendure (seven years), Dan Mentel (eight years) and Larry Stimpert (10 years).

This account is provided by Lieutenant Steve Robertson:

The Columbus Division of Fire has 1,580 career firefighters. We operate seven battalions with 32 stations, 34 engines, 16 trucks, five heavy rescues, 32 advanced life support (ALS) medic units and eight rescue boats. The division covers 221 square miles and protects a population of 755,000.

The alarm came in at 2:25 A.M. at 1555 West Mound St. as "tire shop on fire" at our second-due district. The smell of smoke filled the air, but without visible fire. We went through the neighborhood, but still found nothing. We all knew we had a fire, we just couldn't find it. They put a "situation contained" on the fire and everyone started back to their station.

As we crossed a bridge on our way back, we looked to our right and saw smoke in the area of the old Lazarus warehouse. The warehouse is several blocks away from the initial call. This building was occupied by a large department store chain for years and measures roughly 500,000 square feet. Within the past 10 years, the City of Columbus purchased the property and has used it for storage. The fire department has also used this site for in-service training classes, such as open-area search, rapid intervention team and self-rescue in commercial structures. We are very familiar with this building. There are portions of this building with a very large fire load. Another known problem with this structure is the lack of good water supply within close range of the warehouse. Also, the sprinkler system in this structure has not been operational for several years. With the engine companies in Columbus running with only 500-gallon tanks, this was definitely a concern in the back of my mind.

Upon arrival, we saw light smoke coming from the east side of the structure. At this point, Engine 2 and Truck 2 went to the east side to recon the fire. Due to the large size of the structure, this was a more difficult task than imagined. We were unable to find good access to the fire area, so Engine 2 and Truck 2 relocated on the south side of the structure. Once there, Truck 2 opened an overhead door in the loading dock area. It was then we realized how deep inside the warehouse the fire was. In addition to the fire, another point of concern was the fact that homeless people take shelter there, some year-round.

Engine 2 called for a full assignment at 2:49 and put a "working fire" dispatch for the address of 562 West Whittier St. The assignment consisted of Engines 2, 3 and 14, Trucks 2 and 10, Rescue 2, Medic 2, and Battalions 1 and 3.

Truck 2 opened the building and began to assess how far the fire was inside the warehouse. Engine 2 and Truck 2 started with a 2.5-inch line and laid 400 feet to get close to the fire. I based this decision partly on an article I had read by District Chief Dave McGrail of the Denver Fire Department about making long hoselays in commercial structures. Engine 2's crew advanced the line and found the fire, which looked like trash burning, 120 feet wide and about 80 feet deep. The fire was about 400 feet inside the building from the loading dock.

Initial smoke conditions weren't that bad. The smoke level was only down to our waist and the heat was minimal. Truck 2 reported the fire had almost burned itself out. At this point, the flames were only about four to five feet high. This looked like nothing more than a trash fire that the first-due companies could handle, but with the outside truck companies opening up the structure, this was changing.

Engine 2 started to extinguish the fire and cool the steel above. When Engine 2's pump operator let us know we were running out of water, something went through my head that should have been one of my first considerations: How long has this thing been burning?

After we ran out of water, Lieutenant Arn Atwood of Truck 2 and I got together and checked the steel temperature with the thermal imaging camera. Even after cooling, it was still in excess of 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

During this time, Rescue 2 and Truck 1 performed a primary search. This was no small undertaking due to the size of the structure. We received water from Engine 3 and placed a gated wye on the end of the 2.5-inch line and continued to extinguish the fire with two 1.5-inch lines. All was good at this point. The fire was almost out. The truck companies were starting the overhaul process, while the rest of Truck 1, Truck 2 and Rescue 2 were doing a secondary search.

While all of this was going on, the smoke was lifting and we realized how lucky we were. The first steel I-beam I saw was under a bunch of folding tables that had been completely consumed by the fire and the beam was massively deformed. This is when the building started to talk to us. We heard a series of loud bangs and that's when Battalion 1 and the safety officer ordered an evacuation of the structure. A personnel accountability report (PAR) was taken and all members were accounted for at 3:22. By this time, the number of crews on the scene had increased greatly.

At the end of the incident, the following companies were on the scene: Engines 1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 14 and 15, Trucks 1, 2 and 10, Rescue 2, Battalions 1 and 3, Safety Officer 2, Medics 1 and 2, EMS 11 and 14, and Air Supply. In a post-fire discussion with the officer of Truck 2 (Atwood), he said that initially, "The temperature of the steel was not a concern due to the small fire we had encountered." I must admit I had felt the same way. We had a relatively small fire in a very large area and it was extinguished with little drama.

Were we wrong. The one factor we all should have considered was, how long had the fire been burning? We had made a mistake and had gotten away with it. I don't know why or how we got away with it; we just did.

I will take several lessons away from this fire. They are as follows:

Although several mistakes were made, some good things came of this fire. As mentioned earlier, we had used this building for several training sessions. One of those sessions was an open-area search in commercial structures. In this training, we taught proper rope-deployment techniques. When called to task, the crews performed flawlessly. Every crew entering the building had a search line and they were deployed correctly. Also, our accountability system proved to work also. When the PAR was called, all members responded in a timely and proficient manner. The choice of a large line initially turned out to be a good one. This gave us a lot of options. Not only did we knock down most of the fire and cool the steel quickly, but it allowed us to break down to smaller lines for mobility and overhaul.

This account is provided by Lieutenant Bill Ross:

Enroute to the incident, all five members of Engine 3 noticed a smell of smoke in the air. All members of the crew assumed we would have a working fire on our arrival, so we prepared accordingly. Much to our surprise, there was no fire at the reported address. After the scene had cleared, we decided to drive around the short west side of the city to see if we could find the source of the smoke we smelled earlier. We thought that perhaps it was a car or dumpster fire that had not been called in yet. We searched for 10 minutes and found nothing, so I advised our driver to head back to quarters.

While Engine 3 returned to quarters, Engine 2 and Ladder 2 headed to the south to see if they could locate the source of the smoke. Engine 2 noticed a haze of smoke over the top of the old Lazarus warehouse. They called the alarm office for a full fire assignment. Columbus fire's full assignment includes three engines, two ladders, one rescue, one medic and two battalion chiefs.

Enroute to the scene, Engine 2 made the incident a working fire. Upon making the incident a working fire, an additional engine, ladder and the safety officer are dispatched to the scene. The Lazarus warehouse is a building the entire station is familiar with because the City of Columbus owns the structure and the fire department uses it for training. The building is a two-story, ordinary-construction that is 1,000 feet wide and 600 feet deep with office areas at the west end. The rest of the building consists of storage and loading docks. This is just one building in a large abandoned warehouse complex.

Engine 3 was the second engine to arrive on the scene. Per Columbus Fire's standard operating procedures (SOPs), we are responsible for water supply to the attack engine. This proved to be a challenge due to the location of the hydrants and the overgrown vegetation around the structure.

As we proceeded to the scene, we noticed that the only visible hydrant was approximately 2,500 feet away from the building. I decided to drive into the scene near the location of Engine 2 and lay our five-inch supply line back out to the road above. Our engine companies in Columbus only carry 1,000 feet of five-inch hose, so I radioed to the next-due engine company to prepare for relay operations. While the Engine 3 driver completed the hose lay, the rest of the crew and I assisted Engine 2 with extending the attack lines and the primary search of the structure.

It took a four engines and 2,500 feet of hose to complete the relay operation. By placing an engine at the water source and another engine at the midway point of the relay, adequate volume and pressure was supplied to the attack engine. The fire was controlled in approximately 60 minutes.

Some of the problems we experienced with the supply operation are as follows:

This account is provided by Firefighter/Paramedic Chad Gabriel:

After leaving the scene of the reported fire on Mound Street, my company, Engine 3, took an alternate route back to quarters as we were trying to locate what was burning. Nothing was found and we returned to quarters.

After returning to quarters, the crew of Engine 3 was waiting for the return of Engine 2 and Ladder 3 when we heard Engine 2 notify the Fire Alarm Office that they had located the fire building and asked that a full fire response be dispatched. Upon hearing this radio transmission, Engine 3 responded to the fire scene. As the second engine to arrive, we took the responsibility of obtaining a secure water source.

Upon arrival, the Engine 3 crew prepared to hook the five-inch supply line to Engine 2 and I started to lay out to the main entrance to the property. Medic 2 was looking for the nearest hydrant, as Whittier Street is a dead-end street and heavily overgrown. Laying 1,000 feet of five-inch hose made it out to the main entrance at Whittier Street. Medic 2 then informed me that the nearest hydrant was well east of the fire scene and I radioed to the next-arriving engine (Engine 1) that they should hook that hydrant and lay in to me. After laying their 1,000 feet of five-inch supply line, the connection was still 400 feet short!

With the time it took to make both of these supply lays, Engine 2 was in need of water as they had used all of their 500 gallons. Engine 1 then proceeded to go to Engine 2 and dump their 500 gallons. I radioed to the next-arriving engine (Engine 15) that they would need to complete the supply line and return to the hydrant for the relay.

Thankfully, there are few places in Columbus that require a supply line to be so long and require as much time to secure, as was the case in this incident. Good communication and training with the other companies that respond with us made the task go rather smoothly. Hydrant malfunctions and low water volume are just a few problems that may arise and require that a long relay operation be put to task. The time to put this long lay of supply line into service is great. Communication to the command and attack companies should be made when such a delay is known so that attack strategies can be adjusted accordingly as well as communicating to the next arriving companies that may be completing the relay operation.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this incident:

Responding to "tire shop on fire" puts interesting images in our heads. Nasty, black and pushing smoke is what we might expect as we pulled out to respond. That's not what happened here. As we read, there was little to this upon arrival, but as time went on, the fire and the related challenges in dealing with it changed. That's one common denominator in many close calls.

Several factors led to this not becoming more of a close call because of organizational and company preparedness. For example:

  • Their staffing. The first-due engines had five firefighters each, allowing them to perform the functions that an engine company is expected to. Although a four-person engine company is more typical, on this night, the staffing was heavier.

While the above readers identified several important areas for change or improvement, what stood out additionally to us in reviewing this close call were the number of factors that existed and actions by the officers taken to assure a bad situation didn't get any worse. Regular training including both tactical operations and building familiarization, members following policies and procedures, strong fire officers, the assurance of water supply (no matter what the obstacles), the use of the thermal imaging camera and related above-discussed actions made this fire one we can all learn from.


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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