April 16, 2007, was a tragic day in Prince William County, VA. On this day, Technician I Kyle R. Wilson died in the line of duty while performing a primary search of a single-family residence. This was the first line-of-duty death in the 41-year history of the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue and his loss has dramatically affected all of the fire and rescue providers in Prince William County. We will never forget Kyle and by sharing our knowledge unfortunately gained from our pain, we will ensure that he is not forgotten nor will his sacrifice have been in vain.
Prince William County is 35 miles southwest of Washington, DC. It is a rapidly developing urban, suburban and rural community, encompassing 348 square miles and a population estimated at over 386,000. The county's fire and rescue services are provided by a combination career and volunteer system. The career Department of Fire and Rescue and 12 independent volunteer organizations make up the fire and rescue service where collectively they work together to staff 19 fire stations 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
On this fateful day, the region experienced a severe northeastern storm that was moving off the Atlantic coast. There were significant sustained winds of 20 to 30 mph with gusts up to 45-plus mph. At 6:01 A.M., the Communication Center received the first 911 call for a house fire. A second 911 call was received at 6:02 and the incident was dispatched at 6:03.
The first-due engine company marked on the scene at 6:08 and reported heavy fire showing on sides B and C of a two-story single-family home. A ladder truck, the unit Technician Wilson was staffing, arrived right behind the engine. The engine and tower officers independently performed a size-up of the structure and met to establish a coordinated action plan. During their size-up, cars were observed in the driveway as well as on the street in front of the house. There were no interior lights on in the house and given the early-morning time, an occupant-rescue situation was suspected. Both crews planned to proceed to the second floor to accomplish a search of the bedroom areas first and to advance a hoseline. Interior conditions on the first floor were reported as light smoke with no heat. Upon ascending the foyer stairs to the second floor, the tower's crew encountered smoke at the ceiling level banked down approximately three to four feet from the ceiling.
The tower officer and Technician Wilson were performing a primary search of the master bedroom when conditions rapidly deteriorated, changing to thick black smoke, zero visibility and high heat. Reacting to the change, the tower crew began to evacuate the bedroom to exit the structure. Intense fire and extreme heat rapidly moved down the hallway toward the master bedroom. While crawling into the hallway, the officer became entangled with a table that caused a fall down approximately five to six stairs to a curve in the staircase. The tower officer immediately called back for Technician Wilson, who indicated he was having difficulty locating the stairs.
Concurrently, an emergency evacuation was sounded and two crews operating in the foyer area observed a white helmet appear in a ball of fire in the staircase and foyer area. The crews reached in to that area, located the tower officer and quickly removed the officer to the front yard. The tower officer reported that Technician Wilson was still on the second floor and believed to be in or near the staircase.
Two Mayday radio transmissions immediately followed. The first Mayday report was from a unit reporting the tower crew was missing a firefighter. This was immediately followed by a Mayday transmission from Technician Wilson, stating he was trapped inside, unsure of his exact location, but felt he was somewhere in the stairwell and needed someone to come get him out.
The on-scene crews immediately attempted a rescue of Technician Wilson. The structure was heavily involved in fire and crews attempted to protect the staircase with hoselines operating from the foyer area. Despite the intense heat and fire conditions, crews made multiple attempts to ascend the staircase to the second floor to locate Technician Wilson, but were unable to. A partial collapse of the ceiling and roof structure occurred and the safety officer observing the deteriorating conditions from the exterior issued an emergency evacuation and all crews were ordered out of the structure by command.
Crews worked to bring the fire under control, reentered the structure, and initiated an extensive search. Crews located Technician Wilson in the master bedroom. The cause of the line-of-duty death to Technician Wilson was determined to be thermal and inhalation injuries. The tower officer received partial thickness burns to both ears and the tip of an index finger.
Immediately following the incident, a multi-dimensional internal investigation team was assembled. The objective of the investigation team was to examine the events that occurred and identify the factors involved with the line-of-duty death.
There were key issues identified that involve staffing, training and procedures. Also identified as a key issue was the significant impact the wind had on this event. While weather conditions, and specifically wind, are often discussed in the firefighting environment of wildland fires, it does not receive the same attention and consideration in structure fires. This incident showed the dramatic and devastating effect the wind can have on the spread of fire in a building.
Another key issue was how lightweight building construction and materials impacted the fire spread. There is a disturbing trend emerging, which is the increase of fires that are originating on a structure's exterior. Exterior fires spread rapidly on commonly used building construction materials. Exterior fires attack the structural support components, as there are no protective coverings to delay the fire spread. Lightweight building construction fires are dangerous to firefighters and, in this case, deadly.
Kyle will never be forgotten and to honor his sacrifice, the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue commits to sharing our lessons learned in all aspects of this report within our department, system, region and industry so that no other family or department suffer a similar tragic loss. At Firehouse Expo 2008, the department will present a summary of the report, its findings and recommendations, and will show the state-of-the-art fire modeling produced during the investigation. Come and learn and take back the lessons to your own department.
JENNIE L. COLLINS is a battalion chief and 23-year veteran with Prince William County, VA, Department of Fire and Rescue. She has served in numerous assignments, including program management positions in Training, Health and Safety, and EMS Operations. Collins was the team leader for the Technician I Wilson Line-of-Duty Death Internal Investigation.