Fire Officer Trapped At Burst Steam Pipe Emergency

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Before we get to this month's Close Call, a word of appreciation and cautious optimism: We (along with 7,000 other firefighters and firefighter families) attended the 26th annual National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend last month in Emmitsburg, MD. While the weekend was 100% focused on supporting the families of the firefighters killed in the line of duty last year, we would be remiss if we didn't point out the fact that President Bush came to the memorial and stayed from start to end. It was a significant decision and very symbolic for him to attend. He is the only President of the United States to ever attend the memorial service. From my very narrow world, focused on the fire service, his attendance meant a great deal for the fire service, especially for the families at the memorial. President Bush spoke personally and met with every single family that was there. We may not all agree on the decisions he has made as our President, but for the families who lost loved ones in 2006, he did the right thing and made a difference by simply being there. He could have stayed away, but he didn't. He could have made a political speech, but he didn't. He could have ignored one of the hottest issues in the fire service today, the embarrassing and horrific handling of firefighter line-of-duty heart attacks by the Department of Justice, but he didn't. He publicly committed to fixing the Hometown Heroes Act. He said, "I want to tell you today that the Hometown Heroes Act will be fully implemented. This program will be administrated the way it was intended to be administrated. That's the least we can do as we honor the families of those who have died in the line of service."

We appreciate the President attending the memorial — it means great deal. And we look forward to the President following up with his promise. You can read his presentation to those at the memorial at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/10/20071007.html.

Steam. We really don't give much thought to steam, although we should. Sure, when we are at a fire, water converts to steam. And we know that such steam can be dangerous if we are not protected.

But what about steam systems in buildings? First, understand that steam is a very clean and pure form of energy. There are no adverse public health effects associated with proper and safe steam use. Steam can be used for everything from heating and cooling to sterilizing and food processing. But what kind of hazards can it create for firefighters?

The word "steam" refers to the white mist that condenses above boiling water as the hot vapor ("steam" in the first sense) mixes with the cooler air. Interestingly, this mist is made of tiny droplets of liquid water, not gaseous water, so it is no longer technically steam. In the spout of a steaming kettle, the spot where there is no condensed water vapor, where it appears that nothing is there, is actually steam. Either way, it is very hot.

A steam burn usually results from boiling water converted to steam. Minor steam burns can happen in any kitchen, but a steam burn can also be very severe, such as at some emergencies we encounter. Although the skin will not char, as would be the case with a flame burn, blisters and redness will appear. A third-degree steam burn will penetrate deep into the flesh and the site may be white, heavily blistered and numb. The larger concern with steam burns, however, is the airway. Inhaling steam can cause serious damage to the bronchial tubes and could lead to death. And that is why we use the term "no exposed skin" (or airway; use breathing apparatus) whenever operating in these potential conditions. Why take the chance?

How nasty can steam be? The steam rising from boiling water exceeds 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Pure steam is an invisible vapor, but the small drops of condensed water that hover over hot pans can still cause a severe burn, even if they are not technically steam. True steam can be especially dangerous because it is invisible, so a person will be unaware of being in danger of a steam burn until it has already happened. Again, the solutions include pre-planning, knowing the building, knowing the systems within a building and providing firefighters with the best protection.

For this month's column, we appreciate the assistance of Assistant Chief Kevin Quinter and Firefighter Linwood (Woody) Ohlinger of the Wyomissing Fire Department; Firefighter Dennis Walton of the Wyomissing Fire Department and the Township of Spring Volunteer Fire Department; Deputy Fire Chief Michael P. Roth, Lieutenant Kevin Angstadt, Firefighter Justin Rhoads and Firefighter Jeremy Yeager of the Township of Spring Volunteer Fire Department; First Assistant Fire Chief Richard S. Quattrock of the West Reading Fire Company, and the nursing staff and doctors of Reading Hospital and the Lehigh Valley Hospital Burn Unit.

This account is by First Assistant Chief Richard S. Quattrock of the West Reading Fire Company:

On July 5, 2007, at 7:21 A.M., the West Reading Fire Company was dispatched to Building G of Reading Hospital for a 911 call reporting smoke in the building, for a possible structure fire, along with mutual aid assistance from the Wyomissing, Kenhorst, Greenfields and Spring Township fire departments. As this incident was being dispatched, a second 911 call was received from Jim Bitler, Reading Hospital's maintenance manager, reporting that a steam line had burst and assistance would be needed from the fire department for extensive ventilation.

As the first-responding chief officer of the West Reading Fire Company, I signed on air as 64-11 with Berks County dispatch. Upon my arrival on scene, Bitler met me at the roadway entrance of Building G and gave me a report. I notified dispatch of the possibility of entrapment and injuries. Bitler also informed me the main steam line for the hospital had ruptured. I was informed that there were people still trapped within the facility and some burn victims.

I assumed command at side A of the building, which faces 5th Avenue, and called dispatch for three EMS units to respond to tend to victims. I also instructed incoming units to report directly to Building G instead of going to their pre-plan positions. The first units to arrive at the scene were Truck 64 (West Reading), Truck 79 (Wyomissing) and Engine 85-2 (Spring Township). As Truck 79 arrived on side C, hospital personnel reported to Career Firefighter/Driver Linwood Ohlinger that the hospital's photographer was still inside the lower level of Building G and thought to be in the photo studio (it was later learned that he had exited the building on his own and was not injured). I was informed that crews from all three apparatus were attempting to enter the building and search for victims. West Reading Police Officer Thomas Hahn told me that one person (the plumber) was taken to the hospital's emergency room, prior to the arrival of the fire department, by hospital security. (It was later learned that the plumber had exited the building via a below-grade bathroom window after bystanders lowered a ladder to him.)

A command post was set up on side A and Wyomissing Fire Commissioner Bruce Longenecker secured building plans for our use. A crew from Engine 85-2 entered from side C while crews from Truck 64 entered from side D. I was notified that interior crews were experiencing extremely high temperatures in the basement from the ruptured steam line. I received a report from Truck 64's crew that the members had retreated from the interior search due to the high temperatures. At this same time, the crew from Truck 79 was attempting to take out the exterior windows in the photo lab to make entry and looking for the missing photographer.

About 30 minutes into the incident, a Mayday was radioed to the command post, stating a firefighter had been burned and was being brought out. Later, I was informed by Western Berks EMS Paramedic/Supervisor Dave Stemler that the injured firefighter was Spring Township Volunteer Lieutenant Kevin Angstadt, who was being transported to the hospital's emergency room for treatment of burns to his right leg and wrist.

I pulled all personnel participating in the search efforts out of the building and an aggressive ventilation effort of Building G was initiated. I notified County Communications to dispatch Shillington Fire Company (Station 67) to the scene to assist with rapid intervention team duties along with Station 85's rehab unit. I felt these units were important to have on scene knowing that when interior temperatures were reduced, interior search efforts would resume. Usually a rapid intervention team is automatically sent on all working fire assignments, but since this was not a working fire it had to be special called.

During ventilation, fans ceased to work because they were being exposed to extensive steam and water vapor. We had to rotate fans and allow the affected fans to dry out before they could be rotated back into service.

I conferred with Stemler and it was determined that the crew from Engine 85-2 was distressed over Angstadt's accident and needed to be removed from active service. I ordered a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team to the scene and hospital chaplains to talk to and work with the involved firefighters until the CISM team could arrive.

This account is by Deputy Fire Chief Michael P. Roth of the Township Of Spring Volunteer Fire Department:

The Township of Spring Volunteer Fire Department (Company 85) was dispatched on a mutual aid response to the Reading Hospital for a possible structure fire in Building G. Upon arrival, the Engine 852 crew — in full personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) — was directed to report to Wyomissing Truck 79 for assignment. There, the crew was directed by Wyomissing Career Firefighter Ohlinger to attempt to make entry into the basement via the outside stairs. Crew accountability tags were given to Ohlinger. I arrived and Ohlinger directed me to the crew from Engine 852 that was getting ready to make entry for the search. I joined the crew, also wearing full PPE and SCBA, after handing my accountability tag to Ohlinger. At the bottom of the stairs we encountered five to six inches of warm water. Before making entry, all personnel donned facemasks and went on air. Career Firefighter Rhoads (Company 85) entered the basement, first sounding the floor, followed by Volunteer Lieutenant Angstadt (Company 85) and the remaining crew from our station.

As the crew advanced deeper into the basement, there was approximately two to three inches of warm/hot water on the floor. Rhoads and Angstadt continued to sound the floor and remain in contact with the wall. All areas remained stable. Rhoads and Firefighter Yeager (Company 85) found the door that led to the office. Heavy metal panels were blocking the door. Rhoads moved one panel to the right of the door and it fell into a large void space that was filled with water. Rhoads sounded that area and found a stairway consisting of three to four stairs. When sliding an axe along the area, it was found that there was a dropoff approximately four feet deep from the area the crew was standing. All crewmembers in the area were made aware of the dropoff and items in the room started to be stacked in that area to be sure no one would fall into the dropoff.

I entered the basement behind my crew and was followed by a crew from Wyomissing (Company 79), who came down with a long line rope tied off at the top of the stairs to the outside. Angstadt ordered Rhoads and Yeager to force open the office door. While they did so, Angstadt walked behind them to provide light. He stepped back into a void space, which had approximately four feet of hot water in it. Angstadt screamed, "My leg, I'm burning." A Mayday was called, but transmissions were not getting out. One of the Wyomissing firefighters went over to the outside doorway and yelled out to Ohlinger that there was a firefighter down. Angstadt was lifted out of the water by his SCBA strap and carried up and out of the basement, then turned over to a waiting crew from Western Berks EMS (Medic 655). Angstadt was transported a short distance to Reading Hospital's Trauma Unit, where treatment started.

During that time, I had to make the hardest phone call I've ever had to make, which was to call his parents — who were in South Carolina on vacation — and tell them their son was burned.

This account is by Lieutenant Kevin Angstadt of the Township of Spring Volunteer Fire Department, who sustained burns while operating at this emergency:

As we got to the bottom of the stairs, we encountered three to six inches of hot water running out the basement door that could be felt through our leather boots. The crew from Company 79 met us at the bottom of the stairs all wearing full PPE and SCBA. We all masked up and started to make entry into the basement. As we were making entry, steam from the water was fogging our masks, making visibility poor at times. As we were proceeding into the room, Firefighter Rhoads was sounding the floor while keeping in contact with the wall. The doorway entrance for an office was found. Rhoads found metal panels resting against the door and he moved them out of the way. He told me there was a dropoff in the area next to the door and I reported it to everyone else in the room. The office door we found was locked and Rhoads asked me if we should force it. I gave him the OK to do it. Rhoads and Firefighter Yeager proceeded to force entry into the locked room.

As they were forcing entry, I moved around the back side of them to provide light and give them more room to work. As I stepped back, I stepped into a dropoff that was filled with scalding hot water. As I went down, my right boot filled with scalding hot water and I caught myself with my right hand, causing a burn to my right wrist. I then screamed, "My leg, I'm burning." I remember being grabbed by Rhoads by the arm and SCBA strap and then by Yeager and being placed on a metal cart that was nearby. I was moved to the stairway. EMS was waiting at the top of the stairs. I was transported by Western Berks EMS a short distance to the Reading Hospital Trauma Center, where I was treated and stabilized for transfer to the Lehigh Valley Hospital Burn Unit. I sustained second-degree burns on my right wrist and on my right leg from below my knee to my ankle. It was later found that the burns to my right ankle were third degree, which required a skin graft. I feel that everyone's good training and proper use of PPE helped save me from further injury.

This account is by Firefighter Justin Rhoads:

Engine 852 arrived and staged in the alley area between Building B and the Spruce Pavilion. All four personnel reported to Truck 79 in full PPE and SCBA. Firefighters from Company 79 were attempting to make entry through a basement window. Firefighter Ohlinger notified that Engine 852 crew would be attempting entry to the basement level via the stairs.

At the bottom of the stairway, crews encountered about five to six inches of warm/hot water. Before making entry, all personnel donned facemasks and were on air. Angstadt and I sounded out the floor and made entry into the lower-level entrance followed by the remaining crew. Water was two to three inches deep throughout the room; steam was covering our facemasks with little to no visibility. Angstadt and I sounded out the remaining area of the floor while keeping in contact with the wall. All areas found to be stable and crew made entry into the area. Yeager and I found the door that led to the office. Heavy metal panels were lying across the door. I removed one of the metal panels and moved it toward the right of the doorway. The panel fell into a large void space that was filled with water. I sounded the area to the right and found what seemed to be a stairway consisting of three to four stairs. When sliding an axe across the stairway, I found that a dropoff that was approximately three to four feet deep from the landing we were standing on. I advised all crewmembers in the area of the drop off and items in the room started to be moved and stacked in that area to be sure no one fell.

Deputy Chief Mike Roth entered the basement level along with Firefighter Dennis Walton and Firefighter Dean Yeager. Walton attached a search rope to the exterior of the building when he made entry. Angstadt ordered Jeremy Yeager and me to force the office door. While trying to gain entry, Angstadt walked behind us to provide light to the doorjamb area. As he stepped back, he fell into the void space and screamed, "Ahhhhh…I'm burning, I'm burning." I reached out and grabbed the left SCBA strap and his arm and assisted him to the floor level. I screamed to everyone in the room, "Mayday, Kevin went down; He needs out now." Deputy Chief Roth attempted transmission over the radio, along with others in the basement without success. One of the members screamed up the stairway to Ohlinger, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, we have one guy down." Walton, Jeremy Yeager, and I pulled Angstadt toward the door. At this point, Dean Yeager and Stoudt grabbed onto him. Walton, Dean Yeager and I then carried him up the entry stairs and placed him at the top landing.

Jeremy Yeager and I removed our facemasks and started pulling Angstadt's PPE and SCBA off of him. EMS was now preparing the litter next to him. Angstadt started screaming "My arm, my leg…". He had burns to the right leg from his knee to his foot and to his right wrist. Lt. Angstadt lifted by all personnel around him onto the litter. EMS packaged and transported him to Reading Hospital's Trauma Unit.

This was a situation that I personally never encountered before and I hope to never experience it again. Our crew followed all procedures properly and made a systematic entry into the basement. Accountability of everyone who made entry took place, we made sure all areas were stable before making entry and continued to monitor the area for any changes, and we all stayed together, yet one of our own still got hurt. We have all trained in the removal of an injured firefighter, but I never thought I would be using that training at an actual incident.

The afterthoughts of this incident proved to me that the training we undergo becomes our second nature and pure instinct. Nowhere in any of this did I think about what I was going to do next. I am a firm believer in training and camaraderie, and in this situation the training paid off and we were all there for each other during the incident and after. The actions of EMS Command, Dave Stemler, updating our crew of Kevin's condition helped us to relieve the tension of the situation. Our commissioner, John Schach, who made it possible for the crew to see Kevin before he was transferred to Lehigh Valley allowed some closure to the incident. I know that after seeing and talking to Kevin, I knew things would be all right.

The use of PPE and SCBA and training played the most important role in this situation. This incident could have been a lot worse than it turned out to be if any one of these were not used.

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

This emergency once again — and very clearly — reinforces how it is necessary to wear proper PPE and SCBA, as well as to be able to track your personnel, which all took place at this incident. There are three critical components to ensure the success of getting everyone to wear their equipment and use it as it was designed:

  • Training — initial and ongoing
  • Self discipline — just shut up and wear it
  • Enforcement — Officers must ensure that firefighters are taking care of themselves, even when they may not want to.

In talking with some of those involved, they stated that after the critique and seeing the pictures that were taken after the incident was over and seeing the size of the pit that the steam lines were in that opened up after the metal plates were blown off, they were very lucky the entire crew did not get burned. Clearly, the situation could have been a lot worse. Note also that they had a pre-plan for this building. How many of the buildings in your first-due area are pre-planned? Do all companies due on the run know the plan? Has it been drilled?

In this incident, the firefighters were attempting the rescue of a trapped civilian. That is one of the rare occasions when we must risk our lives in a justifiable manner based on size-up, reports and conditions; that's what we do — and no one else is able or expected to do that. Sometimes, we must take risks when there is a chance to save a life. In situations in which we get hurt or killed when there was no life to save, the risk obviously is not worth it. In this case, the members of the Township of Spring Volunteer Fire Department and their neighboring companies made the right decision.

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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