Floor Collapse: Firefighter Trapped!

A few months ago, I was at a serious fire in an industrial building observing the fire operations. As the fire department started its attack with several 1¾-inch handlines, one firefighter yelled to an assortment of white-hatted officers, "Why are we...


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The second landing area actually was the second-floor hallway. The collapse area was a four-foot-square hole that formed directly over the point of origin. When I sounded the floor, it had all the appearance of being 100% solid. However, directly under where I sounded was a solid floor joist, but the two floor joists to the left were burned away. When I shifted a little to the left and went under the scaffolding toward the side-D window, the only support we were standing on was newly laid half-inch OSB (oriented strand board) with all the floor joists supports burned away!

Many lessons were learned that day. First and most personal, I learned the hard way to always check the floor deck before you advance. Check at least 36 inches wide to cover multiple floor joists. Sounding the floor only directly in front of you is not sufficient. Joists and trusses are often 16 and 24 inches on center and the area a little to the left or right may not be solid footing.

Next, I was fortunate to have four firefighters on the line that day. Normally, we have an attack crew that consists of an officer and one firefighter. Only rarely are there four firefighters. Our radios are equipped with emergency override buttons for priority messages like a Mayday. Our SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) are equipped with integrated PASS devices with emergency override alarms. None of that equipment could be used by my backup firefighter or me because the collapse occurred so suddenly, even if we had the presence of mind to use those safety features. Additionally, we would not have had enough extremities to try and save ourselves and use them. We needed the extra persons to call for help.

In addition, I think that a little space between you and your other firefighters may be warranted. The fact that my backup firefighter was not right next to me probably kept him from being totally engulfed in the collapse. Otherwise, both of us could have been hanging from the scaffolding.

The fire inspector or fire marshal may be the only fire personnel that are familiar with buildings under renovation or buildings being newly constructed. They can be a wealth of knowledge about building construction and layout, sprinkler systems, standpipe locations, utility shutoffs and many other features pertaining to your operation.

Perhaps we all need to rethink our tactics for commercial buildings. A crew of two may seem fine for a single-family dwelling fire. A minimum crew of four should be mandatory for firefighting in a commercial building: too high, too long, too chopped up, too much fire load, too complicated, too different. A fire in a commercial structure is never a "routine" fire and a "routine" response is not enough. The above fire had reached a third alarm at the time of the floor collapse and a fourth alarm was activated when the Mayday was declared. Commercial fires may need multiple safety officers, multiple rapid intervention teams, multiple rehab areas and several aides for the incident commander. Don't hesitate to call for additional resources.

In my close call, I was very fortunate and maybe God heard my quick request. I do know that my personal protective equipment was used correctly and worked well. My team worked well and did all the necessary tasks we are trained to do in a crisis. They promptly issued a Mayday to notify everyone of the problem and get the rapid intervention team moving. The rapid intervention team was quick in response and prepared to rescue me. Let's look out for one another and stay safe!

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

It seems more and more in the last five years or so, we hear the term "back to basics" and it is clear that the Cumberland Fire Department members have practiced that. Each of us must think about the fact that among the issues of WMD, terrorism, hazmat, EMS and technical rescue, firefighting is also our job! And due to that, firefighting training on a regular basis, on the basics, is critical for our success and survival. Water supply, pump operations, stretching lines, forcing entry, searching for victims and fire, venting, ladders and tools all encompass "the basics."

There are several critical reminders to help us avoid a similar close call: