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The entry team took a 2Â½-inch hoseline and went inside and upstairs through the front of the building. Stairs were near the back. Hose was stretched up uncharged. Upon getting into the fire building from the upstairs landing, the attack crew met heavy smoke, some heat and fire. From outside, once they started flowing water, I saw an instant steam conversion. They remained upstairs and continued to do good work.
By 7:40, smoke conditions were changing, and not for the better. Unknown to me, the three-person crew had left one person downstairs and sent two upstairs. The upstairs two were not able to pull enough ceiling to stay ahead of the fire. The smoke changed from a lazy white and steam condition to heavy brown, high-volume, high-pressure smoke within about two minutes between 7:39 and 7:41. I ordered an evacuation of the building at this time.
Just before the evacuation was ordered, one of the mutual aid crews had entered the building through the front door to take the place of our initial attack team. Our member at the bottom of the stairs took it upon himself to join that team. When they met up with our team upstairs, our team did not recognize our firefighter and he did not clearly let them know what he had done. Our crew exited just before the evacuation order was given.
After the evacuation order, I knew that only two of my initial three firefighters came out. I called D3 and asked for a personnel accountability report (PAR). He said he had all of his departmentâ€™s firefighters accounted for. We now began a fireground and radio search for our missing firefighter. This went on for a couple of minutes with reports of him being accounted for, then of him not being accounted for.
We began to initiate RIT rescue procedures when two mutual aid firefighters and our firefighter appeared at a back window to the surprise of everyone. They escaped in the nick of time down a well-positioned ladder truck in D3.
Quite honestly, this was the among the scariest times of my life. Trying to figure out what I was going to tell this firefighterâ€™s family was a prevailing thought as I stood looking at that building. I was sending crews into a building that I had just ordered other crews out of.
Several things happened that we are now working through in our area:
Communications did not sound the evacuation tones over the radio. We have written and repaired countywide policies to make sure that does not happen again.
The lost crew thought they were in an exposure, but were actually in the fire building. This was due to a double-door configuration in a common hallway area. They did not think they needed to evacuate. Policies are now in place, countywide, so that everyone uses the same evacuation signal and that signal means everyone leaves and reports back outside.
Our firefighter freelanced and teamed up with another crew without permission. This was discussed with him at length.
We are understaffed. While we know this, our city is not willing or able to spend the money to hire more people at this time. We continue to ask for them, but have so far met with no success.
One thing I personally took from this as the incident commander was a renewed interest in making sure everyone learns from these types of incidents. This must be used to tell others what went wrong and how they can avoid the same traps. All of the departments in our area work excellently together at all types of calls. We should have had common operational guidelines in place a long time ago. If nothing else, this close call has opened the door to put some of those interoperation guidelines in place.
This account is by Lieutenant Mark Olinger, the first-arriving fire officer:
I was riding as the shift lieutenant the morning of the call. I technically would have been off duty one minute later. My shift and two members of the oncoming shift (six people total) prepared to respond to the call. Four firefighters and I went on the ladder truck and one firefighter followed in an engine for hydrant standby.
I arrived on the scene to find heavy smoke mixed with dense fog coming from the roof of the building. I called for the balance of the firefighters who were still at the station. This consisted of the oncoming lieutenant, a firefighter and Deputy Chief Pitman, whose comments are above. The deputy chief arrived on scene and assumed command and I became the team leader for hose/entry team 1.