A Lesson Reinforced: Nothing Is "Routine" About Firefighting
The Dover Township Volunteer Fire Department in York County, PA, covers 44 square miles with a population of around 25,000. It is a suburban/rural, mainly residential community with several light commercial occupancies. The department has 50 active firefighters operating one engine, one engine/tanker, a heavy rescue, a brush vehicle and a technical rescue trailer as part of the county's technical rescue team. In 2006, the department ran 621 calls. Our sincere thanks to Chief Glenn Jansen and the officers and members of the Dover Township Volunteer Fire Department for their assistance with this month's column.
The following account is by Firefighter Charles DeLauter:
On Jan. 25, 2007, at 9:19 A.M., our department was dispatched to a neighboring municipality for a second-alarm residential fire. We responded with a crew of six consisting of Deputy Chief Phil Blazosky, Captain Jim Schlosser Jr. and Firefighters Brain Knowlton, Brian Spangenberger and me, as well as our engine operator, Earl Garner. While approaching the scene of the fire, we heard another unit asking if it was to set up at the dry hydrant. Command reported negative, that the fire had been "pretty much knocked down" and to report directly to the scene for manpower. At this point, our crew assumed we would just be doing overhaul. Once on scene, the report we heard enroute proved to be false.
The house was a small, two-story Cape Cod with a full basement and a built-in garage at the A-B corner. A one-story addition protruded from side C. Heavy, thick brown smoke was pushing from the eaves. We were given an order to ventilate the windows on the first floor. As a result of our efforts, the fire began to intensify. The interior crew was not ready for the fire to intensify and had to bail from the building. After regrouping, our crew â€” minus our deputy chief, who had assumed operations â€” entered through a door on side D. This was Knowlton's first fire, so the captain had him take the nozzle and I led the way, sounding the floor with an axe as we went.
While we were making our way across the first floor, I was struck in the head by a hose stream from the exterior of the building and told the captain to get that line shut down. Upon reaching the stairwell in the center of the house on side A, the captain ordered us to the second floor, stating he had heavy fire conditions. The captain and Spangenberger climbed the stairs. I noticed fire coming around the corner from sector B and extending our way. I told the captain that I wanted to extinguish that fire before we went up the stairs and was given the OK. I moved that way, again sounding the floor as I went. I had moved five to six feet when the floor beneath me gave way and I fell into the basement.
When I began falling, I saw a door frame about two feet away and attempted to grab onto it, but missed. I landed face down in the basement facing side C. I was not pinned, so after readjusting my facepiece, which had been jarred loose in the fall, I turned to try to find a way out. Just then, however, a heavy object fell on top of me, pinning me to the floor face down against the wall (I later found out that the "object" was Knowlton, who had fallen in after me). I was unable to move and my facepiece was again jarred loose, this time by the chin strap from my helmet, which had been knocked off.
After calming down from a moment of panic, I tried but could not get to my PASS device to activate it. I did have a radio, which I used to call a Mayday. I tried several times, but no one answered me. I then heard my captain issuing a Mayday over his radio, but again there was no response. I had landed in the garage and I could see out the front. A firefighter was standing in the driveway and I thought "OK, he sees me and he will come get me." But all he did was stare at me. When I first fell, I had noticed a small amount of fire toward side C. I wasn't concerned at first because I could see out and thought I would be out in no time. But as the minutes ticked by, I started feeling heat coming up my leg under my bunker gear, and I became more concerned.
I could hear my crew calling me throughout the incident. I tried to let them know I was OK, but they could not hear me because of my position and the debris around me. After what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only five or six minutes, I saw my deputy chief come around the corner of the house. He was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. He moved some debris and helped Knowlton and me from the basement.
We collected ourselves in front of our engine and were checked out by EMS. After a few minutes, the deputy chief asked if we were ready to go back in to cover the rest of our crew, who had gone to the second floor to finish the fire attack we had started. We manned a hoseline protecting the stairs until we were relieved by another crew. It was unsettling sitting at the bottom of the stairs looking at the hole I had fallen into not 10 minutes before. After being relieved, all four crew members reunited at the front of our engine, thankful that no one had been hurt.
I read this column religiously and try to learn from others' mistakes. The following has been said more than once, but bears repeating. This was a "routine" fire. I expected nothing more. We were going to go in, knock down the fire, overhaul and go home. NOTHING is routine in this business. We must always be ready for the unexpected to occur. I never thought that I would ever be put in this type of situation, but I was wrong. Luckily, Knowlton and I received nothing more than some sprains and strains from this incident. We were very fortunate. We are sharing our lessons learned in the hopes that other firefighters may benefit from our experience.
The following account is by Captain James Schlosser Jr.:
Our station was dispatched to a neighboring municipality for a second-alarm working structure fire. Our engine had a 14-minute response time. We were the third engine on scene at the time. Upon our arrival, Deputy Chief Blazosky contacted command and requested orders. Command requested our crew to the scene and indicated that the fire was pretty much under control, but I soon realized that was not the case.
As we arrived, I looked out my engine's window and noticed heavy, brown smoke pumping out the eaves of the building. Deputy Chief Blazosky did a face-to-face with command, which was also operations and the pump operator at that time. Command had ordered us to attack the fire and ventilate the structure. Keep in mind that at this time our engine was the only full crew on the scene. Our deputy chief completed a walk-around of the structure and assumed operations.
I began to throw ladders to the second-floor window while the rest of the crew was working on horizontally ventilating the structure. There was a crew inside on the initial handline from the first-in company and a second line, with one firefighter, operating on the A-B corner. Fire in the basement at this time was very minimal, but fire on the first and second floors had suddenly begun to intensify. The initial crew began to bail out side D. I immediately went to the firefighter on side A and ordered him to move that line to side D to protect the crew coming out of the structure. I was met with resistance from this firefighter, who refused to follow my orders. Instead of making it an issue at that time, I went to the attack engine and pulled its 300-foot crosslay for a protection line. The firefighters had safely exited the structure by this time and the deputy chief had used their line to knock down a good bit of fire from the side D entrance.
My fire attack crew included Firefighters DeLauter, Knowlton and Spangenberger. We made entry into the structure from side D. DeLauter was the lead firefighter, sounding the floors as we went. He was followed by Knowlton, who was on the handline. Spangenberger was humping the hose/the hook man. I was officer in charge of the fire attack group. As we advanced the handline, DeLauter indicated that an opposing handline was hitting him from the exterior of the structure. I was located in the E quadrant of the building at the staircase to the second floor and Spangenberger was beside me. DeLauter and Knowlton were just inside quadrant A.
I informed my crew that we had heavy fire on the second floor and I wanted to move our attack effort to that location. I was then informed by DeLauter that we should not proceed to the second floor because he could see fire in quadrant B. Being that we did not have an additional protection line on the first floor to cover us, I agreed and continued the attack on the first floor. Right after that message was relayed to me from DeLauter, Spangenberger began to yell at me, indicating that the first floor had just collapsed and two of our guys were in the basement. When I looked at the collapse area, I could not see either of the firefighters. Spangenberger was yelling to them trying to get some sort of response.
I immediately called for a Mayday. I called over our station's operations channel, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday." I received no response. I then switched to my low-band radio (the county operations channel) and announced "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday" and again received no response. Finally, I tried our county's main channel, but received no response. Another firefighter entered the structure and I ordered him to get a rope and carabiner for me. I still had not received a response from the firefighters through the hole or from command.
I soon realized that we were on our own and I started to set up some rigging that I had in my gear. I carry a 50-foot rope with a descending device and two carabiners. The airpack also has a bailout rope and harness. I was already thinking of ways to lower the rope to my firefighters to get them out. Spangenberger was still there to assist me. Before I could get anything set up, our deputy chief entered from side D. I explained to him that two firefighters had fallen into the basement and I couldn't see either of them and I had no idea of what their conditions were. Within two minutes, the deputy chief contacted me and advised me that both firefighters had been removed from the structure and were safe.
After hearing from our chief, I took a second to gather myself and gain my bearings. I did a quick scan of the first floor; there was no visible fire, but the second floor still had heavy fire showing from the staircase. Spangenberger and I continued our fire attack to the second floor. As we proceeded up the staircase, we encountered heavy fire and heat. I told operations that I needed the roof ventilated, but he was already a step ahead of me and had a crew venting the roof. The combined efforts of the vent group on the roof, Spangenberger attacking the fire and me pulling ceilings put the fire out in just a few minutes. After the fire was out, Spangenberger and I were physically, mentally and emotionally drained. We left the building for rehab. We also reunited with the rest of our crew, which was the best moment of the day.
The following account is by Firefighter Brian Knowlton:
We arrived as the third or fourth engine. We were ordered to begin ventilation, which we did by breaking windows on side D. While we were venting the windows, fire started to blow out of the window DeLauter had vented and the crew inside began to bail out because of the heavy fire. Our deputy chief picked up the nozzle from the interior crew's hoseline and knocked down the fire while DeLauter, Spangenberger, the captain and I masked up.
I grabbed the nozzle and entered the house. There was heavy smoke, but I could see no fire. DeLauter got in front of me and was sounding the floor to make sure it was safe. When we got to the stairs, the captain told us to go upstairs, but DeLauter told the captain that there was fire in the B quadrant and he wanted to hit that before we went upstairs. The captain gave the OK and DeLauter and I began moving that way with DeLauter again sounding the floor the whole way. I am not sure how far we got, but I felt the floor move.
The next thing I knew, I was sliding on my back head first and all I could see was an orange glow in the direction I was sliding to. I still had the nozzle in my hand and I tried to use it to stop my fall. Once I landed, I yelled to the rest of my crew that I still had the nozzle and to pull me up, but I don't think anyone could hear me. When I looked behind me, I could see the orange glow. If I looked up, I could see a firefighter with a 9 on the helmet, but that is all I could see. After lying there for a moment, I felt something move and I realized that I had fallen on top of DeLauter. I yelled at him, "Chuck, are you OK?" I repeated that several times, but I didn't hear him say anything. I tried to roll off him, but because of the position I was in, I couldn't move. Next, I tried to activate my PASS device, but I could not find the alarm button. I tried to turn on the flashlight that I carried on my helmet to alert my crew to where I was, but I found that my helmet had been knocked off and the chin strap was choking me.
After replacing my helmet, I was able to turn on my flashlight. I heard someone call a Mayday. Then I heard DeLauter call a Mayday. DeLauter moved some more, so I also tried to move and I was finally able to roll off him. Once I had rolled off him, I could see outside. I heard the deputy chief calling us from the outside. I saw DeLauter crawl through a small opening and I followed him out. We took our masks off with a big sigh of relief. We were both OK. After several minutes, the deputy chief asked us if we wanted to go back in with a line to protect the crew upstairs. We stayed on the line at the base of the stairs until another crew came and relieved us. We went back outside and met back up with our crew.
The following account is by Firefighter Brian Spangenberger:
Arriving on scene as the third engine in, I got a good look at the structure. I instantly knew that the fire inside was still well involved. Dark-brown smoke was pouring out of the eaves and nothing was vented. As my crew was gathering in front of our engine awaiting our assignment, I told my captain that the fire was still rocking inside and that the roof needed to be vented. As we were walking up to side D, I noticed there was no command established. The pump operator was both command and operations.
Upon arriving on side D, we noticed a crew inside with a handline. I was told by my chief to start taking windows. As the rest of my crew was venting the first floor, I went up on the porch roof and vented the second-floor windows. It seemed within seconds we had fire licking out the windows and door at us. It was so bad the crew inside had to bail out. My crew quickly regrouped and started to go inside to make an attack on the fire. My crew consisted of a seasoned firefighter in the lead, a rookie on the nozzle, myself and our captain. This was the rookie's first "real" fire.
Once inside, we noticed that the second floor was well off. My captain wanted us to make an attack on that fire, but our lead firefighter wanted to hit the fire in the B sector before we proceeded up the stairs so we wouldn't get trapped. As the lead firefighter crawled toward the living room in sector A, I could hear him sounding the floor. Once we entered the living room, my biggest fear happened - two of my brothers fell through the floor into the basement. The lead firefighter and the rookie disappeared right in front of my eyes. I couldn't have been more than three feet from them. I remember freezing and thinking to myself, "What the hell just happened?"
I quickly regained my cool and yelled back to my captain, telling him two of our guys just fell through the floor. Having heard this, he immediately called a Mayday. He called a total of three Maydays on different channels, but received no response. After having done that, he yelled to the operations officer, who was my deputy chief, that two of our guys had just fallen into the basement. The deputy chief quickly ran around to the A side and located them. This whole ordeal took only about seven minutes, but being inside, feeling helpless, it seemed like an eternity. The best thing was hearing my deputy chief telling my captain and me that he found them and they are OK.
After this whole experience, I will never again take the mindset of a "typical" fire. Seeing this made me realize just how quickly things can go bad. Another lesson I learned is that training should be taken seriously because you never know when you will need to rely on it.
The following lessons learned, comments and observations by Chief Goldfeder are based on communications with the writers and others.
A simple house fire? Forget it. They don't exist. Well, they don't exist until after the incident is over. If everything went well, then it seemed simple - but when it doesn't go well, they are never simple. Since so many factors can come into play on the fireground, we must always respond, operate, staff, train and command as if something could go wrong. The preparation required (training) to improve the chances of the incident going well are not at all simple. Without training, which can be everything from simple crew integrity training to hose stream management, "perceived" simple can turn deadly.
Please note the commonality of this month's close call. There have been several recent fatalities caused by firefighters falling through floors and becoming trapped in the burning rooms below. Firefighters are reminded to size-up, identify the fire problem and the fire location, and use extreme caution and appropriate tactics when there is the possibility that the fire is below you, especially in a single-family dwelling of lightweight construction.
Several lessons were learned or reinforced in this incident:
- Always wear all of your protective equipment and wear it correctly. Seem simple? It's not. So many times we "get comfortable" and don't wear all of our equipment, don't use our helmet straps, hold off on using the mask and expose our skin.
- Know how to use all your equipment. Do all of your members know how to use everything they may have to use? What equipment do we mean? Whatever is on any piece of apparatus that any member may ride on. If you ride on the apparatus-you should be an expert on every tool on that rig. Seem simple? Test them and see.
- Always maintain crew integrity. By notifying their captain that they were going to put the fire out before joining him on the stairs, they allowed the rest of our crew to immediately realize the problem and begin rescue efforts. This takes discipline. From the probie to the boss, crew integrity and the outside folks knowing where that crew is and what task(s) they are assigned is vital. Next time you have a run, see if you can find any firefighters who are not with the rest of their crew.
- Keep your cool and don't panic. From DeLauter: "This has been preached to us ever since I started in the fire service 25 years ago. I must say, it was very hard to do in this situation. After becoming pinned, I had to literally tell myself to calm down and assess the situation. But my training finally kicked in and I began going over what I had to do (control my breathing, activate my PASS device, communicate my location, try and find a way out, etc.). During training drills in our department, we regularly practice Mayday situations, although most times it is responding to a reported firefighter down. This training definitely helped me in this situation and I have a new respect for these trainings."
- Seem simple? Being trapped never is. But it can be simpler if you are trained in getting out alive and drilling on related "firefighter trapped" programs.
- A rapid intervention team must be established early. On this call, no rapid intervention team was established. Had a rapid intervention team been in place, these firefighters believe, their crew would have gotten out sooner than they did. Units were on scene less than 20 minutes when the collapse occurred. The rapid intervention team must be dispatched as part of the first-alarm assignment. In our county, many times a no rapid intervention team is dispatched until a unit on scene reports a "working fire." Simple solution: Chief, establish a plan that automatically has a qualified and trained rapid intervention team due on the first alarm. That may not always be the closest fire department, although perhaps it should be. Once the rapid intervention team arrives, hold it on scene until nothing on that scene would require their services, which includes during overhaul.
- Communications were a problem. Command and operations were being run by the pump operator of the first-in engine until their chief took operations. That operator had enough on his plate trying to make sure adequate water was available for the incident. He should not have had to worry about running command. Also, at least one interior crew did not have a radio in the structure. Simple solutions? Yes:
- If the dispatcher does not have a command officer responding within a certain period from the initial call (such as 60 seconds - career department, volunteer department, it doesn't matter), set a procedure to dispatch another department's chief(s) and/or command officer(s). It's 2007; no fire department can safely and effectively run an incident without a qualified, trained and seasoned command officer responding, arriving, coordinating - and commanding.
- No interior crew should ever be allowed to operate without at least the officer of that crew having a radio. No radio? Don't go in.
- Radio channel monitoring. Fire departments spend high dollar amounts on radio systems. And with all the fancy options available today, none of it is of any value if you cannot be heard, especially if no one is listening. In this case, the pump operator cannot be in command. The task is too complex and requires 100% attention to commanding. As a part of that, monitoring and hearing every possible transmission is vital since firefighters in trouble may only have a quick chance to call their Mayday. Command must clearly monitor the fireground channel. Safety officers/sectors must monitor the fireground channel - and we have strongly felt for many years that a dispatcher must be assigned to the fireground channel and monitor it as well. A well-trained and qualified fire dispatcher can be and is the "right hand" to the incident commander. Firefighters' chances of survival have been greatly improved by fire dispatchers monitoring fireground channels.
- Don't have enough resources to accomplish the above? It's time to develop a plan to establish those resources as a priority. No incident commander? No radios? Not enough resources? At some point, we must understand that we simply cannot do this job without the basic resources. Sometimes, as firefighters and fire officers, we keep saying yes, even when we are under-equipped and under-funded. Sometimes, we must say no and explain what we can - and cannot - do with the available resources. It has nothing to do with dedication, bravery or heroism; .no one is questioning that. It has to do with common sense and the support we need to do the job.
- In this community, the departments are staffed by responding (from home, work, etc.) volunteer firefighters. This fire occurred during the day, in the middle of the week. Availability of personnel was very limited. In periods of well-known limited manpower, fire chiefs must put systems in place that automatically (on the first alarm) dispatch additional resources to ensure that plenty of staffing is available to perform all the tasks, as well as reserve personnel on the scene, staging, in addition to the rapid intervention team in case something goes wrong.
As noted by the Dover Township firefighters, "Prior to our arrival, there were no more than six to eight firefighters on the scene, including the equipment operators. In a situation such as this, where manpower is desperately needed, firefighters should not have to wait to be dispatched until the first arriving unit determines it is a working fire."
We certainly agree. And while many areas are starting to use more aggressive first-alarm assignments for verbal reported fires, it is critical that the fire department and all the firefighters involved in automatic aid "box alarm" type systems be able to function as one "team." So often, fire departments have automatic or just regular mutual aid, but that is the first time the various departments have actually operated together. That is extremely dangerous. It is the equivalent of members of a sports team never practicing together, but then expecting to play well together and win. The difference is that the sports team simply loses. When we don't train to operate together, we can lose the team.
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