Automatic Fire Alarm Becomes High-Rise Scare

Before we get to this month's close call, we congratulate California Highway Patrol Commander Captain Gordon Graham on his retirement. Many of you know Gordon as one of the biggest fans of the fire service and an expert in fire service risk management...


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Before we get to this month's close call, we congratulate California Highway Patrol Commander Captain Gordon Graham on his retirement. Many of you know Gordon as one of the biggest fans of the fire service and an expert in fire service risk management. Gordon has instructed tens of thousands of firefighters and fire officers on how not to get in trouble and is also my partner on www.FireFighterCloseCalls.com. While retired after 30-plus years with the CHP, he will continue to train firefighters nationally.

Each month, we bring the readers of this column realistic, "it can happen to you" factual reports of close calls directly from firefighters just like you. This month, we have a response to an automatic fire alarm that turned out to be a very serious high-rise fire in Delaware that nearly claimed the life of a firefighter — a firefighter who was forced to jump from the seventh floor of a building. We are also adding a perspective from a veteran firefighter close to this specific close call and his experiences when training takes over in a moment of terror.

We thank Wilmington Chief of Department James W. Ford Jr. for his support, T.J. Healy III for these dramatic photos and especially the members of the Wilmington Fire Department who operated at and were impacted by this fire. While it was definitely a close call, it is clear that their training paid off and lives were saved due to their valiant efforts. Additionally, our sincere appreciation goes to Warren Jones and Tom Mitten from the Delaware Fire Service News for their insight and related information.

As Chief Ford advised us, "We critiqued the incident with all our people and tried to determine areas where we needed more training. We identified those areas and are now trying to get training classes together to address our members concerns. The bottom line is that as a firefighter or fire officer, you have to continue to train, train and train. These incidents provide challenges constantly, but also opportunities to point out our needs and adjust by more specific training. It's all about customer service and firefighter safety. We constantly try to improve and do it better and safer."

The Wilmington Fire Department is a career organization with six engines, two trucks and one rescue company. The department sends three engines, two trucks, the rescue and two battalion chiefs on a one-alarm fire, with all companies staffed with four members. Daily shift staffing is 38 firefighters and officers. Additional staffing consists of a callback system for the WFD (171 members) and a positive mutual aid relationship with area New Castle County fire departments.

On May 30, 2006, at 7:45 A.M., the Wilmington Fire Department was dispatched to the nine-story Crestview Apartments, located at 2700 North Market St. in the northeast section of the city, for a fire alarm activation in Apartment 601. While a commonly dispatched condition often resulting in minimal damage or injuries, such was not the case on this morning, as the WFD and its members were pressed to the limits.

As units responded, the lieutenant of Engine 3 reported heavy smoke showing from the sixth or seventh story. Moments later, a second report indicated that heavy fire was visible from the area. Firefighters were now confronted with a large-scale evacuation and rescue effort, in addition to battling to contain the fire to its original location. Crestview's more than 200 residents include many elderly and disabled individuals, some not ambulatory.

On arrival, Battalion Chief 9 established incident command and immediately ordered that a second alarm be struck. Following that, Battalion Chief 1 arrived and assumed operations on the sixth floor, the fire floor. Firefighters from Engines 3 and 4 used the south stairwell to access the upper floors, while designating the north stairwell as the route of egress. Crews advanced two-inch handlines and 2½-inch blitz lines along hallways clogged with smoke and fleeing occupants. Upon arrival, Engine 5, the assigned rapid intervention team, was placed in service due to the severity of the fire. Ladder 2 was located on the A-side of the building and deployed the aerial ladder to rescue occupants from upper-floor windows. Firefighters brought several residents to safety down the aerial ladder.

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