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...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

While those reading about the incident speculate as to the reasons why it happened, the real reasons may never be known. Even the firefighter may never know or understand what actually happened that day. All one can be sure of is that he got out alive.

While we don't like to admit it, if we stay in the business long enough there will be times when we will be scared. When I think back about my experiences, there were two times that I remember being scared or apprehensive and one time when I was terrified.

The first time I got scared was at an industrial plant fire on the third alarm. When the fire was almost controlled, we were assigned to advance a hoseline up the steel walkways and make final extinguishment of the fire. As we climbed through the steel structure, I noticed how some of the steel was bent and buckled, but we made our way up regardless. We were about 40 feet in the air and had advanced over to the reactor (or whatever the vessel was that was burning).

As we started knocking down the last remnants of fire, our hoseline went limp and we ran out of water. Now there were six of us over a burning cylinder with no means of extinguishment and the fire started to spread. From out of nowhere came fire extinguishers and we made final extinguishment with them.

My worst experience occurred at what most of us would call a routine working fire. It was the early 1970s on a weekday at about 10 A.M. We were dispatched to an apartment fire. I responded to the firehouse and when I entered the station, there were three people there: the driver, an officer and a rookie firefighter. I got my gear and climbed into the engine. When we turned onto the street, there was heavy smoke showing. As we arrived at the building, I don't remember what happened to the rookie. He took the hydrant or something, but he wasn't there. Three of us stood in front of this burning apartment building with people outside telling us that someone was still inside.

The fire was in the basement storage bins. In those days, most apartment complexes had storage bins for the tenants located in the basement. Those bins contained large amounts of everything imaginable, from hydrocarbons of gasoline, oil and paint to resins of plastics and nylons and probably some carcinogens as well. There was a tremendous amount of fire load stored in those basements. As in a lot of garden-type apartments, there was only one entry and exit.

It was decided that the driver and the officer would advance a 1½-inch line down to the basement to cut off the fire and that I would conduct the search alone. I was a young, naive captain then ready to tackle the world. I put on my facepiece, turned on my cylinder, entered the building and made my way up the stairs. I was confident, probably overconfident, that I could handle this assignment by myself. I felt like Superman as I came to the first apartment. I reached back and kicked at the door. The jamb splintered, the strike plate went flying and I was in the apartment.

I had been to many hours of training and had quite a few working fires under my belt, so this felt routine. I followed my training, put my hand on the wall and ventured into the living room. I did the textbook search procedure through the living room, then the two bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen and now out of the apartment. No one found. One apartment down, three to go.

I crawled to the next apartment, found the door and stood up to kick it in. This time though, the jamb didn't split. So I kicked it again. Still, it did not open. I stood back a little, threw all of my 150 pounds against the door and came crashing through onto the floor.

As I lay on the floor, something different was occurring. My legs felt like they were burning. In the early 1970s, Nomex hadn't been introduced to the fire service yet. Few wore bunker pants either. It was rubber hip boots, cotton duck coats and aluminum or leather helmets. I figured out that I was in the apartment directly above the fire.