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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I stood up to get my legs off the floor and prevent them from burning, but the heat on my head was tremendous. It felt like I was in a furnace. I tried to pull my helmet down, but the aluminum was so hot it touched my ears and I could feel them burning. So I crouched. Part of me was saying that I have to continue this search, while the rest was telling me to get out. Now, because of the heat, I had put myself in a position in which I had to try to do my job differently than I have been trained to do it.

I continued to crouch and do my search. I was in the living room, I thought. I attempted to find the wall to go back to some normalcy. I walked crouching along. My feet got tangled up in a rug or something else and I fell again. This time, I crashed into a lamp or table or something. My mind started to wander. I began to panic. I am lost...confused. The only thing I could hear was my breathing. The inhaling and exhaling of my breath in my breathing apparatus was so loud. My brain was not functioning as usual. I was panicking. I was breathing faster and faster. Terror started to set in. My brain was telling me the heat was unbearable.

Now, the inevitable happened. I could feel myself running out of air or I thought I was running out of air. My mind was so confused. And then, "Crash!" Assistant Chief Walbert Chew and the driver of the second engine threw an extension ladder through the window in the hallway and then through the window of the apartment I was in. The sounds of the breaking glass and the currents of natural ventilation bought me out of my terror and back to reality. I could start to see and found my way out of the apartment and down the stairs.

Is what happened in Crestview the same thing that happened to me? I don't know. The times were sure different, the gear is different and the place was different. But it could be. Terror feeds physiological human emotions. As firefighters, we face our emotions daily in what we do on the street. We wrap ourselves in this veil of so-called machismo in an attempt to shield ourselves from what may happen.

We use sayings like "You go, we go!" And we start to believe it. We compete to be the first in. We drive ourselves for that adrenaline rush that puts us over the top. In so doing, we may forget the basic principles of survival and the simple rules that bring us back to reality. The fact is that this is a dangerous business! The simplest rule is to practice and think safety. Practice it, use it, do it! Deploy safety lines to find your way out. Use hoods and ear flaps. Wear seatbelts and chin straps. Above all, be defensive firefighters. Train so that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you are prepared to get out alive!

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

While the above close call provides numerous opportunities for tactical consideration, the "human factor" related to training is worthy of discussion. Tactically, this fire shows just how quickly one fire department — a well staffed, medium-size fire department — can have all of its resources urgently pressed into service and quickly depleted. Staffing to stretch lines, get water on the fire, open up for ventilation, perform search/rescue, treatment and transport can all be used up right away.

Think about all of the resource-driven tactical assignments required at this high-rise fire. In some cases, numerous assignments may have to be carried out at multiple locations, on different floors, simultaneously. Think about accountability/tracking, officer supervision and firefighters working with partners — all integral parts of lessons that are applicable in this close call and so many others.

How quickly can your fire department get the needed resources in service to the worst-case scenario within your community? Do you protect similar high- or mid-rise buildings? Have you pre-planned, trained and drilled on those buildings? Think about, for example, how many companies, firefighters and hoselines are needed for your buildings? What is the required fire flow? What is the occupancy? What is the fire load? What aerial devices will be needed? Now is a good time to find out.

As far as the "human" factor, when we first read this close call as well as Warren Jones' perspective, we agreed that "terror" can take over. But perhaps, in both these cases, while "terror" was a factor, what really takes over is a firefighter's training.