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The call was dispatched as a structure fire on Bennett’s Point Road with fire under the building. I was familiar with the structure and knew it was an older two-story home with balloon construction and all wood. When I arrived on scene, light smoke was showing from the exterior. I saw the initial-attack crew exiting the building. The firefighters reported they did not find any fire, but that the door to the room involved would not open.
I looked inside the door and could see heavy smoke developing rapidly. I donned my gear and made entry, coming in behind Firefighters Austin Williams and Shane Rushton. They were at the door of the bedroom at the B-C corner of the building on the first floor. I went to the door and found smoke puffing from under and up the sides of the door about three feet into the hallway. I called for a ventilation fan to be set up at our point of entry and for the windows in the room to be ventilated.
We were in the hallway waiting for the exterior crew to set up ventilation. I could hear the windows break, but the fan was not running, and I was going to wait until it was running before opening the door. While waiting for the fan, I heard an exterior water stream flowing into the room. Immediately, fire blew out the top of the bedroom door and down the hall over us. We all got as low to the floor as we could. I didn’t hear the explosion, but could feel the pressure coming from it and knew it was possibly a backdraft. All crew members were OK, thankfully. We entered the room and extinguished the fire.
Fire conditions in the room were not extremely heavy at this point. We could tell the fire was in the second story and another line was brought in. Fire heavily damaged the first-floor room and the room above it on the second floor. Extensive salvage and overhaul operations took place and were able to save a lot of personal belongings. The rooms adjacent to the involved rooms had no fire damage, but they did have smoke damage. The floors and ceiling were tongue-and-groove hardwood with the walls consisted of a combination of hardwood and sheetrock. During overhaul, we found the structural damage to the roof and walls from the explosion.
The explosion took out about two feet from the top of the door, the same door we sat by awaiting ventilation. This fire was a great tragedy to the family, but a great learning experience for everyone. The members of the family occupying the house are long-time friends and their oldest daughter is a part-time firefighter/EMT with our organization who made her first entry on this fire call.
These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this incident:
Responding to a dwelling fire may be considered “routine” by some, but as we know, no response should ever be comfortably treated as “routine” – and for good reason. In this case, the fact that this was a firefighter’s home was of some interest due to the emotional “tie” that was created. Not only did the firefighter discover it, but she reported it, attempted to fight it until the arrival of the fire department and then became a part of the interior crew – a clear example of multi-tasking!
Rural firefighting creates several serious challenges that are often foreign to firefighters in suburban and urban areas. On the other hand, many of the tasks that must be performed at a single-family dwelling fire in a big city must still be performed at the rural single-family dwelling fire as well. Issues such as command staffing, firefighter staffing, resources, time and distance can stress any organization to its limits. In a rural setting, they can be even more challenging.
In this case, they were ALL factors. The house is nine miles from the nearest firehouse. The command staff had to respond 22 miles to this incident and staffing was thin. This is not an unusual situation for this fire department and many others in rural settings. These are “knowns” and therefore must be counted on and planned for. Fire departments, be they volunteer, part time or full time, must always plan for the “knowns” before a predictable situation occurs. Staffing on many fire departments is a challenge but must be dealt with. The fact is that it takes trained firefighters to perform the required tasks at a fire and there are few options in facing the staffing issues no matter what kind of fire department you have. Colleton County Fire-Rescue has made great strides in improving its levels of service over the last several years and it continues to move in a positive direction.