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April 1994 – Two Memphis, TN, firefighters die in a high-rise fire. April 2001 – Two Syracuse, NY, firefighters are dragged unconscious from a commercial building fire. August 2004 – Two Philadelphia firefighters perish in a structure fire.
Photo by Mark McLees
You can see how the parachute involved in the Syracuse, NY, incident entangled the firefighter’s glove to the handline. This member was literally pulled out of his turnout gear in the rescue effort.
On the surface, the common factors among these fires are the deaths or injuries of fire department members. But there is also an underlying commonality. At each incident, the deaths or injuries were directly related to the members becoming entrapped or entangled.
In the Memphis high-rise fire, one member left the safety of the stairway and entered the fire floor to aid his officer in distress. Unfortunately, the member became entangled in cable TV wire that had dropped onto him. The center hall was charged with superheated gases and flames, and he was unable to free himself from the snare. Sadly, it was (and still is) common practice to run utility wires (cable/telephone) above gridded drop ceilings. With many households having more than one computer, we are finding an increasing amount of computer networking cable in private dwellings.
In Syracuse, the members also became entangled. In the all-too-famous “parachute” incident, members entered an apartment for what appeared to be a sprinkler-controlled fire. They were quickly overcome by carbon monoxide and fell unconscious. While this scenario itself is harrowing, what followed made their rescue all the more difficult. The occupant of the apartment had stretched an old army cargo parachute across the ceiling as a decoration. He had hung it off the sprinkler piping and heads. Though the fire was electrical in origin, it rapidly spread to the parachute. The fire in the parachute then flashed across the ceiling, fusing open 25 sprinkler heads. As members entered the torrential sprinkler discharge searching for the seat of the fire, they crawled right into the parachute cording, which by now was draped from ceiling to floor in a ghoulish web.
Who would ever have thought that rip-stop nylon and parachute cord would drop down and cause such a problem? Fortunately for the Syracuse members, a search team was quickly upon the unconscious firefighters. The rescue team members had the training and the tools in their gear to quickly cut the parachute away from the downed firefighters, who were only minutes from death by asphyxiation.
At the time of this writing, it has been reported that the members in Philadelphia also entangled in wires that dropped from above. In this case, speculation centers on an illegal marijuana-growing factory. This clandestine operation requires artificial grow-lighting. It is thought that the lighting, wiring and grid work dropped onto the firefighters.
Construction type had no correlation to these three incidents. In Memphis, it was a fire-resistive multi-story apartment building. In Syracuse, it was an ordinary-constructed three-story mixed-occupancy with a restaurant on the first floor and apartments upstairs. In Philadelphia, it was a wood-frame rowhouse.
What can be learned from these tragedies? First, we must not let complacency slip into our firefighting routines. Expect the unexpected every time you enter a structure. These type of entrapment hazards are nothing new to the fire service. Back in the 1970s, the FDNY lost a captain who became hung up on a hanging bicycle. These innocent-looking features are just waiting to become menaces for firefighters.
Train to get oneself out of your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) rapidly. The “full escape” maneuver should be known by all who wear SCBA. Many fire service instructors emphasize learning various maneuvers that you can perform to “back out” or “swim out” of an entanglement.