Entrapment Hazards Continue to Endanger Firefighters

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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.

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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.

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Photo by Mark McLees
Once the sprinklers kicked on in the Syracuse fire, the parachute stopped burning and became an entanglement hazard. Only a sharp knife or cutters will cut through this material.

Another lesson to take away from these incidents centers on the equipment that is carried in your turnout gear. Articles have been written and arguments fought over exactly what tool is the best to carry. What matters most is not what tool you choose, but the fact that you take the effort to choose a tool and carry it with you. In addition, being able to use the tool while blindfolded and with a gloved hand indicates true proficiency. If we knew what type of material would be entrapping us, we could choose the best cutting/snipping tool appropriate for the material.

So, which tool should you carry? I conducted a survey of fire service associates whose opinions I value. The responses I received were awesome. The informal survey included responses people in all ranks, from chief officers to firefighters. Besides numerous New York responders, I also received replies from California, Florida, Indiana and Ohio – and even England. Not only did everyone let me know what they carry in their turnout gear, but they also were just as specific on which pocket the tool is located in and why. Once again, we can be thankful that the choice of tool you carry is totally up to you. Just like our personal rope or webbing, a national standard has not (yet) mandated what we carry!

About 38% of the members that responded to my question carry a multi-tool device. Often, it is carried on the belt of their work pants. It comes in handy when working around the fire station on tool maintenance and firehouse projects. Admittedly, when they jump into their full protective ensemble with SCBA, the access to their multi-tool device on their work uniform belt becomes slow, if not non-existent. Their most common statement regarding this type of tool was “buy a good name brand. Do not buy a cheap one. It will break the first time you need it.” Make sure to carry it in an outside pocket. These tools often have a knife and wire cutters included.

Roughly 32% of the surveys indicate a sharp knife is carried. Most carried the knife in a turnout pocket. Other members hang a folding blade off their turnout coat via a lanyard to the coat closures. This setup is much more accessible in a hurry. Although it is not multi-purpose, a sharp knife with serrated edge can usually slice through cloth and fabrics. To cut wires or cables with such a knife requires you to hold the wire taut with your free hand.

Snips, lineman pliers or side cutters are also a popular tool to pack in your personal protective equipment (PPE). About 12% of respondents chose a cutter over a knife. These are designed to cut their way through heavy material, whether it is tin, cable TV wiring or fencing material.

Still other members have raided the EMS closet and “borrowed” EMS-type scissors for their gear. Although this may be an inexpensive and quick solution, those EMS shears weren’t designed for the heavier wiring we are concerned with. About 8% carry EMS shears in their gear.

Of all the respondents, 22% carry both a knife and cutters. So you see, between knives, cutters and EMS shears, just about 75% of my respondents carry something that they consider essential for their own use. Amazingly, that still leaves 25% whose responses indicate that they would not be able to free themselves or a partner from an entanglement. It is obvious that these individuals carry tools that they need most often on alarms – Vise grips, chocks and Allen wrenches, to name a few. The weight of the tools and frequency of their use is the driving factor on determining which tools to carry and which tools to weed out for these members. Carrying what seems like an entire toolbox in your gear is extreme, cumbersome and often poked fun at by others. A little give and take should minimally provide some sort of cutting tool. Remember, we train and staff our apparatus for the “potential” incidents in our communities. Why would you not carry a tool for a potential situation (read entrapment), especially one that may involve your own well-being?

Today’s’ fire service focus is driven by funding. If you want money, it has to go to terrorism preparedness. While this may subsidize some new firefighters, it is not the only field of study we must pursue. We must remain steadfast in our basic firefighting and survival training. Compare notes with your fellow firefighters. Share the reasons why you carry a certain tool in your flashlight pocket.


Mark McLees, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district chief in the Syracuse, NY, Fire Department, where he previously served as captain of the rescue company. He is an adjunct instructor at the New York State Academy of Fire Science and was on the development team for New York State’s firefighter survival and rapid intervention courses. McLees has a bachelor of science degree in fire science from John Jay College.

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