Respond To A House Fire: Reported Mattress Burning

This month, you will read an account of a fire that occurred at a single-family dwelling. It came in as a mattress fire, but when firefighters arrived, they had a house fire. This is another excellent example of how what we would consider a “typical response” that turned out to be anything but.

As firefighters, we easily “kick back” when we hear this type of dispatch, but then, when we least expect it, the incident escalates – helping us all understand why we can never let down our guard.

In this case, a fire officer was burned seriously. Fortunately, he has recovered and is back responding to fires, but the physical and mental scars of this fire will be with him forever. We’re grateful for his willingness to share his horrific experience with the readers of this column.

This account is provided by the reader:

We are a fully volunteer suburban/urban fire department with an average of 25-30 working structural fires annually. We do not provide EMS, but do support and respond with our local EMS volunteers. We have 130 firefighters answering over 1,000 runs annually.

Our fire dispatch received a call at 2:58 P.M. for a mattress fire in a single-family dwelling in a residential neighborhood. The first unit on scene, a chief officer, arrived at 2:59 and reported a working fire in a three-story wood-frame private dwelling and established command. Engine 9 and Ladder 6 responded at 3:02 with five members on each. Engine 9 was on scene at 3:03 and encountered a heavy fire condition with fire venting out the exposure 1 windows. At this time, Engine 9 was ordered to stretch a 1¾-inch line to the front door of the building. Before entering the building, the crew from Engine 9 had to extinguish a fire on a porch roof.

Ladder 6 (the truck that I was on as the officer in charge) arrived on scene at 3:06 and was ordered to stretch a second line to back up the first line, which was advancing toward the seat of the fire. Engine 9’s crew had to advance down a long hallway, make a 180-degree turn and make their way back toward exposure 1 to reach the seat of the fire. The crew from Ladder 6 and I stood fast in the hallway until Engine 9 reached the seat of the fire.

As the fire started darkening down, I made my way alone up to the second floor to search for any extension. When I reached the second floor, I encountered a heavy smoke condition and started to search the floor. I was making inspection holes in the lower parts of the walls to check for fire extension and venting as I progressed through my search. I was met on the second floor by another member who helped complete the search. The second line was sent up to the second floor at this time.

With no fire found by making the inspection holes and venting, the smoke on the second floor began to dissipate and I received a report from command of a heavy smoke condition on the third floor. I located the stairs to the third floor and made my way up with another member. On reaching the third floor, we encountered heavy smoke, zero visibility and a moderate heat condition with no fire showing. With the amount of fire on arrival at the 1-2 exposure on the first floor, we made our way to the same exposure on the third floor. A line was in place on the third floor and I began opening up the walls to check for fire. Upon opening up, we encountered some fire in this area, which was knocked down with the line.

At this time, my low-air alarm began to sound. I notified the officer in charge of the situation and I was relieved. I went outside to change my cylinder, then made my way back to second floor to relieve the officer on the third floor. When I reached the third floor for the second time, there was an increase in the heat and a second line was ordered there (the roof was being vented at this time). The amount of heat increased to the point that we opened the nozzles to help cool down the area. With no progress, I spoke to an assistant chief who was the interior operations commander and who was on the third floor with me. We decided to back everyone out of the building and go to a defensive operation.

Not everyone on the fireground had portable radios, so I did a quick sweep of the area to make sure that everyone was on the way out of the building. The hoselines were shut down and being backed out of the building. Suddenly, the fire flashed over and cut off my means of egress via the interior stairs. As soon as the fire flashed, I knew that I was burned. My first instinct was to reach for my radio and relay a Mayday message, although I never transmitted the message – I just wanted to get out. I felt it was too hot.

I had performed a size-up upon my arrival on the scene and I knew that there was an exposure 1 window that I could use as a secondary means of egress. I tried to make a move for the window, but I ended up going through a hole that had been burned in the floor. I got caught up in the floor beams and was pulled through by two of my brothers. While they were trying to extract me from the beams, the rapid intervention team helped staff handlines to keep me from getting burned even worse.

I was removed from the second floor out of an exposure 1 window onto a porch roof, where I was placed on a backboard and carried down the aerial ladder. I was airlifted to the hospital, then transferred to the major burn unit for our area two days later. I spent a total of 18 days in the hospitals with second- and third-degree burns to my back, arm, stomach and face.

My lessons learned:

2. Always size-up the incident, no matter where you are going. It can and will save your life.

3. Need to have more communication from the outside teams to the inside teams and vice versa.

4. If someone (or you) sees something they think may be of importance, tell someone! Just don’t walk around and keep it to yourself! Be sure to let an officer or senior member know what you have seen.

5. Improve communications between mutual aid departments.

6. If a thermal imaging camera is available, use it. It was available to me and I did not take it.

7. The importance of rapid intervention teams.

8. Wear all of your personal protective equipment all of the time. It saved my life.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communication with the writers and others regarding this incident:

Once again, we read of a seemingly “routine” response that turned ugly – a classic “that-could-have-been-me” scenario plays out when this story is read, as it should for all of us.

In this case, a reported “mattress fire” turned into a house fire with a fire officer becoming trapped and burned. Unusual? The fire certainly is not and neither is the opportunity for each of us to end up in the same situation. The good news is that he survived and is back on the job. We can learn from this, and then do all we can to prevent it from being repeated in our own departments.

Since the reader provided an excellent list of lessons learned, we’ll use that as an outline for discussion.

1. Training.

In this case, and for most fire departments, the “typical” fire will be the single- or multi-family dwelling, so regular training (each working day for career firefighters and weekly for volunteers) must be at the top of the agenda. Basic training such as driving, pump operations, line stretching, search/rescue, venting and related tasks must be performed by all firefighters so we become experts. There are many free opportunities for basic daily training drills that you can use! Take a look at Firehouse® Magazine and use any of these Close Calls columns as a training drill for your fire department. On the Internet, go to Firehouse.com and check out the numerous choices of free training available to your members. You can also go to www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com and click on “Weekly Fire Drill” for dozens of free downloadable drills. All of “the basics” are there for your use. You just have to “want” to do it!

Training affects all that we do as firefighters. The more we train, the better we become at our required tasks – and that can then affect our ability to remain calm.

Every once in a while, someone will write me and say, “We have no training programs at our fire department.” Well, quit whining, pal, and check out the above information. From a firefighter acting on his or her own…to a great company officer…to an entire fire department – if you want to train, the opportunities are there, and at no cost.

2. Size-up. A proper size-up begins from the time a fire call is dispatched and it continues until the fire is placed under control. And although most firefighters feel (and understand) that it is the incident commander’s job to do an incident size up, it is also the job of all responding firefighters to continually do their own size-up as well.

The initial size-up is conducted by the first-arriving fire officer (or firefighter). It allows us to assess the conditions that are found and helps us make decisions that are proactive as opposed to reactive. Your size-up considerations should include:

A. Occupancy type involved.

B. Smoke conditions. Read the smoke and don’t let “light smoke” fool you. It is ALL dangerous until you determine that it is not.

C. Type of construction. If you haven’t read Frank Brannigan’s book by now, add that on your list of things to do today, right after you finish reading this. No kidding.

D. Age of the structure. This can best be determined through pre-planning and by knowing your “first-due” area.

E. Exposures. What will be affected by this fire in a few seconds, minutes or hours if we don’t bring it under control?

F. Time factors. How long has the fire been burning? How far has the fire advanced since you arrived? What is your plan of attack? Is this an “inch-and-three-quarters fire” or do you need several 1¾-inch lines? Is this a “two-and-a-half fire” or will it require several 2½-inch lines? What about portable master streams, deck guns or ladder pipes? Better to hit it hard now than to regret it later.

G. Apparatus response and staffing. It is impossible to expect any sense of success on the fireground when you do not have a more than adequate number of firefighters responding on the first alarm. Waiting until you get there to find out what you need is a major factor in predictable disastrous and tragic outcomes. I don’t care how many times a fire department has responded with poor staffing and “got away with it”; eventually, it will catch up to that department and it may end up with a chief and a chaplain driving to some family’s house.

How many firefighters do you need? Determine the required fire flow and first-alarm tasks (water supply, stretching lines, forcing entry, ladder placement, venting, search, rescue, rapid intervention and firefighter accountability, to name a few) for a good start in developing your staffing and response needs.

H. Progression. After the initial actions, what’s the progress? Are things getting better? Worse? Staying the same? Where is the fire? Where was it? Where is it going? Where are the occupants? These and related questions can be used to benchmark your progress.

There are all sorts of great size-up tips and related acronyms that you can use. Do some research and read some articles and books that deal specifically on the issues of size-up and determine what works for the area that your fire department covers, then put it in writing. Train everyone on it and use it religiously.

3. Communications. Can you and all firefighters clearly, easily and simply communicate with each other and the dispatch center? If not, fix it. It is 2005 and there is no reason why every firefighter should not have a radio that allows the incident commander and others to communicate.

Using those means of communications between the different sectors is critical. Interior must have good information from command and command must have good and consistent information communicated to them from all applicable sectors and divisions. In this incident, the fire officer states, “My first instinct was to reach for my radio and relay a Mayday message although I never transmitted the message – I just wanted to get out.”

4. Sharing information. So often, especially probies or less-experienced firefighters are essentially told to “be seen and not heard.” That may be fine, but not when it comes to firefighter safety on the fireground. Members at all levels must know that their input is critical so we lessen the risks of members getting hurt…or worse. In the example above, the writer became trapped and wanted to transmit a Mayday – but didn’t. His reason for that was that it was just too hot! All he wanted to do was to get out of that area immediately as he was fearing (and physically feeling) the worst! However, in our discussion, he told me that if he had to do it again, he would have kept him and his firefighters and their hoseline together, providing them protection and a better chance to call for help.

5. Improve communications between mutual aid fire departments. This can take on two specific areas. The first is radio communications. If a nearby fire department cannot speak on your radio system and you cannot speak on theirs, you are placing firefighters in danger. Simple interoperability means that fire departments must be able to communicate with each other (all radios) and the dispatcher as well, simply and easily without excuses. If not, extreme caution should be used as far as actually using that or those departments on mutual aid. After all, if you can’t communicate with them, how can you operate safely?

6. Thermal imaging cameras. It is hoped that most fire departments have a thermal imaging camera (TIC) “going in” with the first-due companies. Naturally, the preference is that each crew (engine, truck, rescue etc.) have a TIC. One problem that has come up in several case studies (including this one) is simply that the camera is not being brought in. A TIC should be considered a required tool to be inside, with the firefighters – not in the back of the command car or the front seat of the apparatus. Training and related standard operating procedures (SOPs) can help solve that problem. Attaching the TIC to the officer’s coat (when applicable) as a part of the turnout process can solve the problem, as can the newer “attach to the helmet” hands-free thermal imagers that are available. Either way, the TIC does no good left in the apparatus.

7. Rapid intervention teams. We must have systems in place to back us up just in case something goes wrong. If we don’t need it, great. But if we do, even after doing as much as we can to reduce the risk, we need it and we need it now. Just ask any firefighter who has benefited by the services of a rapid intervention team!

8. Wear your gear. We don’t always do that. In this case, this fire officer DID wear his personal protective equipment (PPE) and it saved his life. Wearing your PPE – all of it – with no exposed skin can make a difference in helping you avoid a stay in the burn center. It is critical that firefighters personally (or through their fire departments, whatever the SOP is) also take care of their gear and know what they are wearing. Follow the instructions that are provided by the manufacturer when it comes to maintaining and cleaning your protective clothing and equipment.

The close calls that you read about in this column are the result of firefighters sharing lessons learned. The more we can do to learn from one another, the better chance we have of reducing these events. Don’t just read these about close calls. Use them to evaluate your own fire department so that everyone can go home.

William Goldfeder will present “Firefighter Close Calls: Injury & Death Prevention” and “A Family Affair” at Firehouse Expo 2005, July 26-31 in Baltimore.


William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.

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