Small Towns, Small Hazards? Not A Chance! – Part 1

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We’ve received several “small town” Close Calls that we’ll run consecutively this month and next. Together with photos, these drive home the fact that the “bad stuff” can and does happen to all of us. As you will read, the incidents are different, but they involved similar-size fire departments. The Close Call for this month affects a combination department in a suburban/rural area answering approximately 700 calls annually. Next month, we will feature a fire department that is in a more suburban area, but is fully volunteer with approximately 500 calls annually.

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Photo Courtesy Billy Goldfeder
Always expect the worst-case scenario. In this incident, an oxygen tank that had been placed on the porch exploded during a fire.

Both fire departments were responding to what is considered by any of us to be “a typical call,” but as we have learned, we must always expect the unexpected and train, prepare and plan for worst-case scenarios.

This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder’s comments follow:

Our response area is 40 square miles, has about 2,000 residents and significant industry. We are a part of three separate fire companies in our entire town with 6,000-plus residents. We are a combination department operating out of one fire station with three career firefighters on duty Monday through Friday, with a call force responding as well. Our station normally responds to approximately 700-plus calls per year.

A call came directly to the fire station reporting a structure fire. Two of our personnel were returning from the hospital after a rescue call, which left two on-duty firefighters (including the chief) at the station. The chief and our hazards truck were the first to arrive on scene. On arrival, the chief reported a working dwelling fire with heavy fire showing. We also had mutual aid companies responding in as a reactivation of our alarm. Several of our call firefighters were arriving on the scene.

The house was one story, of wood-frame construction, 25 by 40 feet. An engine/tanker, manned by me, arrived less than a minute later. I was fully geared in PPE (personal protective equipment), Nomex hood, packed up with my SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) and PASS (personal alert safety system) device on. I deployed a 1¾-inch line (backed up by the chief) and began to hit the front porch, which was totally involved. The fire on the porch was knocked down quickly.

As I was preparing to enter the home to knock down the remaining fire that was rolling in the kitchen area, I heard a loud explosion and then found myself approximately 15 feet from my original location on the porch back out into the street. I felt that I was not hurt, but a bit shook up and able to get up and continue making entry into the house. I was able to knock down the remaining body of fire and was fortunate not to receive a single injury.

What happened? There was an oxygen tank at the house and it exploded during the fire! Had the M-size oxygen tank gone right instead of left, I would have felt the full force of the cylinder failure and its shrapnel from the cast metal base, which also blew apart. The fire was knocked down quickly, before the second engine arrived on scene.

What we didn’t know was that the cylinder was on the porch because the resident is oxygen dependent. We have been to the home on many occasions for medical aid, but no oxygen was stored on that porch previously. The resident managed to escape the home, but she suffered smoke inhalation, inhalation burns and burned feet. The tank first blew a hole in the wall of the house, pushed the left side of the porch two feet off the foundation and then went down through the floor and embedded itself in the ground. The cause of the fire is still undetermined.

These comments are based upon Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communications with the writer and others regarding this incident:

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Photo Courtesy Billy Goldfeder
The exploding oxygen tank blew a hole in the wall of the house and pushed the left side of the porch two feet off its foundation. It then went through the floor and embedded itself in the ground.

Several issues stand out heavily in this Close Call. The first is how much EMS affects our ability to respond to fires. Now, don’t get all stressed out thinking that I don’t like EMS. On the contrary, EMS has so many more opportunities to affect more lives than any other services that we provide. And clearly, the qualifications for EMS personnel are almost always more stringent than what is required for firefighters. However, the fact of the matter is that when we are using firefighters for both services, immediate fire response staffing does get reduced. We have discussed the solutions for that on several occasions in this column.

As a reminder, the solutions include a backup staffing plan, be it automatic mutual aid, call or volunteer firefighters, recalled off-duty members or fill-in companies. We must always be aware that no matter what we are doing, when a fire is reported, we should have a plan that allows us to do our best by sending an applicable complement of staffing and equipment based on the possible tasks and potential hazards from the report. In this case, the staffing was thin, but some call firefighters did arrive on the scene, as dispatched. Automatic mutual aid also kicked in for this fire call. (Readers may wish to refer to the two-part Close Calls column about the Keokuk, IA, Fire Department in June and July 2004 for a specific discussion on the issues of arriving first due with very limited staffing and what a fire department can do – and what a fire department may not be able to do.)

Certainly, staffing and an appropriately prepared response plan are among the most effective ways we can be ready as we approach, arrive and operate at a fire. But, as in this case, “we never know” what we will be responding into – so the solution is to expect the worst-case scenario!

You can go to 100 dwelling fires with:

  • An apparatus operator who has no business driving your apparatus, or…
  • Less-than-adequate staffing, or…
  • Firefighters not wearing SCBA, or…
  • A firefighter carrying extra body weight from not properly eating or exercising, or…
  • Crews operating in a clearly unsafe building, or…
  • A firefighter who “may” have been drinking, or…
  • Whatever else you can think of and get away with it 100 times.

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Photo Courtesy Billy Goldfeder
The explosion sent the firefighter 15 feet away, into the street. He then continued to attack the fire in the house.

And what happens? We get comfortable because “nothing went wrong” all of those times and the more we do it, the more comfortable and accepting we are of the (poor) practices. And then you respond to what can be referred to as “Fire Number 101” and BAM! Something goes wrong, sometimes horribly wrong, because we didn’t expect it and we allowed ourselves to get too comfortable over time.

The goal is for us to respond into the scene expecting that there will be an oxygen tank in the house-or any number of other expected or unexpected hazards that we have studied or read about. We have to get uncomfortable and maintain a constant state of being vigilant and alert for the unexpected. Just as the incident commander must do an initial size-up and ongoing size-ups, firefighters must constantly ask themselves (and provide feedback to the incident commander) some “personal size-up” questions as well, such as:

  • What has gone wrong here? (What emergency were we called for? What hazards can I expect based upon reports – and prior knowledge?)

  • What is currently going wrong? (What is the progress of our current actions while operating such as finding the fire, confining it, venting, search, rescue, etc.?)

  • What has the potential to go wrong? (What could go wrong in the immediate and distant future until we go “under control” such as exposures, hazards and “time” issues like structural deterioration or personal condition?)

That type of constant and disciplined thinking allows us to “up” our ability to expect the unexpected. We make must make sure that we are as personally and organizationally prepared as possible with full gear, SCBA, large enough lines (they used 1¾-inch hose, which was appropriate for this dwelling), and related tactical plans and leadership so when something does go wrong, we are as effective (and safe) as humanly possible while still being able to do the job effectively. While it’s easy to blame “the officers” or blame “the firefighters,” preparedness falls into all levels of the department, at all times.

In this case, it is easy to say that they needed more manpower or should not have approached the building. But they did what many of us would have done, as they had known occupants. The fact that the firefighter was totally protected by all of his PPE made a difference when the incident turned ugly.

William Goldfeder will present “Firefighters Scared Straight: Finding the Courage to Make the Changes” at Firehouse World 2005 in San Diego, Jan. 31-Feb. 4.


William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion 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 and 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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