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Chief Goldfeder writes: Last month’s column began documenting a house fire that became much more than a “Close Call” – one in which three firefighters and three civilians were killed. As I stated in June, in the past year, I have come to know the Keokuk Fire Department (KFD) in Iowa through my friendship with Chief Mark Wessel. Previously, I was familiar with the fire through official documents, but now I have gained much more knowledge of the fire – and the chief, who courageously makes it clear that he was responsible for the fireground and his firefighters that day.
Firehouse® Magazine Contributing Editor Steve Meyer and I worked together on this column. Steve reported on the incident, obtained official investigation reports and interviewed the fire chief at length. Additional facts and commentary are based on my subsequent discussions and meetings with Wessel.
Part one was based largely on Wessel’s description of the fireground operations, including his decision to leave the scene to transport a child to the hospital. This installment focuses on the aftermath of the tragedy, the investigation and the lessons learned. Please read this gripping story as well as our related recommended practices and comments.
As to why he, as incident commander, left the scene, Wessel explained his rationale at the time:
- No one else was available to care for the baby. All other responders were committed.
- No EMS transport was available. The baby needed to get to the hospital immediately. The chief was doing CPR on the baby on the sidewalk when a police officer pulled up and asked if he needed help. The hospital was only six blocks away.
- His assistant chief on the inside had 25 years of experience. Two of the victims were out of the building, and the third victim was in the hands of a firefighter and on the way out.
“I thought to myself, we’ve got this thing handled,” Wessel recalled. “But leaving the scene was a horrible decision, one that I will toss around in my head for the rest of my life. Was it right or wrong? Would things have changed if I had stayed there? I don’t know. Non-emergency services people who armchair quarterback, if they have a decision to make, they have the luxury of people they can consult with. In the emergency services, we don’t have that luxury. We make a lot of critical decisions in a short period. This is another thing we’ve learned: you don’t have a lot of time. A situation that looks stable can go to hell in seconds.”
The incident reports detail that Wessel left the scene at 8:35 A.M. He was gone for three minutes, transporting the baby to the hospital, and was back on scene at 8:38. It was in that brief period that the tragedy unfolded and was discovered when another firefighter went to the door of the house to find that the 11¼2-inch hose stream stretched inside was burned in half and free-flowing water.
Toward Greater Awareness
Wessel reflected on what the incident has done to the department’s demeanor: “Prior to the incident, this department had turned into an island. Now, there is more of an appetite to go out and see how other departments do things and look at new ideas. There’s an awareness within the department now that there is greater knowledge out there than what we knew from what experience we’ve had. I think that if we were confronted with a similar situation today, the decision that would be made is, what can we do to maximize firefighter safety?
“With the experience we have here now, we’ve realized that trying to conduct rescue operations without also conducting ventilation and fire suppression is very risky. We don’t have more engine and truck companies coming in to do those functions, so we have to limit ourselves to doing only what we can do. We do have excellent relations with our neighboring volunteer fire departments and they are responding with us faster and much more often, as determined by the IC (incident commander). If we see someone in a window that needs help, that’s where we’re going to concentrate our efforts. But, if we’ve got someone trapped inside, we’ve got to gain control of the situation first, whether it be ventilation or fire suppression that accomplishes that, before we can attempt the rescue. That’s where tradition and pride has to take a back seat.