Much More Than A Close Call: Part 2

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...


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“I don’t want to have to go visit the family of another firefighter as now it is clear – my firefighters are my number-one priority. If our new philosophy means a delay in our ability to rescue a civilian, then that’s what it means. My mindset has changed significantly in regard to life safety. I think the trickle-down effect from focusing on firefighter safety will only enhance civilian life safety. We’re not doing our civilians any good if we’re not operating safely ourselves.”

Investigators later determined that low-density fiberboard ceiling tile and other interior finish components were contributing factors to the rapidity of the flashover that killed the three firefighters. It was also determined that there had been an extensive burn time before firefighters arrived; that, in combination with the structure’s balloon construction, played a role in the fire’s behavior.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) participated in the investigation along with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and did computer modeling of the fire scenario. One lesson learned from the fire modeling was that opening the front door, along with the window that the mother had opened when she escaped, caused fire dynamics that resulted in what NIST investigators termed a “thermal blast.”

The computer modeling brought another stark realization to Wessel.

“From watching the computer models and looking back on my career here,” he said, “I had to ask myself, how many times have we come this close? How many times have we skirted disaster? I remember a fire we had in the basement of an old hotel one night several years back. Four of us went down into it with two hoselines. The smoke was thick and dark, and the heat was searing. The only other person on scene was a rookie at the control panel of the truck. There’s no reason why we should have been down there.”

Wessel has an interesting observation regarding the management philosophy of hazardous materials incidents and fires: “We’re not killing firefighters at hazardous materials calls because of the cautious way we respond to them, but we’re killing firefighters when we respond to fires.” So, he suggests firefighters be as cautious in their approach to fires as hazardous materials incidents by:

“If you can’t do a job safely,” Wessel said, “then the only thing you can do is figure out what you can do to minimize its impact.”

Operational Safety

Wessel documents several steps the department has now taken operationally to ensure enhanced safety for its personnel. First, implementing a rapid intervention team policy and determining what can be done to get off-duty personnel and mutual aid resources on scene quicker. An obvious observation is that if we don’t place our firefighters in “beyond capability harm’s way,” the need for a rapid intervention team is minimized. “Of course, we want to do what any other firefighter wants to do – save lives – but we must protect our firefighters as the top priority, even before those who call us.”

Enhancing accountability at the emergency scene is critical – and that means radios that work. Securing enhanced communications so the location of every firefighter and what he or she is doing is known. Before this incident, just the officer had a portable radio. Now every firefighter has one. The department is getting away from “10” codes and going to plain-English in radio communications.

New Policy on Mutual Aid

“This incident has certainly changed our policy as far as calling in neighboring volunteer departments for mutual aid,” noted Wessel. “We are now more conscious of our limitations and because of the amount of support we received from our neighboring departments, our relationship with other departments has greatly improved. We relied on our neighbors to protect our district while we were crippled. I hate it, but there’s always been this barrier between volunteer and career firefighters. I’ve learned that there are volunteer and career firefighters. Both have professionals in their ranks and both have members who are less than desirable. I’d like to see the gap between the two removed, but I’m not sure it ever will be. I don’t care what anyone says, a good firefighter isn’t in it for the money. It’s something inside of them and that’s it.” The KFD also trains regularly with the volunteer departments that participate on mutual responses.