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I have been in the fire service for 17 years, both as a volunteer and career firefighter/EMT-paramedic. I have been fortunate to run at some busy stations, and have received excellent training and experience in my tenure. I have also held every rank from assistant chief on down and continue as an active volunteer firefighter/officer and career firefighter.
I work for a small county fire department (150 full-time firefighters supplemented by 100 part-time firefighters) with an additional 1,000 volunteers in 31 companies. In 2002, I was injured on the job and assigned to light duty until cleared to return to work. I was very eager to go to my last doctor's appointment to be approved to return to work. I stopped by my firehouse upon leaving the doctor's office to advise my shift supervisor that I would return to work the following week.
While I was visiting, the companies in my battalion were alerted to a dwelling fire in which my firehouse would have been the third-due engine. I (of course) grabbed my gear and boarded the engine for the response, which is permitted. It was a beautiful day, the temperature was about 60 degrees with a slight wind at about 15 to 20 mph. As we made the almost four-mile ride to the incident, it became painfully obvious that we would be the first-in engine (there was a slow turnout by the first- and second-due companies because of waiting on the volunteer response). Also, it became clear that almost two-thirds of the first-alarm assignment, from two counties, would fail to respond or respond driver only due to poor volunteer turnout. The area is mountainous, with limited access, steep inclines and no local water supply, so tanker shuttles are our only source.
When the volunteer duty officer from the first-due station arrived, he reported smoke showing and that the house was well off the roadway. My officer in turn asked if he wanted us to lay a line in. No response from the officer. Perplexed, my officer told the driver not to lay in, anticipating a very long lay and a tanker shuttle operation. We proceeded down the driveway quite a distance before the house was even visible. The structure was a very large, 21/2-story wood-frame and stone house, with a 11/2-story attached two-car garage at one end (side 4) and 11/2-story office area in the opposing end (side 2).
What I saw didn't appear to be too serious - wispy smoke from the roof with a small finger of flame near the edge of the eaves at the connection between the office area and the main house on side 1; nothing we couldn't handle with our initial attack line.
What I assumed the incident commander would do (or should have done) and what really happened were two entirely different things. I have been trained that if you commit an attack line of 11/2 inches or larger, you must establish a water supply. And you need the full assignment completed or filled out for any fire in a building until you know it's out.
Unfortunately, the incident commander, even when told that a number of fire companies failed to respond or were responding understaffed, including the first-due truck company, advised the dispatcher not to replace them, that the fire would be contained and brought under control by the first engine company.
My supervisor and I talked about this as we approached the house and agreed that we would have our work cut out for us. We (just like we are trained) did not take the fire lightly, and had donned full PPE (personal protective equipment) as is standard for any structure fire. Two of us conducted a search to find the fire, while my supervisor and a young volunteer firefighter stretched the line.