On a very cold winter night, around midnight with a temperature of minus six degrees, our fire and rescue department was dispatched as automatic mutual aid with a nearby city to a dwelling fire. I was the officer on our engine, which responded with four firefighters. As we approached the scene, I asked the chief of the city fire department, who was already on scene, for our assignment.
The structure was a single-family home of wood-frame construction, measuring approximately 1,700 square feet with a one-story living room and kitchen area graduating to two stories toward the B side. Heavy fire had already vented through the roof where the fireplace was located on the first floor.
The city chief asked for our manpower to force entry through the front door on side A. We were then asked to stretch a 11/2-inch handline through this door. As three firefighters and I made entry through the front door with two 11/2-inch handlines, I noticed a firefighter was directing a stream from outside on the C side into the area of fire that had already vented through the roof. We made entry into the living room, in which fire was showing in the walls and ceiling and extending toward the B, or second-story, side.
We knocked the fire down in the living room and were preparing to advance to the second story to stop the extension when I looked up and saw the heavy plaster ceiling bowing between us and the door in the living room area. At that point, a crack became apparent and I ordered an immediate evacuation of the house. As soon as I was sure the three firefighters who were with me made it to the door, I also headed for the egress. At this point, the ceiling collapsed into the living room area. This collapse would have seriously injured our firefighters as well as cut off our method of egress. The plaster caught the edge of my helmet, although no serious injuries were incurred.
Here are the lessons we learned:
- Never direct water into a structure from the exterior exposures where interior teams are operating. Do not make an interior attack when this condition is present.
- Always, especially as an officer, think firefighter safety first and constantly monitor the ever-changing conditions on the fireground.
- Make sure all personnel are properly wearing their personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Make sure you know where your primary and secondary methods of egress are.
- Make sure an accountability and staging sector has been established.
- Have a rapid intervention team in place any time an interior fire attack is being made. We had none.
These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communication with the writer and other personnel who operated at this incident:
Once again, a seemingly "routine" house fire almost caused injury or death to some firefighters. Of course, that's the issue - there are no routine responses! From the moment we are alerted until the time we are back in our cozy beds, we have to constantly be alert as to what can go wrong.
Before reviewing this specific fire, let's take a look at a sampling of factors that can usually be used as a "template." By using these you can "predict" the better chances of success at an incident. For example:
1. The fire department's preparedness before the fire. It comes down to regular, planned and qualified training! This includes mutual aid training. Many fire departments these days are responding as a part of an automatic mutual aid plan, and that is excellent. The problem is, many of these same departments see each other only when a run comes in. That's a problem. We need to train regularly with any department that we plan on responding with. That includes rapid intervention team responses as well. Before the run is when we can determine operational, tactical and command plans, based upon the response.
2. The strategic and tactical setup of the apparatus. Many fire departments have equipment that looks great, but is useless at a fire. "Ready" apparatus should look that way - ready. Easy, quick and simple access to the lines, tools and equipment is critical! But look at some of the rigs we see at the fire shows. I saw one brand-new "pride of the fleet" rig recently where we would need a small tower ladder to reach the crosslays. That may look cool, but it is a big problem when you actually have to grab that line and stretch it to a fire.
3. A response plan that identifies to the dispatchers the correct amount of resources to send "on the first alarm," based on the situation requiring assistance. Different risks require different responses. If you have significantly different types of homes in your community, you should have different responses. Example: A 1,000-square-foot dwelling may not get the same response as a 10,000-square-foot mansion. The same goes for residential versus commercial versus institutional versus industrial responses. And then there is the issue of hydranted versus non-hydranted.
As you read this, it seems to make sense that different reported structural fires should get different responses, right? Yet so many fire departments send the same response of equipment, stations and manpower to "any" building fire. Sure, there is a minimum that should go to any reported structure fire (enough firefighters and equipment to take on the initial numerous simultaneous tasks), but after that, take a look at what may have to be done initially and have a plan to insure that gets dispatched as well.
4. The timely arrival of trained and qualified firefighters and officers. It takes well-trained firefighters and officers to give your department a "fighting" chance of returning home safely. Sadly, so many departments respond with horrifically low staffing levels and then wonder what happened when a building fire isn't controlled quickly, someone gets hurt, rescues can't be made or preventable situations occur due to tasks not getting done.
At a dwelling fire of any size, certain specific tasks must get done from stretching primary and backup lines to venting to search, etc. It takes firefighters to get that done in a fair and timely basis. Sadly, budgets continue to be balanced on the backs of firefighters - and civilians.
An article in a local newspaper quotes the city manager as saying, "The fire department is a heavy expense and we'll likely have to make cuts." Somehow, people like him forget the essential services (and the need to staff them), but always make sure that the parks and recreation budgets are in good shape. Green grass versus prepared fire departments? I'll bet if Mrs. Smith had the facts, we'd be in better shape.
5. An effective and simple radio communications system. As odd as it may seem, numerous "new" radio systems are being put in place at a cost of millions of dollars, but in many cases we simply cannot speak to each other clearly on the fireground.
Today's buzzword on fire radio communications from those "in the know" is "interoperability." Quite frankly, I couldn't care less about talking to the cops, the public works folks, the water department or the health department until I am confident I can hear our firefighters calling us.
6. "Like the back of your hand" training, knowledge and strict enforcement of the incident command system, and personnel accountability.
7. Leadership that runs the fire like Lou Holtz or Vince Lombardi would run their football field. Fire officers generally have the courage to do something physical, like running into a building to make a search. But do they also have the courage to run a strict fireground, where they won't hesitate to question what, where and why regarding freelancing or wandering by firefighters on the fireground?
Sometimes, you just have to "get in their faces" and when you do, they may not "like" you - do it anyway. What is the best accountability "system" for keeping track of your firefighters? A good, tough and disciplined company officer.
These are just a few examples of what can be used to determine the general level of predictable success on the fireground. Certainly, things can and will go wrong. It's a matter of knowing that before the run comes in and doing everything possible to prepare for it - before the fire.
Fireground tragedies generally occur when proper supervision isn't applied, when strict and daily organizational discipline is lacking, when we don't have qualified (or enough) people involved, when strict accountability, command and control aren't applied, when only one "head" does the thinking without fostering appropriate input and, most critically, when constant, aggressive and applicable training is lacking. A constant state of preparedness by expecting the unexpected with discipline by members at all levels is critical for our safe return. It's easy to "blame the bosses," but this applies to every one of us, at every level.
In this specific fire, it is obvious that several things went right. Automatic mutual aid is a part of the local response plan, and that is critical these days. Automatic mutual aid used to apply only to rural areas, but now with staffing and budget cuts it applies nearly everywhere. Fire departments responding with each other has become common. Unfortunately, most of these departments do not drill and plan with each other, and that's a problem.
We cannot "meet and greet" on the fireground. Pre-planning through drilling and operational familiarization is critical before the fire. Simple issues like common radio channels, common hose threads and simple understanding of how each department operates can make a big difference in our success.
Some of the factors that led to the problems at this fire include:
- The failure for these fire departments to drill together. You can't run together successfully if you don't drill together.
- Strict command and control. A firefighter was directing a hose stream into the hole through which the fire was venting. Not only did this interfere with the ability to vent and place the firefighters in further danger, but the excess water placed in the building appears to have contributed to the collapse. Either the firefighter who did this was freelancing or the orders given were contrary to standard and accepted firefighting practices. Either way, the officer in charge is responsible to insure strict command and control.
- How are you getting out? It is a coordinated responsibility of the chief in charge and those operating to think ahead about what might happen and how the members will escape. In this case, there was no backup plan.
- Rapid intervention teams. Simply put, who will rescue your firefighters when (or before) things get ugly? Are there enough qualified firefighters assigned to that task and are they ready? In this case there was no rapid intervention team.
A simple fire call? Another "routine" run? Don't count on it. Expect that something will go wrong at your emergency scene and seriously plan and train for it now. Knowing that "bad stuff" has happened to other fire departments gives you and your department the opportunity to do everything possible to minimize history repeating itself - on your fireground.
Readers are asked to share their accounts of incidents in which firefighters found themselves in dangerous or life-threatening situations, with the intention of sharing the information and learning from one another to reduce injuries and deaths. These accounts, in the firefighters' own words, can help others avoid similar "close calls." We thank those firefighters who are willing to share their stories. We invite readers to share their experiences. We will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies.
We thank Contributing Editor William Goldfeder for compiling these reports. You may send your reports to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
William Goldfeder, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 30-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 fire officer since 1982 and has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, recently completing his sixth year as a 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.