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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.