On The Job – Pennsylvania: Firefighters Dodge "Bullets" On "Goose Day"

Patrick Pauly reports on a house fire where the water supply stopped, two collapses occurred and a firefighter was trapped. Share the many lessons learned at this unusual incident.

LEWISTOWN FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Robert McCaa Personnel: 90 volunteer firefighters Apparatus: Three engines, one aerial ladder, one ladder tower, one rescue/engine Population: 9,200 Area: Two square miles Sept. 29 is known as "Goose Day" in Mifflin County, PA, dating to an English...

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The regulator had been removed from Duncan's facepiece, so I asked for someone outside to send in one of the Lewistown rapid intervention team rescue packs. I removed the regulator from my facepiece and shared it with Duncan. Most of the visible debris had been removed from Duncan and we tried several times to pick him up or drag him, but something had a grasp on him. It appeared that his right leg was still entrapped. I stayed until every bit of air was out of my SCBA cylinder, then excused myself through the rear wall window.

Stations 1 and 3, the Burnham and Yeagertown fire companies, were called to the scene at 8:10 A.M. and asked by McCaa to "take over the firefighting" operations. Burnham Fire Chief William McCurry assumed operations of the fire. Several other pieces of equipment were requested from Mifflin and Juniata county stations to stage near the fire or cover stations in Lewistown.

Many firefighters from the RIT32 team, including retired Coast Guard Fire Chief Scott Settle, Chief 2 Charlie Harklerode and Firefighter Cory Reigle, continued to work to free the trapped man. Meanwhile, the hoselines were operated by the firefighters of Companies 1 and 3. They had most of the visible fire extinguished, but flames kept showing up at various openings.

At 8:55 A.M., a secondary collapse occurred, bringing the roof and remaining second floor material into Division 1. At least 10 firefighters were working in the area of Duncan when this scenario unfolded. Once again, I prayed. Most of the firefighters extricated themselves by going to one of the four outside walls and sliding or jumping out. Harklerode was assisted through the B wall opening and taken to Fame EMS personnel. He was transported to the Lewistown Hospital emergency room with minor injuries.

A personnel accountability report (PAR) was made and all firefighters were accounted for. Efforts to remove Duncan continued. Additional firefighters working near Duncan before or after the secondary collapse included Engine Captain Sean Markley, Lieutenant Terry Beasom, Firefighters Travis Myers and Ron Schaeffer from Station 11; Douglas, Rich Bickle from Station 15, and Captain 4 Mark Earnest. Captain 14 Bob Barlett assumed a position near the B-C corner outside the structure. He functioned as an unofficial rescue liaison, suggesting different tools, coordinating efforts and trying to solve the dilemma.

I was assigned to find a way to the basement and try to verify whether Duncan's foot was through the floor. I recruited several firefighters standing near the C-D corner who were ready to go to work. We made sure an officer from Company 1 had our names before entering. We stretched a rope into the addition on side D and turned into the area near Duncan. After studying the layout of the house and talking to several people, we assumed the basement stairs would be in this area. No one could find them in any other room.

While we were still trying to find the stairs, we heard that Duncan had been freed. The time was 9:13 A.M. Duncan's right foot had been partly through a hole in the floor. He was freed after the debris had been removed from around his the foot and two cuts were made with a reciprocating saw in 30 to 45 seconds. He was transported to the Lewistown emergency room for observation and discharged a few hours later with minor injuries.

Fire investigators ruled the occupants of the home accidentally started the fire with the use of a candle. The occupant recovered from her burns and returned home from the hospital.

Incident Critique

The evening after the fire, 40-plus emergency responders attended a critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) session to clear their minds. Several days later, McCaa held a critique of the incident. More than 50 emergency responders who were present during the fire attended. Many items were discussed and several points were made. Items that should have been done or should not be repeated included:

  • No rapid intervention team was initially requested when the "working fire" was confirmed.
  • Upon the report of a trapped firefighter, no PAR was made.
  • There was never a "Mayday" announcement.
  • The dispatcher was confused by the initial request for RIT32.
  • The first-arriving company that was asked to serve as a rapid intervention team was not informed that a firefighter was trapped.
  • The rapid intervention team did not designate a "rescue" officer or any other "command structure positions."
  • Search and rescue efforts were not clearly assigned and thus "freelancing" took place.
  • There was too little effort to listen for the PASS device signal of the trapped firefighter.
  • Proper lighting was very slow being placed into the structure.
  • Suppression efforts were inadequate near the trapped firefighter.
  • Overall communications could have been better.
  • Too many firefighters freelanced.
  • Many tasks to support the removal of the trapped firefighter were not started or not completed; i.e., window opening enlargement was started several times, but not finished.