Close Calls

We have been asking readers 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 will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies.

We thank Contributing Editors William Goldfeder and Mark McLees for helping compile these reports. We again invite readers to share their experiences. You may send them to Chief Goldfeder at

Using Lessons Learned

My department was dispatched to a business fire. The 911 dispatcher reported to the first-due engine company that many calls were received reporting heavy fire and smoke coming from the front of the business. It was about 10:45 P.M. on a weeknight, the weather was clear and the temperature was mild.

I was the first-due officer. I responded on the first alarm immediately as I lived only 11/2 miles from the block of the fire. I could see the glow as I turned onto the highway from about a mile away. I responded with two engines, an aerial and a service unit, and requested tankers as we had no hydrants in this area. I arrived to find a large metal building, 120 by 250 feet (a heavy equipment, crane and bulldozer refurbishing company) with heavy fire showing from all office area windows.

It appeared on size-up that the fire area was concentrated in the administrative area of the business. Behind a non-fire-rated wood-frame (a home-made addition) was the maintenance area for the bulldozers. It contained large drums of used diesel fuel, motor oils and other solvents used in the business.

The first engine was instructed to stretch 21/2-inch attack lines. Our policy is to use the 21/2 attack on all commercial buildings. I had tankers in sight as the second engine went to the midsection of building to make a stand between the office and maintenance areas. The aerial went for the roof.

After my size-up, I returned to the front to find my crew trying to enter through a large steel door, the only access from that side. I spotted my lieutenant taking out a window beside the door, about three feet off the ground. He reached inside to try and remove the steel bar holding the door. He fought with it and gave up. Then, before I could react, he climbed into the room, leaving his hoseline and crew outside the window. He tried to unlock the door from the inside. I moved as quickly as possible to put a stop to this. Another hose crew member climbed in with him and reached out for the nozzle.

Before he had the nozzle in his hand, the lobby area - which was not involved earlier - completely flashed over from floor to ceiling. Inside the window the shadow of my men could be seen clearly in the flame. The crew outside opened up with the solid-stream nozzle off the ceiling from the window seal. The fire was knocked down rapidly, almost as quickly as it came. The two firefighters came out lucky with minor burns.

I feel many mistakes were made here. I've been in the fire service since 1979, chief for about 10 years. I've seen a lot of close calls, but seeing the silhouette of the firemen for that split second put the fear of God in me.

I'm very strict on my members about safety. I stress to them that some things are not worth it. The lieutenant made a serious mistake, the vent crew was too slow, the list could go on. The bottom line is this: What could this chief have done and could do in the future? You can preach and practice and practice, but it still happens. Call it "tunnel vision."

Know When To Leave

We had a 21/2-story frame. The first engine company did not realize the fire was in the wall generating from the second floor. They went to the third floor (also where they were directed) and entered the back. They moved to the front and encountered high heat on the floor and in a room, but no fire.

The second engine company arrived and they went in behind the first with a thermal imaging camera. They immediately saw the "hot wall" where the fire was. When they opened it up, the room started to take off.

As they retreated, the last guy in line as they rolled out the back door onto the outside stairwell was literally climbing over the guys in front of him. They went back to work, regrouped and resumed the attack. A length of hose burned up, a handlight was melted to the floor (they pried it free and continued to use it the rest of the evening).

I was not aware this happened at the time. The last guy in line came to me and reported his lower back felt like it was sunburned. I took a quick look at his back and it was a little red. He said he was OK and went back to work. When he returned to quarters, he discovered second-degree burns on his back, butt and the tops of his legs, through the turnout clothing.

We were lucky we did not lose someone that night. The first-in crew were experienced guys who knew when to leave, but a new firefighter may have tried to stay a little too long.

Watch For Hidden Hazards

I responded to the report of a structure fire in a residential neighborhood consisting of one- and two-story homes. When I arrived on the scene, I found a one-story house fully involved (this was a daytime fire). My company (an officer and two firefighters) was second due. We were ordered to do a primary search of the first floor.

After the fire was knocked down, we started to overhaul the living room. One of my firefighters started to open up the ceiling. He set his hook and gave a pull and a section of the second floor (12 feet by 12 feet) came down on top of me. At the time, I didn't know if it was the ceiling or the building was starting to collapse. One of my buddies from another company pulled me out from under the debris.

What I didn't know until later was that a victim who was in the attic also came down on top of me. I ended up with a chipped bone in my elbow. Why the victim was in the attic we will never know. The size of the house indicated that the attic wasn't much more than a crawl space. Even with the fire out it took awhile to find the attic entrance. The fire department later found out that the building was being used as a flophouse.

I feel that this fire got such a good start for two reasons: it was winter and doors and windows were closed; and the fire had almost burned itself out before one window broke and the whole building flashed, blowing out almost all of the windows. The cause of the fire was careless smoking.