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


We were dispatched to respond to a report of a house fire. Upon the chief's response, he asked the dispatcher if there was a callback, since there had been a false alarm in the same area a day earlier. The dispatcher advised there was a callback number, but no further information was available.

I was the officer with the truck company. Upon our arrival, the chief informed us that the homeowner stated there was a "small fire in a couch" in the basement, but he had put it out. I was directed to go downstairs just to verify the situation. I took the one other truck member with me to investigate.

Upon entering the two-story Cape Cod-type private dwelling, I noticed a light smoke condition on the first floor. I went over to the basement door, opened it and encountered what I thought was a little too much smoke for an extinguished couch fire. At this time, two members from the engine came in, but had no hoseline with them. The other truck company member and I masked up before heading downstairs.

We descended the stairs cautiously, staying low, advancing slowly. The two engine members were behind us. There was not much heat on the way down. We reached the bottom of the stairs, still in the crouched-down position, and as we entered the room immediately to the left of the stairs the room suddenly lighted up with heavy fire. The fire shot above our heads and headed straight up the stairs.

The two engine members quickly exited the stairway while the other truck member and I made a mad dash for the stairway. We quickly reached the top of the stairs, and I attempted to reach over and close the door, but I was unable to, as the fire was blowtorching from the top of the doorway to the bottom.

When we came tumbling out of the front door, much to the chief's surprise, there were no hoselines stretched nor was an engine even ready to do so. We lost the house and nearly lost a few firefighters' lives.

Lessons Learned Discussion by Chief Goldfeder: This is a classic case of "P.A.N.s" - what I call "pre-arrival nothings," also known as "probably ain't nuth'n"! It's when we get the feeling that it will "probably be nothing" prior to our arrival.

"P.A.N." happens when we continually do something such as a response, and what we expected is not the end result, so we get "comfortable" that it probably is nothing. For example, a previous false alarm in this neighborhood earlier in the day immediately puts us in the mode of "P.A.N." You can almost hear them say, "Ah, it's not going to be anything" and immediately everyone "kicks it down a notch," leaving a wide-open area for bad stuff to happen.

It has happened to ALL of us and although that's no excuse, we have to constantly be ready to "expect the unexpected" - and that is a challenge. That's where the OFFICERS come into play. It's the duty of the officers - all of the officers! - to do everything in their power to have certain tasks "in place" just in case something goes wrong. We are in the business of responding to many "reports" that normally do not end up to be anything serious, which puts us in that very dangerous mode of thinking it will "probably be nothing."

What should officers do to minimize the potential for "P.A.N.s"? Some of it is obvious, such as taking the attitude that it is ALWAYS a fire, and making sure that plenty of equipment and staffing are responding. Make sure your companies (and chiefs) arrive and act "as if" there is a fire, even when nothing is showing initially. If you are arriving on what was a verbal report of a fire, lay a supply line, mask up, bring tools, assign tasks and all the other things that we are expected to do. You can always stop those tasks from being performed if you don't need them; however, if you "wait until you need them," it is almost always too late.

It is critical that a constant and conscious state of expecting the unexpected (with the above ingredients) on an emergency scene is the only way to minimize the unexpected. There are some specific "key ingredients" that can help you evaluate your department PRIOR to the run, to determine your level of preparedness, and to see whether or not your members will take the "P.A.N." attitude. Take a look at your department to determine what levels of these ingredients you can identify:

  • Organizational discipline - Strict management and leadership based upon fairly applied operational polices.
  • Written and easy-to-understand policies - Make sure everyone knows the polices and has been given an opportunity to discuss them.
  • Constant and applicable training - Training must be a constant, must be based upon standards and policies, must be taught by qualified and competent instructors and must be done by everyone-not just watched).
  • Qualified supervision - Is your boss looking out to make sure that you and your crew go home safely at the end of the run?
  • Command and control, at all times during emergency responses and operations - Strict management of the emergency scene, with the above ingredients, can make a big difference.

The above Close Call can and probably has happened to each and every one of us. Expecting the unexpected (and preparing for it well in advance) is extremely difficult and challenging, especially when we find ourselves "laid back" and when we fail to look at the "big picture."

Expecting the unexpected is a state (or attitude) that we have to be trained into; it won't happen naturally. A key symptom is "P.A.N.s," which happens naturally. Nearly every Close Call case study we review in this column occurred when "we weren't expecting it" and "without warning," as well as "this was a routine run."

By applying some of the above suggestions to your department, you'll not only find it a safer place to operate in, but you'll also be surprised that when done right, morale and enthusiasm within the organization improves.

In regard to this Close Call, here are a few final thoughts:

  • 1. Don't believe the homeowner. If it WAS on fire, it still IS on fire, until we confirm that it's not. Also, even though it was not a factor in this case, don't believe the cops; as well intentioned as they are, they are not qualified to determine your level of actions or response.
  • 2. Enter the building fully prepared. Lay the supply line, mask up and stretch a handline as well as a backup (protect the stairs), bring in the tools, prepare to vent and have all the crews in place - just in case.
  • 3. NEVER cancel any equipment or tasks until you are fully confident that there is no problem. Note to incident commanders: I said you, no one else. You are responsible for that run and the lives of those involved in it.
  • 4. Have a backup plan at all times. Ask yourself, "If things go bad right now, what we would do?" Do you have adequate manpower, secondary sources of water, backup hoselines and a rapid intervention team in place?

By applying some of these ideas well before and, of course, during the run you can greatly increase your odds of a successful run, minimizing the "probably ain't nuth'ns," doing a decent job for those who called you for "their" fire and, most important, sending everyone home safely at the end of that run.