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We are a large volunteer fire company responsible for protecting a highly populated seaside resort city. We staff at least one engine company with volunteer duty crews to provide an immediate response. We also have career paramedic/firefighters who support and supplement our response.
At 11:17 P.M., the company was alerted for a working building fire at a four-story, wood-frame apartment complex. The assignment for the call was three engine companies, two truck companies, the rescue company and an advanced life support (ALS) ambulance with two firefighter/paramedics.
First-due Engine 16 and its crew of five firefighters (including the captain and a lieutenant), which had just cleared an automatic fire alarm call and was returning to quarters, reported on location two minutes later with smoke showing from the top floor. The lieutenant established command at 11:19 and was relieved six minutes later by the arrival of a chief officer.
After exiting the engine, the captain - who took the interior - was met by a civilian reporting a woman trapped on a fourth-floor balcony. After ordering the firefighters to stretch a 350-foot two-inch attack line up the exterior stairs of side A to the fire unit, the captain walked around to verify the report. Seeing smoke pushing from a unit, he started up the exterior stairs to join the firefighters who were stretching the line on the fourth floor and commence fire suppression activities.
Upon reaching the fire floor, the captain was met by another civilian reporting a woman trapped on the balcony of the fire unit. Believing the woman had retreated back into the unit (since he did not see her from the ground), the captain, in full protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), but without a charged hoseline, crawled into the fire unit alone, from side A, in an attempt to conduct a primary search. After a limited search, he was driven out by high heat and near zero visibility.
Leaving the fire unit, the captain found that the attack line was not yet charged. Observing the advancing fire conditions, the captain - again without the aid of a charged hoseline - entered the fire unit in another attempt to conduct search, and did so "running" in an upright position. After reaching the far wall (side C), the captain was caught when the room flashed, receiving second-degree burns to both hands and both ears. He was forced to retreat, running through the unit from C to A. He didn't realize he was one foot from the sliding glass door on side C, right where the victim was located.
The main lesson we learned is to stay true to your training and not stand up in a fire, although we still feel confident that we can cover ground more quickly by running instead of crawling - we should "stay low and let it blow." We don't apologize for executing a search without the aid of a charged hoseline, but will admit that it would have turned out much better if we had not had water supply problems. Additionally, the units on each side of the fire unit were not involved when the critical decision was made to attempt to grab the victim. Given the opportunity to do it over again, I would have forced the door of one of the adjoining units and simply walked through a non-hostile environment and hopped the balcony partition to perform the rescue.
These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communication with the writer:
An engine company staffed with five firefighters!?
Wow - now that's a great change from what is being seen around most of the country. In a time when many fire department, government and community leaders have lost touch with the fact that it takes STAFFING to accomplish the "basic" tasks required in the first few minutes, it is refreshing to see this kind of staffing.