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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.
The old "we don't have a lot of fires" syndrome is running rampant, giving firefighters a false sense of security and letting politicians balance their budgets on our backs. Firefighting requires certain immediate tasks, and those tasks require trained and led firefighters. It is just that simple.
Fire departments need to make sure that their "response procedures" match the communities and the risks that they serve. So often, I visit a community and the members will show their apparatus, their buildings and all the changes they've made to reflect the changing community. But then, when we talk about response, nothing has changed in decades. All of the volunteer firefighters are still responding from home when the alarm is sounded.
If your volunteer department protects a very rural and slow-run area, it's understandable for the 100 or so runs a year that everyone jumps in their cars and responds to the firehouse. However, if you are protecting a suburban or even urban area with volunteer firefighters, the days of the "first-alarm assignment" coming from home or work - with that inherent delay of three to five minutes or more - should be over.
Fire companies do wonderful with all the new equipment, the beautiful firehouses and all the other items that appear to reflect a "changing" volunteer department, but if it takes your department just as long to get a piece of apparatus on the road as it did 10 or 20 years ago, your department isn't meeting the needs of the community - and all your efforts are wasted. Unfortunately, some volunteer fire departments have forgotten what they are there for. Volunteer duty crews not only solve the response problem, but also address the issues of training, equal involvement of all members, and a host of other issues affecting service and morale among volunteer departments. The fire company described above seems to be doing it right by using a mix of in-house "duty crew" volunteer firefighters, responding volunteer firefighters and career firefighter/paramedics.
From just reading the above account, some of the tactical issues effecting this job are quite obvious.
- The crew stretched a hoseline. Seem like a big deal? You'd be surprised at how many departments don't have the first-due engine stretch a line. Call it lazy or whatever, if you have smoke showing, stretch a line. Even if you don't have anything showing, there may be occasions when you want to order a line anyway. Why not? It can always be put back or even broken down.
- The captain did a walk-around. Good decision. If conditions and the size of the building allow it, a command or even a company officer should do a walk-around. It can take just a minute and can much more clearly paint a picture of what you are dealing with. Issues such as access, search, rescue, ladder placement, line placement and related tactical decisions can be more properly and accurately made by having a walk-around performed, allowing the "big picture" to be seen.
- The captain's attempt to do a search and rescue. In the simplest form, the captain should have at least waited for his crew to conduct the search, with the charged line if possible. Since a truck company was not on the scene as quickly as the engine, the options were limited. The issue of "risk versus benefit" weighs in heavily here:
- Is there a victim? Two separate reports said there was and that was confirmed.
- Where is the victim? The location was defined by two separate civilians.
- Will the risk of "running in without a crew and a hoseline" pay off in benefits? In this case it did not. The victim was rescued by two other firefighters on side C, raising a 24-foot ladder and then adding a 14-foot roof ladder above that to effect the rescue, using the balcony rails to secure the 14-footer. True life-saving efforts on the part of the two firefighters that did make a difference.
Perhaps in the captain's first attempt, the "risk" may have been justified based on the initial conditions and reports; however, in his second attempt the risk was not justified. The captain received second-degree burns and the actions converted him from a fire captain to a fire victim, leaving the crew without their boss. There is no need to apologize for not using a charged line; in some cases that may not be an option initially. But consider the "team concept" of searching as well as looking at the big picture of "where is the fire and where will it be going?"
Looking at the first attempt, it also may have led to a bad situation as heavy smoke was showing and, as described, in what were pre-flashover conditions. The captain was lucky. However, in the second attempt, with the conditions as described, a line with a crew should have been stretched along with proper search and venting being done with the assistance of other companies.
- "Stay low and let it blow." Good term. How about this term: "Stay low, let it blow, but don't go without my bro's"? OK, I tried. Seriously, your brother and sister firefighters have been trained to function as a team and must be used that way. Firefighters standing up? Why does that seem to be happening more often these days? Why do we seem to find our younger firefighters (old ones too!) going in on their knees or, even worse, standing up? The answer is simple. Years ago, firefighters didn't have SCBA, so if you planned on breathing you HAD TO STAY LOW and close to the floor! Now with SCBA, that's not a problem.
The other factor is that we have excellent protective clothing today that lets us go in farther. In some cases that is a blessing because clearly today's personal protective bunker gear has saved hundreds of thousands of firefighters from getting injured or even killed. On the other hand, firefighters AND THEIR OFFICERS must still know the conditions and the limits of their equipment based on those conditions - and anticipated conditions as well.
- Using the adjacent units to attempt the rescue is exactly what the big picture is all about. Take a look at all options when looking at the "risk versus benefit." By training as a team with your crew of firefighters and then functioning that way at the scene, the risk of injury to your members is minimized. By maintaining crew integrity, the firefighters can count on having their leader with them and gaining the advantage of the experience and training of that officer. When the crew is broken up, the results are predictable.
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 invite readers to share their experiences. We will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies.
We thank Contributing Editor William Goldfeder for compiling these reports. You may send your reports to Chief Goldfeder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
William Goldfeder, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief fire officer since 1982 and has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, recently completing his sixth year as a commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues.