Single Search: A Risky Gamble

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This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder's comments follow.

I was the officer on a three-person engine company that arrived first due at a working fire in a three-story occupied apartment house at 6 o'clock on a Saturday morning. Before we had even left quarters, the chief was on the scene reporting a working fire with reports of people trapped.

Our volunteer department's response was two ladder companies and one additional engine, for a total of two and two plus chiefs as well as members responding directly to the scene. Our total manpower was 20 firefighters, including command, on the first-alarm assignment. We also received an additional mutual aid engine, truck and ambulance as a part of the second alarm.

We arrived on the scene quickly, as the address was only two blocks from our firehouse. We hooked up to the nearest hydrant and stretched into the front of the building. As the pump operator and hydrant man were establishing the water supply, I began to stretch a two-inch attack line through the front door of the structure. I could see that the fire was in a first-floor rear apartment.

As I was stretching the line, the chief came out of a side alley and ordered me to abandon the stretch and conduct a vent/enter/search of a rear bedroom in the fire apartment where an elderly woman was supposedly trapped (we later learned that she had escaped prior to our arrival).

I climbed a portable ladder and entered the bedroom through a first-floor window about 10 feet off the ground, where visibility was poor at best. A civilian neighbor was placing a 24-foot aluminum extension ladder up to the window of the elderly woman's bedroom as I came down the alley. (Yes, I know that's contrary to procedure, but the ladder was in good condition and time was of the essence.) Smoke was issuing from the window and no other firefighters were available to help me.

I looked out into the apartment and could see exactly where the fire was burning, in an adjacent bedroom. I climbed in to begin a quick search on my own. Closing the bedroom door to buy some time, I searched the room with negative results. By this time, other companies had arrived, but entry still had not been gained through the front door of the apartment.

I then called for a line to be passed through the window to me so I could attack the fire. First, I called out to a firefighter who had just arrived in the alley, followed by a radio call to the chief. Another firefighter had climbed the ladder and was waiting with a line to be charged before entering to assist me. This tactic, although unorthodox, would have probably worked if the line had been charged, but water never came.

The fire began to burn through the top of the bedroom door, but I assumed water was on the way. I remained in my position, inside the building, at the window where the ladder, the firefighter and the uncharged line were. I waited near the window so I wouldn't lose my bearings.

The line was delivered to me very quickly, prior to the door beginning to fail. The time it took for it to be charged resulted in the door burning through and the fire extending into the room that I was in. It should also be noted that I called by radio and shouted out the window, several times, for water, with negative results. The post-incident analysis found that some confusion around the first-due engine caused the water delay.

The flames began to roll over my head, and I decided that it was clearly time to leave. In my haste to get out, I missed the ladder and fell to the ground, fracturing a rib. As I hit the ground, I looked up to see the room flash over and fire blow out of the window that I had just exited. The time frame between bailing out and the flashover was seconds. This entire scenario occurred in less than 10 minutes from the time of dispatch. At no time while I was in the structure did I feel excessive heat. The only indication of impending flashover was visual. I saw the rollover coming across the ceiling, just before I bailed out.

Lesson learned: I should have exited the building after conducting the search and assisted with stretching the initial line through the front door. It has also been suggested that the chief should have let me continue the initial stretch and get water on the fire, but that's a tough call. If that woman had been in the bedroom, I don't think she would have survived without prompt removal.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communication with the writer:

I was recently at the Chicago Fire Academy and saw two signs near the Memorial Wall of Badges in the lobby that stated it perfectly. The first one essentially said: In order for firefighters to survive the dangers of the firefighting, they must learn how other firefighters have (had "Close Calls" and even) been injured or killed.

As tough as that sounds, it couldn't be more truthful. So many firefighters and departments spend so much time doing anything BUT focusing on structural firefighting these days that it's no wonder the situations we read and write about continue to occur. It seems to me that structural firefighting has, sadly, become overshadowed by the many other duties we are asked to perform. Is that a problem? Well, yes and no.

If we don't stay focused on the issues, training and operations involved in structural firefighting while also doing the other "stuff," then it is a problem. I generally support and understand the secondary duties that fire departments must perform today, but our greatest opportunities to be injured or killed are those "low-frequency/high-impact" incidents such as the structural fire. Some will say "we don't have a lot of fires anymore" and then they lose focus - or already have! To that I respond that we then must train and pre-plan even more aggressively on a daily basis for those fires that will come.

This is certainly not a career or volunteer issue; it's a firefighter issue. Volunteers need to be involved in training just as regularly. The old saying "but we're just volunteers" won't cut it in today's world. If you go to fire calls, you train. Unfortunately, we don't always learn from others. It takes aggressive leadership, interest, enthusiasm and participation at all levels to make sure that we NEVER lose focus!

The other sign I saw said: No matter how our professions changes, as long as we commit to interior searches for trapped people and interior fire attacks to suppress fires, this profession will remain a dirty "hands-on" occupation requiring training to be of the same aggressiveness and likeness.

At no time in the history of the fire service has this been more true than it is now. Our profession IS changing; just look around. On the other hand, as stated above, we still cannot allow ourselves to lose focus of our responsibility (to both the public and our members) in structural firefighting. At no other time in our history have we discussed the issues of "maybe we shouldn't be sending firefighters in" with such depth, and without a doubt that discussion stirs lots of emotions. After all, "we are expected" to go in. Well, sometimes - and that's the issue. Certain factors must be in place before we just randomly go "running in." For example (and this is a quick example of just a few of the factors), we need:

  • Trained personnel, and that means plenty of firefighters.

  • Intelligent response time ability. That means we get to the scene, with adequate staffing within a few minutes of the report.

  • Enough firefighters to safely fulfill all the required operational and support tasks that must be accomplished. In most cases, they must be accomplished simultaneously.

  • An adequate water supply or a well-tuned system of water delivery for rural areas.

  • A command and accountability system led by an experienced and trained fire commander.

  • A reliable radio system that lets us simply talk to and hear each other under firefighting conditions.

  • An in-depth understanding of building construction as it relates to firefighting.

  • Information regarding the occupancy and the occupants, and their locations.

  • An understanding of where the fire was, is and will be.

  • And much more that must be applied within moments of arrival.

The issue of "going in or not" deserves more than a simple yes-or-no answer. We sometimes hear from folks who say "we just WON'T go in." I'm not sure that's always the answer, but neither is "we'll ALWAYS go in." We all know of fires where tragic results occurred due to some or any part of the above factors not being fulfilled. Sometimes, we even see history repeat itself.

Just recently, we read and even saw a tragic fire that resulted in the deaths of three firefighters. The similarities of that fire horribly reminded us of another fire that occurred about 20 years ago that was hailed as a fire that "changed how the fire service operates" - or did it?

In so many examples-it just comes down to one issue: TRAINING. The training MUST reflect the types of fires and related emergencies you will potentially respond to. How do you know what types of fires you'll respond to? Look around your community; now, picture it on fire.

Let's review this month's Close Call:

The fact that this is a volunteer fire department and the call occurred on a Saturday morning is a positive factor. Unfortunately, responses for many volunteer companies are very limited during the weekdays - especially at 6 A.M., when many volunteer firefighters are commuting to and from work, leaving a response gap in some cases. In this case, that was not a factor. On the other hand, as we have discussed in this column and in the "Close Calls" classes at Firehouse Expo and Firehouse World, the issue of volunteer fire departments having all members respond from home or work should be seriously evaluated.

If the department can staff an engine within a minute or two with at-home or at-work responders, then there may be no need to consider changing. However, that's quite a challenge. Unstaffed volunteer fire departments, no matter how good they may be, can negatively impact their own good intentions by not staffing at least a first-out piece of apparatus. At least consider it. In this case, all responders came from home causing a delay of the first-out three-person engine company. The balance of the response was a total of 20 firefighters, which is good for a first-alarm assignment. It generally lets most of the initial critical tasks be accomplished in a timely manner as long as the apparatus arrives at around the same time.

Upon arrival, they had fire and smoke showing. The chief was on the scene and there were reports of victims. The first-due engine company staffing was three firefighters total - a driver/pump operator, a company officer and a firefighter. In some areas this may be considered good staffing for an engine company, but it limits the tasks that the engine can perform. In this case the pump operator handled the pump and the firefighter assisted in the hookup.

As they arrived, the officer was advised by the chief to drop the handline that was being stretched and to immediately vent, enter and search the specific apartment for a victim. As the writer indicates, there was no victim, but as in many cases we are told that there is a victim, requiring quick-thinking actions.

The fact that the officer was directed to do a search on his own falls into the "go in-don't go in" scenario. There was a report of a victim, so based on the conditions the chief felt the search should be done, and it was. Unfortunately, the officer was forced to do it by himself since no other companies were on the scene and his firefighter was not yet available. The fire conditions that they observed at the time warranted his attempt. A portable ladder provided by a civilian was used to initiate the search. The writer knows that we should try to use fire department ladders, but when this situation presented itself, the use of the civilian's ladder made sense.

As the officer reached the window, he could see where the fire was and felt it was safe to enter and search for the reported victim. Again, in an attempt to overstate this, a firefighter searching alone, without seeing or hearing a victim, without a charged hose line, without backup and specific staffing, throws the "risk vs. benefit" scale into overdrive. But in this case the conditions found warranted the decision by the chief and the officer.

Note that the officer closed the door to slow the extension of fire into the search area, a good move. That simple tactic, applying experience, training, common sense and requiring nothing fancy, bought him some time. At this point, the officer decided to "stay put" with the uncharged line that was handed to him by the firefighter who was now on the ladder, outside of the window, and wait for the water. That might have worked if the fire hadn't started to extend further and burn through the door. The officer essentially stayed by the "laddered" window and monitored the conditions.

At this point, though, the conditions were worsening and had the line been charged, they might have been able to knock the fire down, but since there was no water the officer got caught. He also stated that he called for water by radio and by shouting out the window several times, with negative results. As the fire started to roll over and above his head, he immediately realized it was time to get out. When he attempted to leave, he fell out of the window, missed the ladder and fell to the ground, fracturing a rib.

Following his dramatic exit, the room flashed and the fire blew out of the window he had just left; the time frame between his bailing out and the fire conditions were just seconds. The officer easily could have suffered much more than a broken rib.

In is interesting to note that the officer indicated that he initially felt little heat and all of his warnings were based on what he saw, not what he felt. The fire conditions allowed for the temporary natural venting by other means such as other windows, the floors above, the hallways, the stairs or through walls and ceilings. But as the fire grew it sought other means of fuel and spread into the room he was in, then right out the window.

  • A staffed firehouse gets on the road quicker with a specific "known" number of firefighters than an unstaffed one does.

  • Multiple tasks take multiple firefighters. Insure plenty of staffing for the first alarm, and call for a lot more the moment you suspect it might be needed.

  • Water supply - if you find yourself in a situation where water is needed - and it isn't delivered - it's time for "Plan B," which in this case was to bail. Recently, it seems that more often than not we've been notified of fires where water was not delivered in an expected time and manner. Have a "Plan B" for the times when the initial source of water isn't delivered as expected be it by supply or handline.

  • If the fire can be knocked down quickly, other problems may take care of themselves. In this case, there were some after-the-fact comments at their firehouse that "the chief should have allowed me to continue the initial stretch and get water on the fire; but that's a tough call." Sure it is. We work very carefully in this column to use the facts and apply them to standard, accepted and proven firefighting practices, and not just toss opinions. We've all been to fires where after the run, we all have the answers - and that's OK, as long as we learn from them. At this fire, the officer attacking with one firefighter backing him up on a charged line would have been a safer tactic than the search he conducted on his own, as the final results have shown.

As firefighters, any of us may find ourselves in the rare "go or no go" situation and each one of those has to be evaluated on its own. The key to minimizing the extremely and predictably dangerous and potentially fatal practice of going in alone is to "before the fire" insure that your fire department has enough systems in place now to insure adequate and well-trained staffing, a timely response and strict command, accountability and tactics.

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 chgold151@aol.com.


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.

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