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

"Firefighters That Stay Together …"

I would like to share a close call I experienced a few years ago. Let me start by telling you I have been in the fire service for 24 years and this was, as you will read, a real close call. It was Friday in January just after 5 P.M. Our department was dispatched for a "possible fire in the wall" of an auto body supply and repair shop. The facility measured 70 by 200 feet and was located across the street from one of our firehouses.

The first unit on the scene reported smoke showing and a second alarm was transmitted immediately. The first unit then stretched a line in to the south end of the building and started to pull the ceiling in the upstairs storage area, where they found heavy fire. The second engine out of headquarters arrived and stretched a second line to back up the first unit.

I was riding the second engine out of headquarters along with the driver, a lieutenant and another firefighter who happens to be my brother-in-law. We arrived and placed a five-inch supply line to supply the first units, then stretched 300 feet of handline into the shop at the north end of the building. There was only a very light haze and it didn't seem like it was going to be a problem.

The assistant chief handed me a radio and asked my brother-in-law and I to check the upstairs portion of that business for extension. A third firefighter joined us. Seeing only a light haze, we took the radio and a light and left the hose at the door. We walked through the first room, unlocked a door into a second room, went through a plywood door and found the stairs. We started up the stairs to a landing, where we encountered more smoke. We continued to the top of the stairs and found a locked door and heavier smoke, so we radioed the assistant chief of the conditions. He advised use that he was going to have the hoseline advanced to our position.

Within a minute, the order was given to evacuate the building. We started down the stairs. The smoke was banked to the floor and we could not find the plywood door through which we had entered. I immediately radioed that we could not find the way out. The crews outside tried to make entry and find us, but because we were moving it was like playing cat-and-mouse.

We found a metal wall that we thought was an exterior wall, and we started to work our way along it. We banged on it, only to find that it was an interior wall that led us into a tool room. We continued to work our way along and to bang on the wall, hoping the guys outside would hear us. We could hear fire crackling in front of us and feel the heat, so we knew the fire was in the south end of the building. We turned and started working the other direction.

At that time, the third firefighter's low-air alarm started to vibrate, and we knew our air supplies wouldn't last much longer. Indeed, within a minute our low-air alarms began vibrating. At that point, we got on our knees for a second, trying to stay calm and assess our situation. It was getting hard not to panic. We continued along the wall when my brother-in-law felt the tracks of an overhead door. We started to pull up on it, but the owner had placed Visegrips on the top of the tracks to keep the door locked!

Several firefighters on the outside heard us banging at the door and saw our fingers under the door, and we were all able to get the door up just enough to crawl under. The firefighters whose air ran out had to be dragged out and was hospitalized overnight with smoke inhalation. My brother-in-law and I were examined and released. It was later learned that the third guy that went in with us had already been in and out of the building, so he didn't start with us with a full air bottle.

This incident scared the hell out of me. I was starting to think that we weren't going to get out, that I would not see my wife - who was nine months pregnant - and my son again. We were very lucky that night. We stayed together and used our training, which helped us to avoid panicking and to get out. A home video taken at the scene timed us being lost for about 15 minutes. In all, 100 firefighters from nine departments battled this fire, with the last units leaving at 5 o'clock the next morning. Three businesses were gutted, and a fourth opened for business on Monday morning.

The lessons learned were:

  1. Don't become complacent and think that "the run" you are going on is "just another run." It won't be.
  2. Always take a hoseline with you in case you need to follow it out. As we found out, things can turn bad very fast. If you are a truck company, rope your exit.
  3. Don't freelance. The third guy had in the building earlier and was ordered out, but went looking for action anyway.
  4. Always have a radio. Every interior firefighter in our department now has a radio.
  5. If you have an accountability system, train with it and use it. If you don't have one, get one.
  6. Always stay together. This is how all three of us got out of that building.
  7. Train on getting lost firefighters out of the building without putting more firefighters in the building. We have a system using portable air horns at doors and windows, as well as communicating to firefighters via radio to move in the direction of the air horn they can hear best. It works.
  8. Think ahead and be safe so you go home at the end of the call; your family will be waiting.
  9. Spend MORE time training. Do an evaluation of how much "real quality" time is being spent on "real quality" training.