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...
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"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!