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 chgold151@aol.com.

DON'T PANIC

My engine company responded one night as part of a first-alarm assignment. We were scheduled as first due to a townhouse, with multiple calls reporting a fire. Despite the late hour and light snow, we had heavy smoke visible several blocks away. As we pulled up in front of the building, smoke was pushing from everywhere in the townhouse. Heavy fire was visible coming over the roof line, venting from a rear window.

My engine company has a very small first-due response area, and we are accustomed to operating without ladder company support, since the closest ladder is 20 or so blocks away. One pipeman (me that night) acts to provide "truck support."

I grabbed the irons while the other pipeman and the lieutenant began to stretch a handline. The hydrant was close enough that the driver was handjacking to it alone. This scenario is very common for us and there was no real concern. Two more engines, two trucks, a squad, two battalion chiefs and a rescue were on their way, so no worries, right?

As I vented a window in the front, for some reason I got a concerned feeling, as if a "warning" was going off in my head. But was I really paying attention? The windows were all secured with iron burglar bars. Since this was a townhouse, the windows were normal height - but only 12 inches wide.

I proceeded to force the door and do a quick search in the front. Coming out, I told the other pipeman and lieutenant, now at the front door, that, "It's a straight shot down the hall to the right." The other nozzleman started moving down the hall. I joined them as backup man. The lieutenant was humping line at the door and directing incoming companies via the radio. The driver was out in the street. The hall ended with one room on the right and the other on the left. The room to the right was well involved with fire running out and down the hall at the ceiling. We opened the line and went to work.

The line kept the fire in the room of origin and I told the nozzleman I was going to search the room to the left. He nodded and I was off. The closet, the room, under the bed, then out was my plan. WRONG!

The fire had overpowered the line and my escape route was cut off by the fire. I had a terrible feeling, filled with emotion. I was then able to calm down, I got my bearings. I yelled to the nozzleman, but it didn't seem like he heard. So plan B…the windows, right? WRONG! There were two, but remember, they are only 12 inches wide. What to do? I still had the ax with me. I was going right through the wall. As I began to hit the wall next to the window, the fire in the door began to darken. I moved without waiting, back on the line and back to work.

The lessons I learned:

  1. Never panic. Stay calm through training and experience.
  2. Always have a radio or stay with someone who does.
  3. Always, always have a tool, because you never know when you might need to put plan C into action. I was fully prepared to breach that wall as a means of saving my life.

"IT AIN'T OVER ... TILL IT'S OVER"

One evening we were dispatched for a call for "smoke in the house." I arrived on scene at the same time as the chief of our department. We were met on the front lawn by the homeowner and his wife. The man explained that earlier in the evening they had been watching TV on an entertainment center that he had built into the closet of the master bedroom on the second floor. He said the TV began to flicker with an odor of something burning. He said he had turned off the unit and unplugged it. He then went to the playroom on the ground floor of the house to continue to watch TV on a second set in that room.

After about two hours, the wife said that she had gone to the kitchen on the first floor to get a soda, when she smelled smoke. When she went to the stairs leading to the second floor, she saw a heavy smoke condition. She notified her husband, who called 911. They immediately left the house and awaited our arrival.

Based on the visible smoke from the second floor windows, the chief advised me he would transmit the code for a working fire. I took the truck lieutenant and the "irons" man into the building. When we reached the second floor, we found a smoke condition about two feet down from the ceiling. We donned our masks and proceeded down the hall. The fire was in the closet of the master bedroom. I closed the door to the room, and told the lieutenant that I was going to advise the chief that we had a working fire. I asked him to do a primary search of the rooms on that floor and to meet me at the landing.

By the time I had finished my radio transmission to the incident commander, the engine company was pushing up the stairs with the line. Because our hoseline was keeping the front door open, the conditions on the second floor were deteriorating rapidly. As the nozzle man positioned himself to advance the line, I contacted the outside vent (OV) man to take the second-floor windows on the exposure B-and-C corner of the building.

As the hose team advanced on the fire, I received a radio transmission from the incident commander, reporting that fire was showing through an attic vent on exposure B directly above the fire room. He advised me that he was sending a crew to the roof to vent. I acknowledged his transmission and asked him to tell me when the roof was open. I then directed the truck lieutenant to have one of his men stand by to pull the ceiling in the adjacent bedroom.

While this was going on, the roof team had cut a four-by-four hole in the roof. They had notched the corner of the cut to remove the piece of roofing. As they pulled on the cut section with a pike pole, it came off in one piece and slipped down between the rafters of the roof. It crashed through the ceiling of the bedroom, landing on the nozzleman and his backup.

What had been a "routine" call changed instantly. Fortunately, the engine lieutenant, who had been supervising the operation from the doorway, got to the backup man and removed him from the room. As I made the room, I was able to find the boot of the nozzleman. I lifted the piece of roofing material that was covering him and slid it on the bed next to him. As soon as I did that, he got up on his hands and knees. I grabbed the top of his SCBA bottle and pointed him to the door. We were lucky that the major part of the fire had been knocked down by the time this happened. The rest of the call went routinely, and everyone went home.

The lesson I learned was that there are no routine fires, and that Yogi Berra was right when he said, "It ain't over till it's over." The thing that did work in our favor was that every member had donned all of their turnout gear, including hoods. We came away from the incident with no injuries.

Lessons learned (note - this fire department did the following, so these are "affirmations" of a "Close Call" that might not have gone well if the members weren't trained and prepared):

  • Use the incident command system.
  • Use automatic mutual aid to "fill out" an alarm assignment to INSURE adequate staffing on the INITIAL ALARM. Don't wait until it's too late.
  • Have a trained and qualified rapid intervention team respond automatically on working fire.
  • Place ground ladders.
  • Take two-in/two-out seriously.
  • Back up with larger lines.
  • Make sure everyone is fully "geared up."

Additionally: Consider relocating the inside crew when the roof above them is being opened up, depending on conditions and construction.

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