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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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 email@example.com
"THEY DON'T KNOW I'M IN HERE!"
The story I am about to tell about my own "close call" could have happened in any city, in any department, and to ANY firefighter or fire officer. The lessons that I learned and the memory of this fire will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I had just received my promotion to lieutenant and was eager to accept my new challenge as an officer. Due to a special event in our community, we had staffed all our companies with an extra man, so I had a four-man engine company that day. My acting captain was another lieutenant who had been promoted at the same time as me. A problem that day was that my radio wasn't working.
Later that night, a report of a structure fire with possible entrapment came in for other companies located just outside our district. When the first company arrived, the fire had already started to consume the second floor and the attic. With entrapment confirmed, my company was called. Needless to say, we were all "pumped" with adrenaline.
On our arrival, I jumped from the cab and ran to the front, masked up and climbed a ladder to the front porch roof, where two teams had entered two front windows. The heat was intense and another man came bailing out one of the windows with his helmet blackened and burnt. I grabbed him to make sure he got to the ladder and didn't fall off the porch roof.
I entered to find a hose team in steam and high heat trying to make headway. I thought to myself, "I'll search this room," but found nothing except the entrance to another room. Thinking, "I'm an officer, I have to do something and I can do it without help," I entered the next room, the living room, where steam was being put off by the padding in the furniture. It was so bad that I almost couldn't stand it.
All of a sudden, the heat and steam was gone, it had vented itself! OK, now I looked back to see the hose team still there and I decided, "One more room. It's not that far from them." It was the kitchen and revealed no results. I thought, "Another doorway into a hall." I had to be getting closer and still not that far away from my hose team. I crossed the hallway into another room, where I found two children face down with a window broken out where they had tried to call for help. I turned around to look toward the way I came for a means to get them out and get help moving them, but all I saw was fire! My way was blocked.
The next sound is one I'll never forget...AIR HORNS blowing long and loud! "Oh my God!" I thought, "The hose teams have evacuated! They don't know I'm in here! I'm trapped with these two unconscious children! Am I gonna die up here with them? Dear Lord, help us.
Don't let this happen to us and our families. Is this it? Is this how I go?"
I had checked both kids for breathing and there was nothing. I looked at the other window to see nothing but fire on the other side of the smoked glass. I leaned out the broken window to see two firefighters coming around the corner of the house.
I removed my mask and yelled that I had two victims. I had wandered my way into a room in the back and had no way down other than that window. One firefighter stayed with me (on the ground) while another went running to the front to tell everyone that the children were found, but that a firefighter was trapped along with them. They were only seconds from starting defensive operations, including water from an aerial at 1,500 gpm, which was then halted. A ladder was brought to the window, two firefighters leaped through the window and began removing the children to waiting men on the ladder.
Then, as if nothing else could go wrong, my SCBA went dry. I unmasked as the last child was being removed from the room. We all then exited less than three minutes before the whole roof caved in. Our medics worked on both children to no avail. I was treated on scene for smoke inhalation and was told by the chief to sit the rest of this one out.
Twenty minutes later, another report came in for a structure fire not far away. My engine company didn't have anything off their rig so, I grabbed my now-full SCBA and made entry on that much-smaller fire in a vacant house without hesitation. I don't know how I did it, but I wanted to finish my shift.
The lessons that I learned from this were actually quite BASIC rules:
- Just because you're an officer doesn't mean you can go off without another firefighter. You must have a partner and staffing MUST allow for it.
- Let the hose teams and incident command know you're in the structure and going to do a search. My brothers didn't knowingly leave me in there - they NEVER KNEW I was in there. Use the accountability system.
- Never think that you're invincible …YOU'RE NOT!
- Get problem radios fixed or replaced ASAP. Insist to the powers that be that it's YOUR life on the line, NOT THEIRS. Radios are critical to the saving of firefighters' lives...working radios in a system that you can count on.
The fire that night was arson allegedly committed by two teens who had a disagreement with the downstairs tenants that didn't even involve the two children who perished. They are awaiting trial.
Since then, all of my brothers involved in the rescue were given commendations for bravery above and beyond and I was named Firefighter of the Year. All the recognition was good for the department, but I wished that they would have just let the whole thing drop. It didn't turn out like it was supposed to. I realize that the two children didn't die because of my actions, but I almost did.