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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Assuming that the chiefs could not hear me, I removed my face-mounted SCBA regulator from my facemask and attempted to call again. On the audiotape these calls are heard, but not answered. While making this call, I fell into the floor. My legs were dangling into the first floor - I was kept from falling through because my air pack was wedged between the floor joists. It was later reported to me that the first-floor hallway was involved in fire. I quickly scrambled to locate my loose regulator. Once I had the regulator back in place, I yelled for everyone to bail out of the building.
As the crews returned from searching the last set of apartments, they too fell into the floor. I could feel that firefighters were next to me in the floor. I heard a crash and the firefighter to my left slumped over onto me. Another firefighter later reported that a piece of wood had fallen and struck this firefighter on the head. I called again for the incident commander, this time screaming into the radio.
Several seconds went by and I could not make physical contact with any other firefighters. I did not know what had happened to my crew. Suddenly, the heat started to build up. It became unbearable. I leaned forward as much as possible and was able to open the nozzle above my head. I now had to make the biggest decision of my life. Either I had to stay and try to make sure my crew was getting outside or go out the way I came in. Without being able to make contact, either verbally or physically with any other firefighters, I decided that I had to get outside to get help and regroup, then I would be able to help them.
Every decision I make on the fireground, everything I teach to other firefighters reminds me of this moment. I left my crew! To this day I do not remember how I was able to get out of the floor, I just know that I did and I started following the hoseline out. Then I reached the area that had collapsed behind us. It was at this point that I started thinking about what was going on. Everything else I had done was from my training. Making the ladder rescues, accounting for my crew, assessing fire conditions, attempting to communicate, advising everyone to get out, reaching for the nozzle, and knowing that I had to leave to stay alive was all training.
Now I realized that I had a real need to get outside. I remembered that I was in a hallway and continued to proceed straight ahead. After moving several feet, I reached the rear stairway and made my way out of the building. A moment later, I was able to reach the incident commander by radio and advise him of the interior conditions and the unknown status of my crew. He reported that crewmembers had exited the front of the building. They exited over a roof ladder that had been placed over the burnt-out stairway in the front of the building. Some others left via windows from apartments on the second floor. The firefighter who was unconscious was carried out and had regained consciousness when they reached the exterior.
Crews in the front of the building were amazed that no one had advised them of our crew's position. No one came to their aid, none of my crew was ever checked by emergency medical services. Firefighters in the front of the building had made several attempts to gain access through the stairway without success. After my crew had exited they placed a 21/2-inch line into the stairway without knowing that I was still in that hallway! This was when the heat came down on me.
I have reviewed this incident in my mind thousands of times. For two years after this incident, I stayed away from the interior of buildings. Not until I was training in a flashover simulator was I able to really get back my confidence.
Since this fire, several changes have been made with the way our company operates. We have rapid intervention teams. We have rehab sectors. We have improved our incident command system and have more training. Most important, we now teach firefighters to transmit messages without waiting for a reply. I had been trained to call first, get a response and then continue with my message. Even though chiefs sometimes answered me, they never knew the gravity of the situation until it was too late. Some units even continued to transmit while the fire radio was attempting to clear the air so I could report the interior conditions and the unknown status of my crew.
I feel that if I had just transmitted our location and that we were in trouble several times, outside crews would have received it and could have responded to our needs. Our department now teaches firefighters to use "Mayday."