A Surprise Down The Chimney

The end result of a civilian running along the rooftops of attached buildings on a winter night was the Philadelphia Fire Depart-ment Communications Center dispatching Ladder Company 1, Battalion 3, Rescue Company 1 and a medic unit to a three-story brick...


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The end result of a civilian running along the rooftops of attached buildings on a winter night was the Philadelphia Fire Depart-ment Communications Center dispatching Ladder Company 1, Battalion 3, Rescue Company 1 and a medic unit to a three-story brick attached dwelling approximately 18 by 45 feet in size.

City police were in pursuit of the civilian late that night in the north central section of Philadelphia. As the civilian made his way over the rooftops, eluding police, he squeezed himself feet-first into the opening of a brick chimney of one of the dwellings and attempted to hide from their view. As police continued their search for the suspect, he lost his grip on the narrow vent pipe in the center of the chimney and gradually began a slow descent through the chimney, into the house.

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Photo by Fred Endrikat
The specialized rescue tools used in this incident included atmosphere monitoring equipment (left) and an acoustical listening device (right), most commonly used in building collapse operations to locate buried victims.

From their bedroom, the occupants of the dwelling heard what sounded like a voice in the wall but thought at first they were imagining things. But after about 30 minutes of continuing investigation, they discovered the general vicinity of the intruder and began a barely audible dialogue with him.

The civilian had slipped down about 18 feet from the roof level and had become wedged inside the chimney. His waistline was at the floor level of the second story; his feet were dangling at the midway level between the first and second stories of the building. It was at this point the fire department was called.

Upon arrival, fire department members sized-up the situation and developed an operational plan to extricate the civilian from the chimney. The first consideration was the atmosphere inside the chimney; the heater was immediately shut down to prevent a further buildup of carbon monoxide around the trapped man. Several options for gaining access to the victim were considered. The problem could be approached from the interior of the original dwelling (but the wall area involved was flat and gave no indication of the chimney's location) or working on the chimney from inside the adjoining property might prove advantageous. Further examination of the adjoining vacant property revealed questionable structural integrity, due to exposure to the elements over the years, and an additional course of bricks to penetrate to gain access to the civilian. It was then decided to begin operations on the second story of the original building.

A staging area for tools was set up in the vicinity of the second-floor area involved. Rescuers attempted to establish voice contact with the victim but could hear only a very faint sound. An acoustical listening device (frequently used in building collapse operations to pinpoint the location of buried victims) was then placed in service. This listening device is powered by batteries and consists of two extremely sensitive transmitters/ probes attached to cables that lead back to a control box. The control box consists of a number of meters that register the intensity of the sounds picked up by the probes. By carefully moving the probes and monitoring the corresponding meters, rescuers can "zero-in" on a concealed victim's location. Rescue company members soon had a fairly accurate idea of the location of the victim's head behind the flat brick wall.

As rescue company members were operating the acoustical listening device and bringing other tools to the staging area, members of the ladder company gained access to the roof and used a tape measure to determine the distance from the front of the roof to the center opening of the chimney (taking into account the overhang of the bargeboard and subtracting this distance). This measurement was then transmitted via portable radio to the interior, and a mark indicating this distance was placed on the wall surface involved.

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