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Sometimes, we firefighters succumb to complacency. This is especially true when we respond to repeated false alarms from home detection systems. The fact that many of these are the results of poor communication from the alarm company, poorly maintained equipment or careless home-owners only serves to make it easier to dismiss such calls as soon as they are toned-out at the station. The South Bend, IN, Fire Department, in the interest of preventing potential injuries and fatalities that are risked by sending multiple rigs from several stations with full lights and sirens, decided to change the response policy several years ago to send only the nearest pump company, without their lights and sirens.
On Aug. 9, 2011, late at night, a dispatch was sent out to Engine 3 of the South Bend Fire Department for a residential fire alarm at 203 South Tuxedo Drive in a nearby neighborhood. Fire crews typically will not don turnout gear on such “nuisance” calls as, more often than not, the alarm company calls back with a disregard. That night, Engine 3, under the command of Captain Bob “Buzzard” Severeid, was awakened once again to respond to what sounded like yet another false alarm. Captain Severeid is famous within the department for insisting that his crew is prepared for all runs, including the all-too-common commercial alarms, over 95% being false trips. Regardless of the time of day, weather, or dispatch, he requires his members to wear SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus), bring in a set of irons and the cumbersome high-rise pack, which includes 100 feet of two-inch hose and a heavy bag of adapters and other equipment. When members protest, his response is always the same: “Do you want to find out the hard way that you actually need your equipment and have to sprint out to the rig while the fire spreads?”
The response to the alarm was treated with the same sense of seriousness by Captain Severeid. He instructed his crew, Firefighters Jason Mappes and Doug Salyer, to don their turnout gear and SCBA despite the fact it was a typical muggy summer night. Fortunately for the resident of the house, the Engine 3 crew indeed took the call with seriousness, for as soon as they turned on to the street, Severeid noticed smoke was coming from the front door of the residence.
After calling into the dispatch center to upgrade the incident response, the crew quickly jumped into action. As they were packed-up and ready to go, they were able to make immediate entry, discovering that the homeowner was passed out on the couch. He had arrived home from a night of drinking, started to prepare some food on the stove, and then fell asleep in the adjoining room. The kitchen cabinetry had started to burn and the smoke was intense enough to cause the resident to be unconscious from the toxic effects of smoke inhalation.
The Engine 3 crew immediately switched from fire attack to rescue mode, pulling the victim out of the house and onto the yard. The quick application of basic and advanced life support (ALS) interventions stabilized the patient and the crew extinguished the fire. The victim regained consciousness, confused and agitated from the hypoxic effects of smoke inhalation.
This call should serve as a reminder to all of us that anything can happen, and that the most common, annoying false alarm dispatches that have come to plague us in this age of modern technology for home security can sometimes turn into life-and-death situations. Had Captain Severeid treated this call with the kind of apathy and complacency that most calls of that type ultimately deserve, it is highly likely that the occupant of this residence would have suffered a fatal dose of smoke inhalation while the crew took the time to put on their gear and SCBA.
The persistence and preparedness of Captain Severeid and the responsiveness of his crew are directly responsible for averting disaster and for saving the life of one of the citizens of their district. We may not like it, especially on hot summer nights, to put on over 50 pounds of heavy, stuffy gear, for calls that 99.9% of the time are truly nothing. In this case, however, it saved a man’s life.