Close Calls: Firefighter Seriously Burned While Attempting Searches

University Heights, OH, Firefighter Paul Nees, with 33 years on the job, has returned to work full time on his regular shift, but why he was out of work is the subject of this month’s close call. There are several aspects of this fire to look at. Initially, the staffing issue – without a doubt, these firefighters had their hands full when they arrived – with numerous victims reported trapped.

The University Heights Fire Department (UHFD) protects a community in Cuyahoga County, near Cleveland, and has a population of about 14,000. Twenty-nine firefighters serve the City of University Heights and all are paramedics and/or emergency medical technicians. UHFD personnel staff an engine and a quint along with two paramedic-equipped rescue squads (transport ambulances). At the time of this fire, the staffing was six personnel on duty led by a senior firefighter/acting officer. As in many communities, the economy has played a clear role in the ability of the department to provide services. However, also as in many communities, the University Heights firefighters – and certainly those in this close-call report – went above and beyond.

Our sincere thanks to University Heights Fire Chief David Rodney and especially Firefighters Paul Nees, Doug Robinson and Tom Hren for their cooperation in sharing this close call. Additional thanks go out to their mutual aid fire departments, firefighters and regional communication center personnel for their assistance in this column.


This account of the fire is provided by University Heights Fire Department Chief David Rodney, who was a captain at the time of the fire and served as the incident commander:

The first-alarm dispatch was six firefighters on University Heights Engine 1112 and Truck 1121. Upon arrival, with light smoke showing and an occupant still leaning out of a second-floor window, the incident commander called for a second alarm. The firefighters pulled a pre-connected handline to the front door, charged it and advanced it into the house.

At the time, the hoseline was still charged from the tank and the driver still had three-quarters of a tank when he switched to a hydrant. No 360-degree walk-around was performed prior to our attack crew making entry into the house because occupant rescue and patient care were needed immediately. (We had only six firefighters available: three were on the attack line, and they immediately pulled the line to the front door, while two others set the pumps and pulled a line forward from Engine 1112 to the hydrant. As the incident commander, it was my responsibility to do the initial 360, but I was unable to do it initially because of the rescue and care of the occupants that required immediate attention upon our arrival.)

The interior crew confronted heavy smoke and heat on the first floor of the house. They attempted to advance the line toward the back of the interior of the house, but they retreated due to the heavy heat. At the same time, police had jumpers down and a civilian’s ladder was placed to get other family members out.

When we first arrived, I was able to see three sides of the house. I saw that at least one occupant (the wife) was still in the house, leaning out of a second-floor window. I also saw that the police officer on the scene was helping the family place a ground ladder at the window for her to climb down. I called for a second alarm at that time, and then went to help her as she came down the ladder. I confirmed that all occupants were out of the house, and conveyed that fact to the interior crew before they made entry. It appeared that the family needed medical attention, and I verified that a squad was on the way for the family.

I helped the family by moving them to the front of the house while evaluating their medical condition, and I asked them to wait in the police cars until the rescue squad arrived. I also asked the family specific questions about the conditions they experienced inside the house and what some of them saw when they exited from the rear of the house – which gave me a little information about the C side that I was not yet able to see. So, even though I did not do a 360 because I was helping the family, I did get some information from the people who were on the C side, and they reported no visible flames. Even the police officer who was on the C side did not notice any visible flames.

Shortly thereafter, when the rear sliding-glass door disintegrated and a flashover occurred, I sent a handline to the rear (C side) to do an exterior attack, which allowed us, as the first-arriving firefighters, to have a view of all sides of the structure. Lieutenant Ken Breuning from Shaker Heights Fire arrived on the scene and I asked him to do a complete 360 and to supervise exterior operations on the C side.

Upon initial arrival of the first-alarm companies (six firefighters on our two apparatus), the firefighters advanced the handline through the front door, then forward to the left of a stairway toward the doorway where the front living room enters the kitchen. From there, the crew leader, Paul Nees, told the nozzleman, Doug Robinson, to open up the nozzle. Robinson said he shot the open-tip nozzle forward (which would have hit the seat of the fire at its point of origin), and also up and down, and back and forth at the ceiling.

Paul immediately told the team to retreat because he felt flashover temperatures occurring. He later reported that he was unable to pick up the line to help protect the crew because his hands felt like they were burning. Doug reported that he tried to turn the nozzle back so that he could retreat with it, but the line was pressurized to a point that it tended to lift him up as he tried to turn it, so he laid it down on the floor and retreated along the charged line.

When Doug made it out of the front door, he told the third team member, Tom Hren (who had been helping to advance the house from the area of the front door near the living-room stairway), to help get Paul out. Tom said he advanced about five steps into the house to the left of the front door, grabbed Paul by the arm and pulled him (or helped him crawl) out of the house. Paul was in extreme pain due to the burns he was receiving inside his turnout gear, so Tom and Doug helped remove his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and turnout gear. (Tom apparently received a burn to his own hands while helping remove Paul’s tank.) When they removed Paul’s turnout coat, blistered skin from the burns on his arms came off with the coat. Water from the hoseline was used to douse Paul’s skin and try to remove the heat from Paul’s skin. The police officers on the scene also went to their vehicles to get bottles of water to pour on Paul’s wounds, as there was no EMS on the scene at this point. n Next: The first few minutes


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