Close Calls: Firefighter Seriously Burned While Attempting Searches

This month, we continue our coverage of a close call in University Heights, OH (see part one in the March issue). Our thanks to University Heights Fire Chief David Rodney and Firefighters Paul Nees, Tom Hren and Doug Robinson for sharing their story. Additional thanks to the mutual aid fire departments, firefighters and regional communications center personnel for their assistance.


An overview of the first few minutes by Chief Rodney, with additional information by Chief Goldfeder and those involved in the incident (Rodney was a captain at the time of the fire and served as incident commander):

A flashover occurred as the firefighters were retreating. Firefighter Paul Nees was seriously burned before he could exit. Firefighters Doug Robinson and Tom Hren were also inside and pulled Nees out of the building to a safe area where he could receive medical attention.

University Heights, Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights share a joint dispatch system, Eastcom. The Eastcom dispatch center received the occupant’s 911 cell phone call at around 2 A.M. and dispatched a first alarm, since the standard operating procedure (SOP) governing an automatic upgrade to a second alarm was not met at the time of the initial call. When this incident occurred, the Eastcom SOP required an automatic upgrade to a second alarm whenever any of the following occurred:

• Multiple calls reporting a working fire (flames and/or heavy smoke showing

• Police confirmation of a working fire

• Report of victim(s) trapped

• A Mayday report from fire personnel

• Reporting party is uncertain all occupants have evacuated safely and/or is uncertain of an occupant(s) location

• Report of visible flames inside an occupied structure

• Report of visible heavy smoke inside a structure

• Any other reason a dispatcher deems necessary

• Officer in charge requests an upgrade

At the time of this incident, while the University Heights apparatus was responding, the dispatcher asked me (Chief Rodney), as the officer in charge, whether I wanted mutual aid apparatus to respond. I answered, “We’re almost there, I’ll advise you upon arrival.” Immediately upon arrival, I called for a second alarm. Since then, the Eastcom SOP was revised to include the following factor to trigger an automatic upgrade to a second alarm: “2300-0700 hours – Report of any visible smoke inside a structure.”

Due to a limit in the number of firefighters available (as the interior crew was attending to the downed firefighter) at this point in the operation, we reverted to a defensive attack, placing one handline on the B/C corner and another hand-line outside the front door. We also extended the aerial ladder and tip to a point near the front roof of the house.

When Shaker Heights Engine 216 arrived, we used them to hook up University Heights Engine 1121 to the hydrant and to pull another handline from 1121. Since our exterior attack crews were able to darken down the fire from outside and we now had enough people on the scene to resume an interior attack, we used 216 crew to advance a line to the first floor to knock down the fire throughout that level. When South Euclid Engine 311 arrived, we had them advance a second line from 1121 to attack the fire that had moved into the second floor and to pull ceiling to attack any fire in the attic area.

Meanwhile, two neighboring fire department EMS squads attended to the five residents who were in the home when the fire started and to the firefighter (Nees) who was most seriously injured. (The other two firefighters involved in the flashover, Hren and Robinson, received minor injuries. They declined medical attention and continued helping with firefighting efforts.)

The fire was extinguished with an interior attack, first concentrating on the first floor and then attacking the fire that had extended to the second floor. Ventilation occurred when the rear sliding-glass doors broke under flashover temperatures and when the fire burned through the roof of the rear family room. Ventilation also occurred when crews used ground ladders to open windows on the first and second floors. Four pre-connected 1¾-inch lines were used. Although investigators were unable to determine the cause of the fire, it appears it was accidental and started where electrical appliances were plugged into a power strip.

The five family members were treated at the scene for elevated carbon monoxide levels, transported to Hillcrest Hospital and released that morning. The father indicated a buzzing sound woke him up. He said he saw smoke on the second floor, woke up his family and called 911. He said the oldest son, 15, climbed out of his bedroom window onto the flat roof over the rear family room and then descended a ladder that was leaning against that roof. The father said the two other children were lowered from the bedroom window where they were helped by University Heights Police Officer Kyle Nietert. The father descended the ladder at the rear and then moved it to side B side so the mother could climb to safety from that bedroom window.


The following account is by Firefighter Nees, the acting company officer:

Upon arrival, we could see the B side and a woman leaning out the upstairs window. She had already dropped two small children out to a police officer. Her son and husband were on the roof of a single-story room at side C. They were concerned that the roof was burning out below them. I had two other firefighters with me: Doug Robinson and Tom Hren. With the police there to “grab” the victims, our focus was to get water on that fire as soon as possible.

The three of us geared up and entered through the front door. Doug and I were on the nozzle and Tom was about six feet in the door feeding us the 1¾-inch line. We advanced about 15 feet to a doorway that allowed access to the back room. The room was fully involved. I told Doug to sweep the ceiling with the water and cool it so the outside crew could get the two people off the roof.

As Doug swept the ceiling, we could hear glass break in the back of the house. The temperature in the room immediately started to rise. I told Doug to get out and take Tom with him. I was not sure if everyone was out, so I did a sweep of the room on my way out. The flashover occurred before we could get out. Doug and Tom made it out, but I was a few seconds behind them. The temperature became intense. I tried to open the nozzle to cool things, but my hands were burned so badly I could not operate the nozzle. I tried to call a Mayday, but my radio wires had melted. My air was getting hot in my tank and it hurt to breathe. My mask had melted and I could feel the skin on my arms and back burning off. I had my left hand on the hose and I was crawling to the door. I was having difficulty moving and I thought I might not get out alive.

When I did not come out of the house immediately, Doug and Tom realized I was in trouble. Tom heard me yelling. He took two steps in, got hold of my coat and pulled me through the front door. When they took my tank and coat off, they could see how badly I was burned.

Although a call for a second alarm was made upon our arrival, at the time of the flashover, there was no ambulance or firefighting backup yet, but help came quickly once it was called. The South Euclid Fire Department transported me to Hillcrest Hospital. They stabilized me and called a helicopter to fly me to the Cleveland Metro Burn Unit. I have had three surgeries, including skin grafts, and I was off the job for 192 days. I am now back to work with no restrictions.

I am very fortunate to have survived this incident. Many firefighters do not. This was very difficult for everyone – my city, my department and my family. I am fortunate that my family was well taken care of by my city and my fellow firefighters and many friends.

I just started my 33rd year as a career firefighter. I thought this would not happen to me. I was very wrong. The danger is there on every run. It is very real and always present. One of the positive factors in my case was that we all wore every piece of protective gear, especially hoods. That is what saved us from further injury or death. It is easy to get complacent and think “this is just another run.” I felt that way many times before. My advice is train, train, train; wear all of your gear (no exposed skin); and be as safe as you can.


The following comments are by Chief Rodney:

As the incident commander at this fire, I know there are many lessons for us to learn and share. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 (Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments) is a goal that all fire departments ought to keep in mind as they determine staffing levels for first alarms, automatic aid and mutual aid.

We have the benefit of an excellent joint dispatch system, Eastcom. We operate in a state and region that encourage fire departments to work together to get the right number of apparatus and firefighters to the scene of every emergency. In University Heights, our first-alarm assignments to various “target alarms” generally comply with NFPA 1710 because we draw on apparatus and manpower from our automatic aid partners. Sadly, in the case of house fires, our first-alarm assignment is woefully less than what NFPA 1710 recommends.

Our dispatchers are well trained and very capable of seeing the need for a second alarm, and they have authority to dispatch a second alarm immediately when the need is apparent based on the initial 911 call. Also, the dispatcher can ask the officer in charge whether to send a second alarm at any time during the response or after arrival. That is what happened in this incident.

Our dispatcher at Eastcom asked me, as the officer in charge, whether I wanted additional apparatus dispatched as we were responding. Based on the information I had at the time, it was unclear that this was a working fire and I felt we were close enough to the scene to determine the need for mutual aid on arrival. I would certainly do that differently today. I wish I had called for a second alarm sooner. But I also wish we had a first-alarm response to even potential house fires that is NFPA 1710 compliant so a lack of information about the scope of an incident does not get in the way of having the right number of firefighters on the scene as quickly as possible.

The second lesson I learned is how very hidden and disguised a flashover can become just before it happens. The report from Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction, is available for downloading at

This UL document provides a good description of what happens inside a house that is heading toward flashover that is consistent with what we experienced at this house fire in which Paul almost died. This house was well insulated and had thermal windows. All the openings were shut upon our arrival except a second-floor bedroom window that was open so the children and wife could escape. However, since the door to that bedroom was closed, the smoke and heat that had filled the entire first floor level could not vent out that window. There was only light smoke flowing from that window as we arrived because it was being filtered as it pushed under and over the door through small openings around the door casing.

Until we opened the front door and made entry, we had no indication this fire was close to flashover. We have certainly learned since then. Based on evidence from the exterior, there was just light smoke showing at the second-floor window. This is consistent with the UL study’s findings. The executive summary states, “No smoke showing: A common event during the experiments was that once the fire became ventilation-limited, the smoke being forced out of the gaps of the houses greatly diminished or stopped all together. No smoke showing during size-up should increase awareness of the potential conditions inside.”

When our interior size-up team made entry, they were not initially confronted with high heat. It was only after the fire was fed with the oxygen that came in through the front door we opened that the heat inside rose dramatically. This too is consistent with the UL study’s findings. In Section 9.1, “Stages of Fire Development,” the UL report notes that in the “modern fire environment where there is usually not enough oxygen available,” then following ignition there is a “growth stage, decay stage, ventilation (either by the fire service or by an opening created by the fire, like window failure), a second growth stage, flashover, fully developed stage and finally the decay stage.”

In this fire, our interior size-up crew entered in that pre-flashover “decay stage” that occurs when the initial growth stage becomes ventilation-limited. When we opened the front door to do our interior size-up, we allowed oxygen into the fire area, which created a second growth stage that led to the flashover. While the interior crew was just beginning to retreat out of the building, a large sliding-glass door at the rear of the house disintegrated. A rush of fresh air entered through that large opening and fed all the super-heated combustible gases in the smoke layer throughout the entirely open first floor. Everything flamed up at once, and Paul was burned by the radiated heat from the large layer of flame at the ceiling level of the first floor.

A huge pool of combustible pyrolytic gases suspended inside the super-heated smoke layer just needed enough oxygen to flame up. With the front door open, and then when the large sliding-glass door disintegrated, a huge flashover occurred throughout the first floor, sending flames out the front door, out the back door and high into the sky. Since experiencing a flashover like this that happened so quickly after our interior team first made entry, I am convinced that a safer approach is needed. I am especially interested in the approach known as “3D firefighting” as explained in a video from the Dublin Fire Brigade:

To be more effective in our approach to “pre-flashover decay-stage fires,” we must know what to look for so we can add water to the atmosphere of the fire without adding oxygen to it. In such cases, we also must be prepared with additional hoselines in case the building suddenly ventilates itself by the failure of a window or door.

I hope this column will facilitate discussion at every department regarding warning signs of the pre-flashover decay stage fire and what tactics to use in fighting such fires. I thank you for taking to time to read what our department went through.


The following comments by Chief Goldfeder are based on discussion with the writers, those involved with this fire and others:

When I learned of this fire, my initial thought was how lucky Firefighter Nees and the UHFD were – this could have been much worse. So much of this close call reminds me of so many other fire departments that are struggling with staffing.

One needs to only look back to 1999, when three firefighters were killed in the line of duty in Keokuk, IA. That department had similar limited staffing and encountered similar fire conditions. While firefighters were inside searching for children, the duplex flashed over and killed three firefighters and three little kids. The University Heights firefighters arrived with a working fire and people trapped, but luckily they got out. Luckily.

Whatever the type of department, the common denominator is that it takes firefighters to perform the necessary tasks. Fewer firefighters means fewer tasks accomplished. While the statement “there is just no more money” may be valid in many communities, let’s accept it as a fact. The solution is generally in four parts:

1. Elected officials adjust funding or raise taxes in order to provide the professionally and accurately estimated resource needs for the specific community.

2. We do what we can with the understanding our service will not be what the community imagines it to be. We must be very clear. This has nothing to do with heroism, bravery or desire; the simple fact is that without enough firefighters, the fire will almost always win.

3. We reassess the mission of the service-delivery model and determine what tasks or services could/may be changed, reduced or eliminated to become more focused on more critical priorities.

4. We reach out to neighboring fire departments and develop genuine collaborative efforts from automatic mutual aid first-alarm assignments to merging departments and anything in between.

In this fire – not unlike other single-family-dwelling fires – the issues of size-up, command, control, stretching primary and backup lines, searching, venting, accountability, communications and firefighter rescue, removal and treatment all come into play. When the UHFD members arrived, their quick size-up let them determine that the police were helping the victims, so while others might have been inside, the firefighters’ focus was (correctly!) getting water on the fire. Unfortunately, they had few other resources to do anything else.

An important aspect of this fire is that even though prompted, the responding command officer did not upgrade the run. The dispatcher (a veteran firefighter himself) suggested an upgrade, but the commander wanted to wait until he arrived on the scene. That is a decision he regrets and would certainly do differently today. When you have an incident that may need more resources based on what your dispatcher tells you, get help on the road immediately. If you arrive and determine additional units are not needed, send them home. n