Close Calls: Firefighter Seriously Burned While Attempting Searches

T his 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...


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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.