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 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 www.ul.com/fireservice.

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.”