Guest Commentary: "People Reported Trapped!"

Responding to structural fires, we sometimes hear the generic phrase “People reported trapped.” Firefighters’ adrenalin starts pumping, hearts beat faster and blood pressure increases. As the apparatus turns the corner, visible fire is venting out...


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Approximately three minutes into the search, the top floor became untenable with searing heat and zero visibility. The officer and firefighter immediately abort their search and evacuate. As the fire crew retreated through the hallway leading to the stairs, the officer became entangled in a small table. That caused the officer to tumble down the stairs and become separated from the firefighter.

As the fire extended into the interior on every level, the officer yelled to the firefighter to continue to move toward his voice. Fire crews operating in the foyer saw the officer engulfed in fire and remove him to the front yard. The officer yelled that the firefighter was still inside near the top of the staircase. A Mayday was transmitted on behalf of the missing firefighter, immediately followed by a Mayday call from the missing firefighter himself.

Fire crews reentered the structure, now heavily involved in fire, in an attempt to locate and rescue the missing firefighter, but the extreme fire conditions prevent their multiple rescue attempts. Fire conditions overwhelm the crews operating a 2½-inch and a 1¾-inch hoseline and all personnel are ordered to evacuate the structure as it collapses.

Firefighter Kyle Wilson lost his life that morning so others could live, but that was not the case this time. Had someone immediately met the first-due units on arrival to confirm all occupants were accounted for, incident priorities would have shifted and the outcome might have been different.

 

Today’s fuel loads

Today’s fires produce a very rich fuel load from the contents used in today’s home furnishings. Compounding this rich interior fuel load are the combustible structural materials and constructed esthetics found in and around today’s residential structures. These buildings are not only susceptible to fast-moving interior and exterior fires, but they have the potential for a building collapse in a very short period. The fire service no longer has time on its side to conduct a systematic search when smoke conditions are favorable for a flashover.

Entering the fire area and venting to search for life without the protection of a charged hoseline will become a tactic of the past; this rich fuel environment is starving for oxygen and the pent-up gases pressurizing in voided areas the venting of a window could result in a violent flashover.

A free-burning, vented fire is still producing an abundance of unburned fuel, so you may think it would be safe to vent in a location remote from the fire area to conduct a search, not realizing that heated rich fuel that is still contained within the structure can flash over once oxygen is induced.

 

Communication process

After any serious injury or loss of life in the fire service, we examine what went wrong and how can we prevent it from reoccurring. When a fire is reported to a 911 system, there is a very short period to obtain vital information and transfer it to responding units. The communication process starts the transferring of information from one person to others. Sometimes, this information is misinterpreted as it is transferred from person to person.

The excitement from the incident itself can create an innocent, but inaccurate perception of information which will be transmitted to the first responding units. Take the statement “People reported trapped.” Was this perceived by one’s suspicion or visual contact with the person or persons trapped or the visual items found outside the perimeter of the home? Did the person reporting the fire say, “I think the people are still inside”? The 911 dispatcher must rely on the information obtained from the caller, so this report would be interpreted as “occupant status unconfirmed.” On the other hand, if the caller is in visual contact with the person or persons who are trapped inside, then the occupant status is “confirmed, people trapped.” It is vital that the person reporting such information await the arrival of the fire department and verbally relay it to the first-arriving units.

 

The public’s safety

The fire service spends enormous time and resources to educate the public on fire safety, emphasizing the importance of smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors, viable escape plans, general housekeeping and other fire prevention information. But does the fire service do enough to teach the public how to report a fire with the necessary vital information that could save a firefighter from risking his or her life unnecessarily?