Firefighters Burned In Mega-Mansion Fire

For years, fire departments were simply reactive response organizations that went out when “the bell” rang. We took the same amount of equipment and number of people to every run, no matter how different the buildings were. While most departments now understand there is a need to “pre-match” their responses to specific buildings or areas, some departments are slow to change. Some departments seem to act as if it’s “their fire” and do what they want to do. Sadly, they are missing the target. It’s not “your fire” – people call you to put out what is “their fire,” not yours.

Many fire service leaders understand that being prepared before the run goes a long way in helping us save lives and property and minimize having bad stuff happen to us. Additionally, when a department has a significant close call and its leaders are willing to have it critically reviewed so history is not re-lived, it says volumes about the positive leadership of that department. Such is the case with the Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department (HVFD) and related departments in Calvert County, MD.

Grateful appreciation goes out to Chief Jonathan Riffe and the officers and members of HVFD along with the officers and members of the Dunkirk, North Beach and Prince Frederick volunteer fire departments for their assistance in gathering critical information.

About the department

The Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad Inc., Calvert County, MD (a suburb of Washington, DC) Company 6, was officially chartered on Feb. 24, 1972. HVFD operates two class A engines, one tanker, two brush units, one heavy rescue squad, two ambulances, a mobile air cascade and several command and support vehicles. The department protects a response area of approximately 45 square miles bordered by the Chesapeake Bay, Patuxent River. ISO rates the area served by HVFD as a 7. HVFD responds to approximately 2,000 calls for assistance annually. The membership is comprised solely of volunteers.

Operational leadership of HVFD consists of a fire chief, an assistant chief and two deputy chiefs. Below chief officers, two captains (one fire and one EMS) are elected to their positions. Lieutenants, sergeants and safety officers are recommended by a panel of captains and chief officers before being appointed by the fire chief. The department currently has 98 operational volunteers and 10 administrative volunteers.

In 2011, Calvert County fire and rescue departments responded to 21,240 recorded emergency incidents. Of that total, HVFD responded to 2,593 emergency calls. Of the Huntingtown runs, approximately 130 were for reported structural fires. The department is a very active part of the Calvert County Fire & Rescue Association, which includes a countywide automatic mutual aid “box alarm” system.


This incident overview is provided by Chief Riffe:

On March 19, 2011, fire and rescue personnel from HVFD, other departments throughout Calvert County and numerous mutual aid departments from Anne Arundel, Charles and Prince George’s counties responded to a reported house fire at 3380 Soper Road in Huntingtown. The following units and personnel responded on the first alarm:

• HVFD – Engine 62 with five personnel, Engine 61 (three), Squad 6 (six), Tanker 6 (two), Brush 6 (two), Ambulance 69 (four), Ambulance 68 (four), Command 6 with assistant fire chief (6A) and Car 6 with deputy chief (6C)

• Prince Frederick Volunteer Fire Department – Engine 21 (five), Tower 2 (four) and Chief 2

• Dunkirk Volunteer Fire Department – Engine 52 (six), Tanker 5 (two) and deputy chief (5B)

• North Beach Volunteer Fire Department – Engine 12 (five) and assistant chief (1A)

• Saint Leonard Volunteer Fire Department – Tanker 7 (three)

Approximately 15 minutes after interior firefighting operations were initiated, conditions rapidly deteriorated on the second floor as the main body of heavy fire in the attic and void spaces dropped down on operating personnel. This rapid change in conditions forced an emergency evacuation of the second floor.

During the course of the incident, 10 personnel were injured. Of those injured, four firefighters received significant burn injuries. In the history of the Calvert County Fire/Rescue/EMS service, there had never been a fire of this magnitude resulting in so many injuries, including two life-threatening. In past years, fire departments would internally review firefighter injuries and accidents.

Given the severity of the injuries and magnitude of the event, as chief of HVFD, I contacted Chief William Goldfeder to request that an independent investigative team be assembled to critically review the incident. I reached out to him specifically because of his well-known and respected expertise in the field of firefighter risk mitigation, safety and survival in suburban and rural settings, particularly involving combination and volunteer fire departments. After we discussed the incident, I requested that his team prepare an honest and open report so that I, my members, other Calvert County departments and others elsewhere can learn about what happened at this incident and how to prevent injuries in the future.

Chief Goldfeder assembled a diverse team that jointly and very clearly understood the local culture of the affected departments, but also offered experience, education, training and expertise on a much larger scale outside of the local culture. The team convened in multiple sessions to gather, analyze and prepare this report.

The team consisted of Assistant Chief Donald W. Heinbuch of the Baltimore City, MD, Fire Department; Division Chief Michael W. Robinson of the Baltimore County, MD, Fire Department; Chief Jonathan R. Starling of the Sterling Volunteer Fire Department in Loudoun County, VA; Chief William Corrigan of the College Park Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George’s County, MD; Captain Justin L. Green of the Loudoun County, VA, Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management; and Deputy Chief William Goldfeder of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, who served as chairman of the investigative team. They were assisted with logistics by James W. Richardson, coordinator, and Katie Hanko, both from the Fire-Rescue-EMS Division of the Calvert County, MD, Department of Public Safety.

Each fire officer on the team has direct experience and a background with line-of-duty fire injuries as well as line-of-duty deaths in both rural and suburban/urban settings, allowing them to meet my goals and objectives. Particular thanks are due to Captain Justin Green, who served as the scribe and the architect of the document as the report was being developed. Because of his background as a seasoned fire officer as well as having a degree in architecture, his participation on this investigation was invaluable.

The investigative report contains the results of the team’s comprehensive review and analysis. All of the information presented is factual and, to the greatest extent possible, was validated by multiple sources prior to inclusion in this document. It is important to note that the investigative team had months to examine the incident, form conclusions and develop recommendations. In contrast, the first personnel to arrive on the scene had only seconds to make critical decisions and take action. This two-part column features a synopsis of that report.


The fire: initial actions

The home at 3380 Soper Road included 6,453 square feet of living space. It was located on a point of land that projects into the Patuxent River, accessed by an approximately 1,800-foot-long gravel driveway that was shared with a second address. The distance from the point where the driveway splits to the home is approximately 800 feet. At least four occupants were home at the time of incident, just prior to midnight, with an older male occupant residing in the basement “in-law” suite. This occupant was reported to have used the fireplace in the room adjacent to the bedroom extensively, almost on an around-the-clock basis. On the evening of the incident, the occupants had returned home from an outing around 9 P.M. when the older male occupant started a fire in the fireplace of the basement living area.

When a female occupant “walked up from the downstairs, she heard a ‘popping noise’ coming from the upstairs fireplace.” Upon entering the great room on the first floor, she observed smoke coming from the fireplace area, leading her to, at first, believe that another occupant had also started a fire in the first-floor fireplace. Upon investigation, the female occupant and another occupant discovered that there appeared to be a fire in the chimney. Concurrent with this discovery, the smoke alarms in the house began to sound. The female occupant alerted other occupants, who called 911.

The caller reported seeing “flames and smoke…in the chimney.” Answering questions from the call taker, the caller detailed that it was a “built-in chimney” and that there were “two floors.” Additionally, the caller reported that “no one (is) trapped.” Further questioning of the caller detailed that the fire was on “the first floor, through the chimney.” After giving the caller instructions to leave the house and not try to fight the fire, the caller replied, “Yes, I’m trying to put it out.”

23:58:26 – Calvert County Communications announced, “Area Box 601, 3380 Soper Road for chimney fire,” and dispatched Engine 6, Squad 6, Engine Company 2, 5, 1, Tanker 5, Tanker 7, Tower 2, Ambulance 6 and the North Duty Chief.

23:59:22 – After a second announcement, Engine 2-1, Chief 5B, Tower 2, Engine 6-2 and Chief 6C marked responding to the Soper Road location. Chief 6C is the fourth-ranking chief officer in HVFD, behind Chief 6, Chief 6A and Chief 6B. Chief 6C was at home when the incident was dispatched and responded directly to the scene with a marked chief’s vehicle.

00:00:45 – Responding units switched to a tactical channel, Tac 1, and were updated with information that the caller “had flames coming from his chimney...he was attempting to put the fire out himself.” Chief 6C was then updated with the same information.

00:01:56 – Responding units were updated with directions to “go almost all the way to the end of the driveway. It’s going to be a long gravel driveway, lined by trees on your left hand side, sits very far…very far distance off the road.”

00:03:35 – An occupant again calls to report the chimney fire. When asked by the call taker about what has changed since the first call, the caller responded with “the chimney is fully engulfed from the inside out. It’s in the attic now.” After asking again, the caller confirmed that everyone was out of the house.

00:04:10 – Calvert Communications informs Chief 6A that, “(the caller is) advising the fire’s now spread to his attic.” Chief 6A acknowledges the information and asks, “Chief 6A is OK, (Chief) 6C should be there in just a few minutes.” Chief 6C: “I’m turning on Soper now.”

A lieutenant from HVFD, who lived approximately a mile away, responded directly to the scene by personal vehicle. The lieutenant did not have a portable radio as it is a general procedure for HVFD that only captains and above carry portable radios. The lieutenant arrived on scene a few minutes prior to the arrival of Chief 6C.

Upon approaching the home, the lieutenant did not notice any smoke or fire visible from side Alpha. The lieutenant arrived at the home and positioned to the right side of the driveway in a grassy area. Upon exiting the vehicle, the lieutenant met a female occupant of the home who said that the chimney was on fire, another occupant was attempting to put the fire out and that there was an older male occupant in the basement who was not going to leave. The lieutenant questioned the female occupant to ensure the occupant in the basement was physically able to get out of the home. The lieutenant then walked inside the home, through the foyer and the great room to a door in the rear of the home to access the rear deck.

While transiting the great room, there was a slight haze of smoke, but the lieutenant could not localize it to a source such as the fireplace. On the back deck the lieutenant encountered another occupant who was using a garden hose in an attempt to put out fire in the chimney. When asked to stop, the occupant pointed to eaves and the lieutenant saw fire that had broken out of the chimney and was involved in the eaves and gutter area. The lieutenant then walked back through the great room, where the haze was still observed. The lieutenant then exited the home on side Alpha to await Chief 6C.

Chief 6C was the first fire department unit to arrive on scene.

00:06:51 – Chief 6C: “Alright, 6C is on scene. Side Alpha two-story, large single family. I got heavy smoke from the attic area, working fire. Dispatch Calvert.”

Chief 6C arrived and gave an initial on-scene report as detailed above. Moderate, dark smoke with little to no velocity (described as “wafting”) was observed coming from the eaves of the second-floor gable ends in the area of the side Alpha/Delta corner, but no fire was observed. Not communicated during this on-scene report was the condition of three levels in the rear of the house. Chief 6C reported that the size-up was made from the driver’s seat with the window down. The vehicle was parked in a grassy area to the right of the driveway facing side Alpha of the house.

The completion of a 360-degree size-up was complicated by an occupant of the home who was present at the chief’s vehicle window and may have indicated that an older occupant was still inside the home. While it is understandable that the three levels may not have been visible from the positioning of the first-arriving unit and that it may be necessary to complete other tasks prior to a full size-up, it is critical to conduct a full 360-degree size-up as soon as the situation may allow.

After discussing the size of the structure, Chief 6A directed 6C to “go to a second alarm.” Chief 6A also recognized early that the house was of a significant size. It is commendable that this was recognized, but this information needs to be captured and disseminated to any potential responders and surrounding companies and reviewed prior to an incident for any structure of a significant size or complexity that may complicate fire suppression operations.

Despite the absence of visible fire, Chief 6C interpreted the smoke conditions as indicating the presence of a significant fire in the attic space and intended that the first-in engine (Engine 62) lay dual lines from the driveway split, with the second-in Engine (Engine 21) completing the lay. However, the plan for dual lines was not communicated to responding units: “(Engine) 62, lay out from the gravel portion, lay out from the gravel portion. Next engine in complete the lay out to…err…excuse me…to Soper. (Chief 6A) go ahead and take command when you get here, I’m going inside.”

Next: The fire emergency