Close Calls: Multiple Challenges –Then a Firefighter Trapped: Part 2

This is part two of a report about a fire in Oconomowoc, WI, in which a firefighter narrowly escaped with his life. The close call occurred on Sunday, July 1, 2012, after the Oconomowoc Fire Department (OFD) was dispatched for a report of a structure fire with victims trapped in a second-floor apartment. Part one, in the November issue, described the initial response, size-up, operations and rescue of the trapped officer. This month, we focus on the lessons learned at this incident.

Our thanks to the members of the OFD, especially Lieutenant Mike LaVenture, the trapped firefighter, and Firefighters Kevin Jezak and Bob Diehn, who made entry to assist the lieutenant. Further thanks to Firefighter/Paramedic Adam May, Deputy Chief Glenn Leidel, Public Safety Director David Beguhn and the entire Western Waukesha Rapid Intervention Crew. Thanks also to the numerous fire departments, rehab units, EMS, law enforcement, strike teams and related agencies that responded to this fire. Additionally, thanks to the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) and its CEO, Chief Jay Reardon, for their assistance.


The following lessons learned are provided by the OFD with specific related commentary and general discussion with Chief Goldfeder:

This was a tough run, given the needed resources for a fire and related rescue of this type. Although the civilian victim unfortunately could not be rescued, this fire could have ended much worse if not for several factors, including a rapid request for mutual aid assistance, firefighter training (specifically Mayday training) and a trained and firefighter-rescue-focused rapid intervention crew response.


• Command must be in command and not play an active role in firefighting.

This is challenging, especially in areas with limited or delayed staffing. It is also challenging for the many fire officers who identify tasks they want done and then want or need to do it themselves – sometimes, that must happen until the balance of the alarm assignment arrives. However, because most fire responses and assignments can be planned for well ahead of time, every effort should be put into a heavy first-alarm assignment based on worst-case conditions. This lets the incident commander operate in the role of “head coach” on the sidelines with an overview of what may be needed based on personal observations – and information from the other divisions.

A friend who tragically lost several firefighters and children in a duplex fire told me something years ago that I will never forget: “No matter how tough it is, we must always maintain command from the moment we arrive in order to handle the predictable...that way we take care of our firefighters so that they can take care of the civilians and the fire.” Simply put, as much as we want to be hands on, we should plan as much as possible to ensure that we are hands off and in command, handling the many challenges of command.

Command officers predictably will be busy with their own responsibilities and tasks – tasks that firefighters operating in the hazard zone are counting on being accomplished. Looking at the standard eight functions of command as outlined in the Blue Card Command Certification Program ( – Assumption, Confirmation and Positioning of Command; Situation Evaluation – Size-Up; Communications; Deployment Management; Strategy and Incident Action Planning; Organization; Review, Evaluation and Revision; Continue, Transfer and Terminate Command – it is not hard to understand why command must be an immediate focus to support all the other critical tasks on any fireground.

Initial tactics

• One firefighting tactic should be used until proper staffing is available.

As a part of size-up, we must state by radio exactly what our plan is. This should include:

What does the building look like?

What’s the construction?

What’s showing?

What are the life issues?

Also consider: What is the plan? Are companies going in offensively? Are companies operating with big lines on the outside, defensively? Where are the people and where is the fire? Where has it been? Where is it going?

A critical aspect of size-up is to understand that it really has three integral parts or determinations:

1. What do we have? What is on fire and what are the initial considerations/concerns?

2. What do we want to do about it? Do we want to make rescues, vent, search, put it out, etc.?

3. Do we have the resources to do that? Do we have adequate numbers of firefighters and equipment to do “that” simultaneously (because all of this could be done one at a time, but we will run out of building – and time – so it’s best to have numerous companies do it together) in coordination with each other and command?

Where we can often get in trouble is the third question of size-up: Can we do what we want with the resources we have? Sure, in our minds and hearts, we want it all to get better right now – but the reality is that it takes firefighters and equipment. An easy way to understand that is if we have a fire where the fire flow is requiring three handlines and the usual related tasks (water, forced entry, vent, search, etc.) in a 1,000-square-foot, single-family, wood-frame, one-story dwelling, we need 20 firefighters on the initial alarm. The problem is that when we have fewer firefighters, something won’t get done as well or as quickly, as the fire isn’t waiting. It gets even worse when we try to do so much with so little without understanding and determining our realistic capabilities.

Tactical coordination

• Coordinating fire attack with rescue.

Clearly, rescue is the most important task we can perform on the fireground. Placing ourselves in harm’s way when there are victims is an expected risk. However, planning ahead (which includes training, training and more training) lets us fully understand that rescue includes the roles of all companies, including the engine to protect those attempting the rescue.

Naturally, there will be those rare occasions when a rescue must be performed without the protection of a hoseline – to hold or to extinguish the fire or to protect those needing rescue and those doing the rescuing. But in so many cases, departments can plan ahead to do everything reasonably possible to ensure that the resources that are needed are there when needed. Few things can make things better overall than lots of water on the fire.

Multiple simultaneous tasks

• Firefighting must continue while a Mayday is occurring.

Resources means people and equipment. While most fires do not have the challenges that the members of the OFD had last summer, we must be ready when it does happen. In this case, the OFD and the Western Waukesha Rapid Intervention Crew were ready and on scene when needed. A good test for any chief or commander is to constantly ask yourself the question (or think back to your last working fire): “If we had a Mayday right now, who would handle the Mayday and who would continue to handle the initial fire?”

Having a “heavy-loaded” first-alarm assignment that sends more than you may need at the time can be priceless when things go bad on the fireground. I like to use the football analogy showing plenty of players on the field, but plenty more “on the bench” in case things don’t go well. What resources were on your bench at your last working fire? What will be on the bench at your next fire?

Crew integrity

• Always maintain crew integrity.

While technical solutions are being worked on to help us track firefighters on the fireground, the best solution is (and always has been) disciplined and well-trained firefighters and officers who do what is expected. It is life-saving critical that all firefighters understand that they must do what they are assigned and not what they want or wish they were assigned. Additionally, the company officer (or senior firefighter) who goes with a crew is responsible to know what they are doing and where they are at all times. The failure by firefighters to do what they are supposed to be doing and be where they are expected to be – and officers not supervising – has led to the deaths of firefighters. Avoidable deaths.

Tools with the crew getting off the rig

• Interior crew must always enter with a thermal imaging camera and proper hand tools.

Leaving the apparatus without the tools and equipment predictably needed would be like a cop leaving his gun in the car and then going back for it when needed. Firefighters must be trained and be expected to get off the rig with the tools needed.

Many fire departments have riding assignments to help accomplish that. Both career and volunteer fire departments succeed by identifying what roles or tasks (and accompanying tools) go in with the firefighters riding in specific apparatus seats. This is just one of the many simple goals we can accomplish well before the next fire. Do your members know what tools and equipment are expected to come off the rig at the next fire?


• Maintain communications between command and operating crews.

If the coach has a plan, but the players are unaware of it, winning – when it does happen – is only by luck. Communicating what the plan is between command and the various divisions, sectors or personnel on scene ensures that the plan works. Better yet – when plans (based on occupancy, staffing, resources, etc.) can be determined before the fire and then modified by command as needed, we have an even greater chance of success. Additionally, that lets us limit radio traffic, since companies will be doing as expected and keeping the channel open for more critical transmissions.

Saving yourself

• Early activation of personal alert safety system (PASS) device.

“Saving our own” hands-on training has proven itself in so many occasions. Understanding what to do – and what not to do – when things go bad personally can save your life. No line firefighter should be responding to structural fires without “saving yourself” training, which is available through state fire training programs. Or, email me and I will send you details on where you can find that type of training.

Command support roles

• Assign a safety officer and EMS Sector officers early in the incident.

When we look at the many tasks incident commanders must ensure get handled, we often forget that there are numerous they must handle themselves. While the incident commander must ensure the operational tasks are accomplished, support is of great value by providing more expertise as well as letting company officers focus on being company officers (as opposed to company officers being assigned command support roles).

What are some roles that other chief officers can provide to support the incident commander?

n Division supervisors. Who is overseeing the safety, operations and conditions of a specific side/division of the exterior of the structure to determine where the fire was, is and may go? What is the smoke telling us? What are the conditions of the structure itself? What progress are companies making as seen on all four sides?

n Accountability. Who is making sure we maximize our potential in tracking personnel?

n Safety. Functioning as another set of eyes and ears for the incident commander and all operating members.

n Chief’s aide. Assisting in fireground channel monitoring and logistical support at the command buggy.

In many cases, incident commanders try their best to do all of these functions, but that’s probably not the best way to handle it. How many chief-level officers are available to turn out on the first alarm? As written in the March 2009 Close Calls column, (“Fireground Staffing…Yes! But What About Command Staffing?”), the “automatic mutual aid box alarm” concept is expanded into assignments to include additional chief officers from other departments on the initial dispatch of the first-alarm assignment.

Rapid intervention

• Always have a rapid intervention team available soon in the incident.

Rapid intervention may be needed at any time. There seems to be a lot of debate lately as far as the value or need for rapid intervention teams. One person recently told me we should not need rapid intervention teams because we should never put firefighters in a position to need them. I responded the same goes for airbags and seatbelts in cars. Or extra engines on airplanes. Or co-pilots. Or life preservers on boats. Or homeowners insurance.

So, while we hope to not need them, it’s good to have “highly trained and on scene now” rapid intervention teams. In this case, the Western Waukesha Rapid Intervention Crew saved the lieutenant’s life. That speaks volumes as far as the importance and value of a trained rapid intervention team on scene when needed, which means being dispatched as a part of the first-alarm assignment to structural fires.

It is certainly tragic that the civilian victim could not be rescued in spite of heroic efforts of the members of the OFD. However, due to certain factors being in place, such as the rapid intervention team response, the lieutenant’s life was saved and no other member suffered serious injury. This fire provides numerous opportunities for us to learn, and for that we thank the OFD officers and members for sharing this with our readers. n


On behalf of my family, myself and the officers and members of my department, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah and holiday season with special wishes for a safe and peaceful 2013.