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• Staffing policy – A brief overview of our policy in regard to structural firefighting is as follows: In the event that the first-in company arrives with a crew of three firefighters or less, the company officer-in-charge (OIC) and a firefighter are to assume operational responsibilities and the engineer, along with establishing a water supply and outside ventilation, is to assume command of the assignment until the arrival of the next-due officer or engine company OIC. If a chief officer is on scene with an understaffed company, the chief officer is required to take over engineer responsibilities as well as command or turn command over to the engineer and assist with operations. This policy is relative to all incidents and has been successful in the recent past in having command established, as well as operations underway with minimal amounts of manpower. What I have stressed to my line officers is that if they know they are going to be responding short-staffed, they should be the engineer of the apparatus to ensure that command is held by a qualified individual.
Many members found an issue with the lack of an incident commander and felt that once command was taken over, the incident quickly came under control. We also found an issue that when I told county communications I was attempting a rescue by myself, they never relayed that message to responding units, the units did not hear my message clearly and no one knew I was inside the residence except the police officers and EMTs on scene.
Interesting observations and actions from the police perspective:
Police officers (Chief Hauss’ full-time co-workers) described the scene as pure chaos. While I was inside the residence, I could hear the chief of police at the rear window screaming to me like a cheerleader doing his all to help me extricate the victim. Once conditions worsened and the police saw it was me who was injured, they all informed me that they were overcome and upset and thought I was injured far worse than I really was.
The chief of police (my full-time boss) was very proud of the effort I put forth. He experienced some smoke inhalation on the scene trying his hardest to help remove the victim. He described Lieutenant Craft’s and my experience as heroic and that he almost went into the house himself; however, was stopped by me, because he was not wearing any PPE. The chief of police informed me that from my experience, he has drafted a directive that no police officer is to enter an IDLH atmosphere, seeing the damage that was caused even to a properly equipped firefighter.
The hospital, family and emotions:
I am a fourth-generation firefighter – my father is a career firefighter, as is my younger brother – so my family was prepared for such an event. They all thought I did the right thing and said if they were in my position, they would have done the same. My fiancee was an absolute mess; however, because my mother and father had prepared themselves for an event and knew the dangers of this job, they were able to calm her and make her realize that I could have been far worse if I had not been properly dressed or had done something reckless.
The hospital experience for me morally was actually pretty good. They treated me like a superstar in the burn center. The bad part was hours of scrubbing and not being able to sleep because my ears were in so much pain. I also had burns in my right inner ear, which required special attention, and increased pain. I spent five nights in the Crozer-Chester Medical Center Burn Unit and two months of outpatient care and treatment until I was cleared to return to work.
I am still not fully healed and need to apply copious amounts of sunscreen to my ears and leg whenever I am in the sun. Besides the inconvenience and sensitivity, I am in pretty good shape and appreciative about the service and treatment I received.
Thoughts and observations from Chief Goldfeder:
I remember the morning when this fire occurred. I first saw the pages and then got phone calls from some area chiefs I am friends with in Gloucester County. This fire was a bad one.
Thankfully, it turned out better than it could have. In spite of heroic efforts by Chief Hauss and Lieutenant Craft, the victim succumbed to her injuries. Fortunately, both Brian and Mike got out. Among numerous factors, their training got them out while their gear protected them.
While some firefighters and officers may have difficulty understanding the low-staffing issues, sadly, in 2012 – and now in 2013 – it has been, and will continue to be, a huge challenge for the fire service. Poor staffing has forced many departments (career, combination and volunteer) to operate differently, to the detriment of the public and firefighters. It has also forced chiefs and commissioners to make it clear to elected officials and the public that the fire department may not be able to provide services that the community “assumes” will be performed. In any event, we as firefighters know that when there are indications of life issues and victims to be rescued, we will go above and beyond – and it forces us to determine what we can and cannot do.