Close Calls: With Nothing Showing Initially... Part 2

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This is the second of two columns about a close call experienced by members of the Mantua Township Fire District (MTFD) in New Jersey on Feb. 7, 2012 (part one was in the January issue). Part one featured an account by Chief Brian Hauss, who suffered serious burns during his attempts to perform a rescue at a dwelling fire, with details provided by Lieutenant Michael Craft. Part two features a further discussion with Chief Hauss and the lessons learned from this close call.

 

Discussion and lessons learned following the fire from Chief Hauss in discussions with Chief Goldfeder:

I was very familiar with the pre-indicators to a possible flashover and saw the flashover occur before my eyes. The mistake I made was instead of staying low and worrying about self preservation, I was doing my all to force the female out of the window, which was in fact a ventilation hole at the time and the easiest source of oxygen for the fire. This exposed me to direct flame for an extended period.

A lesson was learned not to go into any IDLH (immediately dangerous to life or health) atmosphere, especially a working house fire, by myself without sufficient manpower on the outside; however, when a civilian is trapped, I cannot say that I would not do the same again to ensure life safety. I feel I could have saved the victim’s life if she would have cooperated or been unconscious.

• Protective clothing and equipment – Never fail to wear any and all personal protective equipment (PPE), including a hood, a properly donned self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and your turnout gear. If I had not properly donned my turnout gear, I would most likely still be undergoing surgeries and evaluations for my burns. My gear saved my life.

A fire department’s bunker gear spec is imperative. Our gear has the “heat shields” sewn into the inner layer of the jacket and pants, which on my coat and pants showed extreme discoloration, but it did its job in keeping me safe.

Another lesson reinforced is basic firefighter knowledge of staying low and attempting to exit the way you entered. But most critically, wear your gear with no exposed skin...ever! Following this incident, every member of our department was re-instructed on the proper use, donning and care of their PPE.

• The rescue attempt – This is our job. Whether you are the chief or a probationary firefighter, this is what we all signed up for and what we should all prepare for on a regular basis, both tactically and mentally. I have always been tactically prepared to do the job and fortunately, when I was in “Condition Black,” my training and self-preservation took over and I escaped a deadly situation without even thinking about it.

When I exited the dwelling and the victim did not, I had a slight mental breakdown, feeling as if I had failed. Due to years of experience, training and mental preparation, however, I knew I did all I could to make someone’s chances better.

• Command and control – Our policy for response is that the chief and/or duty officer has the ability to respond to the scene of the incident and upon arrival is supposed to assume command of the scene. In the event that the incident commander is needed to go into service to supplement an understaffed engine crew, the engineer of the first-due engine company is to assume command. One of our major flaws was that once I went to attempt the rescue, nobody assumed command of the scene. Our first-due engine company was staffed with a crew of four and the officer of the truck as well as one crew member stretched a line while Lieutenant Craft entered the residence to assist me.

With three of the four members in service, the engineer should have assumed command to direct incoming apparatus. This was not done due to other needed tasks being performed, which allowed for command, control and accountability gaps on scene until Fire Marshal Lamana arrived and assumed command. With this in mind, a new policy was developed related to limited-staffing operations.

• 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.

Chiefs arriving before the apparatus are able to size-up the fire (What do we have? What do we want to do? What resources do we have or will need?) and determine strategy before companies arrive. On occasion, chiefs arrive on scene before companies do and are forced to perform a rescue. The fact that we have the potential to save a life is a great opportunity. The challenge is that it may have to be attempted with no other resources yet on the scene. Making sure that the chief’s SCBA, bunker gear, water can (with a strap for hands-free carry), tools, radio, handlight, etc., are ready is critical for that once-in-a-career situation. Chief Hauss was prepared for this worst-case scenario.

The MTFD has an aggressive first-alarm assignment that includes companies from other area departments helping perform the needed tasks quickly and as simultaneously as possible. Departments that refuse to consider the high value/low cost of automatic mutual aid (box alarms) for first-alarm reported structural fires from their neighboring companies are not doing what is best for their members or the public. More and more departments are being forced to consider alternative means of service and do it with “what’s best for the public” as the focus. Do it on your own before some citizen, elected official, reporter, consultant, attorney or firefighter’s family member asks you why you did not.

It is clear that Chief Hauss personally experienced the importance of his bunker gear’s ability to protect him. He also makes it clear that if not worn properly, your PPE is useless. “No exposed skin ever” is the right attitude and good advice from Chief Hauss. Training new members and senior members on the use, wearing, inspection and care of their bunker gear is vital. What comes between you and the fire conditions? Your bunker gear and related PPE.

This fire is yet is another example of how, once command gets established, a scene is organized and under control. While command was not established as quickly as it could or should have been, understanding the importance of establishing command – in this case, by the fire marshal – mattered. Certainly, the engineer might have established command because he was the only firefighter on the exterior at the time, but he was also performing needed tasks. Due to not having an established and practiced policy, the engineer never assumed the responsibility, which was a challenge for staging of incoming apparatus and need and use of resources. In discussions with the chief, although the engineer was venting and performing critically related tasks, assuming command and providing incoming apparatus and EMS personnel with appropriate instructions would have been very helpful.

Command and control are critical to the success of any working incident. While the firefighters may put their “hearts and souls” into doing their best, there must be a “head coach” calling the shots. If your department has the potential of having no command officers responding, now is the time to determine your plan. Arriving on the scene is not the time to figure it out. Some departments use automatic mutual aid chiefs from neighboring towns as a mini Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT) to turn out on first alarms.

Some departments now run signup schedules or use text-based systems to determine who is available, who is responding, etc. Commercial programs used by thousands of firefighters and EMS responders such as www.IamResponding.com and www.NowForce.com let communication centers and other responding or on-duty firefighters know immediately what their staffing will be on the run. If it is adequate, based on the potential tasks that will need to be performed, great. But if it is not, you can immediately strike additional alarms or requests for needed units without waiting to see who shows up. Knowing who is available to turn out on a run should no longer be a guessing game. (For details, see “Fireground Staffing...Yes! But What About Command Staffing?” Firehouse®, February and March 2009.)

Clearly, there is a good relationship between the Mantua Township fire and police departments. In many areas, police units arrive on the scene before responding fire companies and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. In bad situations, police cars block access, police officers make entry and sometimes become victims themselves. Certainly, their attempt to save a life prior to the fire companies arriving is commendable, but when police officers become victims themselves, it doubles the rescue issues for the firefighters. Mantua Chief of Police Rodney Sawyer understands that and has directed his personnel on understanding this extreme high-risk/low-frequency situation.

Only in the past few years have we started looking at the emotional or mental impact of the more-critical incidents we respond to and operate at. I am hardly an expert in that area, but I know many who are. Time and experience can help us get through these tougher calls. But it’s also important to understand that while no two fires are the same, no two firefighters are the same either. Our emotions kick in at different levels and different intensities.

Lieutenant Craft and Chief Hauss placed themselves in harm’s way in their attempt to save a victim who was certainly savable based on their initial size-up and related conditions. As conditions changed, so did the ability to save the victim – and it turned into attempts to save themselves. Heroic efforts such as those by Chief Hauss to save trapped victims are what the fire service is based on. I would be hard pressed to find any chief – especially one who arrived “alone,” first due, with related working conditions – who would not have attempted that rescue. By fully understanding what went right and the lessons learned, we increase our chances during those rare rescues to make a positive difference. Thanks to Chief Hauss and the MTFD firefighters for the opportunity. n

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