Close Calls:Firefighter Trapped in Marijuana-Grow "Fortress" Part 1

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We all train for that “worst day,” and that day can end up being many things to many people. The non-breathing child, the crash with entrapment, the call where you work on someone in front of their family, a terrorist event – the list of what we could respond to is endless. And we, as firefighters train for that endless list of what “might happen.”

We are in the business of being ready for pretty much anything because when “anything” happens, “they” will dial 9-1-1 and wish we were there five minutes ago. Sometimes we can make that anything get better, but sometimes we can’t.

Another “level” of that “anything” is when we have the opportunity to save one of our own. Such was the case for Captain Rebecca Boutin of the Westfield, MA, Fire Department (WFD).

Captain Boutin comes from a firefighting family. Her mother is a firefighter in Agawam and her husband is one in Chicopee. She started out as a paramedic right after high school and then moved to firefighting. It is, as she said, the only career she has known. And her reasons for wanting to do it originally – and for continuing to do it – have little to do with the awards and accolades she will receive for her actions at this fire, she said. While she is grateful to be recognized, she said, it is a little bit overwhelming to be singled out.

“It’s hard to explain how I feel about it,” she said. “I’m just glad Steve was OK. That was the main thing.”

My sincere appreciation to Captain Boutin, her chief, Chief of Department Mary R. Regan, and Firefighter Steve Makos, who went from “firefighter operating” to “firefighter lost” in this close call. Additionally, thanks to Firefighters Ray Neilsen, Kevin Tracy and Joe Coach, all the officers and members of the Westfield Fire Department and the Holyoke and West Springfield fire departments.

“We’ve got to find him”

The Westfield Fire Department is in Hampden County in western Massachusetts, near Springfield. The municipal department protects about 43,000 people and provides fire, rescue and emergency medical services to the City of Westfield. This full-service department is staffed 24 hours a day by 84 career personnel in three firehouses. All personnel are specially trained to handle EMS, with 34 members at the advanced paramedic level. Members respond to approximately 7,500 fire and rescue calls each year. For fire suppression and rescues, the department maintains four engine companies, one platform and one rescue truck. The department provides services for a wide variety of rescues, including ice, fire, confined space and auto extrication and maintains five fully equipped and certified ambulances.

Single-family-dwelling fires are the bread and butter of most fire departments, and Westfield is no different. But during a March 30, 2012, house fire, Captain Boutin crawled on her belly into a smoke-filled attic moments after it had flashed over and found and rescued overcome Firefighter Stephen Makos. Firefighter Makos, running low on air, was lost and disoriented in heavy fire and smoke. Captain Boutin said she immediately thought, “We lost Steve. We’ve got to find him.” Firefighters who were outside reported seeing a blast of fire shoot 20 feet out the windows. It was bad.

Captain Boutin sent me this email when we first connected, and her words help us understand the kind of firefighter and officer she is: “Deputy Chief Goldfeder – It has been a little bit of a personal struggle as to whether to do this article because it has been a little difficult dealing with the spotlight of this incident, as I received a Medal of Valor. I am very passionate about safety, education and training and it is for this reason that I feel we should share this story. It is because of this passion that I work at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy as a recruit instructor part time. I truly believe that this training helped in this situation.”

 

This account is by Captain Boutin:

The initial alarm was for a possible structure fire on Chestnut Street with multiple callers reporting smoke. Pre-arrival size-up included the fact that Chestnut Street was approximately one-minute estimated time of arrival, daytime, dry conditions, residential street with mostly older colonial or Victorian-style single- or two-family homes. The initial dispatch included:

• Deputy fire chief – Command

• Engine 4 – First due with myself, driver and one tail ender (Firefighter Makos). Responsible for initial fire attack and/or rescue.

• Engine 5 – Second due with a two-man crew. Responsible for water supply to the first-due engine and backup line for fire attack and/or rescue.

• Platform – Third due with a two-man crew. Responsible for forcible entry, ventilation and rescue.

• Ambulance – Paramedic level.

While responding, we were advised that police were on scene with smoke showing. The deputy fire chief arrived and stated we had smoke showing with fire in the attic and requested another alarm. Two more engines were dispatched:

• Engine 3 – Captain with driver and one tail ender.

• Engine 2 – Two-man crew.

Additionally, mutual aid responded to cover stations.

Upon arrival, we noted a 2½-story, wood/balloon-frame colonial converted into a two-family home. Heavy smoke was showing from the attic, but there was no visible fire. The heaviest smoke was from the B/C corner and it unknown if the house was occupied.

We were directed by the incident commander (IC) to go to the attic. Access to the second floor was via an exterior stairway on the B side. Police were attempting to force the B-side door while we were advancing a 1¾-inch line up the stairway. As police had no success forcing entry, Firefighter Makos took over, forcing the door with his ax.

What we didn’t realize at the time was that the house was actually a marijuana grow house with approximately 350 plants in various stages of growth. The exterior door and several interior doors were reinforced with steel bars running across. After much effort, the door was forced and we advanced with a dry hoseline up the interior stairs to the second floor. Firefighter Makos was on the nozzle with myself directly behind. Tools included an ax, halligan and thermal imager. Upon entering the second floor, we encountered light smoke. We had good visibility through the living room on the D side to a kitchen to the C side. We found the door to the attic at the top of the stairs to the second floor on the B side.

When we opened the door, we encountered thick smoke. I reported my findings by radio and called for water. We advanced up the stairs to the attic with zero visibility. Upon entering the attic, we encountered high heat. I told Firefighter Makos not to advance farther into the attic due to the heat, while I used the thermal imager to help locate the seat of the fire. I noted high heat at the ceiling (peaked roof), but no visible fire and reported my findings to the IC and requested ventilation. I could hear the crew on the roof working directly above us.

A backup crew arrived behind us on the stairs. I instructed Firefighter Makos to cool the ceiling with some straight stream short blasts directed toward the C side, where it was likely the seat of the fire was. It was at this time that Firefighter Makos told me he was getting low on air. I could here his alarm sounding. I was surprised that he was low on air already, as I still had three-quarters of my tank left. What I did not realize at the time was that Firefighter Makos was having issues with his seal and had lost air quickly. I instructed him to follow the line out and re-supply, knowing I had a crew directly behind me on the stairs and a crew on the second floor.

It was at this time that the smoke lit up and heavy fire was directly above our heads, forcing me down to the stair landing at the turn, along with the crew on the stairs. I immediately realized that Firefighter Makos might not have exited the attic prior to the smoke lighting up. I asked the backup crew if Firefighter Makos had come by them and they said he had not.

I went back up the stairs, along with a member from the backup crew, to search for Firefighter Makos. On the way up the stairs, I scanned the room with the thermal imager with no result. I followed the line back up and found the bale wide open, with nobody on the line. I chased down the line and closed the bale.

We were yelling for Firefighter Makos with no response. We were taking on a lot of heat, and I knew that Firefighter Makos was in trouble. The entrance to the attic brought us to the center of the attic and we were not on a wall. Firefighter Makos was off the line, on low air and possibly burnt. I was able to hold the line and spread out on my stomach, sweeping with my tool and my feet. I felt something with my foot and kicked Firefighter Makos. I told him it was me and he grabbed me and I was able to get him out. Firefighter Makos bailed out head first down the stairs and was assisted by the backup crew to the exterior B-side entrance/exit. I informed the IC that Firefighter Makos was in distress and needed EMS and I followed him to the exterior B-side exit.

Firefighter Makos was disrobed of his structural firefighting gear, which he had been wearing appropriately, and burns were noted on the back of his head, neck and shoulders. The pump operator informed me that he witnessed a change in smoke conditions followed by a fireball like a “blow torch” coming from the attic just prior to us exiting the building. Firefighter Makos was transported to the emergency room, where he received care for burns and smoke inhalation. He was treated for second-degree burns and carbon monoxide in his bloodstream.

I received first-degree burns, which did not require medical attention, to my neck and shoulders and was able to resume firefighting activities. I was wearing full turnout gear when I received the burns.

A vent hole was cut on the roof and backup crews were attacking the fire from the second floor and attic. The seat of the fire was found in the walls on the second-story kitchen on the B/C corner. The fire and smoke spread from the add-on kitchen, which had a separate roof that led to the main attic space. The fire was extinguished and overhaul began.

After the seat of the fire was knocked down, we continued to search and overhaul. It was at this stage that I noticed that the bedroom doors were all locked and reinforced. We forced entry into the bedrooms and found marijuana plants in various stages of growth. Several of the bedrooms were untouched by fire and had hundreds of plants being grown by a hydroponics system. The rooms were equipped with an extensive grow-lamp system and a special heating, moisture and venting system had been constructed. All the windows were boxed in from the interior of the rooms, as not to show light through them. The house was made to appear lived in, as air conditioners were placed in the windows.

Pockets of fire were difficult to find and the last of the fire was found inside of a refrigerator, where fertilizers were being stored. We did not know what kind of chemicals might be inside the house and suspected fertilizer products with the possibility of a meth lab. The district hazmat team was deployed to the scene and found the burning chemicals to be large amounts of fertilizer. The air was metered and deemed free of organophosphates or chemicals from a meth operation.

A post-fire inspection found the cause to be electrical, due to the illegal wiring for the elaborate grow system. The fire started in the walls on the B-side rear kitchen and extended into the ceiling and attic.

This fire showed us that you just truly never know what conditions you could run into. From the outside, the house appeared to be just another normal residence, when in reality it was deceiving. The smoke had nowhere to escape because the windows were all cased in, and forcible entry was more difficult because the doors were reinforced. The smoke buildup was compounded by the fact that the only place it had to go was to the attic and the enormous amount of heat and gas buildup combined with ventilation probably caused the smoke to ignite.

Looking back, I realize it would have been a good decision to relay to the IC that we were doing a search for Firefighter Makos prior to re-entering the attic. The IC would have known the situation and began preparing a rapid intervention team. Instead, my instincts took over and I went rushing back into the room without letting the IC know that we had a firefighter missing. For all I knew, Firefighter Makos could have gotten by the crews unnoticed and was outside for rehab.

Furthermore, I would have taken some more time sweeping with the thermal imager. I started looking prematurely as I was going up the stairs and probably missed seeing Firefighter Makos on the ground. My quick reaction ended up with a positive outcome, but it certainly could have had negative implications if I got myself and others in a bad situation because IC was not even aware that we were searching for a missing firefighter or that we had a change in conditions.

Lessons learned that day have changed how we conduct our daily training, and I have taken a “back to the basics” approach for my group. As a captain, I am responsible for the training of my group. I am a certified fire instructor and have been working at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy for approximately nine years, where I train recruit and veteran firefighters. I mostly work in the 12-week recruit-training program, which trains firefighters from all over the state. Many of the lesson plans that I use for company level training come from this training. Other programs that I instruct include “Saving Ourselves” and the flashover trailer.

In light of this incident, I have been focusing some of the training to Mayday procedures, self-rescue and rapid intervention. I believe it is good to review Mayday procedures, but it is more important to actually physically call out Maydays in our training. I also review all near-misses and fatalities daily with my group. Some days, our training focuses on specific examples. My main priority has always been safety and I believe that education and training are key to that mission. n

Next: Comments by Chief Goldfeder and others related to this fire.

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