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I’ve been told that other firefighters were never more than 10 to 12 feet from me, which is why I could hear their voices. It doesn’t matter if you are 50 feet or five feet from an exit – if you are in a toxic environment and your mask comes off, you’re going to die. I was low on air and hoping someone would find me. I remember not knowing if my next breath was going to suck my mask to my face. The biggest lesson I learned that day was to not second-guess calling for a Mayday. Don’t assume they know where you are.
Once outside, I was assisted with gear removal and received medical attention. I had singed hair and second-degree burns, despite the use of full turnout gear, including my hood and earflaps. I also had smoke inhalation and CO (carbon monoxide) exposure. I feel strongly that my captain, and friend, got me out of a situation that I could not get out of on my own and she saved my life.
Observations by Chief Goldfeder and others about this fire:
First, congratulations to Captain Rebecca Boutin for her heroic efforts at this fire. At the annual Massachusetts Firefighter of the Year ceremony, Governor Deval Patrick, Public Safety Secretary Mary Elizabeth Heffernan and Fire Marshal Stephan D. Coan presented Captain Boutin and 31 other firefighters with awards for heroism and community service.
“It’s a pretty weird feeling,” Boutin said, adding that she believes she did what any firefighter would have done. “That’s what we’re trained to do. It’s one of those things you read about. It was the kind of thing that a lot of people won’t run into in their careers.”
Seconds before the flashover, Firefighter Makos notified her that he was low on air. It wasn’t until after they scrambled out of the attic after the flashover that anyone knew Firefighter Makos never made it out.
“It was scary,” Captain Boutin said. “If it was a minute long, it was the scariest minute.” She said it was the first time in her career she feared for her life. “I never felt that way before. But I was more fearful for his life. He was in more of a dire situation than I was.”
When they got outside, both were burned through their protective clothing. Boutin had minor burns on her shoulder, while Makos had second-degree burns to his back and neck.
“He took on a lot of heat,” she said, adding that once he was outside, the air tank on his back was too hot to touch.
Fire Chief Mary R. Regan said it was clear that Captain Boutin saved Firefighter Makos’ life.
“After speaking to Steve about it, there is no question that he was not going to be able to make it out of the building (on his own),” Chief Regan said. The room rapidly filled with black smoke and visibility was about zero, she said. “From about six inches above the floor and up you couldn’t see anything, not even your hand in front of you,” she said. “It was a serious situation and she handled it perfectly.”
The scenario was so serious that afterward, the department brought in a crisis team to counsel anyone troubled at how close they had come to losing one of their own. “When you come that close to losing somebody, you deal with it head on,” Chief Regan said.
Every firefighter must train daily for that “worst day.” For the firefighters in Westfield, the day started with a relatively common fire, but as we all know, fires can turn out to be anything but, as happened in Westfield. This could have resulted in the death of a firefighter, but certain things happened so that it did not.
What are the three top measurable factors that resulted in Firefighter Makos’ life being saved?
His training. Her training. The backup line crew’s training.
Let’s look at factors before, during and after the emergency:
• Staffing and roles – Like so many fire departments, the WFD has limited staffing. We can (and do!) get upset, emotional and angry – we should always make sure we have what is needed to take care of our communities – but we still must do the best with what we have.
The WFD has appropriately pre-determined what roles can be performed with the staffing it has. Well before the fire, departments must identify what they can do to have the desired impact. For example, a department may wish to have 30 firefighters on a first alarm, but when that is impossible, it must determine how many firefighters it will have on a first alarm and prioritize the tasks to be performed. These actions are based on size-up and identifying conditions, tasks to be performed and the resources to get them done. By pre-planning first-alarm assignments, we have fewer surprises when we arrive. Additionally, striking additional alarms as soon as possible (as the WFD deputy chief did) and automatic mutual aid on the first-alarm assignment for a reported fire can help get those tasks performed quicker.