Close Calls: Firefighter Trapped in Marijuana-Grow "Fortress" - Part 2

T his is the second installment of my column about a close call involving the Westfield, MA, Fire Department (WFD). To recap, during a March 30, 2012, fire in a single-family-dwelling, Captain Rebecca Boutin crawled into a smoke-filled attic moments after...


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• Police on the scene – Fire and police departments have a long history of well working well together – or not. The Westfield Fire and Police departments have a good relationship. When I read that police officers were forcing doors upon the arrival of the WFD, I raised my eyebrows over my head! Naturally, we understand that forcing doors (which includes a venting factor) can significantly impact our operations. It’s important that police officers understand how their well-intentioned actions may drastically and very negatively impact the fire, the occupants, the firefighters and, of course, their unprotected selves while attempting to “protect and serve.”

• Construction and occupancy challenges – Balloon-frame construction means we will be challenged by vertical fire spread. Sometimes, what we see may not be what we have. In this case, the fire started in an add-on area and spread in and up the walls to the attic. That’s common for fires in balloon-frame dwellings, with which Westfield firefighters are very familiar. What the WFD firefighters did not expect was that the unassuming home was actually a marijuana-grow house with hundreds of plants in various stages of growth.

These days, from meth labs to hoarders, we have to expect literally anything. In this fire, firefighters found hundreds of marijuana plants, an extensive growing-lamp system and a special heating, moisture and venting system. Windows were boxed in from the interior and the house was made to appear lived in, with air conditioners placed in blocked windows and numerous other hazards.

I recently made a run at which firefighters investigating a report of smoke in an apartment encountered a very strong, permeating and nasty odor. They backed out, advised command and were ordered out. We established “hot,” “warm” and “cold” zones and, in coordination with police, had a hazardous materials crew continue the investigation. All searches were negative from a fire standpoint, but proved positive for the apartment’s occupant, who was cooking extremely hot peppers in a bathtub. Never a dull moment.

• Tools – I remember an old chief (when I was a young firefighter) telling me to leave little back on the apparatus because tools were not designed to stay on the rig. Captain Boutin and her firefighters had a hoseline along with an ax, a halligan, radios and a thermal imager. Things get a lot tougher when you don’t have what you need. Take it with you!

• Communicating – “Conditions, actions and needs.” The use of “CAN” reports has become common, by command asking or companies reporting – short and to the point. When Captain Boutin and crew reached the attic, she reported her findings by radio and called for water. She also directed a firefighter to cool that part of the room. A good call, but when the incident went bad, they both regret not using their radios at that moment. Would that have alerted command to a Mayday? Of course. However, Captain Boutin said the emergency happened so fast and her instinct was to find the missing firefighter as soon as possible, a decision that paid off.

• Responsibility and roles – Captain Boutin did what a company officer is supposed to do – ensure that her crew gets out. She did not leave, but immediately went back in, under obviously dangerous conditions, and risked her life to save his. Firefighter Makos’ training also kicked in. He had the equipment he was expected to bring in and made sure he was fully geared up from head to toe. Unfortunately, his mask became dislodged, he was unable to fix it and so he had to get out. When that happens, the officer considers whether the members who came in together go out together or an alternative is needed to ensure that the firefighter who must get out, gets out. Given the circumstances, it may be reasonable to have that firefighter follow the line out, but it also means a firefighter must function without a partner.

• Training – Don’t blow off the basics. Because working fires are high-task, staffing-intensive and physically demanding, but low-frequency events, it is incumbent on the chief and every company officer and firefighter to make sure that fire training never takes a back seat to EMS, hazmat or anything else we may be expected to do. Does that mean we don’t do that other stuff? Of course not. It means we make sure we are experts in size-up, establishing water, stretching lines, forcing entry, venting, searching for fire and victims, getting water on the fire and all the other tasks we love reading, talking and thinking about. It takes little time to do “hands-on” training on every shift or every drill to make sure we have these tasks perfected.