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Responding to structural fires, we sometimes hear the generic phrase “People reported trapped.” Firefighters’ adrenalin starts pumping, hearts beat faster and blood pressure increases. As the apparatus turns the corner, visible fire is venting out of three windows on the top floor of a three-story, non-fireproof multiple dwelling.
The ladder company chauffeur positions the apparatus for possible rescue. Firefighters exit the crew cab and assume their assigned positions to conduct search and rescue. The truck officer and the inside team enter the fire apartment and pass the fire room to search for the reported trapped occupants as the engine company stretches a 1¾-inch hoseline to the fire apartment.
“Ladder 99 to Battalion 55, heavy fire condition in the living room, primary search in the rest of the apartment negative.”
This is as routine as it gets in the life of a firefighter. We dodge the bullet, no civilians are killed or injured and all firefighters return home to their families.
At another incident, a civilian approaches the first-due ladder company officer and says there’s a man trapped inside a small grocery store. “I was just talking to him,” she says. The lieutenant and the inside team force entry to the roll-down accordion gate as high heat and heavy smoke push out from the store. The officer crawls in on his hands and knees, passes the fire as it rolls off the ceiling to the left and begins conducting a primary search for the victim. To compound this rescue attempt, no engine company is on the scene yet. Approaching the rear of the store, the officer finds a second-floor mezzanine and ascends the makeshift staircase to search the area.
The engine company arrives and members communicate to the ladder company officer that they have water and are ready to extinguish the fire. The officer acknowledges and completes the primary search, which proves to be negative. The ladder company officer retreats to the street. Weak and exhausted, he removes his bunker coat and falls to the ground. He wakes up in the hospital and is diagnosed with heat stroke.
Putting us at risk
Why do people make up stories that place our lives at unnecessary risk? Is it sensationalism or one’s imagination?
One of the worst recent tragedies was the death of Firefighter Kyle Wilson of Prince William County, VA, Fire and Rescue. The perfect storm sequence of events occurred at this well-advanced outside fire in the rear of the structure communicating inside. It was 6 A.M., cars were parked in the driveway, no lights were on inside and the occupants’ status was unknown. Sustained 25-mph winds, gusting to 48 mph, traveled from the rear of the fire building toward the front, a lightweight, open-concept interior floor area and a combustible wood deck with a storage shed beneath. The exterior sheathing consisted of fiberboard covered with vinyl siding and the roof consisted of asphalt shingles covering an open-truss loft. Perforated vinyl soffits ventilated the truss loft area and a brick-veneer facade covered the front of the building.
A neighbor whose home directly faced the rear of the fire building discovered the fire. While his wife notified the fire department, he drove around the block to awaken the sleeping occupants. The occupants, in sleepwear, evacuated the house and took shelter from the cold in a neighbor’s house, assuming the good Samaritan would tell the fire department where they were.
The good Samaritan neighbor who helped with the evacuation returned to the front of the fire building and moved his vehicle from the middle of the street so it would not block the fire department’s access. By the time the good Samaritan made his way back to the scene to provide occupant information, firefighters were already engaged in interior operations – and in peril.
When the first-due unit arrived on the scene, the officer saw cars in the driveway and no lights on, so as any of us in the fire service would, assumed the occupants were still inside. Firefighters entered through the front door to conduct a fast primary search of the upstairs bedrooms coordinated with advancement of a charged hoseline.