Firefighters Trapped At Maryland House Fire - Part 1

On Feb. 24, 2012, the Prince George’s County, MD, Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department (PGFD) responded to a fire in a single-family dwelling fire in Riverdale Heights. During firefighting operations, seven firefighters were injured. Some of these firefighters received significant burn injuries and were hospitalized for a long period. The fire was determined to be arson.

Given the severity of the injuries and the magnitude of the event, an investigative team was ordered by Fire Chief Marc Bashoor in accordance with the department’s “General Order 08-18: Safety Investigation Team.” Beginning this month, Firehouse® Close Calls will provide an overview of the fire as well as the process that was used to determine what went wrong – and how those issues can be avoided in the future.

Additionally, the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Office of the Fire Marshal conducted an investigation to determine the origin and cause of the fire. Assisted by members of the Prince George’s County Police Department and special agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Fire Marshal’s Office determined the fire was incendiary in nature. At the time of this writing, this case remains as an open active criminal investigation.

PGFD services

Prince George’s County is immediately north, east and south of Washington, DC, and part of the Baltimore-Washington, DC, Metropolitan Area. According to the 2010 Census, the county has a population of 871,233. The county has a total area of 498.45 square miles, of which 485.43 square miles, 97.39%, is land and 13.01 square miles, or 2.61%, is water. The Patuxent River forms its eastern border with Anne Arundel, Calvert and Howard counties.

PGFD delivers services through a network of 44 fire stations strategically positioned throughout the county. Stations are staffed by 810 career members and 1,563 volunteer members. The department is responsible for all fire suppression and prevention throughout the county and provides both basic life support (BLS) and advanced life support (ALS) emergency medical care. In addition, PGFD provides technical and water rescue services, hazardous materials and bomb response as well as investigations and a large array of community-based services. It has mutual aid and automatic mutual aid agreements with the surrounding jurisdictions and it supports regional and national emergency response operations during disaster situations.

PGFD is the largest and busiest combination fire department in North America. In 2012, it responded to 135,383 incidents, with EMS runs accounting for nearly 80% of services. It is important to note that the county has not yet achieved full build-out. It is anticipated that the population will continue to grow and overall call volume and support requirements will increase and become even more challenging.

Initial response

On Feb. 24, 2012, at 9:11 P.M., PGFD personnel responded to a structure fire at 6404 57th Ave. in Riverdale Heights. Apparatus and personnel from the following companies were alerted and responded: Station 807, Riverdale VFD (Engine 807B with six firefighters), Station 809, Bladensburg VFD (Engine 809 with four firefighters and Truck 809 with four firefighters), Station 801, Hyattsville VFD (Engine 801 with six firefighters, Truck 801 with eight firefighters and Rescue Squad 801 with eight firefighters), Station 812, College Park VFD (Engine 812 with four firefighters and a probationary firefighter), Battalion Chief 884 and Chiefs 809A, 812 and 812A.

On arrival, PGFD personnel saw fire extending out of a basement window on the Bravo side, pressurized smoke on the first floor on the Alpha side and high winds impacting the rear of the structure. A “working fire dispatch” was transmitted by Engine 807B, the first-arriving engine. That dispatch automatically added the following to the first-alarm assignment: BLS Ambulance 855 (Bunker Hill), Medic 812, Northern Safety Officer, EMS Duty Officer, two Citizen Support Units, BLS Ambulance 809 (Bladensburg) and Northern Division Chief.

Firefighters in jeopardy

Shortly after arriving, firefighters forced the front door of the structure on the Alpha side, which immediately changed the fire’s flow path and dynamics by adding a ventilation opening above the fire. This situation was intensified by weather conditions (high winds impacting the rear of the structure). Two firefighters entered the structure through the front door, placing themselves above the basement fire and in its outflow path. This exposed them to high-velocity and high-temperature gases.

The two firefighters were trapped on the first floor without the protection of a hoseline when the front door shut behind them and changed the fire’s flow path. The hot smoke and gases that were coming up the interior stairwell and escaping out the front door were now contained to the first floor. This dropped the smoke layer to the floor and temporarily increased the temperature from floor to ceiling in the front room where the firefighters were trapped.

One firefighter was able to self-rescue through a front window and the other firefighter was removed through the front door by other firefighters. The fire in the basement burned unchecked until an engine company entered the basement from the rear of the structure and began putting water on the fire. Ultimately, seven firefighters were injured; the two firefighters who were trapped on the first floor sustained the most significant injuries.

Our sincere thanks to all those who responded and were impacted by this fire, with special thanks to Fire Sergeant Kevin O’Toole (Bladensburg Company 809) and Firefighter Ethan Sorrell, who were critically injured while operating at this fire, and Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor, Deputy Fire Chief/Fire Marshal Scott Hoglander, Bladensburg 809 Fire Chief Randy Kuenzli and Deputy Chief Robert Pickel, the Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association, the Prince George’s County Professional Firefighters International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 1619 and Prince George’s County Public Safety Communications personnel. Also, thanks to Lee McCarthy of the ATF, Dan Madrzykowski of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Acting Captain Dan Schrader and Safety Battalion Chief Sayshun Conver White. Special thanks to the Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Department, Company 809, members, who has added $10,000 of their own funding toward the reward to capture those responsible for this fire.

Safety Investigation Team

PGFD policy dictated that a Safety Investigation Team (SIT) be established. It should be noted that the fire chief directed the team to consist of fire personnel from within as well as subject-matter experts external to the PGFD to ensure a full, open and fully transparent investigation. For more than a year, the SIT visited the scene, reviewed statements, conducted interviews and gathered data. The team identified many factors that contributed to the outcome and injuries to the firefighters. While the safety investigation report details all of these factors, the team identified the following as most critical:

1. An effective size-up was not completed, including a 360-degree survey walk around the building, as well as evaluating environmental conditions.

2. No Incident Action Plan (IAP) was communicated and firefighters were dangerously positioned above and in the outflow path of the fire.

3. A firefighter emergency occurred, but no Mayday was effectively communicated.

4. Multiple existing policies and procedures were not followed.

5. Training deficiencies were identified at all levels.

6. Command, control and accountability deficiencies were identified at all levels.

While the SIT analyzed the entire incident, the focus of the investigation was to determine what happened, what factors led to the injuries and, most importantly, what recommendations should be made so future incidents do not have similar or worse outcomes. During the course of the investigation, the team prepared many recommendations intended to assist the PGFD and other departments throughout North America in improving the operational safety of personnel, fireground operations, command and control of fire incidents as well as training. These recommendations will be discussed in detail in parts two and three. Following the issuance of the report on June 3, 2013, Fire Chief Bashoor established a second team consisting of both career and volunteer members of the PGFD to provide him with an action plan to implement every recommendation.

 

The response by the first-due units:

All dispatched units commenced an emergency response (emergency lights and sirens) to the alerted address and all successfully arrived. In addition, three volunteer chief officers responded with their respective companies and operated as chief officers on the scene. All units, except for Engine 807B, Engine 801 and Truck 801, responded from their quarters on dispatch. All units arrived in order of assignment, but due to the location of the structure, the first two engines (Engine 807B and Engine 809), the two trucks (Truck 809 and Truck 801) and the chief officer (Volunteer Chief 809A) all arrived within seconds of each other. The following sections are accounts of the unit and personnel activities as each arrived on the scene.

 

Unit/crew activities

The following accounts of each unit’s activities were derived from the witness statements provided by all personnel from units operating on the incident. Every effort was made to corroborate both the entire unit’s activities and the individual crew member’s activities with the other available incident records, such as computer-aided dispatch (CAD) data and radio system recordings. The units’ accounts are listed in order of arrival on the scene. This information was verified by multiple sources. If it was not verifiable, it was not included.

Engine 807B – Engine 807B was on the air, returning from another call, and was approaching their quarters on Queensbury Road when the initial dispatch was put out. Engine 807B responded as the first-due engine and arrived on the scene, stopping to lay out a single three-inch supply line from a hydrant at 6325 57th Ave. Engine 807B Officer placed the unit on the scene and advised of a “two-story,” single-family dwelling with fire showing from side Bravo. Engine 807B Officer observed embers and smoke blowing across the street when the engine stopped to lay out. Engine 807B Officer observed fire showing from the basement-level window on side Bravo. Engine 807B Officer verbally passed command and requested the “working fire dispatch.” Engine 807B’s crew pulled a 200-foot 1¾-inch attack line that was subsequently charged. The crew from Engine 807B forced entry to the front door on side Alpha.

Based on statements and physical evidence, there is no factual indication that any water was discharged from the attack line prior to or during the emergency that caused the firefighter injuries. There is no verifiable evidence that Engine 807B’s hoseline ever entered the structure, but it was most certainly not in the structure at the time of the emergency. Four personnel from Engine 807B were injured and transported to MedStar/Washington Hospital Center for treatment.

Truck 809 – Truck 809 responded from quarters as the first-due truck and arrived on 57th Avenue right behind Engine 807B. When Truck 809 stopped to let Engine 807B lay out, Truck 809 Can (the firefighter assigned to the water extinguisher) dismounted the truck and had to walk up the street as it pulled away. Truck 809 Officer observed a lot of smoke moving extremely fast through the front yard and across the street upon exiting the truck.

Truck 809 Officer and Truck 809 Forcible Entry proceeded directly to the front door on side Alpha of the structure. Because there was a car in the driveway, there were concerns of occupants trapped. Both of them entered the structure with full personal protective equipment (PPE), including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), but without the protection of a hoseline. Truck 809 Officer and Truck 809 Forcible Entry began primary searches on the first floor.

At some point during the primary search, as conditions worsened, the front door closed, trapping Truck 809 Officer and Truck 809 Forcible Entry inside the structure. This situation could not have occurred if a charged hoseline was operating inside the structure at the time the door slammed shut. They were the only firefighters operating on the first floor at that time.

Truck 809 Forcible Entry was too large to fit through the small window opening that he found on Side Alpha. Truck 809 Forcible Entry was unable to self-evacuate and remained trapped inside. Due to rapidly deteriorating conditions, Truck 809 Officer was forced to self-rescue through another small window on side Alpha.

After exiting the structure, Truck 809 Officer screamed to those on the exterior that a firefighter was trapped inside. Truck 809 Officer then proceeded to the front door (side Alpha) in an attempt to search for and rescue Truck 809 Forcible Entry, who was trapped inside. At this point, multiple firefighters on the exterior assisted Truck 809 Officer in the search, rescue and removal of Truck 809 Forcible Entry. Both Truck 809 Officer and Truck 809 Forcible Entry sustained serious injuries and were transported to the MedStar/Washington Hospital Level 1 Center.

While the interior operations were taking place, Truck 809 Driver and Truck 809 Hook/Ladders were on the exterior throwing ladders to the structure. Truck 809 Hook/Ladders threw two ladders (sides Alpha and Bravo) while Truck 809 Driver threw one ladder (side Alpha).

Chief 809A – Volunteer Chief 809A arrived simultaneously with Engine 807B, Truck 809 and Engine 809. Volunteer Chief 809A established “57th Avenue Command” and confirmed Engine 807B’s report of fire showing from side Bravo of the basement. Volunteer Chief 809A (now in command) assigned Rescue Squad 801 as the rapid intervention crew and assigned Truck 801 to ladder the rear of the structure and report on the conditions. Command assigned Chief 812A to Basement Division and Chief 812 to Division 1 (first floor).

Command was notified by Communications of Emergency Identifier (EI) activations from Truck 809. Command acknowledged the EIs from Communications and advised that there were “people looking for them now, looks like I got fire from three sides, we’re trying to get a line on it now.”

Engine 809 – Engine 809 was dispatched as the second-due engine and responded from quarters with Truck 809, arriving almost simultaneously with Engine 807B and Truck 809. Engine 809 stopped at a hydrant at 6325 57th Ave. to ensure Engine 807B’s water supply. Engine 809 arrived as Engine 807B was still positioning up the street on side Alpha of the structure. All personnel assigned to Engine 809, other than Engine 809 Driver, ran up the street to Engine 807B. Engine 809 personnel pulled a second crosslay (200 feet of 1¾-inch hose) from Engine 807B.

Engine 809 Officer and crew members indicated in their statements that they noticed heavy winds blowing from side Charlie to side Alpha. The crew of Engine 809 stated the wind conditions created zero visibility in the front yard and they had to mask up in the driveway before advancing their hoseline. Engine 809 Officer ordered this attack line to be deployed down side Delta, near the Delta exposure, to access the basement on side Charlie of the dwelling.

Engine 809 Officer observed access into the basement via a rear door. Engine 809 Officer attempted to contact command via radio, but was interrupted due to other radio traffic. Engine 809 Officer decided to enter the structure with the two crew members, wearing full PPE, including SCBA, to extinguish the fire in the basement. Engine 809’s personnel continued extinguishment in the basement until they heard the evacuation tones and exited the structure.

Engine 809 Officer walked back to side Alpha to do a face-to-face with the incident commander. While doing so, he noticed several injured firefighters and assisted with patient care. Engine 809 Nozzleman and Engine 809 Layout remained on side Charlie, while Engine 809 Officer was on side Alpha assisting with the EMS care of the injured personnel. Later, the remaining Engine 809 crew members (along with Engine 801 crew members) re-entered the structure from the side-Charlie basement door to finish extinguishing the remaining fire and hot spots.

Truck 801 – Truck 801 was dispatched as the second-due truck and arrived seconds behind the units from companies 807 and 809 and positioned at the corner of Sheridan Street and 57th Avenue. Truck 801 personnel proceeded to the structure. Truck 801 Driver, Truck 801 Ladders 1 and Truck 801 Ladders 2 threw four ground ladders to sides Charlie and Delta. After hearing a commotion on side Alpha, Truck 801 Forcible Entry and Truck 801 Tiller became involved in removing the incapacitated Truck 809 Forcible Entry from side Alpha of the house. Truck 801’s interior crew operated in the basement and assisted with utility control and overhaul.

Engine 801 – Engine 801 was dispatched as third-due engine. The crew laid out a three-inch supply line from 5715 Sheridan St. and positioned on 57th Avenue behind Truck 809. Crew members stretched a 400-foot 1¾-inch attack line from Engine 801 as a third attack line. They ran the line down the Bravo side of the Bravo-exposure building and ended up on side Charlie of 6404 57th Ave. Engine 801’s personnel arrived on side Charlie of the structure, where Engine 809 had already begun an attack on the fire from the side-Charlie basement door. After the evacuation, Engine 801 personnel were directed to enter the basement from side Charlie and continue extinguishing any hot spots.

Engine 812 – Engine 812 was dispatched as the fourth-due engine and ensured the water supply for Engine 801, which laid out a supply line from 5715 Sheridan St. The crew from Engine 812 stretched a 400-foot attack line from Engine 812 and extended it with another 250 feet of hoseline from standpipe packs (the fourth attack line). The crew advanced the line to side Charlie and stood by awaiting direction from the incident commander. Their attack line was used to extinguish hot spots.

Rescue Squad 801 – Rescue Squad 801 was dispatched as the third-due special service. Rescue Squad 801 positioned two blocks down on Ravenswood Road and was assigned rapid intervention crew duties. The injured firefighters were already out of the structure when Rescue Squad 801 Officer reached the command post. The incident commander ordered Rescue Squad 801 to perform a search of the first floor (Division 1) to ensure no other firefighters were still inside the house. Rescue Squad 801 Officer and crew members began a search and found no additional firefighters. (Note: The seventh injured firefighter, from Station 812, sustained a minor laceration to the hand and self-transported to the hospital after the incident.)

Next: Fire behavior before and after fire department arrival. A complete copy of the PGFD safety investigation report is available at www.PgfdFireReport.com.

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