Close Calls: Fire Captain Struck Minutes After Arrival: Part 1

Dayton, OH, is in an area of traditional seasons: it’s hot in the summer, cold in the winter and pretty much everything in between. In this month’s close call, Captain Barry Cron of the City of Dayton Fire Department describes what we have read so many times before. It was a “routine run” with some late-winter, cold weather when he was struck on a “simple” crash scene and literally thrown into the air.

The City of Dayton Fire Department is a fully career fire and EMS department. With 12 stations and 368 personnel serving 56 square miles and a population of 142,000, the department provides the Dayton community with professional firefighting, rescue services, basic and advanced pre-hospital emergency medical care and transportation. The department operates eight engine companies, four ladder companies, one cross-staffed heavy rescue company, seven EMS transport units with a minimum of two district chiefs on duty each shift. In 2012, the department responded to 35,683 calls for fire, emergency and related services.

Interestingly, the city self-manages its fire facilities and emergency and non-emergency fleet. It also maintains and repairs small motors, tools and other emergency equipment and provides vehicle repair services to 28 other jurisdictions in a recently renovated garage facility in north Dayton. In the Dayton area, automatic mutual aid and cooperative firefighting is the norm and it is not uncommon for numerous departments to respond on a first-alarm assignment, ensuring closest and most-appropriate unit response. Our sincere thanks to Dayton Interim Fire Chief Jeffrey L. Payne and Captain Barry Cron for their assistance in the preparation of this month’s close call.

The following account is from Captain Barry Cron, who was struck at the scene:

As many of these stories begin, our shift, which started at 7 A.M., on March 25, 2013, began pretty much as any other. The night before, we had experienced a light snowfall, which I believe was no more than a few inches. On my way to work traveling Route 35 (not the section where the incident occurred), the traffic had slowed due to the built-up snow on the roadway. Nothing surprising for Dayton at this time of the year. As is also common this time of the year, the day warmed quickly as the sun rose, melting the roadways and drying them as the day went on. The day for our ladder crew ended up being kind of light in terms of run volume.

We ended up having our last run prior to this one at about 9:30 that evening so we really didn’t know what the weather had done outside. At 5:25 A.M. the following day, we were dispatched to Route 35 eastbound with Medic 11, an ALS (advanced life support) transport unit, for a report of an auto accident with a car on its top. Before we even made it to the ladder, the run had already been upgraded to a trapped response, which adds a district chief, extra engine, Rescue 1 (our extrication/heavy rescue company that is cross-staffed by an engine crew) and our Incident Support Unit (ISU), which is a lieutenant EMS supervisor.

Timelines quoted here were taken from dispatch information and the dash cam video timer. I include times because I feel it’s important to understand how quickly all of this took place.

Enroute to the scene

We were enroute at 5:26 and had arrived on scene at 5:31. Conditions enroute were such that it looked like we had received a little precipitation during the night in the form of light snowfall or possibly freezing rain. We experienced no problems enroute, although my driver had slowed in response to the conditions. This was not our first-in district. It would have been Engine 17’s response, but they were on an EMS incident at the time; we were second due.

Route 35 in this area is a three-lane highway in each direction, eastbound and westbound. It is posted as a 50-mph speed limit in this section. The eastbound and westbound lanes are divided by a very small curbed/landscaped area on each side of a guard rail. Where the accident occurred was at the overpass over Gettysburg Road. This overpass has a long history of being known for getting slick well before most areas of the highway, even worse than other overpasses, for some reason. We as a department have responded here many times for accidents due to the overpass getting iced. I have been told of many instances of close calls of crews working in this area.

As we arrived in the westbound lanes, as our response would dictate from our direction, we found a single vehicle on its passenger side up against the guard rail and a light pole with the passenger’s compartment near the guard rail, the vehicle on the eastbound side of the guardrail. A Dayton Police Department (DPD) cruiser was already on scene with the left lane blocked. We positioned our ladder to block the second lane. I knew we were going to have crews working on both sides of the guard rail, but mainly on our side due to the position of the car. Twenty-nine seconds after arrival, I asked a DPD officer to shut down the eastbound lanes.

Rescue scenario

A DPD officer or two and a couple of bystanders were holding the vehicle in position as it appeared to be unstable. My first thought was that we were going to have to stabilize the vehicle before any extrication work began. As a ladder crew, we carry limited stabilizing equipment. Most of the stabilizing equipment is on Rescue 1. I decided we would tie a rope to the vehicle and run it across the eastbound lanes tying it off to the guardrail across the highway. I instructed one firefighter to get the rope and prepare to tie off the vehicle to the guardrail but to not begin this or cross the guardrail until we got the eastbound lanes completely shut down.

Coming from the same firehouse, our district chief had arrived with us or soon after us. I was sure he and DPD were making provisions to get lanes on the eastbound side blocked. My driver and I had looked in on the occupant to find that it was a single female who stated she was fine, but could not get out of the vehicle. He had a suggestion for extrication, which I agreed with, and he prepared with our third firefighter to gather equipment that would be necessary once Rescue 1 arrived and the eastbound lanes were closed.

As I looked across the eastbound lanes, I noted two other vehicles that had apparently spun out against the guardrail on the other side, but it appeared any injuries may be minor. I was going to instruct my firefighter who was to tie off the vehicle to check on those occupants after he had completed stabilization.

I knew it was going to take time to block lanes on the other side of the highway because this area sits at the edge of the city limits and no other equipment responding to this area would have been normally traveling in the eastbound lanes. They would have to travel past our location westbound to the next traffic light-controlled intersection approximately one mile farther west to turn around and come back to the scene in the eastbound lanes. It appeared we would have some time for this as the occupant of the vehicle appeared to have minor injuries if any at all.

Then it all broke loose.

Crashing into the scene

As I stepped back to further survey the situation, a second vehicle, a small pickup, had apparently also lost control, sliding in and striking the first vehicle and also ending up on its passenger side against the first. This was one minute, 37 seconds after our arrival. I took a quick look around to see if any of my crew or other people on the scene near the vehicle had been injured; all appeared to be OK.

I radioed to the district chief that we needed to shut down the eastbound lanes immediately. That transmission was made eight seconds after the crash of the second vehicle into the first. I knew my crew members were going back to the first vehicle to check whether that occupant’s condition had changed due to the second impact.

I turned my attention to the second vehicle. My intention in crossing the guard rail was to check how many occupants were in the vehicle and their condition to see if my priorities were changing, then get back to the “safety” of the guardrail. I entered from the “downstream” side of the vehicles, maybe, in hindsight, having a sense of some security behind the already wrecked vehicles. I took a quick survey of the vehicles and their positions. I looked inside and found there was a single male occupant of that vehicle and he stated he was OK. I think I had just enough time to tell him to stay put and we would get him out soon.

A half-second warning

That’s when the third vehicle came in and struck the second, slamming the second into me and sending me tumbling an estimated 20-30 feet. This impact occurred 33 seconds after the second vehicle impacted. I had approximately a half-second warning that something was happening as I heard tires sliding on ice and then the impact. I remained conscious throughout the entire event. I had two thoughts simultaneously as I was impacted and tumbling: “That did not just happen” and “This is not going to end well.”

As I came to rest cradled in the plowed snow bank on my back, I saw the pickup come to a rest beside me. I wondered if it was done moving toward me. My first thought was to get back over the guard rail, which I could reach out and touch. Due to the pain in my chest and legs and being cradled in the snow, I could not move at all. I started wondering when the next out-of-control vehicle was going to come along and finish me off and I couldn’t do a thing about it.

Assessing my situation

Having been a paramedic for more than 20 years, I laid there assessing my injuries. My lower legs were in extreme pain; I figured they were both badly broken. My chest hurt badly, especially on the right side. I was breathing very quickly and I could hear fluids in my lungs as I inhaled and exhaled. I figured I had at least a pneumo (a pneumothorax, or collapsed lung). It’s at that point that I began thinking of my family and wondering whether I would see them again. As I told others, I have been in many fires over the years and some sticky situations in them, but I have never felt fear for my safety. I was scared for my life at this point.

A DPD officer had witnessed me getting struck and I could hear him yelling to me and he was yelling out for others to help. I heard people yelling that they could not locate my driver. I thought “Where’s Darryl?” My other two firefighters, Firefighter/Paramedic Nick Harris and Firefighter/EMT Tony Jollay, and DPD Officer Jason Ward came to my aid and placed themselves in a still potentially dangerous situation to grab me and move me to a safe area to begin treatment. My driver, Firefighter/Paramedic Darryl Conley, quickly came to their sides to help begin care on me. He had been located and was OK. The first medic unit arrived and assisted my crew with my care. Once they got me into the medic, I finally began to get the feeling that things were going to be OK. I had every confidence in their care and they all did a marvelous job in a very stressful situation.

I was transported to Miami Valley Hospital, our local Level I trauma center, where I was found to have a small fracture to my right fibula, three broken ribs and a very small pneumo. They said the pneumo was barely visible on the x-ray and in fact had all but resolved itself by my discharge the next day.

My recovery went very well. I spent three weeks off duty, then went back on light duty for three additional weeks. I was back to full duty six weeks after the accident. As the above-mentioned injuries healed, I have since found that I also tore the medial meniscus in both knees. I believe the pain from the other injuries masked the pain from the knee injuries early on. n

Next: Lessons learned