Close Calls: Chief First on Scene: Working Fire, People Trapped

One of the most challenging times for chief fire officers is when they arrive before the apparatus. In most cases, it gives us a chance to size-up, conduct the 360-degree walk-around and do our job helping the arriving companies. However, in rare cases...


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One of the most challenging times for chief fire officers is when they arrive before the apparatus. In most cases, it gives us a chance to size-up, conduct the 360-degree walk-around and do our job helping the arriving companies. However, in rare cases, we arrive before the apparatus and there are victims trapped. At times, if the rigs are a few seconds away, they can and will conduct the search and rescue. However, there are other times where the arriving chief has little choice but to force entry, search and make the rescue. This is one of those stories.

For 44 years, the International Association of Fire Chiefs/Motorola Solutions Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor has recognized firefighters around the world for their expert training, leadership, heroic actions and safe practices. It is the highest honor bestowed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). Co-sponsored by the IAFC and Motorola Solutions Inc., the award was presented to Chief Thomas O’Donohue of the Golden Valley, AZ, Fire District (GVFD) at the 140th Fire-Rescue International conference Aug. 13-17, 2013, at McCormick Place in Chicago.

Our sincere thanks to all of the members of the Golden Valley Fire District, Assistant Chief Ted Martin and Chief O’Donohue. A special thanks to the chief for his humble response to the award, this column and his understanding of the importance to “pass it on” when events like this – and the details – can help other firefighters, officers and chiefs.

The Golden Valley Fire District protects a rural area made up primarily of private residences, with a vast majority of them being manufactured homes. They operate out of three full-time fire stations staffed by career personnel. Golden Valley Fire protects an area of approximately 220 square miles and respond to approximately 2,300 incidents annually, 100 of them being fire suppression incidents, about 1,300 EMS runs and the balance the typical assortment of false alarms, snake abatement and other service-type calls with four engines, one ladder, one aerial platform, two water tenders, one hazardous materials unit and a technical rescue team.

Incident overview

On Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, the Golden Valley Fire District received a call for a dwelling fire at 5324 Destiny Way at 7:36 A.M. A minute later, O’Donohue was the first Golden Valley fire unit to turnout, and reported “smoke showing” from his office, located a short distance away.

On O’Donohue’s arrival, he reported a “fully involved mobile home fire with exposures” and was conducting his walk-around size-up when he identified a problem at the back of the structure. He came across two civilians and an off-duty firefighter at a back window of the structure (the windows in the back bedrooms were designed so that the base was at chest level and they extended up toward the roofline to allow for both security and light). One of the civilians, Robert Davies, was inside the structure reporting that an elderly woman, Charlotte Sowards, was also inside and unable to get out.

The chief quickly sized-up the situation and decided the “risk was worth it.” Without immediate access to a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), he entered the structure through the window. After two unsuccessful attempts, with the assistance of Davies, and with heavy smoke and fire beginning to enter the bedroom, he gave one last-ditch effort and both the chief and Davies dead-lifted the woman up and out of the window to a waiting second civilian, Paul Bassonette, and off-duty Firefighter Steve Winn. At that point, the chief pressed Davies to exit through the window and then the chief exited as fire rolled across the ceiling of the room they had just escaped. The woman was treated by Golden Valley firefighter/paramedics and River Medical Ambulance staff and transported to Kingman Regional Medical Center.

O’Donohue, without regard for his own safety, along with the individuals that assisted him, especially Davies, went above and beyond the call of duty to rescue the woman.

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