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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On that December day in 2012, the Golden Valley fire chief arrived on scene to face a rare situation: a working fire in a mobile home with civilians trapped inside; an elderly woman nearly overcome by smoke; the imminent threat of a flashover; and the realization that while firefighters and apparatus were responding, if he didn’t act immediately, there would be fatalities.

It was four days before Christmas. A 92-year-old woman was trapped inside her home, screaming for help, as black smoke billowed and flames engulfed the walls. Within two minutes of the dispatch call, O’Donohue arrived first on scene to learn that “multiple people” were inside. Sizing-up the situation and going to the back of the structure, he discovered a neighbor had broken a bedroom window and climbed in to attempt a rescue. He had pulled the elderly woman over to the window where she was gasping for air, but he could not lift her out.

Outside, a second neighbor and an off-duty Golden Valley firefighter supported her arms through the window; she was simply too weak to hold herself up. Thick smoke poured and flames were threatening the bedroom door as O’Donohue quickly sized-up the situation and made a critical decision. Then he overrode one of his own directives: do not go in unless you have the right equipment. If O’Donohue did not make a decision to do this – with the threat of a flashover seconds away – they would have lost their lives. By breaking his own rule, he ensured others were safe.

First, he broke a second bedroom window to provide more fresh air to the occupants. Then he returned to the first window and dove headfirst through it. Struggling repeatedly to hoist the woman up and out of the very high window, with the bedroom ready to ignite, O’Donohue instructed the neighbor, “We’ve got to make this push count!” With a mighty heave, they lifted the nearly unconscious woman up and out of the window to the waiting arms of the off-duty firefighter and a second neighbor below.

Inside, O’Donohue helped the trapped neighbor exit and barely cleared the window himself when the room erupted into a raging inferno.

In the chief’s own words

Chief Thomas O’Donohue: This incident seems so surreal – imagine being inside the structure with that level of involvement and coming back out alive. If even one of the people involved in the rescue had not been there, from the neighbors pointing me in the right direction, to the off-duty firefighter who helped hold the woman up with the neighbor from outside the home, it could have been a very different outcome for all of us.

The actions of the firefighters on scene were habit-based and successful because of training. It was comforting for me to hear the voice of Captain Boyd Lewis on the first-arriving engine acknowledge the rescue in progress and repeating back what he heard me report (good communications training) as well as the voice of Assistant Chief Ted Martin picking up incident command duties.

Communications is always a source of improvement, and speaking in a clear voice and communicating not only your exact location, but also the plan was crucial to incoming units who were ready to engage immediately upon arrival. Training is so critical to a successful scene and working together on a regular basis helped make this one a resounding success! What could I do differently? Train more often with the crews, be better prepared for anything and promote fire safety in my community, using this incident as a springboard for local education.

Upon arrival, this appeared to be a typical “body recovery” incident due to the heavy fire involvement, estimated at 65% to 75% of the structure. Based on two neighbors telling me there was someone trapped, I moved rapidly to the rear of the structure (Bravo/Charlie corner) only to discover the 92-year-old female resident and a 46-year-old neighbor inside. I was in my full turnout gear, minus an SCBA because the chiefs don’t have them in our response vehicles. Honestly, any firefighter standing outside the building looking at two people inside would have done the same thing I did – provide an avenue for them to breathe via breaking a window, followed by jumping in to help push them out.