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, 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.

Award citation

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.

Having trained so many times in live-fire conditions and experiencing them first-hand at incidents, I knew we had precious moments to effect a rescue. The first-due engine was still minutes out and there was really no other choice but to enter the building through a window. Time seemed to slow down as we maneuvered the woman to the window on the Charlie side of the home, the flames broke through the door and began crawling across the ceiling, and you know the kind – just before the room flashes. We tried twice to lift her fairly gently out the window, but seeing the flames crawl across the ceiling made me realize there was only one more chance for us all to get out.

Looking back, I wish I would have equipped each command vehicle with SCBA (it will be in next year’s budget). Also, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t even consider going through the wall like we train to do. I saw an open window and that was my only consideration at the time.

Even chiefs need to train with the crews to keep skills sharp if you are going to be in situations like this. Always, always remember to wear your personal protective equipment (PPE). We live eat and breathe that here at GVFD and I’m glad that I did too that day.

Next: Incident timeline n