Close Calls: "The Worst Day Of My Life": Part 2

Last month, in part one of this column, we looked at some history involving firefighter deaths and injuries that occurred in live-fire training exercises, followed by Wisconsin Firefighter Candace Wetter’s account of how she became another victim of...


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My assistant chief and best friend arrived at the hospital. They walked into my room and I broke down. The only thing I could say to my chief was that I was sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen, and that a good officer doesn’t lose their crew like I had. My best friend, who was third man on the hoseline, had forgotten to clip his SCBA regulator in. When the nozzleman and I entered the burn room, the third man got a face full of smoke. He then turned around and left, the fourth man on the hoseline left as well. Neither of them told me that they were leaving, nor did I see them leave.

At this training burn, the instructors had lit the fire and then exited the burn room. No one was watching the fire or controlling it. It was just my nozzleman and me in that burn room. The backup team was delayed and the rapid intervention team was delayed. An instructor had exited one of the overhead doors after he lit the crib, and then was walking back to get on the hoseline with us. Before he could get to us, the room had gone black and we had exited. He then attempted to find us by following the hoseline back into the structure. Little did he know we had already escaped and left the structure.

This incident was all over within 90 seconds. Literally, split-second decisions were being made. There was not time to think about what I was going to do, I just did it. I just fell back to my level of training and got out.

At least nine standard “rules” from National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live-Fire Training Evolutions, were broken and/or not followed. The burns being conducted that day had all been compliant up until that last one. The last crib was stoked with tremendous amounts of BTUs; a couch, pallets and who knows what else. There was also a 10-mph wind working against us. Because both the garage doors were left open about one foot, it pushed that fire. When we opened the door to enter, it gave the fire additional fuel and oxygen. That fire did not have any other path to take but directly on us. Here is a breakdown of the “broken” rules:

• 4.6.4 – One instructor to each functional crew; one Instructor to each backup line

• 4.4.11 – Awareness of weather conditions, wind velocity and wind direction; a final check for possible change in conditions immediately before ignition

• 4.7.1.1 – Designated “ignition officer” to ignite maintain and control materials being burned

• 4.7.1.2 – Ignition officer and other members must maintain fire, recognize, report and respond to any adverse conditions

• 4.12.1 – The fuels utilized in live-fire training evolutions shall only be wood products

• 4.12.2 – Pressure-treated wood, rubber, plastic, polyurethane foam, furniture and chemical-treated or pesticide-treated straw shall not be used

• 4.12.7 – Fuel load shall be limited to avoid conditions that could cause an uncontrolled flashover or backdraft

• 5.1.12 – Only one fire at a time shall be permitted within a structure

• 5.2.6 – Debris creating or contributing to unsafe conditions shall be removed

In addition, no backup line, backup team or rapid intervention team was prepared or in place; water was not sprayed immediately; crew communications were lost; and crew integrity and accountability were lost. Other factors were complacency and situational awareness of fire conditions.

 

The personal and

professional aftermath

This fire has mentally, emotionally and physically nearly destroyed me and who I used to be. I almost quit and left the fire service due to this incident. Has it made me a much better firefighter and leader? Absolutely. There are good days and bad days. When the bad days hit, they take a toll.

As officer of that crew, I failed them. I lost my crew integrity and communications. It was my job to watch over them and make sure they were OK. I ask myself every day, Why? Why me, why my crew? The only thing I can do is learn from this is to try to make sense of it and make sure this never happens to anyone ever again. I have given many presentations about this fire, hoping to make a difference because I don’t want anyone to know what it feels like to be burning alive and I don’t want anyone to know what it feels like to have to search for your best friends, thinking they are dead.

 

Comments by Chief Goldfeder following discussions with Firefighter Wetter and others:

First, again, I want to thank Firefighter Wetter for her cooperation in sharing her perspective of this incident. While it no doubt changed her life and perspective, her sharing this story may do the same for others, without the “practical” experience she went through.