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

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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 live-fire training. My sincere thanks to Firefighter Wetter for sharing this story and passing on the details so that we have a chance to learn.

 

This continues “The worst day of my life” – A personal account by Firefighter Candace Wetter:

As the room flashed, my mind flashed also, but with the thoughts and pictures of my Dad, Mom and two little sisters and how I was never going to see them ever again. I also thought that I am going to die at 19 years old at a training burn. I am a very stubborn and bull-headed individual. I guess you could say the will to survive and to just stop burning is what pushed me to just keep pulling, to just get out, and to stop the burning. I got to the third step and gave one final pull on my nozzleman’s self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and got him up the stairs.

I landed on my back and then rolled onto my stomach. At this point, I turned left. Some would wonder why I did not go out the door we had entered in on the Charlie side. Your guess is as good as mine as to why I chose to go out a window. The best answer I can give you is that I was scared. I just wanted to get out. There was a penny-sized piece of my mask that hadn’t been burned yet, so I caught the light from the window out of the left corner of my eye. I didn’t see any light from the door we entered the window because it was full of smoke from top to bottom.

I kept crawling and sweeping my arm, trying to find our way out, hoping to God this would stop. We then bailed out of a window. I landed on the ground and started crawling away from the structure, trying to stop the burning. I just wanted it to stop.

Someone came running up to me and began cutting my gear off. The first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Where’s my crew, where’s my crew?” My best friends, my crew, people I lived with, ate dinner with, went to school with, were still missing and I had no idea where they were. My brothers, those who I shared an incredible bond with were gone. I thought they were dead. I knew I was responsible for whatever happened to them. I was officer of that crew; it was my job to look over them. And I had failed.

I have an assistant chief on my department, who I not only look up to, but want to be exactly like him because of the person he is. He is fair, respectful and truly cares about everyone. He has been one of the most influential persons in my life and career. He was with us that day, not on our hoseline, but watching from the outside.

I cannot imagine the agony he has gone through, watching as his firefighters literally fought for their lives. He was the first person who came up to me who I recognized. I kept asking him if everyone made it out, where was everybody, what happened. He told me that everyone was out, everyone was OK. As I was being loaded into the ambulance, my best friend and third man on the hoseline, came up to me crying, he grabbed my hand and said, “Candace, I’m so sorry.” They put me in the back of an ambulance and starting heading toward the hospital.

 

At the hospital

I had first- and second-degree burns, smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. Burns to my ears, face, chin, arms and hands. The left side of my body was affected and burnt more because of the way I was positioned when I was pulling the nozzleman out. The nozzleman had a penny-sized, first-degree burn on his shoulder from where my hand was when I was pulling him out.

One of the hardest phone calls I have ever had to make was to my mother that day. As I was lying in a hospital bed, with burn doctors looking over me and nurses running everywhere, I was trying to find the words to tell my mother what had happened and that I desperately needed them. I could not finish that phone call without breaking down, crying multiple times. Needless to say, they were on the road, driving to where I was within minutes of receiving that call.

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.

The NFPA 1403 standard was developed in response to the deaths of two firefighters who were killed (described in part one of this column) in a training accident in 1982. A committee was formed and NFPA 1403 was developed to establish safe practices for live-fire training evolutions. The first edition was issued in 1986 and there have been revisions since. In addition to the standard and NFPA instructor standards, the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) offers a “live-fire instructor” credentialing program that is well worth looking into and provides in-depth training based on the 2012 NFPA 1403 Standard on Live-Fire Training.

So now what? Planning a live-fire training detail? Good. When done correctly, there is great value, be it at an academy or an acquired structure. But before doing so, here are some quick thoughts:

1. Contact your regional or state fire training authority office. Ask them to assist, participate or run it, based on the laws and regulations of your state.

2. Do exactly what they tell you.

3. Follow NFPA 1403 without exception (search for “NFPA 1403 checklist”).

4. Have outside state-sanctioned, certified and qualified instructors assist, as coordinated through the fire training Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).

5. Read the document “Preventing Deaths and Injuries to Firefighters during Live-Fire Training in Acquired Structures” at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/wp-solutions/2005-102/.

It’s easy to look back at a firefighter close call, injury or death and apply “coulda, woulda, shoulda,” but unfortunately it’s too late. However, thanks to Firefighter Wetter and many others who have been through these events, we can avoid experiencing the horrific burns, critical injuries and even death that they did. Of course, there are the legal, moral and mental health issues that come along with these events as well – a different kind of trauma that may never heal. n

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