Light Smoke Showing, Then Heavy Fire & Major Collapse - Part 2

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As we reported last month, on Jan. 18, 2014, the Manhasset-Lake-ville Fire Department (M-LFD) of Long Island, NY, was alerted to respond to a reported fire in a dwelling. What happened on that call provides a lesson for all of us, especially when responding to lightweight wood construction.

Our sincere thanks to M-LFD Chief of Department Christopher Pisani and Deputy Chiefs Kirk Candan, Michael Farrone, Scott Garrigan and Mark Kiess for their assistance in sharing this report. Additional thanks to Lieutenant Sean Dolan, Firefighter John McCann, Lieutenant Lee Genser, EMT Tracey Dolan, Fire Commissioners Donald T. O’Brien, Andrew J. DeMartin and Brian J. Morris as well as all the members and mutual aid departments who responded to this incident.

 

The following account is from Deputy Chief Kirk Candan:

The dispatcher toned out the call for Companies 1, 2, 3 and 6 to respond to a “reported house fire.” Chief Pisani and Deputy Chiefs Farrone, Kiess and I all responded within seconds of one another.

While enroute, the dispatcher updated us that a second call was received reporting a fire as well as the automatic alarm for the address. I was thinking about the legitimacy of this being a working fire. A few seconds after the dispatcher’s update, Chief Pisani advised us that he heard over the scanner that police units on scene were asking for us to “step it up,” so I knew we had something. Chief Pisani requested that the Port Washington Fire Department be notified for the FAST (firefighter assist and search team).

Deputy Chief Kiess arrived on scene probably a minute before I did. I pulled my truck next to his (opposite the address) and he was already throwing on his bunker gear. The owners (husband and wife) were in front of the house with the two police officers, insisting on removing their cars from the garage of their house. Deputy Chief Kiess and I did a very quick face-to-face. He mentioned that the owner said smoke was filling the basement.

I set up as the incident commander and Deputy Chief Kiess made his way inside the house. I knew I would be relieved as soon as Deputy Chief Farrone or Chief Pisani arrived, so I got dressed as well. I tried my hardest to get any sort of useful information on fire location/layout from the homeowner and made no headway. I took a quick look at hydrant locations because my first three pieces of apparatus responding were engines. I gave instructions to the first two engines of where they should position themselves. I requested a report from Deputy Chief Kiess, who was probably inside for one or two minutes. He radioed back to me with his SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) on and reported that he had smoke coming from the basement doorway and he was going to go downstairs to check it out. I was concerned about him entering the basement alone.

Engine 8740 arrived on scene first and took the hydrant closest to the address. I requested that the officer of Engine 8740, Lieutenant Sean Dolan, immediately enter the house to assist Deputy Chief Kiess with his search for the fire and to have his members get ready to stretch a 1¾-inch hoseline.

 

Sizing-up the structure

Deputy Chief Farrone and Chief Pisani arrived on the scene and Chief Pisani assumed the role of incident commander. The working-fire signal had still not been transmitted. I finished putting on my bunker gear. The previous day, I was having issues with my two handie-talkies’ remote microphone working intermittently, but used it anyway. I took Chief Pisani’s thermal imaging camera and made my way to the house.

On my walk-up to the front door, I tried sizing-up the structure; the house was very big (5,000 square feet). I entered the front door and took a few mental notes. There was a light smoke condition on the first floor with the smell of something burning. I think it was around this point that Lieutenant Dolan gave a report that they located a fire in the basement and they were trying to hit it with Deputy Chief Kiess’ water can. The working fire signal was transmitted around this point by Chief Pisani.

The 1¾-inch hoseline off Engine 8740 was being stretched to the front door around the same time I was entering the house. I made my way to the basement door, located in the middle of the house, and met up with Lieutenant Dolan and Deputy Chief Kiess, who had come back up the stairs to guide the hoseline downstairs. Deputy Chief Kiess and Lieutenant Dolan updated me on what they had in the basement and we then descended the basement stairs once the hoseline was in the position and members were masked-up.

The basement stairs were an L-shape design. As soon as we got to the bottom of the stairs, there was zero visibility, but no noticeable heat condition. The hoseline made a 180-degree turn (toward Exposure 4) and followed Deputy Chief Kiess and Lieutenant Dolan to the visible fire’s location. At this point, I was attempting to give Chief Pisani an update from the basement, but my handie-talkie mic was not cooperating. I followed the hoseline for about 10 to 15 feet into the basement and realized that we were dealing with a very large basement.

I made my way back to the base of the stairs and located Firefighter John Anderson; a member with 21 years in our department. I instructed Firefighter Anderson to remain at the base of the stairs to act as a control man for the hoseline, since the line was making a 180-degree turn. I also told him that I did not want any crowding of the basement stairs, that we were dealing with a very large basement and that I did not know the layout. I also told him that he would be our “homing beacon” in the event we needed to back out quickly.

I was happy that Firefighter Anderson was the member who happened to be in that place at that point in time. I feel that a younger member might not have remained at the base of those stairs and would have been much more eager to get closer to the seat of the fire. I feel that senior Firefighter Anderson knew what my intentions were by placing him at the base of the stairs and he did not defer from my requests.

After making sure Firefighter Anderson was in position, I scanned the basement’s ceiling and walls with the thermal imaging camera; I was looking for any heat convection in the direction of the hoseline. There was definite heat in the direction of the hoseline and I felt warmer as I progressed farther.

I could hear the hoseline operating, but the area around me was not getting cooler. I initially thought the hoseline was operating in the wrong spot or there had to be more fire we were not seeing. I learned as a young firefighter that if the visible fire is knocked down, but the temperature isn’t getting cooler, the fire may very well be in the walls and ceiling.

Chief Pisani kept trying to radio me for reports and I tried using other three members’ radios to contact him, but I realized I would have to the exit the house and swap radios. Lieutenant Dan Gasperetti and two other firefighters entered the basement at this point, acting as the truck. I pointed them in the direction of the fire and they followed the hoseline. They were down there to overhaul/search the basement. I handed off the thermal imaging camera to Deputy Chief Kiess and exited the basement.

When I got back upstairs, there were about 10 firefighters operating on the first floor with Deputy Chief Farrone. A second 1¾-inch hoseline off Engine 8735 was knocking down extension on the first floor, while other members were opening up the knee walls and checking for additional extension.

The smoke condition of the first floor was now getting heavy, much worse than when I had entered the house initially. I saw (Ex-Captain) Firefighter John McCann (from Company 1) and told him what was going on in the basement (water on the fire, still hot). He told me it was getting warmer on the first floor and the smoke condition was getting worse. He told me he thought that maybe the fire got inside of the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system ductwork. I told him I was going outside to swap radios.

I got to Chief Pisani’s truck and swapped my handie-talkie with his. I told him we had a fire in the basement and water on the fire, but it didn’t feel like it was getting cooler. It was around this time I heard Lieutenant Dolan give the report of “all visible fire extinguished in the basement.” As I walked back toward the front door, I remember thinking, excellent!

 

Basement windows vented

Lieutenant Dolan also asked for the basement windows to be vented. I made my way around the rear of the house via Exposure 2 and realized there were only two windows for this enormous basement. I thought that was odd. There was a small basement-style window on the 2/3 corner that was covered with glass blocks (not immediately accessible) and there was an evacuation window on Exposure 4. I vented the evacuation window on Exposure 4 and let Lieutenant Dolan know that those were the only two windows to vent. He said he heard me venting the window. After taking the window, a great deal of heat rose from the window with heavy smoke.

I made my way back toward the front of the house. A good five minutes had probably passed. As I came toward the front door, I realized that Lieutenant Gasperetti was 10 or 15 feet in front of me, walking inside the house. I found out after the fire that he had exited the basement because his SCBA was not working properly. He radioed to me, with urgency in his voice, that fire was visible coming from the knee walls of the first-floor foyer. Lieutenant Gasperetti did not realize I was standing directly behind him.

There was a large, round decorative table in the middle of the very large open foyer. I stood in the entrance way to the house and was looking at this large table in front of me and I could not tell if the table was slowly leaning to the right or if I was slowly leaning (even though I was standing still). Then all of a sudden, the floor in the area where the fire Lieutenant Gasperetti reported began to “pull” away from the wall. I had never witnessed anything like it before.

More visible fire was now coming from that section of the foyer. I tried radioing to Chief Pisani twice and did not receive an answer; once he was stepped on, the other time I didn’t hear a reply. I gave an “urgent” message the third time and he answered immediately. I said I needed a hoseline to the front door immediately and then I radioed to Lieutenant Dolan in the basement and told him to evacuate the basement forthwith.

I announced over the handie-talkie that the first floor was beginning to collapse and for all members to exit the building immediately. I did not get a response from Lieutenant Dolan in the basement. I radioed him again and again and again. No answer.

 

“Get out of the basement now!”

I became very nervous. I used his name instead of his position in an act of desperation; “Sean, answer me on the radio; you need to get out of the basement now!” I thought, if this first floor collapses, how the hell am I getting these five or six guys out of this basement alive?

All the members operating inside the house began pull out of the front door as the fire in the foyer grew. Captain Rudy Barranco (Company 3) had the third hoseline protecting the members exiting the front door. I tried looking at each member’s face to account for who I had seen inside and who I now saw outside. Finally, Lieutenant Dolan, his nozzle firefighter and the backup firefighter exited the front door. Phew! All members were accounted for.

About a minute after the last member exited the front door, the entire front foyer of the house collapsed into the basement and was engulfed in flames. The rest became an exterior operation. No one got hurt.

I think I am very lucky that my handie-talkie mic was giving me problems or else I would have still been in the basement operating with the first hoseline. I can say the same about Lieutenant Gasperetti’s SCBA. We would have never seen the collapse occurring in the front foyer.

Next: “It was time to leave.”

 

William Goldfeder presents “ ‘THAT’ Working Fire: Is It Predictable?” and “Another House Fire, But This One, We’ll Never Forget” at Firehouse Expo 2014.

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