Reported Structure Fire with Trapped Occupants: Are YOU Combat Ready?

Just another day…
On any given day, at any given time in the streets, buildings and occupancies that comprise the fabric of our communities and ultimately our response district and first-due areas; the citizens we protect go about their daily lives and activities as we go about ours.
On any given day, at any given time the typical radio transmissions are intervened with a distinction we know all too well when we are called upon to respond to a dispatcher’s punctuated voice, transmitting an alarm for a reported residential structure fire, with trapped civilians.
This is when our training, knowledge and capabilities must be at our highest state of readiness, with expected flawless performance; when we need to expect fire and to ready to go to work.
Prepared for the arrival, with the understanding of the incident uncertainty, but with the confidence in our skills and capabilities and those of our company and the balance of the alarm assignment. 
Not Today….
At 07:49 hours on Friday morning November 11, 2011, a 911 call and subsequent dispatch for a reported house fire in a quiet residential neighborhood in West Seneca (Erie County) New York brought fire, law enforcement resources to a residential house fire with initial reports indicated that there were people trapped inside. Numerous Town of West Seneca Police units arrived on scene within minutes of the first call from a neighbor across the street from the residence and reported that the residence was fully engulfed in flames.
Witnesses on scene reported that two adolescents had already escaped from the residence through second floor windows, with the assistance of a neighbor, but there were still a mother and her child trapped inside on the second floor. Officers attempted to make entry from several locations around the house, but the fire was so intense, they were repelled by the smoke and intensive heat of the fire.
Fire units from Seneca Hose Fire Company (NY) arrived on scene shortly after the patrols and made entry into the residence under severe fire conditions that had extended rapidly throughout the two story single family residence.   
The following series of photos captured from video taken by a neighbor illustrate the intensity of the fire as well as the degree of fire involvement that extended through the eight room house.  The video clip of initial arriving companies and deployments also exemplifies the conditions encountered by first-due personnel and the need for aggressive and effective assessment, rapid identification of required actions and assignment of resources to task jobs.
This is when each and every member of a fire company, an alarm assignment, a greater alarm resource or a mutual aid unit must be ready to put their training, experience and fortitude to work in the seconds and minutes that will determine the outcome of an incident.
Are you combat ready for engagement? Mentally, Physically, Emotionally and Technically?
Operative Questions;
  • Given similar arrival conditions, what would be some of your considerations based upon your role as a Company Officer or a Commanding Officer?
  • Discuss the various roles and responsibilities necessary to be conducted with urgency and effectiveness for your company as arriving first or second due engine company units or as the first arriving truck company.
  • Identify and discuss key tactical functions that must be coordinated and executed. What would some of the challenges be in your first-due or mutual aid response areas with a similar structure and fire conditions?
  • Identify and discuss some of the Capabilities and Gaps that are present or would become evident during initial or sustained operations?
  • How prepared and capable is your company or department to meet the demands from a high risk building occupancy with extreme fire behavior?
  • What have you encountered during past operations that worked effectively or hindered operations? What was done to improve on those conditions?

Firefighters located an adult, female victim (mother) lying on the floor, just inside the residence front doorway on the alpha division on the number one floor and removed her from the house. Firefighters in a coordinated effort between suppression and rescue personnel continued to search for a second victim and as they battled the intense fire, making their way up to the second floor where they were able to locate an unconscious twelve year old male child in an upstairs bedroom, and removed him from the house. Both victims were determined to be deceased at the scene according to published news reports.

Two other occupants, a twenty year old sister and her 15 year old brother who escaped through second floor windows were taken to the hospital and are expected to be released.  Additionally, two firefighters from Seneca Hose Fire Company received minor burns during the search for the victims and were also transported to the hospital for treatment. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Combat Ready
In this incident, the favorable outcome that we always hope for could not be achieved by the operating departments.  The media coverage and video clips depict a rapidly developing fire that became self-revealing with intensity and magnitude that is not typically common for this type and style of residential dwelling given the time of day and the sequence of observations and conditions reported by the neighbors. Further insights will certainly be identified following the investigations.
It is evident and apparent through observation of the videos and images of flame propagation and smoke development (color, density and pressure) that the fire’s intensity, rate of growth and extension created a very hostile interior environment in which survivability time could diminish rapidly under various conditions proximal to the flames and smoke exposure for civilians in distress, trapped or incapacitated.  
The challenges presented by this fire, although not uncommon; did present demands on the initial and subsequent arriving company officers, firefighters and command officers. Rapid fire growth and extension, deteriorating interior conditions, uncertainty of building performance and stability, immediate resource needs, time pressures, multiple operational demands and known trapped civilians-including a child provide all the ingredients that we train and prepare for; this is our job, these are our [potential] expectations when we respond to reports of a structure fire in an occupied dwelling.
The fire departments and personnel who operated and performed at this incident appear to have performed with exceptional fortitude and in the rich tradition of what defines the American Fire Service. They did what was expected of them and without serious injury to operating personnel.  But this article isn’t about dissecting or analyzing their performance or providing criticism.
It’s an opportunity to provide some focused insights with supporting visuals, an actual incident account and a typical fire: one of over 1320 structure fires that occurs each and every day across this country (See Thecompanyofficer.comHERE for recent NFPA stats). 
This is an incident with a given set of challenging conditions that we should be training and preparing for each and every day. It’s why we exist, it’s the fundamental basis and principle of what we should be capable of providing to our communities and response districts.
The operative question is this: Are you combat ready and prepared to engage?
It’s apparent the firefighters in Erie County (NY) were today, with a profound sense of duty, courage and fortitude.
But are you? There’s been a lot written, presented and discussed on being combat ready, knowing your role and responsibilities, having the appropriate blend of competencies, skills, knowledge and experience.
Knowing with a degree of depth, your job and performing on each run, on every call without exception. Being able to orchestrate and coordinate required activities and tasks in a timely manner with other resources, companies, personnel and teams while maintaining a balanced mental state, broad-based situational awareness and forward thinking perspective on each activity whether strategic, tactical or task oriented based.
There comes a time; when a single call or the associated demands of a shift or tour that is defined by frequent and repetitive call demands that define you as a firefighter, company officer or commander.  
Be combat ready for engagement each and every call; be prepared and ready to implement with those attributes that define you, your company and your department; when it may be needed the most. Implement an adaptive fireground management process, maintaining a balance for tactical patience and the need for defined and educated aggressive actions (smart firefighting).
Here's a link to the Training Aid PDF:  Training Download: Are you Combat Ready? for use in dialog and discussions, HERE