Salka: Blountstown Fire Video Revisited

If you read and or commented on my most recent blog about a video of a fire department operation I have a treat for you. Just a few days after the blog was posted I received an e-mail and a phone call from the chief of the involved department. We had a very friendly and professional conversation about the incident and the blog. 

Although I did state in the blog that I was not judging the involved department, of course once we all saw the video, many passed judgement and commented. I am going to stop talking now and let you read the e-mail the chief sent to me;

Good Morning Chief Salka,

It seems that a bad day for our department has made its way to the top of the charts once again.  I read your most recent blog post on Firehouse.com and felt the need to respond, simply to let you know that the issues you highlighted in your article have not been ignored.

This fire was actually in the heat of the Florida summer in 2009.  Ambient air temp was over 100 degrees that day.  Our department was called for automatic aid nearly 4 miles from our first alarm area. (In the video you'll notice the green apparatus rolling in about 7 minutes into the call, that's the primary department).  We found a mid-1970's doublewide mobile home, common unfortunately for our area, in the state you see in the video.  After a quick size up I noticed a fire underneath the mobile home and it was obvious it was a burn through in the floor of the fire room.  That's where you see me shoot water underneath the house. I could not in good conscience send my guys in a structure knowing something may ignite beneath their feet.  We pulled a safety line around the back of the house and, as one firefighter was packing out, two more came off the truck ready to make entry.  

Yes, one of my 25 year veteran firefighters put his helmet on backwards and worked the first 3 minutes of the call that way.  In his defense, he came straight from work and was in a hurry to get his gear on.  If you think he hasn't been picked on for being caught on camera with his hat on backwards, well, you know how firefighters can be.  I'll leave it at that. 

I do indeed admit he should've been in SCBA when attempting to force the door.  And shortly thereafter he was.  Our guys actually forced the door rather quickly and then as they were turning to go down the steps to open the door, one of them bumped it shut and they had to start all over.  That was bad.  It looked just as bad as it was.  The very next day a door of identical make and model was mounted in our training room was used over and over again until they could open it in their sleep.  As my entry team went in they were on the floor, crawling, just after the door frame.  It does indeed appear they went in high.  But I'm positive they crawled in after getting in the door.  They got about 10 feet in and could see the side A/D corner room was involved in fire and could also see there was a hole burned in the floor.  Then the heat rapidly built up on them and, rather than suffer what appeared may be a flashover, they bailed out.  

They did as they were trained and followed a hoseline out.  I can afford to replace hoses and nozzles, but not firefighters.  After we knew they were out we started the PPV fan and I vented the window.  No, I wasn't in SCBA and I should've been.  I take full responsibility for that one.  Remember though, we're a crew of 5, still on our own, not sure if any backup is coming and only 1,000 gallons of water (no hydrants in the area).  I ordered the fan because I felt it would push the fire away from the unburned area once the window to the fire room was vented.  It worked.  Was it conventional?  No.  But it worked.  

One of my entry team members complains on video, of his neck getting too hot.  It was indeed red and hot.  He was in full PPE with SCBA and hood and still suffered a minor redness.  We've since switched to a different brand hood and had no other issues.  The firefighter working through the window, who after I've reviewed it today, should've been on a ladder (we've addressed that training since then as well) was not working against an inside crew.  I've had that done to me and it wasn't pleasant.  Our entry crew was outside the structure and once we sent another crew in, the outside attack stopped.  Toward the end of the video you see the original first due department arrive and give our guys some relief.  

Like I said, it was hot.  I do acknowledge that some things were done wrong, and the video makes it look much worse that it was, because it only paints a one dimensional picture.  Since this call we have trained extensively on forcible entry, PPE, SCBA use and several methods of ventilation.   Like I said before, this was four years ago and we've grown quite a bit since then.  

I didn't want you or your readers to think we as a department were ignoring the highlighted issues from this day.  If you're wondering, as many do, what the cause & origin and damaged sustained was to this structure?   A 14 year old occupant left the iron laying on his bedroom floor after ironing his clothes for school.  He left the home shortly before 8:00 AM.  We got this call during lunch.  I don't remember the exact time but I'm sure it was between 11:00 and noon.  Our department, mistakes and all, contained the fire to the room of origin and some minor flame damage to an adjacent bathroom.  There was a five foot hole in the doorway of the room of origin.  No one was injured that day.  Everyone went home.  

I challenge any of these who are commenting on your story, or any of the other places this video has been posted (and there are several), to claim to have never made a mistake or had a bad day.  Ours just got caught on camera for the world to critique.  

One last thing, as I read your article you did indeed mention that your blog post wasn't meant to damage the reputation of the department or hurt anyone's feelings.  Well, feelings are for children, so that doesn't concern me.  But to have our department called out on a national website is not only damaging to our reputation but to department morale.  I encourage you to please consider that before your next article.  It is already difficult to recruit volunteers for little or no compensation and then require them to engage in training away from their families, during their personal time.  But now, when I attempt to recruit, I'll be met with "yeah, you're Blountstown, I saw your video, no thanks".   

Chief I hope you have a great and safe day and if you have any questions or suggestions I'm always open for discussion.  

Sincerely, 

Ben Hall, Fire Chief

Blountstown, Fla., Fire Department

You can contact Chief Salka at: john.salka@firehouse.com.

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