NIOSH Releases Houston Report

Findings of NIOSH officials following their probe of a blaze last year that claimed the lives of two Houston firefighters mirror the conclusions reached following an investigation by Texas state fire marshals.

In its report released Monday, NIOSH investigators said contributing factors in the tragic April 12 blaze included an inadequate size-up prior to committing to tactical operations; lack of understanding of fire behavior and fire dynamics; fire in a void space burning in a ventilation controlled regime; high winds; uncoordinated tactical operations, in particular fire control and tactical ventilation; failure to protect the means of egress with a backup hose line; inadequate fireground communications; and failure to react appropriately to deteriorating conditions.

Capt. James A. Harlow, 50, and Firefighter Damion J. Hobbs, 29, became disoriented when flames fanned by high winds pushed the fire into the area where they and seven other crew members were working, the report indicated.

Harlow had nearly 30 years of experience, while Hobbs was a rookie with less than a year on the job in Houston.

The elderly couple who lived in the single-story ranch house were already out when firefighters initiated their interior attack.

While the department has radios for every firefighter, investigators discovered that the captain's was still in the engine, while Hobbs' was found in his possession, but turned off.

NIST officials are developing a computerized model to reconstruct the fire behavior and events. It will be available on their website in the near future.

NIOSH investigators said complete size-up of the scene was not done because officers were restricted from getting to side C.

The Texas state fire marshals' report also brought that up. "A rapid and full assessment of the scene would have provided information regarding the potential impact of the failure of the large glass wall, together with the impact of wind, on the interior suppression tactics. Although the gate at the Northwest corner and the half wall at the Southwest corner would have presented challenges, a full assessment of the scene should have been completed."

NIOSH made the following recommendations:

  • Ensure that an adequate initial size-up and risk assessment of the incident scene is conducted before beginning interior fire fighting operations
  • Ensure that fire fighters and officers have a sound understanding of fire behavior and the ability to recognize indicators of fire development and the potential for extreme fire behavior (such as smoke color, velocity, density, visible fire, heat)
  • Ensure that fire fighters are trained to recognize the potential impact of windy conditions on fire behavior and implement appropriate tactics to mitigate the potential hazards of wind-driven fire
  • Ensure that fire fighters understand the influence of ventilation on fire behavior and effectively apply ventilation and fire control tactics in a coordinated manner
  • Ensure that fire fighters and officers understand the capabilities and limitations of thermal imaging cameras (TIC) and that a TIC is used as part of the size-up process
  • Ensure that fire fighters are trained to check for fire in overhead voids upon entry and as charged hoselines are advanced
  • Develop, implement and enforce a detailed Mayday Doctrine to insure that fire fighters can effectively declare a Mayday
  • Ensure fire fighters are trained in fireground survival procedures
  • Ensure all fire fighters on the fire ground are equipped with radios capable of communicating with the Incident Commander and Dispatch