TOWN OF EVANS NY --- Fire Prevention Week may have passed, but there are still plenty of valuable fire safety lessons to be learned. Smoke detectors save lives. And, if your house catches on fire: get out and stay out.
Evans Center and Highland Volunteer Firefighters responded to a report of a fire in a mobile home trailer on Northwood Drive in Triton Valley Estates around midnight on Wednesday -- October 24, 2007.
Town of Evans Police Officer Mike Kauzala was first on scene and reported that the lone occupant of the trailer had escaped the fire. Light smoke was seeping from the eaves when Evans Center Fire Chiefs Bruce Green Jr. and Tiger Schmittendorf arrived a few minutes later. Green took command of the fire as Schmittendorf went to investigate.
But, what's most important to this story is what happened before the fire department arrived.
An interview with the occupant the day after the fire revealed some disturbing details. Bob Voelker, 52, reported that he was cooking some hamburgers on an electric grille on the countertop when he went into the living room to watch the World Series. Voelker subsequently fell asleep in a recliner near the door. He awoke much later to the piercing sound of the smoke alarm beeping.
"All of the kitchen cabinets were on fire. The smoke was so thick, I'm sure that I was not far from never waking up again," said Voelker. Voelker indicated he ran outside, only to return twice. "I ran outside and all of the other trailers were dark. No one would have discovered the fire until it was too late -- for me."
It was apparently his second trip back into the residence that caused him to ingest too much smoke. After retrieving some belongings, the storm door got locked and jammed, blocking his escape. The only other door out was on the other side of the fire, in the utility room. He began to panic and could no longer hold his breath.
After some long tense moments, the door finally released and the resident spilled out on to the sidewalk, coughing and choking on the smoke. He would be transported to Lake Shore Hospital for symptoms of smoke inhalation.
Evans Center Volunteer Firefighters were at their Erie Road fire station when the alarm came in. Evans Center's Engine 2 rolled up and secured a supply line from the hydrant directly in front of the residence to the truck. They stretched an attack hose line to the front door and donned their air masks. The smoke was banked down to less than a foot off the floor but was light gray in color. The crew used their Scott thermal imager to identify significant heat coming from the kitchen to their right, locating the seat of the fire. The smoke started to turn black and increased in density as the crew set up. An orange glow was visible on the kitchen floor.
Once positioned inside the door, the operations chief called for the kitchen windows to be vented by Highland's fire crew. Breaking the windows improved their visibility and allowed the trapped heat and smoke to escape, but expectedly introduced fresh oxygen to the room. The kitchen fire flared up momentarily and firefighters opened the nozzle to cool down the ceiling and knock down the main body of fire, using only 50 gallons or so of water.
Another team of firefighters was immediately sent inside to open windows and begin salvage and overhaul operations, covering all of the furniture and belongings with tarps. Interior crews pulled the ceiling in the kitchen to ensure that the fire hadn???t extended beyond the contents.
"I am very proud of our firefighters," said Schmittendorf. "They were out (of the station) quick. They were in quick and they put the fire out quickly, with a minimal amount of damage to the structure and contents. Everything gets easier after that. It was a great team effort."
A well coordinated attack can reduce damage and improve property conservation. Crews mounted fans in the windows and just outside the front door. This pushing and pulling effect quickly cleared the large volume of smoke that had filled the trailer.
There are several lessons to be learned here. First, the majority of all home fires start in the kitchen; most often due to careless cooking. Firefighters emphasize: "Watch what you heat!"
Secondly, smoke detectors save lives. Mr. Voelker indicated that he's "no light sleeper" and was surprised that the smoke detector was even able to wake him. "I'm convinced I wouldn't be here to tell this story if it weren't for those smoke detectors, Voelker added. His investment in installing hard-wired smoke detectors with battery backup paid big dividends. The smoke alarm was still beeping when firefighters disconnected it from the wall.
This year's Fire Prevention Week theme was: Practice your escape plan! If your house catches fire, get out -- and STAY OUT!
Belongings can be replaced. Purchase a fire-safe box if they can't. Carbon monoxide, a by-product of combustion, has an intoxicating effect. A few more moments, a few more breaths of toxic smoke -- and the resident may have been overcome and rendered unconscious. This person got lucky. He survived to tell his story.
Too many people have died trying to re-enter a burning building to retrieve their assets. It's just not worth it. Please learn from his mistakes.
"If my coming forward to tell this story saves just one life, or affects the outcome of another fire, it's worth it. I can't say enough about the jobs our volunteer firefighters and police officers do. They're tremendous," added Mr. Voelker.
Evans Center was assisted at the scene by the Highland Hose Volunteer Fire Company, Town of Evans Police, Rural Metro Medical Services, Angola Fire Control Dispatch Center National Grid Power Company, and Fr. Joe Bayne, Chief Chaplain of the Erie County Department of Emergency Services. The Lake Erie Beach Volunteer Fire Company was on standby at Evans Center's Erie Road Firehouse.