Firefighter Through the Floor in Heavy Fire

Sept. 29, 2011
  When we take in a run, we rarely think about ourselves – that’s the nature of being a firefighter. However, when we pause and think about those we care about, we gain a little perspective.

When we take in a run, we rarely think about ourselves – that’s the nature of being a firefighter. However, when we pause and think about those we care about, we gain a little perspective.

Take a look in your wallet at the pictures of the people who worry about you. Without question, our families, friends and other loved ones know we are in a risky business. It is, however, important that we understand the difference between a necessary risk and one not so or definitely not necessary. If something happens to us when we are doing what we are supposed to, the way we are trained, the way our policies dictate and our officers direct – that is truly doing our job.

There are, however, occasions when we just do what we want to do and end up hurting ourselves with total disregard for those whose pictures are in our wallets – and who count on us and expect us to do what we should do. Understanding that they count on us to get home after the shift or the run often helps us understand why training, discipline and accountability are essential to our jobs and our ability to survive and minimize the chances of our family members living without us. In cases when the dispatcher reports that people may be trapped, our training, abilities and discipline are tested to their limits. Fortunately, Firefighter Blaise Steffen of the Peoria, IL, Fire Department had all of these qualities – especially some excellent training.

We extend our appreciation to the officers and members of the Peoria Fire Department, specifically, to Firefighter Steffen and his wife, Shannon, for both of their very personal accounts. Firefighter Steffen’s account was in last month’s column.

As was reported last month, Firefighter Steffen and his crew were awakened around 12:30 A.M. by tones sounding the alarm for a basement fire with a person possibly trapped. Firefighter Steffen and his captain went through the front door to search for the homeowner in zero visibility, little to no heat, in a cluttered environment. His captain told him to turn around and follow the hoseline out so they could set up ventilation. As they headed back out, they heard air horns signaling for everyone to evacuate. Just as Firefighter Steffen was making his way through the front room, fire shot up beside him.

Thinking room contents were on fire, he stopped to tell the captain they had fire as he did not want the engine crew to become trapped inside. He was following the hoseline when he saw the outline of the doorway six to eight feet away. He was taking a step toward it when the floor suddenly fell away under him. As he fell, all he could see was fire and all he could feel was unbearable heat. His only thought was no, not here.

He crawled over into a corner as far from the fire as possible and curled up to shield himself from the heat. All of a sudden, he recalled, the heat went from unbearable to tolerable – and that’s when his training kicked in. He tried to call a “Mayday,” but his radio microphone had been ripped away when he fell. He was feeling his way on a wall when his airpack clicked. He was breathing very hard. He slowed his breathing, taking slow, steady breaths. As he felt what he thought was the bottom of some stairs, he was hit on the back by a hose stream. It cooled him off and he immediately turned and headed straight into the stream as fast as he could. He saw a light shining in a window. He reached up to the window and suddenly was lifted up and pulled halfway out. He was tangled in wires, but a captain cut him free and he was pulled the rest of the way out.

After his gear was removed, the pain kicked in. He was placed in an ambulance and transported to a hospital, later moving to a burn unit.

On numerous occasions, Firefighter Steffen remarked about the incredible support he received during his recovery from his brother and sister firefighters – but most importantly from his wife. “I know,” he said, “that none of it could have happened without the great training, the support from my wife and the grace of God.”

Sometimes, spouses of injured or “close call” firefighters are willing to share their perspectives with others. When that opportunity arises, the value is so significant – for our readers and their family members, so they can truly appreciate the full dimensions of this kind of event, but also for those involved in the incident. We sincerely thank Shannon Steffen for sharing her account and perspective:

The following account is by Shannon Steffen, the wife of Firefighter Blaise Steffen:

It ended like any other day my husband was at the firehouse. I went to bed alone and knew I would be awakened by him as he came home that next morning. Little did I know that I would eventually be awakened at 1:30 or 2 o’clock in the morning by a pounding on my front door. At first, I was so scared and afraid because I thought to myself, “Who would be knocking at my door this early in the morning?”

I laid there thinking it was some random person and they would eventually go away. But they kept on pounding. So I got up, looked out the front window and saw a white Tahoe parked out in front of my house. All I could point out in the dark was the numbers 911 on the side of the vehicle. I thought to myself that it was a police officer probably going around the neighborhood telling residents of something that had happened in the area. I still was not even thinking about something happening to Blaise at work.

When I turned on the front porch light and opened the door, I then was able to read “Peoria Fire Department” on the vehicle. Right then and there, I knew something was terribly wrong. I saw enough fire movies during my life and knew that when that vehicle is parked in front of your house, it’s not a good thing at all.

From there, I lost it. I started crying and shaking and thoughts just poured into my head. Coming up my driveway was one of the division chiefs at the fire department. All I remember her saying was “He’s alright, he’s alright.” I don’t remember a lot of what she said, because I was still in shock, but as soon as she said, “He’s alright,” I was relieved and knew we would get through whatever was going to come our way.

When she finally calmed me down, she explained to me that he was in a fire and was burned. It was still just an hour or so after the accident occurred, so details were still arising as to what happened. She then took me down to meet Blaise at the local emergency room where they took him. When I saw him for the first time, he was still in a lot of pain, but could talk to me enough to tell me that he was alright and that he loved me. The doctors then told me that they were airlifting him to Springfield Memorial Medical Center’s Burn Unit as soon as they could. He left within the next hour or so and I was driven there by another division chief to meet him there.

The first day or so at the Springfield Burn Unit, the doctors were very optimistic that he would be able to go home in a matter of days. I knew my job during this time was to be there for my husband in every way possible and help get him through this hard time. I knew I had to stay positive throughout this time, and this I did. But as the days went on, the burns started to get worse, and on day five, doctors decided it was best to do surgery. After 12 days in the hospital, we were finally able to go home. Although we were home, we knew there were still months of recovery.

After recollection, I still cannot believe the amount of support we received during this hard time. It was just a matter of hours after the accident that people started calling and texting words of encouragement and sorrow. And by that morning in Springfield, Blaise already had the waiting room filled with visitors! The visitors never stopped either. They kept on coming throughout our stay in the hospital. People even came a number of different times to visit! I think this really helped to speed up Blaise’s recovery. It really helped him to talk about the fire and get his feelings out in the open. We also couldn’t have gotten through it without our family, close friends and Blaise’s fellow Peoria firemen. They were there for us in our time of need and offered anything they could do for us to help us in any way possible.

The following are comments by Chief Goldfeder related to this incident:

While it may seem that EMS takes up much of your time (as it should, since EMS is an integral part of our job), we must always be prepared for our historically “core” responsibility – responding to and getting water on fires, performing searches and on those rare, but critical occasions, making rescues. What’s the common denominator? Training.

It’s no secret that training is a main factor in minimizing firefighter injury and death. Senior members should training regularly. For probationary and newer firefighters, training is non-stop. Seriously, non-stop. If you are a probie, rookie, trainee or whatever your fire department calls you (meaning you have less than five years of service), you have no time for TV, video games, cell phones, chatter, gossip, texting, movies or anything unrelated to your role at the department or company.

If you fall into this category and are a career firefighter, your day should be spent (in addition to whatever you’re a directed to do) arriving before anyone else, checking all the tools and equipment and spending every moment you can on the apparatus floor learning about every tool and related task so when you use it or do it, it is second nature. It will take a long time for you to learn, just as it did for those who came before you. OK, sure, you get to the kitchen first to help prepare the meal, you eat last, finish first and do the dishes – that’s standard. But when you’re done, it’s training time. Read, study, review and know your department policies by heart.

If this is unrealistic or too tough, find another career. I mean it.

If you are a volunteer or part-time firefighter, the same applies when you are in quarters or have free time. The fires don’t care whether you get paid or not. Read the training articles, study the training websites and never miss a drill or training opportunity. Ask lots of questions. Either you are going to be ready or you are not. And when you are not ready, the entire “team” concept falls apart, with you being the weakest link.

Fortunately, the Peoria Fire Department provided Firefighter Steffen with the training, leadership and motivation to understand just how important his role is – in this case, knowing how to save himself with the help of his fellow firefighters. His training, motivation and discipline paid off, big time.

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