"I Thought, This Is It...I Am Going To Die In This House Fire!"

Sept. 16, 2009
What can go wrong at a single-family-dwelling fire? Last month, we began a report on a fire that occurred in Sacramento, CA, on Oct. 7, 2008, involving a two-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling. Four firefighters nearly lost their lives after becoming trapped upstairs during the fire. This month, we continue our coverage with an account from a firefighter who was involved in the incident and a discussion of the lessons learned.

What can go wrong at a single-family-dwelling fire? Last month, we began a report on a fire that occurred in Sacramento, CA, on Oct. 7, 2008, involving a two-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling. Four firefighters nearly lost their lives after becoming trapped upstairs during the fire. This month, we continue our coverage with an account from a firefighter who was involved in the incident and a discussion of the lessons learned.

Our sincere thanks to Sacramento Fire Department Chief Ray Jones, Deputy Chief Lloyd Ogan, and the officers and firefighters operating at this fire for their cooperation in providing information so that firefighters all over the world can learn. A special thanks to Fire Captain Rick Hudson (investigations) as well as Fire Captain Jeff Helvin (who was trapped in this fire) for their assistance in the preparation of this column.

This account was provided by Firefighter John Ricketts, the acting officer of Engine 18:

I was riding the captain seat of Engine 18 at the time of fire with a total crew of three — a firefighter, a driver engineer and me. Our captain was out of the station at a meeting for about three hours. Here is the timeline of events, to the best of my memory.

I responded from Station 18 and light smoke was seen coming over the freeway overpass as we approached. I arrived on scene as Engine 15 was finishing its size-up report. We positioned next to a hydrant just outside the court as Engine 15 took fire attack and passed command. I assumed "Stilt Command" and transmitted that I was on a plug and we would pull a backup line. I assigned my engineer to help Engine 15 hook to a hydrant, and assigned my firefighter (Engine 18 nozzle) to pull a backup line off Engine 15.

As I was walking up to the house, I noticed smoke from a second-floor window and Engine 15 working on light forced entry on the front door. I did a "360 walk-around" from the Delta side to the Bravo side. I noticed light smoke downstairs and two sliding doors on the Charlie side locked and not hot to the touch. I opened and unlocked the slider on the Bravo side and could see smoke at chest level and Engine 15's hoseline being advanced upstairs toward the Alpha side. I also noticed a few windows open upstairs. When I returned to the Alpha side, the Engine 18 nozzle firefighter was assisting the advance of the Engine 15 hose at the door. I assigned him to work with Engine 15 and stay with them.

At this point, Engine 30 was announcing its arrival on the radio, so I voiced that I had assigned my firefighter to Engine 15 and assigned Engine 30 a backup line. I also radioed that there was heavier smoke from Alpha-side second-floor window. I asked for a progress report from Engine 15, but their transmission was unreadable other than me hearing them state "ventilation." I stated that the message was unreadable except for the word "ventilation" and I reported that no truck company was on scene, but windows were open upstairs and a slider was open on first-floor Bravo side.

Battalion Chief 3 (BC3) arrived on the scene and transmitted the second alarm. I assigned Engine 30 to put a second line downstairs and requested BC3 to send the first-arriving engine company off the second alarm directly to the fire with their line.

At this point, two firefighters came out of the building in distress and another was on the roof above the garage in distress. After identifying the three firefighters, I called a Mayday for the Engine 15 captain, who was last seen on stairs.

As the firefighters in distress were noticed, Battalion Chief 2 (BC2) arrived and tried to take command, but I did not pass it until after the Mayday was called and I could do a face-to-face transfer. It was reported to me that Engine 15's captain was found outside the Charlie side of the structure. BC2 took command and I was assigned to keep the three burned firefighters on the Alpha side together until they were evaluated, treated and transported.

My personal comments and lessons learned are that:

  • I didn't slow down to thoroughly notice all the heavy smoke on first floor for what was a second-floor fire. That should have been a warning sign to me.
  • I thought it was small fire upstairs in the Alpha/Bravo bedroom, but it was actually at the top of the stairwell, not in the bedroom.
  • I should have kept my firefighters on a hoseline at the front door where they could have protected the stairwell about 10-15 feet in from the door.
  • This was my first working fire sitting in for a captain. I was sucked in toward front door and didn't step back and keep eye on big picture.
  • I failed to recognize that the fire was downstairs until after the members were injured.

The following are comments by Chief Goldfeder and related lessons learned following discussions with some of those involved in this incident:

Another house fire and another close call. These firefighters were very fortunate to have been able to escape the deteriorating conditions — as is obvious, it could have been much worse. In discussions with Captain Jeff Helvin, the following points were clear on what they have learned from this fire — and what we can learn:

  1. Every two-story house fire is now considered a three-line fire. The first line goes to the fire floor, the second line to the floor opposite the first line and protecting the stairs, and the third line outside as a backup. Officers have serious decisions to make when arriving, as your available resources must match and exceed your planned tactics based on your size up — including a "360 walk-around." If you want three lines stretched automatically on related dwelling fires, then your fire department must ensure that enough staffing is dispatched on the first alarm so that can happen.
  2. Check the floor below the suspected fire floor. This is not a primary search, but a hasty search to ensure there is no fire below before committing up the stairs. Hold the line at the base of the stairs while performing this quick check. Size-up must also include determining what the conditions are interior. When doing so, ensure that the outside sized-up conditions relate to what you find on the interior. That "matching of information" will often require good communications with various crews — and command.
  3. Independent action from other crew members on the exterior must be communicated to command and coordinated with the interior operations. Random actions of any kind, and in this case, horizontal ventilation at the wrong time, can increase fire spread and intensity. If your department has certain procedures to be done at a fire automatically, that's great. However, as a part of that, members must be trained in what to look for in determining whether or not they should do "that" or "this" — again, based on conditions. When crews have an assignment, and conditions are right to do that assignment, communicate what has been done to command. If a crew is given or expected to perform an assignment, but cannot get it done, that too must be made clear to the boss. At no time however, unless a life is in danger, should a crew or firefighter do anything random.
  4. Firefighters need to be trained in engineer and officer responsibilities in the event they must assume one of those capacities. Many fire departments let their members function in the next level of rank in an "acting" capacity — working out of their normal classification. If that is the case in your department, has training been provided so that you are as qualified as the person you are covering for? If not, while there may be various "nice" incentives to cover positions above you, you are also being placed in a role that you may be unqualified to fill and can very well place you in an extremely difficult position.
  5. All firefighters must make safety and survival procedures part of their daily check. Check your radio and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) personal alert safety system (PASS) device as if you're going to need it today. Review your Mayday procedure every time you check your radio. When you are having your worst day, these procedures must be more than automatic! If you might use it, you must check it — and that means everything on the rig. In a staffed firehouse, that means checking the equipment at the start of each shift. In a call or volunteer department, a system must be in place to ensure that your equipment is as ready as you are, which at a minimum should be checked weekly.
  6. Who are you working with? At this fire, all of the firefighters who were trapped were detailed to that company and did not work with one another regularly. While that certainly can happen in any fire department, career or volunteer (not knowing who may turn out), it is a factor in company operations. In this case, and in a staffed firehouse, the time taken during roll calls, standard operating procedure (SOP) and departmental notification reviews, truck checks and company drills cannot be over emphasized as vital to your survival. It may be that in a case like this, with all members working in a house they normally don't work with — and with a crew they normally don't work with — that several hours or even the entire tour can be spent training and becoming familiar with one another while performing hands-on drill-related tasks. It all depends on how serious we are about understanding that "the run" may come in at any moment and how prepared we want to be. There should be an attitude of "we have no options."
  7. Heavy use of synthetics, new building construction and high ceilings are responsible for a rapid flashover rate and "black fire," where heavy black smoke is hiding the fire. The lessons learned related to the importance of reading smoke are once again demonstrated in this close call. That's why it is so important to know how to read smoke — and understand what may occur from what you see.

When we as firefighters have a chance to learn from firefighters who have lived a nightmare, we must take full advantage and learn as much as we can. Thankfully, the firefighters and officers of the Sacramento Fire Department have provided us with that opportunity.

Fire Captain Jeff Helvin will discuss this incident at Firehouse World 2010, Feb. 28-March 4 in San Diego, CA.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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