Probe into Virginia Firefighters' Injuries Prompts Changes

Sept. 16, 2008
The report, which was released Friday, stops short at placing any blame for the incident.

A three-month investigation into the conditions and events that contributed to the injures of seven Loudoun firefighters working a two-alarm fire near Leesburg in May has resulted in 64 recommendations for the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management.

The report, which was released Friday, cites both positive actions and circumstances as well as adverse factors and recommendations for improvement, but stops short at placing any blame for the incident.

"This report is fact based. There are no opinions in this report," Division Chief Richie Bowers of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, who led the investigation team, said. "If the information wasn't able to be validated, if a fact wasn't able to be validated, it did not go into the report."

While each investigation into a serious injury or firefighter death is different, some reports have resulted in as many as 250 recommendations to individual departments.

Bowers led a team of fire-rescue personnel from within Loudoun as well as outside jurisdictions, including Battalion Chief Jennie Collins from Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue, Battalion Chief Scott McKay from Arlington County Fire and EMS, Battalion Chief Corey Parker, Captain Justin Green, Lieutenant Nicole Hankin, Technician Greg Moore, Firefighter/Medic Denise Gay and Fire Commissioner Bill McGann, who is also a member of Hamilton Volunteer Fire Company, all from Loudoun.

Around 1 p.m. Sunday, May 25, crews responded to a 911 call for a structure fire on Meadowood Court near River Creek east of Leesburg. Fire and rescue personnel arrived on the scene to find heavy fire coming from the attic of the two-story single-family home and the fire was quickly spreading. Firefighters entered the home to perform a search and to begin attacking the blaze. Conditions deteriorated rapidly and four firefighters were forced to escape through an upstairs window. In the process of escaping the home, the six fire-rescue personnel were injured. A seventh fire-rescue personnel member was later added to the injured list.

Five of the seven injured men and women have returned to work. One career lieutenant, who was stationed in Ashburn, is still recovering from his burn injuries after spending a couple of months at Washington Hospital Center. The seventh member is still recovering from a shoulder injury.

During a presentation of the report Saturday, Collins said several factors played into the way the incident unfolded, including a simultaneous call to the Ross department store that required the dispatch of the same units that responded to the Meadowbrook fire. According to the report, the Leesburg house fire was called into 911 at 1:01 p.m. Diverting from the Ross store call, Reserve Engine 6 was the first to arrive on the scene at 1:09 p.m.

Once inside the home, the firefighters moved to the second floor. While they were on the second floor, the fire ignited all contents on the first floor and began to move through the open foyer up the banister to the second floor, blocking the firefighters exit route.

"They all went through windows on the back of side of the house," Collins said. "Three got down on a ladder placed at the window. The lieutenant came out another window onto a deck and down to the ground."

According to the report's incident overview, the officer exited through the portion of the house that received the most fire damage.

While commenting on the training the firefighters had for mayday and self-evacuation procedures, the recommendations in the 210-page document range from additional training programs, communication processes and staffing. The investigation team recommends the development of training programs to help firefighters and rescue personnel to read interior and exterior smoke conditions as well as withdrawal and emergency evacuation for firefighters. The report also suggests an increase to the minimum staffing requirements for engines, trucks and rescue companies to four qualified firefighters, a measure that would most likely require additional local tax funding from the county's budget.

Attention was also paid in the report to the home's construction, including the lightweight materials that were used when the home was built in 1998. According the report, the home was "standard, stick-built construction with a lightweight truss roof." The lightweight construction caused a partial structure collapse at the back of the house, which resulted in the firefighters having to do a self-rescue out of the structure. The vinyl siding on three sides of the home also was combustible and melted very quickly.

Some of the construction, however, helped the firefighters, Bowers said. The house was a hybrid that used dimensional lumber for the floor joists that supported the first and second floors. Those denser, stronger pieces of lumber helped keep the structure from collapsing completely.

"We had a near-miss multiple line of duty death incident," Bowers said. "We came very close to having to bury four firefighters."

To help firefighters understand the different types of structures they might encounter, the investigation team recommended enhancing the systems entry-level and ongoing training on building construction, including the unique characteristics of lightweight construction and special features such as open floor plans and double paned, tempered safety glass windows.

Fire-Rescue Chief Joseph Pozzo, who initiated the investigation the day of the fire, said he was pleased with the outcome of the report.

"We will sit down and prioritize the recommendations," he said of the department's next steps. "We will look at what will take funding, what can be done more immediately. It's not going to be an overnight change."

Some of the more immediate changes, Pozzo said, could be in the policies of the department, either through updates or implementation of new policies.

"We've opened our organization up for people to look at. And it was absolutely the right thing to do," he said.

Pozzo will make a presentation on the report to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors tomorrow. In addition, the report will be available online and will be distributed to other fire-rescue systems as a learning tool.

"Nobody at all in this industry is perfect," Pozzo said. "[These reports] make you better at what you do."

Republished with permission from Leesburg Today

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