On The Job – Pennsylvania: Firefighters Dodge "Bullets" On "Goose Day"

May 1, 2003
Patrick Pauly reports on a house fire where the water supply stopped, two collapses occurred and a firefighter was trapped. Share the many lessons learned at this unusual incident.
Chief Robert McCaa
Personnel: 90 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: Three engines, one aerial ladder, one ladder tower, one rescue/engine
Population: 9,200
Area: Two square miles

Sept. 29 is known as "Goose Day" in Mifflin County, PA, dating to an English tradition that says persons who eat goose on that day will have good luck for a year. On that day in 2002, local firefighters tested at least part of the tradition. After responding to a house fire, their water supply stopped, two collapses occurred, a firefighter was trapped and many lessons were learned.

That Sunday morning started out like most others, but many things changed after 7:23 A.M. That's when the Mifflin County Emergency Services 911 Center dispatched a reported structure fire in the 300 block of West Fourth Street in the Borough of Lewistown. The county seat, Lewistown is home to the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy (PSFA). The chief of the Lewistown Fire Department (LFD), Robert McCaa, is a 24-year resident instructor at PSFA.

The first-responding unit, Truck 11-1 (a 95-foot ladder tower) from United Fire and Rescue, Station 11, was about six blocks from the incident. As the unit left the bay onto West Third Street, the company reported "heavy smoke" at 7:24 A.M. The crew members were preparing to attend the second day of an "Advanced Truck Company Operations" class at the PSFA. The instructor for that class, Captain J.T. Brady of the Horry County, SC, Fire Department, stayed at their station the previous night, so he was on hand to assist in the rescue of the trapped firefighter. (Brady was a Pennsylvania firefighter and a PSFA adjunct instructor before moving to South Carolina in 1997.)

An ambulance from Fame EMS was on the scene ahead of fire department apparatus and reported it was transporting a burn victim from the fire. Several other units reported heavy smoke while enroute. On arrival, Truck 11-1 reported "a two-story dwelling fully involved." The next-arriving units, Assistant Chief Steve Yohn and Deputy Chief Bob Douglas, advised that West Fourth Street would need to be closed as the first-responding engine should lay a five-inch supply line from the nearest hydrant. Yohn assumed command and requested the electric company be notified for assistance with live wires.

Engine 11-1 responded at 7:27 and stated it would lay in. Engine 13-2 from the Brooklyn Hose Company, Station 13, responded at 7:28 and acknowledged Douglas' request to lay another five-inch supply line. At 7:28, Engine 11-1 reported on-scene and began a "blitz attack" with its top-mounted wagon pipe. Rescue 14-1 (a rescue/ engine with a rear-mount pump) from City Hook & Ladder, Station 14, responded at the same time. At 7:30, Engine 13-2 requested further information on its assignment. Hearing no response, it stated it would lay to the rear of the fire building. Several LFD support units responded with manpower.

McCaa arrived on-scene at 7:30, and he and Douglas met with Yohn and passed the word that no one should attempt entry into the structure. This was a defensive operation.

A quick knockdown of the visible fire was accomplished by the master-stream flow from Engine 11-1. Suddenly, at 7:32, the water stopped flowing onto the fire from Engine 11-1. Rescue 14-1, staged a half-block away, was asked to report to the structure and finish the hose lay. Engine 13-2 had laid all of the five-inch hose off the engine in an attempt to get to the rear of the fire building. The firefighters were unable to go behind the structure and ended up going a block out of the way.

Realizing he had a building fire, three engines on scene and no water supply, Yohn requested the next-due engine, Engine 15-1 from the Junction Fire Company, about five blocks from the fire. The engine was assigned to lay in to the front of the structure with a five-inch line. As the crew approached the assigned hydrant, they saw it had already been utilized by Engine 13-2 and requested a revised assignment. They were told to lay from a hydrant a few hundred feet farther away. At 7:36, Truck 14-1 (a 100-foot aerial) reported it was staged near the scene.

McCaa knew he had competent subordinate chiefs dealing with the fire, so he made it his priority to determine what had happened to the water supply to Engine 11-1. He also requested the assistance of Mike Pauly, a fellow pump mechanic and hydraulics instructor for the PSFA who has been an active member of the LFD since the mid-1960s. They realized the five-inch hose was solid at the intake connection. Both of them remembered an identical situation that occurred while they were teaching a pump class years earlier. The inside liner of the five-inch hose had separated from the outside jacket, moved with the water to the pump, and then entered the pump. This time, they knew they were not going to be able to remove the liner from its new position. The pump's impeller shaft was tight, unable to turn.

The hose lay from Engine 13-2 was completed with hose from Rescue 14-1 and the hydrant was charged. Engine 15-1 arrived with its supply line.

At 7:42, a connection came apart in the Engine 13-2 supply line when another set of couplings twisted apart. The hydrant had to be shut down and another section of hose added. Command requested Engine 4-1 from the Highland Park Hose Company, Station 4, in Derry Township and Engine 17-1 from the West Granville Fire Company, Station 17.

While responding on Engine 17-1, we speculated that we were going to be requested as part of Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) 32. That is a recently formed group of firefighters who have taken specialized training and practiced performing firefighter rescue evolutions. This, however, was not mentioned during dispatch, and we assumed we would go to a ramp at the river a few blocks from the fire and set up a fill site for tankers or lay another five-inch supply line from the fire to that ramp.

We heard Engine 4-1 assigned to stage at Station 11 and assumed we would also be staged at another borough station. Surprisingly, we were asked to stage near the fire. The time was 7:51 A.M. Because of a "dead spot" or heavy radio traffic, we did not hear command request RIT32 to the scene. At 7:54, we arrived at our assigned staging area and were asked if we had anyone for a rapid intervention team. We assembled our rapid intervention tools, still unaware that the RIT32 had been requested. Several hoselines were visible into the structure and numerous firefighters were seen working outside the building on side B.

As we set up our rapid intervention team staging area near the rear of Engine 11-1, we were told by EMS Chief 12 Pat Shoop that several firefighters were reported to be trapped. I asked Yohn if this was true and he verified the entrapment. We were told one firefighter was known to be trapped at the rear of the structure, near the C-side wall. He and two other firefighters had advanced a hoseline into the structure from side C and attempted to extinguish fire on the first floor (Division 1). One of them left because of a problem with his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), leaving two firefighters inside. Shortly after that, a collapse occurred, bringing the second floor (Division 2) down on top of the firefighters, Charles Duncan and James Fryer. Fryer extricated himself and escaped through the window near his location, but Duncan was not as lucky. Ceiling and floor materials, furniture and other debris trapped him.

We were watching the firefighters who were working near the B-C corner of the structure at a hole in the B-side wall. Yohn and McCaa asked for the rapid intervention team officer. Chief 17-2 Allan Winn walked to the A-B corner with them, then gave us our assignment. Additional members of RIT32 arrived from Station 2, the East Derry Fire Company of Derry Township.

We were assigned to assist the firefighters who already were working to find the trapped firefighter. I tied one end of the bagged search rope to a utility pole near the A-B corner of the structure. We walked about 20 feet along side B, but were unable to do much immediately because many firefighters from the Lewistown Fire Department were in this area.

After a while, Chief 2-1 Ed Mann and I pushed our way to the hole at the side B wall. Mann, who is the Pennsylvania state fire commissioner, is a strong advocate of accountability and rapid intervention teams. We began to remove debris, including box springs, through the hole in the side B wall. This was difficult, time-consuming, and energy-intensive work. After enough debris was removed, Mann and I entered the structure and began to search for the downed firefighter. Inside, the conditions at the B-C corner were moderately smoky and slightly warm. I crawled about 10 feet and heard someone say, "We found him and he is alive." I crawled toward several firefighters. I noticed that a window on the rear wall (side C), close to the B-C corner, was serving as an entry point for hoselines, firefighters and tools. When I reached Duncan, I saw Brady, Truck Captain Sam Markley of Station 11, Firefighter Paul Liddick and Chief Scott Beers of Station 15 working to free Duncan.

The regulator had been removed from Duncan's facepiece, so I asked for someone outside to send in one of the Lewistown rapid intervention team rescue packs. I removed the regulator from my facepiece and shared it with Duncan. Most of the visible debris had been removed from Duncan and we tried several times to pick him up or drag him, but something had a grasp on him. It appeared that his right leg was still entrapped. I stayed until every bit of air was out of my SCBA cylinder, then excused myself through the rear wall window.

Stations 1 and 3, the Burnham and Yeagertown fire companies, were called to the scene at 8:10 A.M. and asked by McCaa to "take over the firefighting" operations. Burnham Fire Chief William McCurry assumed operations of the fire. Several other pieces of equipment were requested from Mifflin and Juniata county stations to stage near the fire or cover stations in Lewistown.

Many firefighters from the RIT32 team, including retired Coast Guard Fire Chief Scott Settle, Chief 2 Charlie Harklerode and Firefighter Cory Reigle, continued to work to free the trapped man. Meanwhile, the hoselines were operated by the firefighters of Companies 1 and 3. They had most of the visible fire extinguished, but flames kept showing up at various openings.

At 8:55 A.M., a secondary collapse occurred, bringing the roof and remaining second floor material into Division 1. At least 10 firefighters were working in the area of Duncan when this scenario unfolded. Once again, I prayed. Most of the firefighters extricated themselves by going to one of the four outside walls and sliding or jumping out. Harklerode was assisted through the B wall opening and taken to Fame EMS personnel. He was transported to the Lewistown Hospital emergency room with minor injuries.

A personnel accountability report (PAR) was made and all firefighters were accounted for. Efforts to remove Duncan continued. Additional firefighters working near Duncan before or after the secondary collapse included Engine Captain Sean Markley, Lieutenant Terry Beasom, Firefighters Travis Myers and Ron Schaeffer from Station 11; Douglas, Rich Bickle from Station 15, and Captain 4 Mark Earnest. Captain 14 Bob Barlett assumed a position near the B-C corner outside the structure. He functioned as an unofficial rescue liaison, suggesting different tools, coordinating efforts and trying to solve the dilemma.

I was assigned to find a way to the basement and try to verify whether Duncan's foot was through the floor. I recruited several firefighters standing near the C-D corner who were ready to go to work. We made sure an officer from Company 1 had our names before entering. We stretched a rope into the addition on side D and turned into the area near Duncan. After studying the layout of the house and talking to several people, we assumed the basement stairs would be in this area. No one could find them in any other room.

While we were still trying to find the stairs, we heard that Duncan had been freed. The time was 9:13 A.M. Duncan's right foot had been partly through a hole in the floor. He was freed after the debris had been removed from around his the foot and two cuts were made with a reciprocating saw in 30 to 45 seconds. He was transported to the Lewistown emergency room for observation and discharged a few hours later with minor injuries.

Fire investigators ruled the occupants of the home accidentally started the fire with the use of a candle. The occupant recovered from her burns and returned home from the hospital.

Incident Critique

The evening after the fire, 40-plus emergency responders attended a critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) session to clear their minds. Several days later, McCaa held a critique of the incident. More than 50 emergency responders who were present during the fire attended. Many items were discussed and several points were made. Items that should have been done or should not be repeated included:

  • No rapid intervention team was initially requested when the "working fire" was confirmed.
  • Upon the report of a trapped firefighter, no PAR was made.
  • There was never a "Mayday" announcement.
  • The dispatcher was confused by the initial request for RIT32.
  • The first-arriving company that was asked to serve as a rapid intervention team was not informed that a firefighter was trapped.
  • The rapid intervention team did not designate a "rescue" officer or any other "command structure positions."
  • Search and rescue efforts were not clearly assigned and thus "freelancing" took place.
  • There was too little effort to listen for the PASS device signal of the trapped firefighter.
  • Proper lighting was very slow being placed into the structure.
  • Suppression efforts were inadequate near the trapped firefighter.
  • Overall communications could have been better.
  • Too many firefighters freelanced.
  • Many tasks to support the removal of the trapped firefighter were not started or not completed; i.e., window opening enlargement was started several times, but not finished.

That said, there were many positive aspects that day. They included:

  • The successful rescue of a trapped firefighter was accomplished with minor injuries to him.
  • Rescuers received only minor injuries when the secondary collapse occurred. This was due to the use of SCBA and protective clothing.
  • Firefighters from Duncan's department, and thus emotionally affected, were kept away from the entrapment area.
  • Level 2 accountability was established and maintained.
  • Mutual aid response from outside counties proved valuable for rescue efforts and stand-by coverage.
  • County EMA response and assistance was excellent.
  • CISM and clergy were available early.
  • Local EMS provided ALS standby and rehab despite receiving numerous other calls. Their efforts were stepped up after the secondary collapse, which required multiple EMS companies lending mutual aid.
Patrick Pauly is a 33-year veteran of the fire service, employed full-time as a fire service education specialist at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy. Teaching and coordinating the activities of the Resident and "Academy On The Road" training programs, his main topic areas are structural firefighting, safety and survival, and firefighter rescue. Pauly spent 31 years in the Lewistown, PA, Fire Department, the last seven as deputy chief. He is now active with the West Granville Fire Company. Pauly is nationally certified as a Firefighter III, Fire Instructor II and Fire Officer I, and is a Pennsylvania-certified EMT. He holds an associate's degree in computer science technology.

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