Close Calls: Floor Collapse Results in Captain’s Death

Jan. 9, 2023
Billy Goldfeder's scrutiny of the after-action report and improvement plan pertaining to the 2021 death of a fire captain provides a checklist to determine whether a department is using best practices.

Before you read the narrative, understand just how fast a collapse will happen on arrival at a basement fire and with lightweight wood construction:

  • Initial dispatch: 4:49 p.m.
  • Engine arrived: 4:51 p.m.
  • Capt. Laird’s mayday: 5:00 p.m.

A neighborhood residential security camera showed lightning strike the house at 4:00 p.m.

On Aug. 11, 2021, Frederick County, MD, Division of Fire and Rescue Services (FCDFRS) Capt. Joshua D. Laird sounded a mayday after the first floor of a large house collapsed, leaving him lost, disoriented and unable to find the basement exit. At the time of the mayday, three engines and a truck were on scene.

Tragically, Laird didn’t walk out of the basement of the house. He died in the line of duty. The death of Laird (who was posthumously promoted to battalion chief) is devastating to the Laird family, who lost a husband, a father, a son and a brother; to FCDFRS, which lost a brother, a firefighter and a friend; and to the citizens of Frederick County and the community of Fairfield, PA, which lost an active and caring public servant.

For no other reason than the allowable space for this column in this issue of Firehouse Magazine, I primarily highlight the factors that led to the tragic loss of Laird. These factors should be in the mind of every firefighter, company officer and chief officer.

My intent is to pique your interest so that you use the QR code at the end of the column to access and read the report (including photographs, video and related information), digest the recommendations and apply the learned lessons to your own department. There is no greater way to honor Laird than to use this information to affect training and bring about needed change.

Like many close calls and line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), the sequence of events begins with an interruption to the normal patterns that firefighters and officers rely on when they develop procedural norms through experience. Simply put, think Murphy’s Law, where “something” happens and throws much off—and whether the organization has the capability to handle that. The solution isn’t singular but a system approach that combines the pre-identified needed resources with critical additional resources (based on repetitive, applicable policy-based training), all of which falls into place when a crisis occurs.

Unfortunately, other very recent LODDs haven’t been as thoroughly investigated nor have such extensive details been provided as is the case for Laird’s death and the circumstances that led to it, so the entire fire service can learn.

Our thanks to FCDFRS Chief Thomas Coe, the members of FCDFRS and the members of the External Safety Review Panel, which put in hundreds of hours of work. The panel, which consisted of seasoned, highly respected fire commanders, developed a document that can save civilian and firefighter lives. Leaders at every agency need only to use this information as a template for their own organization.

Our thanks also to Laird’s wife, Sara, who has made it her mission to share the facts of her husband’s death, specific to the failure of corrugated stainless-steel tubing (CSST) under lightning-strike conditions. Sara states that she hopes that the legacy of her husband’s death “will be to increase awareness about the dangers of CSST and lightning, so that no other families have to live through the nightmare.”

Sara joined the late Lt. Nate Flynn’s wife, Celeste, in creating a data collection website specific to close calls that involve CSST fires: The lieutenant was killed on July 23, 2018, in Howard County, MD, under similar conditions.

The response

On Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, lightning struck a house at 9510 Ball Road in Ijamsville, MD. A fire started in the basement. Frederick County communications received multiple calls for a house fire in the area.

The structure was a large, irregularly shaped, Type V

wood-frame construction, private dwelling that was in a nonhydranted area. The house was two stories on and contained approximately 5,375 sq. ft. of livable space. The first and second floors sat atop an unfinished basement, with the exterior basement entrance on the Delta side at the C/D corner of the structure.

The first-alarm assignment consisted of five engines with 17 personnel, one heavy rescue (four personnel), two trucks (six personnel), three tankers (five personnel), one ambulance (three personnel), one battalion chief and one safety officer. (Other personnel, including volunteer and career chief officers, responded and are included in the report).

Initial operations

First-arriving E251 (staffing of three, including Laird) was dispatched as second due but was clearing another call in the area and, thus, arrived first, two minutes after dispatch. E251 approached to find low-lying smoke conditions across Ball Road. E251 laid a 4-inch supply line (500 feet) and positioned on the A/B corner just prior to the garage of the residence. E251 reported “On the scene. Large three-and-a-half, two-and-a-half, single-story family. Working fire. Start (rapid intervention dispatch) and a tanker task force.”

Most of the fire appeared to be coming from a family room on the Bravo side of the structure.

E251 pulled a 200-foot, 1¾-inch crosslay and applied water through a set of Bravo-side first-floor picture windows.

Because of smoke conditions on arrival, the unit officer (Laird) and the firefighter of E251 began breathing SCBA air upon exiting the engine.

As the first chief arrived, a large volume of smoke and fire was visible coming from the rear of the structure. The fire was coming from a large family room that was on the B/C corner, with fire running the Charlie side of the structure.

Incident highlights

The following is a summary of some of the concerns that were raised following this fire, with most applicable to any fire department, from metro to rural. The full report should be a catalyst to ensure that your ego doesn’t hamper change and that you realize that understanding that human performance factors is an important first step to stopping needless firefighter (and at times, civilian) injuries and deaths.

If you respond to fires, you have an obligation to your department brothers and sisters to understand all of the factors that led to Laird’s death.

Repeating history. Many of the findings and recommendations that are in the report are present in other recent LODD reports. Overall, the fire service hasn’t learned from previous incidents or is resistant to change in the face of proven need to change. Although the investigative process is improved and, as a result, informative findings and recommendations are provided, unfortunately, we continue to see the same outcomes.

LODDs. LODDs rarely result from a single act or omission. Instead, there are many different critical factors that are linked by a series of operational mistakes, violations, omissions and chance. The chain of tragedy comes together with outdated or unclear policies, policies that were ignored, resource deficiencies, qualification inequities and a mission that has lost focus.

Response plan. The arrival of units out of order creates confusion at a fire scene when organization is needed the most. Each unit’s location relative to the incident location wasn’t reflected accurately in the dispatch order (arrival) for this incident. This inaccuracy resulted in units performing incorrect assignments, a lack of accountability and missed assignments.

Size-up. The first-arriving company failed to complete an initial size-up report, including the lack of a Charlie-side report before entering. A second-arriving company completed a 360 but communicated inaccurate/incomplete information.

Command confusion. A clear and definitive command structure failed to exist in several instances among the circumstances of this incident.

Command response. It’s vital to ensure that two career battalion chiefs are dispatched on every structure fire to guarantee that there always are enough chief officers to form a command team. Qualified “duty” volunteer chief officers also can be considered for this model. The focus must be qualifications/training and assured response.

Initial transfer of command and situational awareness by the incident commander (IC). In this incident, transfer of command wasn’t initiated between the engine and first-arriving chief prior to that chief assuming command. That allowed units to continue with a plan that the IC didn’t know much about, including not knowing whether units were in the proper mode of operations and whether the tactical incident action plan (IAP) was appropriate. A new IC must develop and communicate a clear strategy, supporting tactics and an overall IAP.

Chief officer assignments. Several chiefs who were relegated to task-level assignments on scene, either by self-assignment or by command, inserted themselves into the incident without direction from command or began to create their own plan without the knowledge of the IC. Additionally problematic, these actions occurred at a time when coordinated command support was needed desperately.

Tactical written worksheet. From the start, the tactical worksheet/incident command chart wasn’t used to its full potential nor updated to reflect changing assignments and accountability.

Mayday policy adherence. Except for Laird’s actions following his mayday, compliance with mayday standard operating procedure (SOP) was nearly nonexistent. From the mayday until the time that Laird was extricated, the related operational policies and procedures were ignored and/or violated, resulting in a chaotic scene.

Radio channel/talkgroup. Stay on tactical or switch over? Without achieving and maintaining absolute radio discipline, the discussion that the fire service has been having about which channel is a better option is futile. After Laird declared the mayday, there was excessive radio traffic on the tactical channel, which resulted in numerous rejected transmissions from him.

Command & operational discipline. A lack of command presence, effective strategy and communications led to confusion, chaos, absence of situational awareness and freelancing among most of the units that were on scene.

Changing IAP. Despite the IC being made aware of the fact that there was a working basement fire, there was no change from what originally was a first-floor fire plan to implement an IAP that was appropriate for a basement fire.

Evacuation order/scene discipline. When command ordered the emergency evacuation following the extrication of Laird, firefighters weren’t fully compliant with the actions that they should have taken.

Qualifications. Throughout the investigative process following the incident, there was an overwhelming sense from those who were interviewed, both career and volunteer, at all ranks, that inequality of qualifications and standards between career and volunteer officers might be one of the most significant concerns that they face.

Normalizing unacceptable cultural and historical behavior. This fire and loss were rooted, to an extent, in a culture and system that include a wide range of historical and organizational issues. The after-action report places as much weight on those factors as on the more easily understood and corrected technical causes of the incident.

Protective gear. Personnel who operated near the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environment at the incident weren’t wearing PPE. This included an attempt at forcing entry into the basement by a chief-level officer who was wearing only civilian clothing.

Crew integrity/accountability. Crew integrity was violated on numerous occasions during the incident. Officers who were charged with ensuring crew integrity either initiated these violations or observed them and did nothing about them. Countless violations and compliance failures of the accountability policy were largely ignored by personnel throughout the incident.

Respect the policy. Numerous policies weren’t followed by every rank on scene of this incident. Creation of policy and procedures to address obvious tactical and technical issues doesn’t prevent future occurrences. Departments must ensure disciplined accountability for training on and uniformly following policies by everyone.

Human factors. This incident identified numerous factors that are related to people and how they behave under stress. Most departments spend some on firefighting tactics; few departments take time to understand the human factors that are related to firefighters’ and officers’ ability to perform.

Physical and emotional fitness. It is clear that many personnel who were at this incident were pushed to their absolute physical limits.

Fireground radio discipline. During the incident, the tactical channel became inundated with ancillary and useless transmissions for the duration of the incident as well as multiple transmissions when units didn’t identify themselves.

Radio ID. Noncompliance with unit and personnel identification on scene resulted in the misidentification of crews and personnel.

Radio emergency button. Laird correctly communicated his mayday. However, he never activated the radio emergency features. Because of a lack of training, most personnel were unaware of the features that are enabled when the portable radio emergency activation button is activated.

Predictable needed water supply. The fire at this incident demanded more than 1,500 gpm of water for the fire to be successfully mitigated. GPMs are calculable well before any fire.

Water supply tactics. The initial water supply operations at the incident had significant operational challenges to overcome. These included: an outdated water supply policy; a lack of personnel; noncompliance with SOPs; and inefficient use of the equipment and available water on scene. In addition, many of the resources who were assigned to water supply operations focused their efforts on establishing a sustainable water supply system instead of delivering the water that was immediately available on the apparatus to the incident site.

Standard of cover. Because of the rapid population growth in the county in which the incident occurred—and the now-understood findings and recommendations of the after-action report—the staffing (standard of cover) plan no longer is accurate or adequate.

Comments from Chief Goldfeder

The members of FCDFRS lived this fire and lost one of their own in the process. Most of them will live with this fire forever. They gave it their all and never thought that they were doing anything but helping make this incident better—until it was over. Looking back, so much was learned, intertwined with unimaginable heartache.

Please take this opportunity to use the aforementioned as a checklist to determine whether your department and mutual aid partners are using current best practices, proven science, and the modern tactics of firefighting, command, control and accountability.

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