Close Calls: “I No Longer Knew Which Way Was Out”

April 1, 2019
Billy Goldfeder shares the story of a captain who loses contact with his team while trying to exit a complex structure.

With modern technology, the ability to learn about fires has certainly changed. We can be notified of working fires pretty much anywhere at any time. Add radio-monitoring apps, and you won't miss much. That was the case for me on Jan. 26, 2019, when I saw an Alert Page notification and then listened to the radio traffic from Montgomery County, PA, on my smartphone of what would ultimately become a mayday fire—and very close call.

In this article, we’ll detail the building and alarm response, and hear from Captain Alex Davis, who called the mayday, as well as Battalion Chief Christopher J. Reynolds, who managed the mayday. 

Lower Providence

The Lower Providence Fire Department is a 100 percent volunteer organization that runs about 550 incidents annually, staffing three pumpers—one 75-foot quint, one heavy rescue and a wildland piece. The primary area served is Lower Providence Township, PA (in Montgomery County near Philadelphia), which is about 15.5 square miles with a population of approximately 26,000 people. The department also provides (and receives) automatic box alarm mutual aid from six jurisdictions/municipalities around their borders, which is common in that area.  

Building information

This call involved a building that was constructed in 1950, and at the time of the incident, it housed two retail occupancies—the first floor for a fireplace store and the second floor for a ski store. It was two stories on Side D and one story on Side B with an attached addition on the back (Side C). Its footprint was approximately 150 feet wide x 40 feet deep and approximately 15,237 square feet overall. The building was part of a larger U-shaped strip mall. 

The second floor was added in the early-1970s to accommodate the ski shop. This was accomplished by building a steel exoskeleton around the outside of the original building to support the top level. This means it was essentially a building on top of a building, with an approximately 4-foot void between both buildings. 

Further complicating matters was the building access. When the second floor was added, the Side B access was ground level, while on Side D, the first floor was accessible from the ground level as well.

Staffing and alarm response

On Jan. 26, at 8:45 a.m., dispatch reported heavy smoke coming from Salters Ski Shop, sending Engine 53, Quint 53, Rescue 53 and Squad 53 from Lower Providence, Quint 46 from Jeffersonville Fire and ALS Ambulance 322 from Lower Providence EMS.

Police confirmed a working fire at 8:48 a.m., with “working fire dispatch” alerted, sending an additional engine, Squad 61 from East Norriton Fire; aerial, Ladder 27 from Fairmount of Norristown Fire; and the primary rapid-intervention team, Squad 86 from Skippack Fire.

Fire Chief James Alexander arrived at approximately 8:50 a.m., with Engine 53 arriving at 8:51 a.m. and Quint 53 at 8:53 a.m. Quint 46, acting as the second-due engine, was on scene at this time as well, although the arrival time is unknown.

The first-alarm staffing was 30 firefighters, and the working fire dispatch brought in 12 additional firefighters. The second-alarm staffing brought 20 more, as did the third-alarm staffing. A large-diameter hose (LDH) strike team and eventual tanker task force involved an estimated additional 75 personnel across 23 additional pieces of apparatus. 

Actions prior to the mayday

Arriving companies encountered black smoke from chimneys and vent pipes as well as the eaves of the roofline and along the ski shop-level area. Fire was visible through a 1-foot x 1-foot opening in the B side wall where a furnace vent pipe or similar had burned away or fallen off.

Serving as the incident commander (IC), Chief Alexander began a scene size-up. Engine 53 was on Side B, securing its own water supply via a hand stretch of approximately 50 feet. The engine officer, Firefighter Jeff Seamans, was familiar with the building and navigational hazards inside, so he elected for the crew to deploy a 1¾-inch attack line. Seamans reported a basement/lower-level fire and witnessed fire in the 1-foot hole in the wall below the first-floor level, believed to be in the basement. The Engine 53 crew was assisted with forcible entry on a B-side ski shop level door by the crew of Quint 53.  

Battalion Chief Christopher Reynolds arrived and set up a command post on the D side of the building and reported smoke from the roof as well as the ski shop level.

Crews on scene worked with an individual who was apparently knowledgeable about the building to try to ascertain the best way to the lower level. Side B entrances that appeared to be for the lower level were indicated to be on the addition with no access to the main fire building/area of assumed involvement.

The first-due engine crew attempted to advance its line inside and encountered heavy smoke conditions banked to the floor with no visibility. After a quick advance, they retreated due to not knowing where they were going.

Individuals on the scene relayed information to firefighters regarding the location of an interior stairwell that was believed to provide access to the lower level, where the fire was suspected to be.

Quint 46 crew on the D side made entry into the fireplace store on the lower level and encountered smoke about head high and up, and began efforts to locate the fire. After gaining information about the stairwell, the Engine 53 and Quint 53 crews advanced the 1¾-inch line from Engine 53 together in an attempt to locate the stairwell. The third-due engine, Squad 53, secured a second water supply and laid a supply line to Quint 46, which was advancing a handline into the fireplace store level. 

Account by Captain Alex Davis

This was a fire that I’ll never forget. This job started out like any other but quickly became a nightmare that was resolved through training, some dedicated firefighters and a little luck.

We arrived on Quint 53 at 8:53 a.m. After ensuring my operator had placed the aerial in a way that gave us good scrub, I forced the door on the B side for the engine company and directed traffic on the porch a bit. I then had a face-to-face with the engine officer after their first advance where he expressed concerns about navigation, and spoke to an individual whom I (mistakenly) thought was an employee about the location of the stairs. I gave another firefighter from 53 permission to hit the fire that was visible outside of the building, as I anticipated that it would take us significant time to reach the fire area and thought that if he could apply water via the hole in the side of the building, it might buy us some time. 

I took a crew of firefighters inside (with a hoseline) searching for a stairwell to the lower level where we believed the fire to be. The smoke conditions allowed for no visibility; however, the heat wasn’t an issue and the building was solid.

We advanced in to the building and I sounded the floor with a Halligan bar and my foot as I navigated, and the guys on the hoseline were right behind me. Together, we reached the location where I expected to find the stairs in about 3½ minutes. No stairs. I told the guys we needed to back out. Our objective couldn’t be completed here. The heat was higher at this point, but not an issue. Still no visibility and that included the use of a thermal imaging camera (TIC). While it wasn’t particularly bad where we were, conditions were definitely changing, and it was becoming evident outside. 

The radio chattered with transmissions about getting people out of the building. We were already on our way out. At the beginning of our retreat, in an instant, I became separated from the guys on the hoseline after being briefly entangled on a rack or shelf. I assumed that by searching back the same way I came, I’d run in to them in a couple of seconds if I moved quickly. It didn’t happen. I started calling out for the guys who were closest to me and I had no answer. I had come off a wall searching to go around an obstacle, a shelf or other piece of furniture perhaps, and I couldn’t find the wall again.

That was it. I was lost.

I called a mayday on the radio at 9:07 a.m., about 5½ minutes after we entered. Without question, it is every firefighter’s worst nightmare to call or hear—and it was mine. I should have been at breakfast with my wife, Corinne, and daughter, Julia, but instead I was lost in a 6,000-square-foot ski shop full of merchandise, racks, shelves and clothing. I couldn’t see, and the fire below me meant it was too warm for comfort. Everywhere I moved I was running into clothing racks and other obstructions. I no longer knew which way was out. 

All other members of the Engine 53/Quint 53 hoseline crew were able to safely exit the building. Upon exiting, the Engine 53 officer did a headcount and realized that I was missing. He had not heard the mayday transmission and actually radioed in a second mayday for a missing firefighter. 

The mayday protocol was enacted, and all units not working the mayday were moved to a different radio channel. My air was above half at the time of the mayday, and I reported that my air was good in my mayday transmission.  

Through radio communication with command officers whose friendly voices I recognized, backed up by Lower Providence firefighters who immediately took action outside to start opening doors and walls and banging, to a couple who were aggressive and risk-tolerant enough to come back inside a building whose conditions were quickly deteriorating, I was able to find my way out. I found my way out because a smart, trained firefighter came inside and banged on the floor 10 feet inside the door while others used sledgehammers and axes to bang on the walls outside. When they were back at the door and outside, I couldn’t hear them. Coming inside just 10–15 feet in poor conditions made all the difference.

With regard to the TIC, I did have one with me (and a bar). The smoke density was such that the camera read the smoke as a surface and was therefore useless as a navigational aid. You can bet your bottom dollar that I checked it about a dozen times while I was in there, hoping something had changed. Even when I was right up against debris like racks and shelves, it didn’t read anything but a steady white screen. This same behavior was reported by the engine company and their TIC as well as by the user of a third TIC that was used inside the doorway during the mayday operations. We always learn not to rely on any equipment because it can fail. In this case, the TICs didn’t fail, they worked as intended, but we ran in to a limitation in their use. It was not something I had really considered before that day!

What I would really like to emphasize is that training paid off and that our department took it seriously long before this incident. Even though we are all volunteer, we treat our responsibility as professional as much as any department anywhere. Our department fosters and enables a culture of learning and training. Everyone involved with the mayday had trained numerous times for their role in the events that transpired, and all used their training to affect a positive outcome—a trained mayday firefighter, a trained incident commander, crews trained in rapid intervention. Two out of three doesn’t bring anyone home. Without each of these pieces working properly, the outcome may have been different.

Account from Battalion Chief Christopher J. Reynolds

I have the fortunate ability to be writing from a position of educating and reflection of a successful mission that opened my eyes to not only the importance of continued training but also the importance of training with a purpose. 

We were dispatched to a long-standing community business for a reported structure fire. Being the duty chief at the time, I logged into our iamresponding app to ensure that staffing and drivers were heading to the fire station before ultimately selecting a scene response.

I started the duty vehicle remotely to ensure that radios would be properly turned on by the time I made it from the second floor of my residence to the vehicle in the driveway. I signed onto the radio and received no response indicating a higher-ranking chief was already on the way. 

During the 3-mile response to the scene, I listened to the radio traffic while formulating my plan and responsibility as the most likely second-due chief officer on a commercial structure fire directly across the street from our main fire station. Being familiar with the area and hydrant layouts, I was aware of three hydrants in the immediate area and listened as the first-in engine established their own water supply. 

I arrived just as the second-arriving apparatus was pulling up and positioning itself on the D side of the building. Knowing the size of the structure, I positioned myself on the D side in a place to monitor the front doors of the basement division, but to also quickly make my way to the C division as well. I called out to the IC and informed him of the conditions I observed, and proceeded to conduct a brief size-up of the side I was on, trying to evaluate conditions inside without opening a flow path by prematurely opening a window or door.

Hearing the chief calling for additional water supply, I gathered that the side I had not yet seen was in far worse shape than the side I could see. Understanding that the incident was beginning to grow and the Command equipment was in the vehicle I was in possession of, I called to the chief to come and set up a unified command post at my location. This is one thing with having the luxury of hindsight that I would do over: This positioning was solid for a division leader; however, for a Command Post, it was too blocked. Not that we could have seen the entire building from the A side, but it would have allowed for better visibility for the firefighters following our lead and for us to monitor more of the building.

Ladder crews arrived and positioned right in front of the command post with the exhaust and high idle howling,causing distractions. The sound of saws could be heard as you stared up at the roof at the ladder that appeared to disappear into a cloud of billowing smoke. People begin to congregate around the Command Post, and they were quickly given assignments to clear out the area to allow us to work. 

Conditions continued to rapidly deteriorate. The B division leader advised that he was pulling out the crews until we could complete ventilation. Trusting in our people and mutual-aid partners, I made a radio call on the operations channel for all units to conduct a coordinated backout to regroup. A moment later we received a radio transmission that I will never forget. 

I can still almost see the words coming out of the microphone in my hand: “Captain 53 to Command, I have a mayday, I am disoriented in the building, I have plenty of air for now, moderate heat, I going to activate my PASS Alarm.” We received multiple reports from firefighters on that side of the building. My heart sank, my stomach twisted, and for one brief moment, I froze with fear. 

Just as quickly as that feeling sunk in, a strong sense of responsibility and commitment took over. Focus shifted from doing what was normal to what we train for but have never faced in a real-life situation. This was one of those high-risk/low-frequency situations that Gordon Graham of Lexipol speaks about, the kind that is so low frequency that many feel it will not happen to us. But on that day, it happened to us—a close friend, the fire service cliché “my brother,” was in a horrible position, and I was tied to a radio cord.

What can I do, should I pack up and go? Should we send the RIT when they arrive, or the first-in crews that just backed out? My role is to do something that has a direct outcome, something to stabilize this situation and make it less high risk. 

The fire chief maintained control of the incident and continued with tactical objectives at the overall fire scene, while I was assigned to work the mayday. I secured myself in a quiet department staff vehicle and communicated with Davis, the mayday firefighter, calling him by name and asking questions to try to understand his location.

I kept my voice calm. Not cracking and letting my fear show through was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I tried to keep everyone listening and keep Davis calm, and walk through his steps, from the moment he entered the building until the moment we began to speak. No detail is too small while trying to piece together the whereabouts of my friend. We talked so calmly, like we were sitting across from each other at the dining room table.

Crews were frantically searching for Davis on the B side of the building, and here I sat in a warm vehicle, my mind racing a mile a minute, trying to process the next question to ask that was useful but not going to incite panic. Questions swirling: How hot is it getting? When should I ask him about his air supply? Should I just ask him to stay still and not try to self-rescue? 

I received a call stating, “Chris, you gotta open this place up, I’m starting to get burned, buddy.” How could I tell him that this was not able to happen? It had been a challenge trying to open this building up in the first place, with multiple roofs, concrete backer board and cinder blocks. Even if I could get a crew to open up, it was too risky, and there was no fire showing yet, so I could not risk flashing this fire over by feeding it the air it was craving, possibly putting Davis in further danger. 

“We have a crew coming in to get you,” I told Davis. I knew that there were already crews searching, I wanted to keep everyone calm and reassess in a few minutes. It felt like an hour later, but in reality, it was a few moments that I heard the voice of another familiar voice: “Captain 53, are you hitting your hook?” Just like that, Davis was finally found. The eternity that lasted only a few short minutes was over; everyone was out and safe. 

I sat back in the seat feeling like I aged about 50 years in those minutes. I let out a huge sigh, until I saw the building in my mirror, still billowing smoke, realizing that while the mayday was over, the fire was still raging on.

Next month

In the May issue, we’ll review accounts from Chief James Alexander, who served as the IC on the incident, and I’ll provide some key points of consideration based on my discussions with Davis, Alexander and others. 

Our sincere thanks to all those companies, departments, firefighters, EMTs, police and fire dispatchers involved with this fire. My special thanks to Lower Providence Fire Captain Alex Davis and Chief James Alexander for sharing their close call so that others can learn from this event.

To read Part 2, click here.

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