“Nothing is routine.” “Expect the unexpected.” “You just never know.” These phrases that you have probably heard before fit this month’s Close Call perfectly. The incident seemed as though it was a bread-and-butter type of fire—until it wasn’t.
Our sincere thanks to the Prairie Township, OH, Fire Department (PTFD) for their willingness to share this incident, particularly Chief Allen Scott, Capt. Rob Cloud, Lt. Matt Heinlein, and Firefighters Justin Gardner, Mike Habak, Bryan Lee, Louis Lobello, Matt Powers, Chad Story, Evan Strauss and Jeff Taynor.
Overview of the fire
The initial report came in by phone from a public works employee. He reported smoke coming from a house at 6444 Tamara Ave. (The caller didn’t utilize 9-1-1.)
Tamara Avenue is a rural street that lacks hydrants. The three-bedroom ranch that was involved in the incident has a single-car attached garage and has a basement under the living room and kitchen. A basement window that’s under the large living room window was hidden from sight by yard debris. Another basement window is under the kitchen window on the Charlie side.
The house recently was sold, so it essentially was empty.
The original run card for a reported fire in any area that lacks hydrants of Prairie Township consists of two chiefs, three engines, one ladder, two tankers and a medic.
The initial assignment for 6444 Tamara Ave. was PTFD Engines 241 and 243; Engine 26 via automatic aid from Columbus Division of Fire (CDF); PTFD Ladder 240; CDF Ladder 26; Tanker 251 via automatic aid from Jefferson Township Fire District; Tanker 231 from Pleasant Township Fire Department via automatic aid; Medic 82 from Norwich Township Fire Department via automatic aid; PTFD Chief 241; and Pleasant Township’s Chief 231 via automatic aid.
The working fire assignment added Norwich Township’s Engine 82; Tanker 291 from Central Township Joint Fire District; CDF’s Medic 31 and Battalion 5; Tanker 401 from Scioto Township Fire Department; and Tanker 261 from Pleasant Valley Joint Fire District.
Because several automatic-aid companies overheard the radio traffic, they responded prior to being dispatched.The run was dispatched at 9:35 a.m.
Engine 241 arrived first at 9:40 a.m. Ladder 240 and Chief 241 arrived almost simultaneously. Engine 241 broadcast the size-up, which basically reported “a little smoke from the eaves and a possible attic fire.” Chief 241 established command on the Alpha side.
Engine 241 conducted a 360-degree size-up and reported high heat on the Charlie side of the building, with a possible kitchen fire that extended into the attic. Chief 241 confirmed the findings.
At 9:46 a.m., the mayday was broadcast by Strauss, who was in charge of Ladder 240. (At the time of the mayday, there were 11 firefighters on scene.)
The mayday reported that a firefighter fell into the basement and that a folding ladder was needed at the front door. Chief 241 immediately requested a second alarm. Chief 241 confirmed that a ladder was on the way after Engine 241 made an additional request.
Engine 241 reported that the firefighter was uninjured, but he needed assistance getting out of the basement.
The second alarm brought Engine 192 from Franklin Township Fire Department; CDF’s Engine 12; Pleasant Township’s Engine 231; CDF’s Medic 3; and Norwich Township’s Battalion 80.
Account from Capt. Rob Cloud
I was the first-arriving officer. On arrival, Ladder 240 and Engine 241 were presented with a single-story, wood-frame, residential structure that had laminar smoke (nonturbulent) coming out of the ridge cap and soffits. I established mobile command, with Ladder 240 having accountability. There was no one (civilians) outside to meet us. I completed a 360-degree size-up with a thermal-imaging camera (TIC) and reported heavy heat indicators in the rear kitchen area extending into the attic space. I noted that the basement was clear from a rear exterior window well. Chief Scott established command on the Alpha side.
Ladder 240 forced the front door and was met with thick, smoldering smoke about three feet off of the ground. Engine 241 and Ladder 240 both had a TIC. (Strauss was the first to enter, utilizing his TIC.) They only saw high heat in the kitchen area. (No heat was indicated in the basement area.) We proceeded to enter with a charged 1¾-inch hoseline. Ladder 240 oriented on the left wall; Engine 241 moved straight and to the right toward the kitchen. Approximately six feet inside of the door, Lobello, while sounding the floor, fell into a large hole on his right side into the basement. Strauss called out to Lobello, but there was no answer.
A mayday was called by Strauss and confirmed by the incident commander (IC). Strauss found the hole, made verbal contact with Lobello and checked on his condition.
Strauss extended his tool for Lobello to grab, so we could confirm his location. Lobello turned on his flashlight for us to see him. He wasn’t injured, and all of his safety equipment was intact. Lobello confirmed no heat nor any kind of poor conditions in the basement and didn’t need a hoseline.
I updated my report to command of Lobello’s condition.
Lobello asked whether he should find a stairwell to exit, but I ordered him not to because of the smoke conditions and the unknown details of the house layout. I wanted him to stay put, because he wasn’t in danger currently.
A folding ladder was requested and confirmed by the IC. Strauss immediately dropped a three-inch tubular webbing for Lobello to hold and possibly to assist in lifting him. The fire was extinguished just above the hole on the first floor for extrication. I further requested a hoseline to the Charlie side for fire control in the kitchen.
The folding ladder was lowered into the hole. Lobello climbed out of the hole.
Engine 241 and Ladder 240 exited the structure and reported the personnel accountability report (PAR) to the IC.
Account from Chief Allen Scott
Capt. Cloud performed a 360-degree size-up with a TIC immediately on arrival; there was no heat indicated from the TIC; a situational updated 360-report followed: “Fire in the Charlie side, high heat in the kitchen area and extending into the attic space.” Cloud and I were standing in the front yard. I went to the Charlie side to confirm his findings. I saw black-stained windows. I could feel the heat off of the glass. There was more smoke coming from the Charlie-side eaves. That’s when the mayday was broadcast at 9:46 a.m. Training took over. I requested the second alarm. I didn’t want to have to play catch up with resources if the mayday situation got worse.
I went to the front door to look at the situation. I made sure a ladder was on the way. I told a pump operator to bring a rope bag. I had the second-due engine attack the fire from the rear with a second hoseline.
At the front door, I couldn’t see the firefighter. I could tell there was a hole in the floor and that there were flames coming out of the hole. (It turned out that the flames were actually on top of the hole.)
Engine 26, Ladder 26 and Battalion 5 arrived just as the firefighter was getting out of the hole. Chief 241 cancelled the mayday at 9:48 a.m.
Over the air, I said this was a defensive operation. I ordered the crews from Engine 241 and Ladder 240 to exit the building.I made sure that Lobello was uninjured and sent him and Strauss to a medic unit. I told the Captain that they were done for the duration.
Account from Louis Lobello
At 9:30 a.m., I received a phone call for a possible house fire on Tamara Avenue I was assigned to the medic for the day, and the medic crew’s responsibility is to cross-staff to Ladder 240 on fire runs.
En route to the scene, there was no sign of a structure fire: There wasn’t black smoke coming from the area of said address. As we turned onto Tamara Avenue, we still were unconvinced that we had a working fire.
Engine 241 was first on scene, and Capt. Cloud gave his scene size-up over the radio. He said smoke was coming from the eaves and declared it a working fire. Engine 241 was to pull a handline and initiate attack. Ladder 240 was assigned to make entry. We pulled up on scene in front of the home and saw: smoke coming from the eaves; no flames visible from the exterior; and smoke was gray and white with no turbulence.
Strauss, who was in charge of Ladder 240, told me to grab the irons in case we needed to force a door for entry. Cloud completed his 360 and stated that the fire most likely was in the kitchen on the Charlie side of the structure and was spreading into the attic. He assigned us to make entry through the Alpha side, because the kitchen was a straight shot through the front door. I forced the door with a Halligan.
The house was filled completely with gray-white smoke. We donned our masks and went on air. Strauss and I were to make first entry and head to the kitchen. I followed just behind Strauss. There was no visibility inside of the doorway. There was no visible flames or hot spots seen through the smoke. There was no heat, so there was no need to get down in a three-point stance.
I sounded the floor in front of me with my Halligan. Still following Strauss, I took a step with my right foot and felt myself falling forward and to my right. I felt myself take some kind of structure down with me—whether it was burnt up floor joists or the deteriorated floor itself. I fell to the basement floor. I believe that I landed on my right side and on my SCBA bottle at the same time. I stood up to make sure that I didn’t have immediate injuries and to orient myself. Strauss called a mayday over the radio. I looked for a means of egress but stayed in my location to maintain contact. Strauss and Habak called down to me to determine my location and to make sure that I wasn’t injured or unconscious. The basement was filled with the same gray-white smoke that was on the first floor, so there was no visibility. I couldn’t locate the basement stairs. I could see that the floor above me was smoldering. I could see Strauss, Habak and Cloud. I shined my light up at them. Strauss stayed in constant contact with me. He first had me hold the other end of his tool. He then threw down his webbing to have me hold the other end of that. They then received an attic ladder and set it down. I climbed out, and we exited the structure through the Alpha side door. I wasn’t injured and didn’t need to be evaluated.
Account from Evan Strauss
On arrival, Lobello and I got off of the ladder with the goal of making sure that we could gain entry to the home, find the seat of the fire and perform a primary search. The front door was warm to the touch, with some slight heat signatures around the window. The doors and jamb were intact. After confirming that the door would need to be forced, Lobello used his Halligan. He successfully got the door open. At that point, the door was closed for door control.
Once masked up, I opened the door. I was just in front of Lobello. I evaluated the smoke conditions and saw that the smoke was lazy, laminar smoke. I assumed that the smoke was this way because of the lack of ventilation from the home. As I stepped in the front door, I felt that I was walking on a solid material, such as tile. I sounded the floor with my foot. The floor seemed solid and almost felt as if there was no basement.
(Prior to entering, I personally sized up the house, including the elevation of the home and checking for basement windows.)
I used my TIC to scan from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. The only heat indexes were some hot spots on the floor. No flame was visible, and it was mentally noted that I was walking on carpet.
When entering in front of the hoseline, I knew that my priority was to find the fire. I walked approximately six feet inside of the front door. As I walked, Lobello was approximately two feet away from me. I crouched to get a better visibility and to see which way the smoke might be going. I stood back up and took a few steps. I heard what I thought was the ceiling (drywall) falling down. I looked up with my TIC and saw no heat or fire, which I thought was strange. I yelled to Lobello and asked where he was and whether he knew what that was. There wasn’t a response.
I could see Habak entering with the hoseline, so I asked him the same thing. I called out again for Lobello but didn’t get a response. I then asked Habak if he knew where Lobello was, and he said, “No.” I went into investigative mode. I crouched again and felt the floor and realized that the floor had given way. I yelled for Lobello and asked whether he fell through the floor. He answered and confirmed that he did fall through. He confirmed that he was okay (not injured) and that there didn’t appear to be any fire in the basement. I immediately told him to stay where he was and gave him the handle of my four-foot hook to hold, so we could confirm his location. I then proceeded to call a mayday.
I stated that we had a firefighter fall through the floor near the front door. I advised command that we needed an attic ladder. While waiting, I gave Lobello the loop of my webbing, so we were able to free a tool and continue contact with him. He asked whether we wanted him to find another way out. I told him, “No,” because I didn’t know the condition or location of the stairs and connecting floors.
While waiting for the attic ladder, carpet started to flare up in areas on the first floor. A hoseline was put in place for our safety.
Lobello successfully climbed out of the hole. We exited the structure and gained PAR outside. We were directed to Medic 82 and advised that we were to be out of service. We gathered near the tailboard of Engine 243 for rehab until further direction.
Comments from Chief Goldfeder
We all have been to this fire—light smoke on arrival—but this outcome wasn’t typical. This is an excellent case to make the point to never downplay until you are returning from the fire scene. Light smoke doesn’t mean light conditions; it simply means that’s all that you can see right now. You must determine where that smoke is coming from and what the real problem is.
Here are some points that Chief Scott shared with me when we discussed this fire:
Burning for hours: The amount of fire in this house was incredibly small. Virtually all of the fire was inside of the joist spaces. The fire smoldered for hours. Neighbors reported the smell of smoke at least three hours prior to time of the call.
Training works: PTFD’s crews spent hours training on these scenarios. Every PTFD firefighter told Scott that training made the difference in this situation.
Full PPE, tools and equipment: We can do everything right, and bad things still can happen. Every member who entered the structure had on full PPE. The crews used TICs. The initial-entry crews sounded the floor. Tremendous resources were dispatched and responded.
Limited initial staffing: The mayday was successfully handled with 11 members on scene. The rescue was completed by the three members.
Automatic mutual aid: Automatic aid on the initial alarm made this event so much easier to survive.
The cause and origin investigation was completed by three investigators. The official cause is listed as undetermined because of multiple potential ignition sources.
Cloud compared the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s “Top 5” contributing factors to a line-of-duty death to the team’s actions:
1. Improper risk assessment & size-up
Size-up/360 identified: laminar smoke; no advanced conditions; basement had no heat indicators; high heat indicator from the Charlie side kitchen that extended into the attic but no visible flame.
2. Lack of incident command
Mobile command was established by Cloud; fixed command on the Alpha side was established within minutes by Scott.
3. Lack of accountability
Accountability was established via size-up, identifyng Ladder 240 accountability on the Alpha side (all passports collected there entering the scene), then Battalion 80 was assigned as incident safety officer.
4. Inadequate communications:
All members had a working radio. Once the mayday was called, members used only concise messages. All incoming companies and dispatch stayed off of the channel. (Switching to another channel wasn’t an option, because only two crews were on scene at the time of the mayday.)
5. Lack of standard operating procedures (SOP):
Two-in/two-out and rapid-intervention-team SOPs have been followed by the PTFD since 2012, and they are trained on frequently.
As always with this column, there’s plenty to learn. Use this incident and the facts that were provided as a template to your own departments—so you don’t repeat an avoidable history.