Danger at a Residential Basement Fire

Feb. 26, 2011
  There are no shortages of close calls, or worse, related to basement fires in single-family dwellings. In just the past few years, several firefighters have died in the line of duty as a result of operating in such fires. From floor collapse to disorientation to delays in getting water on the fire, to name just a few problems, basement fires are among the most dangerous and challenging fires most of us respond to. In this case, a genuine close call was experienced by firefighters in Prince George's County, MD.

There are no shortages of close calls, or worse, related to basement fires in single-family dwellings. In just the past few years, several firefighters have died in the line of duty as a result of operating in such fires. From floor collapse to disorientation to delays in getting water on the fire, to name just a few problems, basement fires are among the most dangerous and challenging fires most of us respond to. In this case, a genuine close call was experienced by firefighters in Prince George's County, MD.

The Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department is a very active, highly experienced and well-trained professional combination department. Under the command of Acting Fire Chief Marc Bashoor, the department has more than 720 uniformed career personnel (720 is the approved strength; current staffing is 670), staffing 45 community-based fire-rescue stations, two administrative facilities, two support facilities and a fire/EMS training academy, and nearly 80 non-uniformed employees who perform fire inspections, maintain the fleet, present educational programs and provide administrative support. Additionally, the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department counts nearly 1,200 active volunteer fire/EMS personnel among its ranks, with approximately 50% functioning in emergency operations. In 2010, the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department answered 133,718 fire, EMS and related incidents (104,680 EMS runs and 29,038 fire runs) under one seamless, countywide command and operational structure.

The volunteer company primarily featured in this close call is Prince George's County Fire/EMS Station 812, the College Park Volunteer Fire Department (CPVFD). Under the command of Chief William Corrigan (Chief 812), the CPVFD was founded in 1925 and today operates a truck company, two engine companies, a foam unit, a hazmat support unit, two basic life support (BLS) ambulances along with a county 24-hour career-staffed advanced life support (ALS) medic unit. Career firefighters from the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department staff the station with an officer and three personnel Monday-Friday from 7 A.M. to 3 P.M. Volunteer members staff the station at all other times. It is also not uncommon for volunteers to be in quarters riding along with the Prince George's County Fire/EMS career members to enhance staffing during the weekday. Due to the level of activity, volunteer personnel are in quarters and, other than chief officers, are not on call from home or work. Like all stations in Prince George's County, they operate an integral part of the county department under the command of acting county Fire Chief Marc Bashoor (who started as a volunteer in Prince George's County) and respond to emergencies in their "first-due" (community) area as well as anywhere else they are needed. For example, most of the structural fires Station 812 responds on are outside its "first-due" area.

Unique to the CPVFD is its internationally known "Sackroom." Many fire departments have followed the CPVFD's lead and turned to college students to supplement their "traditional" volunteer staffing. In other communities across the country, there are live-in programs for college students who want to fight fires and provide EMS care. But, as pointed out to us, there is only one College Park Sackroom; the ultimate and original college-based firefighting experience.

The Sackroom provides the best student live-in accommodations of any station in the region. It is directly across the street from the University of Maryland's engineering quad; home of the world-famous fire protection engineering program. The entire campus is within easy walking distance from the firehouse. The Sackroom has 12 fully furnished, two-person dormitory-style rooms; student line officers and ladder truck drivers are typically rewarded with single rooms. Each pair of rooms is joined by a common bathroom. The rooms are carpeted, furnished, have free cable TV, free high-speed Internet and an advanced alerting system so the members never miss a run. At either end of the Sackroom are brass fire poles to ensure a quick response to the apparatus fleet directly below.

Each semester, 18 full-time student volunteers live in the Sackroom. In exchange for their housing, they work three to four evening duty shifts per week. While they can ride as many calls as they like, their duty shift is the only required riding time. Each student volunteer makes several hundred responses per semester. They serve in all capacities including firefighter, EMT, ambulance driver, engine driver, truck driver, line officer and staff officer. Those considering college as a part of their future should look into the CPVFD Sackroom program at www.CPVFD.org.

Our sincere appreciation to acting Prince George's County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor, acting Emergency Operations Commander Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Lamoria, Northern Division Commander Major Steven Hess, Chief Spokesperson Mark Brady, CPVFD Chief William Corrigan (Chief 812), Deputy Chief Ari Schloss (Chief 812-A), Assistant Chief Brandon Frieder (Chief 812-B), Sergeant David Stacy and the firefighters and EMTs of the CPVFD for their assistance and cooperation with this close call. Additionally, our thanks go out to the firefighters from Prince George's County Engine 811/Branchville Volunteer Fire Department, Engine 807/Riverdale Volunteer Fire Department, Engine 813/Riverdale Heights Volunteer Fire Department, Truck 814/Berwyn Heights Volunteer Fire Department, Truck and Engine 801/Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department, Rescue Squad 814/Berwyn Heights, Truck 834/Chillum-Aldelphi and Medic 812/College Park/PGFD career fire/paramedics. Additionally, thanks to Battalion Chief 806 (Matt Tomlins, Chief 841A of the Beltsville Volunteer Fire Department/Calverton), Safety Officer 801 (Gary Steen, Chief 819A of the Bowie Volunteer Fire Department) and EMS 801 (Captain Mary Crampton, PGFD Paramedic EMS supervisor).

The following account is by CPVFD Chief William Corrigan, the incident commander at this fire:

As a significant snowstorm impacted the DC metro area, companies had been incredibly busy throughout the evening of Jan. 26 into Jan. 27, averaging over 40 runs per station in a 12-hour period. Several companies, including the first- and second-due engines and first-due truck for this incident, had also responded on another working house fire in the area a few hours earlier. Power was out in the entire region and although main roads had been plowed, most side roads were still snow covered.

At 5:34 A.M., the full box alarm consisting of four engine companies, two truck companies and a heavy rescue company was dispatched to 5008 Pierce Ave. in Station 812's first-due area (College Park) reporting a basement fire. Throughout the night, with the implementation of the snow emergency plan, most assignments were downgraded to a two-engine/two-truck response unless the dispatchers suspected a working incident based on caller information. The full box alarm was the first heads-up that this would be a working fire. The neighborhood itself was also a heads-up that this was most likely a working incident. The Lakeland community directly behind the station is a tightly knit residential community that is very quiet from a fire-EMS perspective. Fire calls are quite rare and usually are working incidents.

I arrived on scene first at 5:37. The house was a 1½-story with a basement, Type III single family, built around the World War II timeframe. As I turned the corner onto Pierce Avenue, heavy fire was visible venting from the first floor on sides Alpha and Bravo. As I passed the house to position on side Delta, fire was also visible from the basement windows on sides Bravo and Delta. It was very obvious there was a well-advanced basement fire with a significant amount of extension to the first floor. I was met by a citizen advising me that everyone had already safely evacuated the residence prior to our arrival, after being awakened by a working smoke alarm.

Due to the weather, all of the chief officers from College Park were riding together and all coming from the station, which is unusual. It is very rare for three command officers to arrive simultaneously, especially ahead of the first-arriving engine company. I established command, relaying conditions found to incoming units and our communications. Deputy Chief Ari Schloss was assigned to side Charlie and immediately ran back there to give me a size-up from the rear, which was the only area I had not yet seen. My deputy reported the location of the exterior basement entrance and reported fire showing from the basement in the rear as well.

Assistant Chief Brandon Frieder was assigned as the Division 1 supervisor and we immediately agreed on a plan while he was donning his PPE (personal protective equipment) next to my command car. Our Prince George's County general orders provide for two options when dealing with basement fires in single-family dwellings — the first-due engine can either "make the stairs" or "hold the stairs." Based on the fire conditions, we directed the first-due engine to attack the fire on Division 1 and hold the stairs. The third-due engine company would be directed to attack the basement fire from the exterior entrance on Side Charlie.

The first-due engine (Engine 812, with a crew of six firefighters) took their own hydrant about 100 feet short of the house and advanced their line to the front door as other companies began to arrive. The front door was forced by the "bar" firefighter on the engine. As the first due pushed in, they immediately started getting a good knock on the Division 1 fire while the second due's line was coming in the same front door to back them up. The third-due engine company began to push into the basement from side Charlie and conditions were beginning to show signs of improving. The two truck companies on the assignment were placing ground ladders and opening up while the rescue squad, assigned rapid intervention, was removing security bars from the windows. All of this was occurring in about a five-minute time frame and it really looked like it was going to be an in-and-out house fire.

Things changed quickly and dramatically nine minutes after my arrival, about seven minutes into interior firefighting operations. The Division 1 supervisor made an urgent radio transmission advising that the first floor had just collapsed into the basement. The evacuation order was given immediately and an accountability check initiated. During the evacuation, two members of the first-due truck company became separated by deteriorating fire conditions and one member was forced to exit via a window. The other member exited via the rear door. All personnel were accounted for and were OK and exterior operations initiated.

Exterior operations continued for approximately 20 minutes. During this time, an additional engine and truck were requested to the scene for relief. Once they arrived, a plan was made to recommence interior operations to gain better access to the stubborn remaining fire in the walls and the extension into the attic. Crews worked for an additional 30 minutes before the fire was officially declared under control and the incident was scaled back.

Next: Lessons learned and considerations when operating at single-family-dwelling basement fires.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a firefighter since 1973 and a chief officer since 1982. He is deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has served on numerous National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) committees and is the chairman of the IAFC Safety, Health & Survival Section. He is on the board of directors of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the September 11th Families Association and the National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and non-commercial website www.firefighterclosecalls.com. Goldfeder can be contacted at [email protected].

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