Mayday! Why There's No Such Thing As a "Routine" House Fire

May 1, 2006

A single-family-dwelling fire is the most common type of structural fire to which most of us respond. While the house fire profiled this month, in the minds of these Pennsylvania firefighters, was a “standard†response, it turned out to be anything but. Fortunately, all of the firefighters came home.

Comments by Lieutenant Mathew Zerr hit home: “I have taken several firefighter survival classes. I never thought I would be using one of these tactics in a real-life incident. This goes to show everyone that training is a must and that there is no such thing as a ‘routine’ fire.†Well said.

We thank the officers and members of the Liberty Fire Company of Sinking Spring, PA, an all-volunteer department with 30 firefighters. Thanks also to the officers and members of the Spring Township Fire Department, a combination department with 60 volunteers, three career drivers and a full-time commissioner.

We thank Chief Ron Wentzel and Lieutenant Mathew Zerr of Sinking Spring; Deputy Chief Michael Roth, the Spring Township incident commander; and Chief Scot Landis of Shillington for sharing their accounts; and Western Berks EMS Supervisor William Shuman and Firefighter/Driver John Masciotti of Sinking Spring for the photos.

Chief Ron Wentzel’s account:

On Sunday, March 5, 2006, at 9:59 A.M., Spring Township Fire Department Station 85-1 and Sinking Spring Fire Department Station 51 were dispatched to a reported structure fire at 528 Albert Drive. Units were advised that everyone was reported to be out of the building, but there were animals inside. Shortly after dispatch, a fire police officer who lives in the area reported a working fire.

Deputy Chief Michael Roth, 85-14, requested that Shillington Fire Department Station 67 be dispatched for its rapid intervention team. Engine 85-2 responded with a crew of four, shortly followed by Truck 51, also with a crew of four. At 10:08, Truck 51 arrived on the scene and was advised by Roth of a possible occupant unaccounted for on the second floor.

Knowing that the Engine 85-2 was not far behind, Chief Ron Wentzel, the officer in charge of the truck crew, advised that the company would start a search for the missing occupant. Wentzel, Lieutenant Mathew Zerr and Lieutenant Dennis Walton entered the building through the open overhead garage door.

The truck crew entered the garage and masked up just inside the entrance. They observed fire in the rear corner of the garage extending up to the ceiling and across the ceiling toward a door to the kitchen. It appeared that something was burning on top of a shelving unit or a refrigerator in the opposite corner. Walton extinguished the bulk of the fire with a water can. Upon entering the kitchen, conditions were very tenable, with only medium smoke. The crew was able stand and rapidly covered the kitchen. On entering the dining room toward the B side, the crew split up. Zerr headed for several rooms toward the B side and Walton continued toward the A side into a living room with Wentzel.

At that time, Wentzel noticed that the fire in the garage was starting to lap into the kitchen. After trying to get Zerr’s attention to close the kitchen door, Wentzel realized that the lieutenant was already committed to the opposite side of the first floor. Attempting to “buy time,†Wentzel found a second entrance to the kitchen. After moving large furniture items from the doorway, Wentzel leaned into and over a bar area and closed the kitchen door.

Walton advised that he found the stairs to the second floor. The crew met at the stairs and started up together to conduct a search for the reported missing occupant. While ascending the stairs, Wentzel heard the glass to the kitchen door fail and yelled to the crew, “Make it fast, we don’t have much time.â€

On the second floor, the crew found medium to heavy smoke. The second-floor rooms appeared to be connected by a narrow hallway running the length of the home. The crew split, with Walton going left and Wentzel and Zerr heading right to the longer and deeper area of the second floor. Wentzel and Zerr encountered what appeared to be a master bedroom. Zerr split off and started a search of this room while Wentzel, equipped with a thermal imager (TI), could see an additional room on the opposite side of the bedroom. Wentzel continued straight to the entrance of that room.

Once he was in the doorway, it was clear that the room was under construction and that there was no furniture or carpet, just a stepladder and several five-gallon pails. Equipped with the TI, Wentzel could see fire starting to come up through the rear (side D) walls of the home. This room was directly over the garage.

At that point, Wentzel advised command that fire was coming up through the walls above the garage and that they needed a second hoseline to the second floor immediately. After clearing that room, Wentzel turned to return to the room where Zerr was searching. He asked Zerr whether he had found anyone. Zerr advised that he was “pretty sure†the room was clear; a quick swipe on the room was done with the TI. Being sure that the room was clear, Wentzel and Zerr continued back out of the room and down the hallway to assist Walton.

Immediately after exiting the room, Wentzel and Zerr met Walton in the hallway. Walton advised Wentzel that everything appeared clear. Wanting to make a quick check with the TI, Wentzel advised them to head back to the room to the left of the stairs that Walton had searched and make a quick secondary check.

With Zerr in front, Wentzel handed the TI to him as the crew headed back down the hallway. Partway down the hallway, the crew passed the stairs that they had come up, but conditions had changed; there was now heavy smoke and heat coming up the stairs. Once inside the last bedroom, Wentzel went to the right to search, Walton went left and searched while Zerr swept the room with the TI. Once he was sure there was no one in the room, Wentzel called command and advised that the primary search was complete, no one was found and they would be heading out.

As the crew turned to leave the room and head back down the hallway to the stairs, they experienced extreme heat. Wentzel’s description of the conditions was that “it felt like someone had opened up doors to a blast furnace.†Conditions continued to deteriorate rapidly. Wentzel advised the crew that they needed to find the stairs “now.†Conditions had now banked down to the floor; even with the TI, the crew could not find the stairs.

Concerned that the second floor was about to “light up,†Wentzel yelled for someone to find a window and take it out. Walton almost immediately hit a window, but this provided little relief. Making one more attempt to find the stairs, Zerr turned the TI toward the hallway and the screen on the TI went red. Knowing that they were in trouble, Wentzel yelled to close the door to assist in again, “buying time.†Wentzel again radioed command with urgency, reporting that they were cut off by fire on the second floor and that they needed a ladder to the rear second-floor window immediately.

Finding a window directly in front of Wentzel, which the crew thought was in the rear of the building, the again radioed that they needed a ladder to the rear, that they were cut off by fire. Concerned about possibly drawing more fire toward them, the crew did not immediately take out the window in front of Wentzel; however, with the heat intensifying greatly, Wentzel told Zerr to “take this window.â€

Once the bottom windowpane was broken out, Wentzel made one quick glance out the window to determine the height of the drop. It was decided that the crew would exit via this window using a second-floor-window “hang-and-drop†maneuver. Wentzel yelled for Zerr to take out the remaining sash to clear the entire opening. Looking outside again, Wentzel saw a ladder coming toward the window. Immediately, Wentzel started to hang out the window, beating his hand on the outside wall while yelling, “Right here, right here, right here.†Later, it was found that he had been striking the wall so hard that he broke the vinyl siding and the board behind it.

The outside crew happened to be the rapid intervention team from Station 67, who did see and hear Wentzel. They started to raise a two-section 35-foot ladder to the window where the crew was trapped. Seeing the ladder coming up and being closest to the window, Wentzel started to climb up into the window sill to get on the ladder, but once in the window, he was driven back inside to the floor by the extreme heat coming from behind.

Wentzel started yelling, “Kick it out, kick it out! Bail! Bail!†Luckily, the crew raising the ladder had attended a firefighter survival training program and quickly repositioned the ladder so the trapped crew could bail out. The tip of the ladder probably wasn’t even in contact with the window sill when Wentzel dove onto the ladder head first, with Zerr directly behind, followed by Walton – all three came down the ladder head first.

While the rapid intervention team was helping the truck crew exit the building, a Mayday was transmitted from the first floor (A side) of the building. Additional members of the rapid intervention team responded immediately. The crew from Engine 85-2, which entered the A side of the building, was attempting to hold the fire away from the stairs; knowing that the truck crew was still upstairs, they transmitted the Mayday. Two firefighters on the attack line exited the building via first-floor front windows after the fire from the kitchen drove them out.

The rapid intervention team chief said he could feel heat coming off the firefighters, even through structure gloves, as they came down the ladder. An EMS supervisor attempted to remove the personal protective equipment (PPE) from the crew, but he could not, because he was all but burning his hands when he touched the equipment. All three members of the truck crew made it out of the building with minor burns and some damaged equipment.

It was later learned that the primary factor in the rapid fire spread was wind. It was a very windy day with the wind coming from the C-D corner of the building blowing toward the A-B corner. Large void spaces let hidden fire be pushed toward the truck crew on the second floor and helped to drive the fire over the heads of the engine company members in the living room.

My thoughts and lessons learned:

The truck crew realizes that they never announced a Mayday. The members knew that if they could get a ladder, that would solve the problem.

Each time the truck crew yelled for a ladder to the rear, the operations officer said another ladder was sent to the rear and every window was laddered. Operations could not understand where the truck crew was and why they were not exiting the building. Somehow, the truck crew got turned around and what they thought was the rear of the building was the B side.

The truck crew did not set off a personal alert safety system (PASS) device to help the rapid intervention team find them.

Announcing the crew sizes upon response assisted greatly in determining exactly how many people were on the truck crew that was trapped and the engine crew that transmitted the Mayday.

The operations officer stated that he remembered both apparatus signing on the air with four firefighters. Once the truck crew reported that they were cut off, the operations officer quickly glanced down the street, saw the chauffeur and knew that three people were missing. Likewise, when the engine crew transmitted their Mayday, he saw the chauffeur and one crew member, so he knew he had two people missing from the engine crew.

The truck crew entered through an open overhead garage door, but did not prop it open. This door could have easily closed once they entered the garage.

Deputy Chief Michael Roth’s account:

I responded from my residence. A smoke column was visible and I requested Shillington Fire Company 67’s rapid intervention team be dispatched. I arrived on location across from the residence on the A-B side and had visible smoke showing from the C-D corner of the structure. I advised the Berks County Communications Center that I would be Albert Drive command and that Zone 4 Fire F-2 would be the fireground channel. I then exited my vehicle to put on my turnout gear. As I was doing that, I was approached by a Spring Township police sergeant who advised there may be entrapment on the second floor and that they were trying to gain access via the front of the structure to attempt the rescue of a dog that was visible to them through the front windows.

Right after that report, Truck 51 was approaching the scene and Chief Wentzel asked for instructions. I advised him of the report of possible entrapment on the second floor. Wentzel and his crew entered on side A via the open garage door. Engine 85-2 arrived shortly after the truck with a crew of four. The crew pulled a 200-foot 1¾-inch pre-connect off Truck 51 while the driver established a water supply from the hydrant 25 feet from the residence.

The Engine 85-2 crew entered through the front windows on side A. About the time the fire attack was initiated, conditions worsened and the wind picked up. Just before the rapid intervention team arrived, Wentzel reported that his crew was cut off by fire on the second floor and they needed immediate assistance. Just after Wentzel’s call, a Mayday was received from Lieutenant Matt Ahrens, who was with the crew from Engine 85-2 on the first floor reporting they were cut off by fire. The rapid intervention team placed a ladder to a second-floor window on side B and the truck crew bailed out. Around the same time, Ahrens and that crew made their way out the same way they went in.

I don’t think anything could have been done to prevent what happened. Nothing can stop the power of nature; i.e., the wind. We all thought this was going to be a small fire and we would be home in an hour.

Chief Scot L. Landis’ account:

As we responded to the incident, we were monitoring the fireground channel. About a mile out, we could see the column of black smoke. As we got closer, I heard the first radio transmission reporting that the Division 2 crew was cut off and needed a ladder to the rear. I remember saying to my crew members, “Things didn’t sound good. We need to be ready, we may need to go to work on arrival.â€

As we made the left turn onto the location, I heard the Division 2 crew request a ladder again to the rear. I began to wonder why they weren’t getting a ladder to them. As our engine came to a stop, I told Assistant Chief Tim Deamer to organize the staging area across the street from the house in the neighbor’s front yard. I was going to make a 360 of the building to get an initial feel/size-up for what was going on. I heard the Division 2 crew ask for that ladder again. My first concern was to find out why that ladder wasn’t there yet.

At this point, I became very focused on what was happening to the Division 2 crew. I passed the B side of the structure and noticed that the smoke obscured my view from about the eight-foot level on up. As I started to walk past about the midpoint of the B side of the structure, I heard banging and yelling. When I stepped closer to the building, I saw a firefighter in a window calling for help!

I turned and saw one of my firefighters, Aaron Johnson, and Lieutenant Mark Mundell, and yelled for them to get a ladder. They both turned and proceeded back to our engine, which was the closest engine to that side of the structure. When I arrived at the rear of the truck, I found that the only ladders left were two 35-foot two-section ladders. I quickly recruited two fire personnel to help me move one of the ground ladders into location.

We proceeded with the ladder raise. About a third of the way up, we were joined by Firefighter Bill Kerper and we completed the raise. The ladder hit the building to the side and just above the window. The firefighter in that window tried to mount the ladder, but he was unsuccessful and was forced to go back into the window. That allowed us to reposition the ladder down to the window sill. At this time, the Division 2 crew began to bail out on to the ladder head first.

As Wentzel began to bail, Kerper began to climb the ladder to assist him. I stopped Kerper so the team would have a clear ladder to use. Also at this time, Johnson and Mundell arrived back at the scene, put down a 24-foot extension ladder and came to assist the Division 2 crew from the ladder. As Wentzel got to the ground, the Division 1 hose crew declared a Mayday. Once all three personnel had cleared the ladder, I checked with Wentzel to see if there were only three members and then announced to command that the Division 2 crew was out and all were accounted for by name.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this close call:

Who among us hasn’t been to a similar fire? While this fire gives all of us numerous opportunities to determine whether this would or could happen at any of our fire departments, here is a list of observations in addition to the above accounts:

First-alarm response – What are your first-alarm resources? A verbal report of a fire is usually a good indication that you’ll have work. Why not put more-than-adequate resources on the first alarm? A single-family-dwelling fire can provide enough tasks for at least 20 firefighters. Why that many? Figure out what you want done: How many handlines and how many firefighters to make the stretches? How about throwing ground ladders on all sides? What about venting? Search? Rescue? Apparatus operators? Sector officers? Replacement firefighters? The numbers add up! Best to know before the calls come in how many firefighters and companies you need based upon the reported emergency than to get there and try to figure it out while running a fire.

Crews splitting up – When the police reported possible entrapment, the limited staffing required the crews to split up. While that can happen, having more-than-adequate staffing on the first alarm lets crews stay together.

Thermal imagers – The crews brought in their thermal imaging camera. So often, the thermal imager is left in the cab of the apparatus. Those days are done. It’s 2006 and every crew should have at least one thermal imager.

Accountability – Effective tracking of firefighters on the fireground can literally determine outcomes. Make sure that your accountability system is effective-and is the same system that your mutual aid companies are using.

Garage doors – These are serious hazards. Firefighters have been killed after becoming trapped due to a falling or closing garage door. Efforts must be made to eliminate that hazard. In some cases, securing the garage door may mean removing it.

Training – This fire was a wake-up call for the incident commander, whose comments drive home the need for all of us – from commanders to the newest probies – to train every chance we get.

Throw ladders – When firefighters are operating above the first floor at a multi-story single-family dwelling, ground ladders thrown on all sides provide a safe escape. The challenge that many departments face is having enough firefighters on the scene soon enough to throw the ladders quickly and safely.

Rapid intervention teams – Everyone wants to “fight the fireâ€; that’s natural for us. But it’s the same as everyone wanting to be the quarterback on the football team. If a fire department is dispatched for a rapid intervention team, the members have to understand just how critical the role can be, train hard beforehand and then act “as if it matters†when the assignment is dispatched.

William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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