Massachusetts Firefighter Pinned by Apparatus

Feb. 1, 2006

This month's column is about a fire in a single-family dwelling - and how something went horribly wrong. We thank Chief John J. O'Brien of the Melrose Fire Department in Massachusetts and Firefighter Neil Sullivan for their assistance. Their combined positive attitude in making sure this never happens again at the Melrose Fire Department - or at your fire department - speaks volumes as to the type of firefighters they are.

The Melrose Fire Department protects a population of 30,000 in an area of four square miles with 43 officers and firefighters. The department has had severe budget cuts in the last decade, amounting to 26% in 2004 and 2005. The current staffing is one engine and one ladder answering 3,200 calls per year, including EMS first responder, but no transport. There is no fire training, fire prevention or office staff. The current fire department budget is $2.95 million out of a $53 million municipal budget.

In my discussions with Chief O'Brien, he stated that since this accident, the City of Melrose has commissioned a study of the department and authorized $1.2 million in new apparatus. Like so many fire departments, it is desperately short on staffing, but as the chief said, his members are still "doing the job" every day.

This account is provided by Chief John J. O'Brien:

On Aug. 7, 2005, Firefighter Neil Sullivan was in the kitchen of Melrose Fire Headquarters, checking his name off the house fund for the next few months. Unbeknownst to him, he would never get to use it. In just a few minutes, he would be fighting for his life.

At 1:58 A.M., dispatch announced, "10 Everett Street, report of a house fire." With two engine companies out of service due to budget restrictions, the department responded with one engine company and one ladder company, each staffed with one officer and three firefighters, and a command vehicle with Captain Chris Leary (C-2) in command. At 2 A.M., C-2 rounded the corner and was confronted with heavy fire. A second alarm was transmitted bringing mutual aid (Malden, Saugus and Wakefield engine companies and Malden Ladder 3). I (C-1) was on the air and responding. Captain John White covered the city as C-3.

Ladder 1, under the command of Lieutenant Mike Sullivan (no relation to Neil), positioned the aerial, then split his four-man crew into inside and outside teams. Engine 2 quickly followed and hooked up directly in front of the fire building. The first companies were met with heavy fire in a 2.5-story, turn-of-century Victorian house with exposure to a garage and neighboring home. Engine 2 advanced two 1.5-inch lines to floors one and two of the building.

Lieutenant Sullivan and Firefighter Sullivan conducted a search of all floors which proved negative. Malden Engine 3, under the command of Captain Bill Sullivan (now deputy chief and also no relation), advanced a 2.5-inch line into floor 2. The members of Ladder 3, commanded by Lieutenant Greg Cavaleri, positioned themselves on side B, threw the stick to the roof and made a roof cut. Wakefield Engine 2, under the command of Lieutenant Kevin Carney, laid a four-inch supply line and teamed up with Saugus Engine 1 to advance a line into floor 3.

At this time, interior companies were calling for more pressure. Wakefield ran another feeder to Melrose to no avail. As the fire was still doubtful, because of potential water problems and for relief purposes, a third alarm was ordered at 2:20. Responding were Everett Engine 2 and Ladder 2, Reading Engine 2, Stoneham Engine 4 and Lynn Engine 9. The total response to (or covering for) this fire was nine engine companies, three ladder companies and one rapid intervention team.

At this time, Firefighter Sullivan exited to get a rake. Simultaneously, the operator of Melrose Engine 2 entered the cab for a yet-to-be-determined reason. The pumper lurched forward, pinning Firefighter Sullivan between the rear of Ladder 1 and the front of Engine 2. Firefighter Sullivan was immediately extricated and transported to Massachusetts General Hospital. Sadly, his right leg had to be amputated above the knee and his left femur suffered multiple fractures, but was saved. The operator was relieved of duty, another firefighter assumed the operator's role and conditions returned to "normal." The time is 2:30.

At the fire scene, we began to get the upper hand and placed it "under control" at 2:50. We notified the CISD (critical incident stress debriefing) team at 3:20. At 3:30, we began to contact off-duty members to relieve our on-duty crew. All members were debriefed at 5 A.M. and again the following day. The rapid response of the Boston Fire Department team was outstanding. On Monday, as chief of department I had the pumper impounded and scheduled an inspection by the State Police truck team.

I contacted the State Division of Occupational Safety, which assigned Neal Doherty to the case. He visited Melrose on Aug. 9 and began gathering information. This was the first time in memory that a fire department accident was investigated. I was asked to supply policies, procedures and training records. Over the next several weeks, photos and tape recordings were reviewed and interviews conducted. As I was told by the investigator, whenever a workplace injury occurs and an investigation is conducted, the entire workplace is on the block. This report did not hold back. The main issues in the report by the Massachusetts Division of Occupational Safety raised were:

  • Training - This is repeatedly brought up throughout the report. The department had no formal certification program for apparatus operators.
Safety - If unable to fill this position, consider using other communities, but it must be filled on an incident. This role/position was abolished July 1 due to budget cuts. Discipline - The department had an apparatus-securing policy in place. Policies and procedures are in place for one reason, safety. Violations of policy must be disciplined. The investigator was very strong on this. Attitude - You have to bring your "A" game every day. If you can't, then consider another line of work. This entire job revolves around two words, "human life."

Firefighter Neil Sullivan was instrumental in helping the members. His upbeat, can-do attitude was an inspiration to all of us. He helped us make it through "his" incident!

This account is provided by Firefighter Neil Sullivan:

The shift in the firehouse felt the same as any other, but that night my life would change forever. I was riding the jumpseat of Ladder 1 and there were two other privates and one lieutenant on the truck as well. The way the call came in, we had a feeling that we would have something when we got there. The additional response to the call was Engine 2 and Car 2. When we made the corner, as expected, we saw smoke and heavy fire showing.

Lieutenant Sullivan got our orders and we were to conduct a search and get everyone out of the house. As we were going up the front steps, it was busy, as the family was screaming and running out. We went in as a truck crew, conducted the search and everyone was now safely out of the house. Our next orders were to advance a line to the rear of the first floor and extinguish the fire.

By this time, a second alarm had been struck and help was on the way. In the rear of the first floor, the kitchen was going pretty good. We had a 1.5-inch line. The pressure was horrible and we continued to ask for more pressure. I next started to hear my low-air alarm, and knew I had to notify my lieutenant and partner that I would be heading out soon to change my bottle. I exited through the rear of the house and noticed the eaves of the garage had fire curling up from underneath them as well. When I got out front and saw Chief O'Brien, I told him he had fire in the garage and talked to him briefly about the water pressure. He was aware of both situations and was addressing both.

I went over to the truck and changed my air bottle. I was starting to head back up the driveway to re-enter the house, the same way I came out. It then dawned on me to go back and grab a rake off the truck because we all had only gone in with hand tools originally. The ceilings in the kitchen were high and we could barely reach to open them up, so the tool would be helpful.

I went to the rear of the truck and was pulling out a rake when suddenly I heard the siren of Engine 2 roar. Engine 2 was parked behind the truck. All I could feel was the bumper of Engine 2 pinning me into the rear of Ladder 1. My initial thought was that an engine or truck company rammed Engine 2 and sent it forward. With the crushing feeling, I thought I will never walk again if I make it through this.

I screamed for help. No sooner than seconds later, Chief O'Brien saw me pinned between the trucks. He ran and instructed someone to back up the truck to release me. When the truck backed up, he held me up and laid me on the sidewalk. My legs felt like Jell-O. Luckily, there was an EMS medic crew on scene and they and the crew from Engine 2 (who were filling their bottles) quickly boarded me for transport.

I remember a lot of words of encouragement and a bumpy ride to the ambulance over hoselay all over the street. Once I was in the ambulance, I noticed that it had a driver, with two medics, Dana and Steve in the back, and Chris Grogan, who was on Engine 2. They were heading into Mass General Hospital in Boston, which is only about 10 miles away. Along the way they were taking my vitals, cutting my bunker pants off and calling the hospital to give them a heads up of what was coming in. As I was lying in the ambulance, I wiggled my right foot and could not feel a thing, but when I did the same to the left side, I could feel my foot in my boot. I was in major pain, but the medics could not help that pain because my blood pressure was so low. I also remember being asked if I wanted to know what they were seeing as they were cutting my pants and quickly I replied no.

Minutes later, we were at Mass General and I felt a sigh of relief. There was a hospital crew waiting at the door and they swiftly bought me into a trauma room. The buzz in the room was amazing and everyone seemed very busy with my condition. I was asked if I wanted them to call my parents or wife. I told them my parents were out of town, but to call my brother Brendan and then have him bring my wife, Jessica, to the hospital. My wife was home with our 1.5-year-old son and I did not want her to drive into Boston without some comfort.

I was just about to go up to the operating room and my wife and brother were brought into the trauma room. The looks on their faces was confusion, as I do not think they expected to see the puddles of blood on the floor. I told them I would be all right and I would see them when I get out of surgery. Jessica told me she loved me and she would be waiting for me to get out. Brendan told me to hang in there and that he looked up to me. (It took him a lifetime to tell me, but better late than never.)

I was off to surgery about 3:30 A.M. and don't remember anything until waking up on Wednesday. I was in ICU and had no idea what was going on. The surgeons had saved my left leg and tried to save the right one. From what I am told, I went through several surgeries and some very close calls. It reached a point that my right leg needed to be amputated to save my life. There was a point when the lead surgeon, Dr. Malcolm Smith, came out to my wife from surgery and told her he was fairly certain my life was out of danger and the result would be the amputation of my right leg.

At this point, my wife told my brother Brendan that he should call my two brothers who live on the West Coast. They immediately boarded planes to come home. My parents were on a seven-hour car ride home in the middle of the night. They continued to get updates from my brother at the hospital. My father is a retired Boston firefighter of 31 years. Family, friends and brother firefighters all were there for support. The time came on Wednesday for me to "come to" and my family was standing around me. My wife, Jessica, was the one to tell me that I was all right, but they had to amputate my right leg. Believe it or not, I was relieved that it was only the one leg and that I was not paralyzed!

In conclusion, I cannot to begin to express how much love and support I have received from citizens of my community, friends, family and brother firefighters. It has been a very tough road for my wife between taking care of the house, our son, Thomas, and visiting me every day in the hospital or rehabilitation. In the fire service we know that in the matter of seconds things can turn bad quickly. I never really felt that I could be the one it could happen to. The biggest thing is for me to keep a positive attitude and get my life back to normal. I am now home and walking with a prosthetic leg and learning that there is no obstacle I cannot overcome.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this incident:

Without question, we are all thankful after reading that account that Neil will be around for his family - especially Jessica and Thomas.

As discussed in the State's Occupational Safety report, as the demand for more water increased, the need for Melrose Engine 2 to supply more water pressure increased. As best that can be determined, hoselines began to lose pressure and the operator of Engine 2 increased the rpms significantly to increase hoseline pressure. The pump continued to lose pressure for an unknown reason and at that time the operator went to the cab to retrieve a radio. As he was reaching for the radio, the transmission of Engine 2 was placed into drive gear and the apparatus lunged forward, pinning Firefighter Sullivan between Ladder 1 and Engine 2. Prior to this, Engine 2's transmission was in the "drive" position and its pump rpms were running well beyond normal operating limits. As a result, Engine 2 lunged forward and could not be stopped from striking the ladder - and Firefighter Sullivan.

One solution is to make sure that extreme care is taken by the apparatus operator to ensure nothing is interfered with. The operator is fully responsible for the apparatus and must insure it is secure and functioning properly and safely. The apparatus operator is "in command" of that rig, no matter what, and that role can never be taken lightly.

Here are some other thoughts:

  • Apparatus operator training - With firefighter safety being number one, and the issues of liability and responsibility being discussed in the media daily, every fire department must have an apparatus operator qualifying program. In many states there are programs that every operator should be trained in. Another option is the many outstanding fire department insurance providers that offer driver and apparatus operator training programs

    No matter what is decided, there is no reason why every driver should not be as qualified as possible to ensure safe operations. Who gains? The taxpayers are the number-one benefactors, as they are the bottom line. So often, elected officials and those employed in the bowels of City Halls lose focus of the gain that a well-funded and well-staffed fire department is to those who elected them.

Safety officer - While few departments can afford the luxury of a full-time safety officer, the specific "role" on the scene of an emergency (or training) must be filled. If you have the available staffing, be it a career or volunteer fire department, train several members as incident safety officers so that role can be filled. If you do not have the staffing, the role of incident safety officer can be part of a regional response program with numerous fire departments "buying in" to the idea that the role can be filled from area departments. On a working incident, the "duty" safety officer can respond as a part of the alarm assignment, no matter what town or city the call may be in. How can you get this training? Simply contact the Fire Department Safety Officers Association at for the details. Apparatus positioning - The front of Engine 2 was positioned very close to Ladder 1, with a distance of seven to nine feet. As difficult as it may be, positioning apparatus to consider outcomes should be paramount by the officer and driver. Additionally, access to hose, tools, ladders, etc., is hampered when apparatus are too close to each other. Chocking wheels - The wheels of Engine 2 were not chocked. While some may think it could not have made a difference, it might have.

In closing, note Chief O'Brien's comments about attitude and discipline. We couldn't agree more:

  • Discipline - Fire officers, you are essentially law enforcement officers, enforcing the rules of your fire department. It isn't fun and the troops won't always like you, but you have no choice.
Attitude - We have the best jobs in the world. If you can't maintain a great attitude and "just be glad to be here" while participating in the daily duties, training and details, then maybe it's time for a new career. No harm done and that way everyone wins.

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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