"Classic" Fireground Safety Issues at Fire in Single-Family Dwelling

Jan. 1, 2006

As this was being written in mid-December, we could look at the firefighter line-of-duty-death number for 2005 approach (and perhaps, by the time you read this, pass) the 2004 number. So many of you ask whether this will ever change. We think that the behaviors, cultures or attitudes (whatever you want to call it) of the fire service are changing.

There has never been a time when more efforts were being made nationally toward the reduction of firefighter injuries and deaths. While those efforts are important, the more realistic approach to "fixing" the problem is at the local level. And among the members, the most effective position in correcting the problem is the company officer.

This month, we look at a near-tragic event that occurred involving the Bound Brook, NJ, Fire Department. Our sincere appreciation goes out to Ex-Chief (now Captain) Richard S. Colombaroni, current Chief of Department James Suk, and the officers and firefighters of the Bound Brook Fire Department for their cooperation.

This account is provided by Captain Richard S. Colombaroni:

The Bound Brook Fire Department consists of four companies, each based in its own firehouse. The all-volunteer department has approximately 70 active members with three engines, one 105-foot quint and a services/support vehicle. There is hydrant service throughout the community, which is supplied and maintained by New Jersey American Water Company, which recently acquired the system from Elizabethtown Water Company. When there is a call, all four fire companies respond and function under the command of the chief of the department.

On Oct. 10, 2005, at 12:36 A.M., the county communications center dispatched our department to a 911 call reporting a structure fire. The address reported is in an older section of the community. Most of the buildings are single-family residential with some multiple-family and commercial buildings intermixed. Most of the structures are of balloon construction. The initial dispatch reported that the occupants of the home had exited, but that family pets may be trapped.

While responding to the fire station as the company captain, I monitored the arriving police officers' radio transmissions. Heavy black smoke was reported to be issuing from a rear corner of the structure. The family pets were also reported to have been evacuated. Weather was not a factor, as the night was clear and temperatures were in the mid-60s with low humidity. The time of the alarm indicated that there would most likely be sufficient manpower as our company by itself has 22 active members and would be joined by the other three companies on arrival at the scene.

I arrived at the fire station first and geared up. A second, third and fourth firefighter arrived in quick succession. As we began to exit the station, we were joined by a fifth firefighter, who immediately entered the cab without stopping to get his gear out of the compartment where it is stored on the engine. While I was the most experienced crew member, none of the firefighters on this crew had less than five years of experience, a factor that I feel later proved to be significant.

While we were responding to the scene, command advised that on arrival we were to spot the engine at the plug directly across the street from the fire building. Our assignment was to stretch a 2.5-inch smooth-bore pre-connect to suppress the fire. Our response route took us past the truck company's station. I noticed that the bay door was up, but that none of the truck's lights were on.

When we arrived at the scene, I had the engine positioned parallel and as close as possible to the curb opposite the structure. I knew that besides the truck company, which would be following, space would be needed for additional arriving companies. I instructed the firefighter who was not geared up to connect the engine's front intake to the hydrant. We were also met by three additional members of our company who were on scene as soon as we arrived.

The involved structure was a two-story wood-frame of balloon construction. A heavy volume of fire was evident from the C-D corner. Exposure A was the street. Exposure B was a similar wood-frame residence. Exposure C was the rear yard. Exposure D was the headquarters of the local rescue squad, which provides first aid and extrication services to our community and a neighboring jurisdiction. The rescue squad was in jeopardy due to the radiant heat from the fire. There was approximately a 15-foot gap between the fire building and exposure D.

As I approached the fire building to take my hose crew in through the front door, I briefly spoke to the operations chief. We agreed that there was an immediate need to get the second line, which was already in the process of being stretched, on the exposure to prevent extension. When the second line was assigned to the exposure, a third line was immediately requested to back up the attack line.

When I had my crew assembled and ready to proceed, I instructed the firefighter at the rear to stay in the doorway to feed the hose as we advanced. The line was staffed by a nozzleman and two additional firefighters in addition to the firefighter in the doorway. The nozzleman bled the air out of the line and experienced what appeared to be a normal flow from the line. I proceeded with the three firefighters who advanced into the structure. We encountered heavy black smoke and a significant amount of heat. About 10 feet into the structure, the fire became visible at the rear of the house, through a doorway.

At the same moment, some rollover of the fire was observed above us at the ceiling. The nozzleman opened up and the rollover immediately darkened down. He then directed the stream at the main body of fire. While I felt that we were making progress, I also noted that the stream from the smooth-bore nozzle did not "sound" normal. It seemed that it might possibly be sputtering. We then proceeded no more than another two feet when we encountered a bed in the center of the room that we would have to get around to continue to advance. At the same time, there was additional rollover accompanied by ignition of the hollow-core door from the doorway through which we had entered the room. The nozzle was redirected briefly to extinguish the fire that had erupted behind our position.

As we again turned back to the main body of fire, the nozzleman advised me that he had lost his helmet. I told him to get out and saw him dive over the hose crew and exit through the door. The next firefighter on the line assumed the nozzle position. The firefighter who had been feeding hose at the doorway moved up to assist with the advance. Immediately, conditions deteriorated rapidly. We were again met with rollover, and the nozzleman opened up on this fire. When the line was opened this time, the hose went significantly soft. I thought that there might be a kink in the hose and was preparing to direct the firefighters outside to straighten the line. Also, as I looked up to monitor our progress as well as the conditions; I noted a significant amount of heat from behind me. I then looked farther over my shoulder and noticed that a large volume of fire was blowing at us from the rear of our position, through the doorway through which we had entered the room we were in.

Even with proper water pressure, the amount of fire evident necessitated an immediate exit of the hose crew. I instructed the firefighters to back out. The third and fourth firefighters were able to immediately exit. I continued to call to the nozzleman to exit, but he was not moving back. I reached for the neck area of his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinder and pulled him out of the room, handing him off to one of the other hose crew firefighters, who were now on the front porch. (The firefighter later told me that he believed that his SCBA was entangled, preventing his immediate exit.)

I then retreated to the porch and, with the assistance of the hose crew, pulled the line which we had been forced to abandon back out of the structure. Once I had the nozzle, I opened it up and directed it at the body of fire, which was immediately above my head in the doorway. The fire immediately darkened down. While attacking the fire from this location, it was again evident that we had a problem maintaining an adequate flow of water. I handed the line off to the hose crew and advised them not to advance until the water supply problem was resolved. The third line stretched was now also in operation and both lines were put through windows from the front porch.

Upon turning around to notify the operations chief of our problem and attempting to figure out the cause, I noticed that the five-inch suction line that was connected from the engine to the front of the pumper was virtually flat from the cavitation that was being caused due to an inadequate flow from the hydrant. A firefighter verified that the hydrant and the pumper intake valves were open in an attempt, without success, to rectify the problem. All attempts at an interior attack were put on hold until a secondary five-inch line could be laid.

Once the second supply was established, two hose crews advanced simultaneously through the interior, one along the B side and the other along the D side. They were informed that the fire behavior indicated that the first floor had a circular floor plan, as indicated by the initial experience of the fire blowing back around behind the hose team. Both hose crews were advised to proceed with caution due to the layout of the first floor. Both crews advanced under the direction of lieutenants and the main body of fire was knocked down.

In my opinion, the fire reinforced several of basic principles:

  • Wear all of your personal protective equipment and don it properly. The first nozzleman, while he did not suffer any injury, certainly created an issue by not wearing his helmet strap.
It is extremely important to have a backup line stretched as soon as possible. The line was in the process of being stretched, but would have ultimately not had an adequate flow to be effective. A second supply through a second engine should be established in the event of a failure of the first supply, pumper and/or hoselines. Our water problems became significant when the second hoseline, off the same pumper, was opened up to protect the exposure. Construction plays a significant role in what we do. Discipline of firefighters in following directions on the fireground is critical.

Despite the problems that were encountered, I feel that this fire was a Close Calls success story. We were fortunate that the crew was experienced and well trained. Even when unanticipated conditions were encountered, the team reacted well and overcame the problems without injuries. I hope this experience could be used to help our brother and sister firefighters stay safe in the event that they experience a similar situation.

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

In this month's Close Calls report, we have a rare opportunity to view video of this actual fire that is available to those of you that can access the internet. See The Video Here!.

As you watch the video, you will see that as the fire begins to take over the front door, the third and fourth firefighters from the hose crew will exit, stand up on the porch and appear, through their body motions, to become noticeably excited. They are alerting the operations chief that the nozzleman and the captain are still inside the structure as the fire begins to take control of the doorway. You also will notice the original nozzleman, who lost his helmet, coming into view toward the D side of the door. He then proceeds to exit the porch.

The fire continues to grow in intensity and, with no other hoseline at the doorway, continues to grow in the doorway through which the firefighters must exit. Then you will see the nozzleman, who the captain pulled by his SCBA and handed off to a firefighter on the porch, exit the doorway toward the B side. Finally, the captain's helmet emerges at about the same level as the bottom of the flames. The hose crew and the captain then begin to pull out the hoseline which they did not have time to take with them in their retreat. Once the nozzle is reached, it is directed up by the captain at the volume of fire in the doorway and the fire darkens down.

As we watched this video, we could not help but think that this could easily be any fire department. And while the incident did end with a positive outcome, the issues noted by the captain are worthy of discussion at all of our firehouses. And when discussing this or any fire, we must consider the critical role of all firefighters and chiefs - but especially the role of the company officer.

  • We are never at a loss to find photos of firefighters not wearing or not properly wearing their personal protective equipment (PPE). Your PPE includes your helmet, the straps, hood, eye protection, bunker coat, gloves, bunker pants, boots and SCBA, with a goal of no exposed skin. Who must make sure that happens when a firefighter "forgets"? The company officer.
A fire department's ability to deliver water with the needed flows quickly and effectively in so many cases is the bottom line. Putting the fire out is the goal. Lives are saved when fires are put out - and that includes firefighters' lives. Firefighters (led by company officers) have a responsibility to know what flows are needed before the building is on fire and how they will deliver those flows. And you can go back and read the oldest fire service textbooks available to understand back then, as today, supply and attack lines must be backed up with additional lines! As Frank Brannigan has told us for years, know the enemy - and the enemy is the building! Building construction is a critical factor in determining the outcome of a fire. Firefighters (under the direction of the company officer) have a responsibility to understand building construction and knowing the buildings in their response areas.

In this month's column, the value of a competent company officer with well-trained firefighters is once again proven. Anyone can ride the front seat and blow the siren, but it takes a competent company officer who arrived at the fire riding that front seat to train-em, lead-em and bring-em all home.

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 www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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