Floor Collapse: Firefighter Trapped!

Sept. 1, 2006

A few months ago, I was at a serious fire in an industrial building observing the fire operations. As the fire department started its attack with several 1¾-inch handlines, one firefighter yelled to an assortment of white-hatted officers, "Why are we using inch-and-three-quarter handlines? This isn't a house fire!" The officers knew exactly what he meant. The fire required heavy water application, nothing that a 1¾-inch line can deliver.

"Put water on the fire." How many times have we heard about that? How many times must the Dunns, Brannigans, Brennans or Murtaghs remind us that the water must far exceed the fire, and that we have to get water on that fire quickly? What are the ingredients for that? Staffing and large lines — sometimes, larger-caliber non-handlines such as master streams in the form of deck guns, ladder pipes or tower ladders. We have to be able to get water on the fire, but so often we have difficulty doing that.

Why did the fire department in the above industrial fire pull 1¾-inch lines? Because that's what those firefighters always do — and that's because they almost always go to dwelling fires! It's habit forming, and in most cases, the 1¾-inch handline is the right line for dwellings. It flows the right amount of water and is maneuvered easily. The water-delivery ability of that line (150 to 200 gpm) is generally what is right for the standard dwelling fire, but, generally it is not right for anything larger, especially commercial and industrial fires. And that is where pre-planning comes in. Knowing "the enemy" (thanks Frank!) before you have to do battle can make all the difference.

In this month's incident, the firefighters of Cumberland, MD, demonstrate numerous positive ways a fire department should operate. They also teach us what they learned from a close call. Our sincere thanks go out to Cumberland Fire Chief William Herbaugh, Lieutenant Barry Winters, the officers and members of the Cumberland Fire Department and the mutual aid departments that operated at this fire.

The Cumberland Fire Department is a career department with 65 members consisting of one fire chief, one administrative assistant, five deputy chiefs, three captains, nine lieutenants, 18 equipment operators and 28 firefighters. Personnel are cross-trained for fire-rescue and emergency medical services. The CFD is currently staffed with 48 emergency medical technicians and 15 paramedics. Companies respond out of three stations with five engines, one truck, one rescue, one command unit and four advanced life support (ALS) ambulances. The department operates with three duty crews on a 24-/48-hour schedule, 8 A.M. to 8 A.M., 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The following account is by Lieutenant Barry Winters of the Cumberland Fire Department:

On May 28, 2006, I was personally involved in terrifying close call. I responded at shift change (approximately 7:30 A.M.) to a structure fire in one of our business districts. The structure is a four-story mercantile that was under renovation. The structure previously was a hardware store. Luxury apartments were being created on the second, third and fourth floors. The storefront on the first floor was also being renovated.

Renovations had changed many aspects of the building, including thick triple-pane replacement windows on side A, many new apartments, a new stairwell location and a new elevator shaft. Horizontal ventilation was initially limited to each set of two small windows directly above each of the eight large replacement side A windows. The large replacement windows proved difficult to knock out from the outside by personnel in Truck 1's aerial platform. These unknown/unexpected factors served to complicate the operation.

This stubborn fire was well advanced prior to our arrival. Engine Rescue 1 arrived first and quickly upgraded the call to a working alarm. The incident commander subsequently called for a second alarm. First-responding units quickly knocked down heavy fire conditions on the first-floor storefront area. However, fire had extended to the floors above. Several attempts to find an egress to the upper floors were unsuccessful.

We switched to a defensive operation to knock down the fire via the small windows above the larger intact replacement windows on side A. Twice, the fire was knocked down, only to intensify before a way to the upstairs was found. Our fire marshal arrived shortly after the second alarm. He was working with the owner of the building on the renovation planning and knew the location of the stairs and elevator shaft. The fire marshal met with me and I was instructed on the location of the stairwell and the general layout of the upstairs, and cautioned about the elevator shaft location.

I led three other firefighters into the structure and to the stairwell with a 1¾-inch attack line and various tools. The stairwell spiraled around the newly added elevator shaft. A contractor's ladder was mounted on the first landing, constricting the space and hampering our advance. We passed the hoseline under the ladder and continued upward. The fourth firefighter had to remain at that area to advance the line for the rest of us.

Beyond that area, smoke conditions were much worse and we continued upward cautiously. We carefully probed ahead and sounded the floor as we advanced. As I approached the second landing, I saw a window above the landing on side D. The firefighter behind me and I discussed taking out that window and determining whether we were still between floors or now located on the second floor. When I got onto the second landing, I found a series of bars to my left. At first, I was concerned that the bars might be some kind of gate blocking the elevator shaft and I expressed that concern to my backup firefighter. He replied that he thought it was scaffolding. I stood up to take out the window for improved ventilation and look outside to orient myself. As I initially hit the window, my backup firefighter began to step onto the landing.

All at once and with no sound or warning, the floor beneath us collapsed like quicksand. I was able to hook my right arm through the bottom bar of the scaffolding as I was being sucked into the floor. However, my left arm caught the other firefighter's low-pressure line, pulled his mask loose and pulled him farther into the collapse. He still had one leg hooked over the top step. We untangled in mid-air and he struggled, but was able to pull himself out.

My backup firefighter got quite a few breaths of smoke and was unable to help me get out. At that point, his mask had to be held to his face since all the straps were pulled loose. He told me he had taken a lot of smoke and had to get out. He told the third and fourth firefighters of my crew about my dire condition as he was evacuating. For a brief time that seemed like an eternity, I was by myself and hanging on for my life on the bottom rung of my lucky piece of metal scaffolding. My first inclination to action was a quick conference call to my Maker. Quick and simply I said, "God, if you don't give me the strength to get out of this, then I'm a goner!" I knew from searching the first floor for a way up that the ceiling was at least 16 feet high. I was totally aware of the fact that any fall from there would cause death or serious injuries to me. I remember struggling with all of my remaining strength to pull myself up out of the opening.

The fourth firefighter delivered "Mayday" and "LUNAR" (location, unit, name, area and resources needed) messages that were heard by our rapid intervention team. The third firefighter came to the landing where the collapse occurred, activated her PASS (personal alert safety system) device and grabbed my collar. I pulled myself back onto the landing and was sitting there on the top step with my feet dangling in the hole when I made a transmission to command: "Attack crew to command, be advised everyone is OK and we will be coming out shortly." I never heard a reply, but I didn't care. I was relieved to be alive and well.

The rapid intervention team quickly arrived, led by my younger brother, who is also a Cumberland Fire Department lieutenant. He asked if I was OK and I said I thought so. He said, "Come on, then, let's get out of here." I was exhausted and dazed, and I told him to give me a minute. He said, "Brother, you have 30 seconds or I'm dragging you down the stairs!" We left the structure together and once I was outside I was immediately evaluated by our EMS. My blood pressure was very high and my back hurt, so I was sent to the hospital to be treated and evaluated. My backup firefighter was also sent to the hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.

The second landing area actually was the second-floor hallway. The collapse area was a four-foot-square hole that formed directly over the point of origin. When I sounded the floor, it had all the appearance of being 100% solid. However, directly under where I sounded was a solid floor joist, but the two floor joists to the left were burned away. When I shifted a little to the left and went under the scaffolding toward the side-D window, the only support we were standing on was newly laid half-inch OSB (oriented strand board) with all the floor joists supports burned away!

Many lessons were learned that day. First and most personal, I learned the hard way to always check the floor deck before you advance. Check at least 36 inches wide to cover multiple floor joists. Sounding the floor only directly in front of you is not sufficient. Joists and trusses are often 16 and 24 inches on center and the area a little to the left or right may not be solid footing.

Next, I was fortunate to have four firefighters on the line that day. Normally, we have an attack crew that consists of an officer and one firefighter. Only rarely are there four firefighters. Our radios are equipped with emergency override buttons for priority messages like a Mayday. Our SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) are equipped with integrated PASS devices with emergency override alarms. None of that equipment could be used by my backup firefighter or me because the collapse occurred so suddenly, even if we had the presence of mind to use those safety features. Additionally, we would not have had enough extremities to try and save ourselves and use them. We needed the extra persons to call for help.

In addition, I think that a little space between you and your other firefighters may be warranted. The fact that my backup firefighter was not right next to me probably kept him from being totally engulfed in the collapse. Otherwise, both of us could have been hanging from the scaffolding.

The fire inspector or fire marshal may be the only fire personnel that are familiar with buildings under renovation or buildings being newly constructed. They can be a wealth of knowledge about building construction and layout, sprinkler systems, standpipe locations, utility shutoffs and many other features pertaining to your operation.

Perhaps we all need to rethink our tactics for commercial buildings. A crew of two may seem fine for a single-family dwelling fire. A minimum crew of four should be mandatory for firefighting in a commercial building: too high, too long, too chopped up, too much fire load, too complicated, too different. A fire in a commercial structure is never a "routine" fire and a "routine" response is not enough. The above fire had reached a third alarm at the time of the floor collapse and a fourth alarm was activated when the Mayday was declared. Commercial fires may need multiple safety officers, multiple rapid intervention teams, multiple rehab areas and several aides for the incident commander. Don't hesitate to call for additional resources.

In my close call, I was very fortunate and maybe God heard my quick request. I do know that my personal protective equipment was used correctly and worked well. My team worked well and did all the necessary tasks we are trained to do in a crisis. They promptly issued a Mayday to notify everyone of the problem and get the rapid intervention team moving. The rapid intervention team was quick in response and prepared to rescue me. Let's look out for one another and stay safe!

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

It seems more and more in the last five years or so, we hear the term "back to basics" and it is clear that the Cumberland Fire Department members have practiced that. Each of us must think about the fact that among the issues of WMD, terrorism, hazmat, EMS and technical rescue, firefighting is also our job! And due to that, firefighting training on a regular basis, on the basics, is critical for our success and survival. Water supply, pump operations, stretching lines, forcing entry, searching for victims and fire, venting, ladders and tools all encompass "the basics."

There are several critical reminders to help us avoid a similar close call:

Pre-plans. Knowing what you are dealing with is vital. Sure, size-up is no option, but size-up with pre-planned information greatly increases our chances to succeed. In this case, due to the building being under renovation, companies may not have had time to "know" that information — but the fire marshal does. Fire marshals and fire inspectors should routinely be due on fires for the specific purpose of providing information to the incident commander, including information they might have only found out just prior to the fire! But don't forget the importance of pre-plans because a fire department responding to a building fire without prior information is going in unnecessarily blind.

Staffing. Simply put (as we have for years in this column), a fire department cannot function safely without the right amount of staffing. What is "the right amount"? As a part of your specific building pre-plan, determine what tasks you want done and apply the people (firefighters) to the tasks. For example, based on the needed fire flow, if you need two 2½-inch handlines, you will need at least 10 firefighters just for that specific task. Don't believe that? Go ahead and drill with two 2½-inch lines and see how you do. That's the best way to determine your staffing needs: by drilling and training on the buildings you will protect. Need a hole in the roof? How many firefighters will that take? Doing a search? How many floors? How large are the floors and how many rooms need to be searched? How quickly do you want them searched? Think about all the tasks that need to be performed at the fire and apply the needed firefighters. It takes firefighters to do what we do at a fire and it is totally predictable and can be planned for.

Apply the right first-alarm assignment based on the pre-plan information. Even with a single-family dwelling, there may be different needs. Is the area hydranted? What size is the home? In our fire district, for example, we have small homes in the older part of town and huge, 10,000-square-foot homes in the newer sections — two totally different kinds of fire requiring different staffing and tactics. The same thinking goes for commercial buildings. Simply put, you should have a minimum first-alarm assignment for any dwelling and a separate first-alarm assignment for a commercial building, an industrial building, a health-care facility, etc. Naturally, different buildings and occupancies will require different tactics as well as different alarm assignment. It's all about knowing as much about what you are responding to, before you have to respond.

Rapid intervention teams. In this case, the team did its job. While used only when things get bad, a rapid intervention team must be assigned whenever firefighters may need assistance. Fortunately, the CFD understood that prior to this fire.

This fire demonstrates the importance of rapid intervention teams, the incident command system and accountability. In discussions with Chief Herbaugh, valuable lessons were learned and the Cumberland Fire Department is working on new procedures that will allow it to expand its incident management structure, bring out more personnel and improve accountability. The fact that the CFD had this event and is going to apply the lessons learned to minimize the chances of this happening again may be the best lesson learned for the rest of us. Ignoring close calls that happen to our own fire departments and failing to learn from the close calls of others clearly predicts what will happen in the future.

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].

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!