Double Trouble: One Firefighter Burned, One Firefighter In Cardiac Arrest

May 1, 2007

Most fire departments these days are focused on the fact that "something" may go wrong at a fire. Be it a structural/building construction issue, interior conditions, a staffing problem, a flashover or an electrical shock - all among the many possibilities - we have to expect what is normally (to the untrained person) unexpected. Years ago, a fire department might have been happy sending a dozen or so firefighters to a single-family dwelling, but rarely was the question asked, "What if something goes wrong?" When it was answered, a common response might have been, "We'll call for more help if we need it." Simple answers with sadly simple and often poor or even disastrous results. Help should be there before it is required so that help will be there when something goes wrong. And when the incident is declared under control, send that extra help home.

Structural firefighting requires the "right" amount of firefighters and EMS personnel on the first-alarm assignment to have our best chance to make sure the problem is dealt with. Factors that play into what to send on that first alarm include structure size, construction, time and distance, fire-flow requirements, available water supply and staffing, among other considerations - including EMS for the possible victims, or for us! Waiting for EMS when it is needed often can be too late.

And while we respond knowing that something may go wrong, training, solid fire leadership and planning ahead (so the response matches the reported problem) can help minimize the severity of the problem when something does go wrong. When the entire response assignment arrives with the right amount of firefighters, tasks can be led by the bosses and performed by the members simultaneously, giving the occupants a better chance of having a home, a better chance of them enjoying that home and, most critically, a better chance for firefighters to survive so we can keep doing what we love.

In this month's close call, not only do the firefighters deal with one of their own being burned, but at the same fire another firefighter goes down in cardiac arrest - and they were prepared.

Once again, the question all of us have to ask is, "If this were my department, what resources would be on the scene to deal with the problem or problems?" This close call provides us with a great opportunity to evaluate our first-alarm assignments. So often, some people in our business don't like "all that equipment responding until it is needed." That's antiquated thinking and fails to serve the citizens (who bought us all this stuff) and the firefighters fairly. Don't have enough staffing? Send more departments or stations, and train together. Concerned that too much apparatus on the road increases risk? Establish and enforce strict apparatus operational and response guidelines. Worried that another call may come in when all that other apparatus is at the first call and may not be needed? That's what station relocations and fills are for. Where there is a will to send the right resources to a fire, there is a way. Fortunately, for an interesting reason, this fire had a more-than-adequate response to handle the fire and the related firefighter emergencies the moment they occurred.

Our sincere appreciation goes out to Chief Ron Palmer Sr. of the Willimantic, CT, Fire Department, Training Officer Marc Scrivener, the members of the fire departments involved, and especially Captain Jim Jensen and Firefighter Paul Farley for their assistance and cooperation with this month's column. We are especially and naturally thankful that Jim and Paul survived and are here to share their stories with us all.

Additionally, there's an interesting twist to the photos that were taken at the scene. Some were taken by Kathy Farley. Not only did Kathy call 911 to report the fire and then take photos of the job - she is also married to the firefighter who was in cardiac arrest and she is the mother of the first fire department officer on the scene, their son Patrick. Sound strange? Not to those where the fire department is a family affair.

The following account is by Training Officer Marc Scrivener:

The Willimantic Regional Dispatch Center received a 911 call at 8:32 P.M. on Jan. 31, 2007, for a house fire with people trapped on Oxbow Drive, unknown number. Oxbow Drive splits two fire districts, career and volunteer, and the response assignment is significantly different for each district. There are four fire departments within Windham: the North Windham, Windham Center and South Windham volunteer fire departments and the career Willimantic Fire Department. The volunteer district first-alarm response assignment for a reported house fire includes the three volunteer fire departments within the town of Windham. The city district first-alarm response assignment for a reported house fire is an engine and tower with six firefighters.

As the dispatcher was unable to ascertain the exact location, he dispatched all four departments in an abundance of caution. Willimantic Engine 201 and Tower 101 arrived on scene and found heavy fire showing on the A-B corner and B and C sides of a raised-ranch dwelling. The house was configured with the living room on the A-B corner and a family room with a woodstove under the living room.

I was working a swap and assigned to step one (the seat behind the driver). I was quite sick with a cold, and would have called in sick if I was working my own slot, but went to work due to the swap. My partner on step two was Captain Jim Jensen, working overtime in a firefighter's slot. Based on the volume of fire, we quickly decided to advance a 2½-inch attack line with playpipe into the front door. Captain Jensen brought the irons. The tower set up to go to the roof for vertical vent. The shift commander (the other captain on the crew) established command and the driver established a water supply with three-inch lines to the nearest hydrant.

Captain Jensen opened the front door and we encountered heavy smoke that was banked to the floor. As the smoke lifted slightly, Captain Jensen spotted a victim on the stairs leading up to the upper level. We grabbed him by the wrists and pulled him to the front yard. Captain Jensen removed his mask and gloves to evaluate the victim while I returned to the line. Fire was starting to roll over on both levels toward the front door. I operated the line just inside the door.

Captain Jensen quickly found the victim to be deceased and came up onto the front steps, took a knee, and was preparing to re-mask up when the fire flashed heavily down the stairs and out the front door. Captain Jensen was hit head-on with the blast. He turned to the right and reflexively raised his left hand to protect his face. The blast knocked him back and sent his helmet tumbling, which he was removing to mask up. He was burned on the left side of his face, his left hand and hair. I was just inside the door and bailed out as the conditions became untenable and people were yelling for me to back out. At the time, I did not realize the magnitude of the circumstances. I was not harmed.

A number of volunteer firefighters had arrived by this time in their personal vehicles. A volunteer engine company also arrived shortly thereafter. We changed to a defensive blitz operation and directed lines into the building from the exterior. One hindering factor was debris behind the inside-swinging front door that kept it from being opened fully. The hinges were on the left side of the door. We removed the door completely.

As the volunteer firefighters arrived, we formed teams and considered attempting another interior attack, but found conditions still untenable. My low-air alarm sounded, so I returned to the first engine and had my bottle changed. I asked Captain Jensen, who was nearby, whether we would make another attempt, and he told me he was going to the hospital. I didn't know he had been burned until this point. The shift commander ordered me to obtain rehab.

A Windham Hospital paramedic approached me to perform an evaluation when the driver of the second engine collapsed! The medic and his driver redirected and arrived at the victim within moments. CPR was started and he was defibrillated. He regained consciousness in the ambulance as they were preparing to intubate him. (Note: The fire was found to be in the South Windham response area and the volunteer fire chief, John Chapman, assumed command from our shift commander. The volunteer and career firefighters meshed seamlessly and worked together very well as "one" unit.)

The following account is by Captain Jim Jensen, who was burned at the fire:

I was working overtime and assigned as "back step 2" on Engine 201. As captains, we are allowed to work in a firefighter position and I was not the officer of the shift as the regular shift captain, Captain Joseph Demarchi, was in charge. We run four firefighters on an engine and two firefighters on a tower for a structure fire providing the ambulance is not out, which is our tower personnel. That night I was accompanied on the engine by Firefighter Marc Scrivener as the other step man and an engine driver and the captain.

We received numerous calls for a reported structure fire with an unknown exact address. All reports through our dispatch center indicated that people were trapped in the building. The area of the fire borders the volunteer district with some houses on one side of the street in the "city" and the houses next to it in the volunteer district. The neighborhood is made up of cluster-type housing with a horseshoe road and another road up the middle. The homes are mostly raised-ranch style with a few capes mixed in and were built late 1970s early '80s.

While enroute to the call, both Firefighter Scrivener and I were gearing up with our entire PPE (personal protective equipment), including SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). He looked at me and said, "Looks like we're going to work tonight, Cap." I nodded in agreement and prepared my thoughts as we turned down the road.

Upon arrival, we were greeted with a raised-ranch-style home that was fully involved with heavy fire from the A-B side. The street was filled with onlookers who had been in their homes prior to our arrival. It was determined that Firefighter Scrivener was going to grab a 2½-inch handline and I was taking the irons to the front door. As I approached the front door and put on my mask and gloves, I noticed that the door was ajar a few inches. As I slowly pushed the door open, I could see what appeared to be the outline of a victim through the black smoke on the stairwell near the landing.

I dropped the irons on the outside step and went inside to get the victim. Firefighter Scrivener was near the front door and I yelled to him to give me a hand. We removed the victim from the home and brought him to the front yard, where we laid him on the grass. I removed my mask and gloves to assess the patient for any vitals. While I was working on the patient, Firefighter Scrivener went back on the line to attack the fire. When it became apparent that there was no sign of life in the patient, the hospital paramedics arrived and took over care.

I immediately went toward the front door to back up Marc, who was alone, although a city cop was pulling hose for him. I knelt down to put my mask and gloves back on when the fire roared out of the front entrance. I saw orange coming my way and just dove toward the street. I must have put my left hand near my face to protect it. The force blew my helmet off and as I gathered myself near the sidewalk, I could only think of getting Marc out of there. He had taken the fireball full force, but was fully protected with his PPE. I could tell by the pain and the smell of burned hair that I had been burned. The wisps of hair that were sticking out of my hood were gone and the left side of my face and the back of my left hand were burned.

I quickly put my gloves on and went back to work, figuring we had little help and we still did not know if more victims were trapped. Soon after, I saw the captain of the shift and told him that I had been burned and needed to go to the hospital at some time. I was told to get to the hospital and was transferred by ambulance to the local hospital. I figured it would be one of those "give me some cream and a bandage and send me home for a couple of days" events. Unfortunately, I had inhaled some superheated air and had also burned my throat and lungs as well as my hands and face. I was soon transported to a burn unit and have been recovering at home.

One of the amazing things that transpired that night was that Firefighter Scrivener was in the center of that ball of fire that came rolling out and he had no idea what was transpiring behind him. Prior to me leaving to head to the ambulance, I passed Marc and asked him if he was all right. He looked at me puzzled and said, "Yeah, why?" Here was a perfect example of wearing ALL your PPE and enduring an event and not knowing you were even part of it. He later found out what had happened and now knew why everyone was so concerned. As for me, I've bent over near the front door on one knee to gear up numerous times over my 28-year career and never had this happen before. But just remember it can happen anywhere! Be prepared! Wear all your PPE!

The following account is by Firefighter Paul Farley, who was operating an engine when he went into cardiac arrest:

Another night at the firehouse - if any such does really exist.

We had just finished a budget meeting, crunching numbers for the next fiscal year. The fire dispatch center transmitted tones for the South Windham Volunteer Fire Department with automatic mutual aid (as for any reported building fire) from the Windham Center Volunteer Fire Department and North Windham Volunteer Fire Department along with the response of the Willimantic Fire Department (a career department) to 158 Oxbow Drive, South Windham, for a "working house fire" with someone possibly still in the house. Oxbow Drive is located directly behind my residence at the Willimantic/South Windham line. It has been standard operating procedure for South Windham to have Willimantic respond because the area is at the outer limits of the South Windham district and some of the addresses are in the city response area and some are in the South Windham response area.

Chief Chapman left the station enroute to the scene in his POV, an emergency response trip of approximately six to eight minutes. I donned my turnout gear and proceeded to the scene operating Engine 104 along with Captain Gamache riding in the officer's seat. On the emergency drive to the scene, radio reports confirmed a working fire along with instructions from Chief Chapman as to our assignment upon arrival. Other members who were at the station responded to the scene with Engine Tank 104 and Rescue 104.

I remember arriving at the scene and attempting to shift the truck into pump and the truck stalling. I then retraced my steps, making sure that the truck was in neutral (the truck has an automatic transmission with keypad-type controls, i.e., N D R 1 2, and I suspect that upon arrival I did not engage the N function completely, thereby causing the stalling). Upon restarting and reengaging, all went well. I then chocked the wheels of the engine and set the pump into operation, while other department members flaked off the pre-connected lines, donned airpacks and began working on fire control.

Willimantic Engine 201 and Tower 101 were already on the scene operating. I observed the house involved as being directly to the rear of my residence on Pemberton Road. I also noted that the burn area on the outside of the house had been darkened down and there were still areas burning along with much smoke lingering around and about the dwelling. My son Patrick (the second lieutenant for the South Windham Fire Department, who had responded across the stone wall to the rear of the adjoining residences) handed me his accountability tags along with the other members of our department doing the same. I then talked with EMT/Firefighter Ron Mott, who responded operating Engine Tank 104, and discussed establishing a supply to Engine 104 (1,000-gallon tank) to replenish the onboard water that was being utilized. I then returned to the pump panel to make sure all was functioning properly and remember stepping back from the pump panel.

Cardiac arrest! I recall thinking that I was tripping on a hoseline, realizing that I was about to fall and thinking this was going to hurt. That was it until I was being coaxed to open my eyes, etc., in the hospital emergency room. I do not remember any pain, no breathing difficulty, nothing prior to thinking that I was tripping and going to fall. It was at the hospital that I learned that my neighbor had passed away and that Captain Jensen (who was in the next stall at the hospital) had been seriously injured. I am still here thanks to the Windham Hospital paramedic who was on the scene and who provided excellent care that night.

The following lessons learned, comments and observations by Chief Goldfeder are based on communications with the writers and others:

Clearly, there are different kinds of close calls at this fire. The first, with the captain being burned and the applicable lessons learned, include:

  • Personal protective equipment - No exposed skin and head to toe PPE anytime we are operating in or near the fire. PPE can make the difference between burn unit, funeral and simply replacing some burned gear. PPE is just that, personal protective equipment, and we have a personal responsibility to make sure we cover our own skin, lungs and whatever else can be exposed. Fire officers have a responsibility to get tough, listen to no whining and just make sure ALL firefighters are fully protected. Fire and burns can and have killed us. Smoke can kill us. Soot on our skin has proven to be a fine way to get cancer and can kill us. Smoke and soot? Absolutely!
  • What we breathe and what we absorb - As a vital side note, are you aware that University of Cincinnati (UC) health researchers recently determined that firefighters are significantly more likely to develop four different types of cancer than workers in other fields? We are twice as likely to get certain cancers. We are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer and have significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and prostate cancer than non-firefighters. The researchers also confirmed previous findings that firefighters are at greater risk for multiple myeloma.

The research is the largest comprehensive study to date investigating cancer risk associated with working as a firefighter. The researchers believe there's a direct correlation between the chemical exposures firefighters experience on the job and their increased risk for cancer.

Firefighters are exposed to many nasty cancer-causing compounds, including benzene, diesel-engine exhaust, chloroform, soot, styrene and formaldehyde. These substances can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and occur both at the scene of a fire and in the firehouse, where idling diesel apparatus produce diesel exhaust.

The UC researchers found that half the studied cancers - including testicular, prostate, skin, brain, rectum, stomach and colon cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma and malignant melanoma - were associated with firefighting to varying levels of increased risk.

We need to fully use our protective equipment to avoid inhaling and exposing our skin to known and suspected occupational carcinogens, which is anything burning at a fire. Heavy smoke, light smoke, whatever. Avoid it. If we just start wearing and using all of our PPE, we'll be well on our way. In addition, firefighters should meticulously wash their entire body to remove soot and other residues from fires to avoid skin exposure.

  • Rapidly changing fire conditions - This fire also clearly demonstrated the potential for rapid changes in fire conditions that can render unsafe a previously non-problematic location. We have to EXPECT conditions to change. With good coordination between the bosses and the firefighters, the conditions can be monitored for some ability of predication.
  • EMS and advanced life support (ALS) on the scene at any working incident - Without question, the successful and rapid resuscitation of the downed firefighter demonstrated the value of ALS on the scene for firefighter medical care. Due to ALS being on the scene, the firefighter's life was saved.
  • Career and volunteer firefighters - While I am sure there are days where things aren't perfect (like at any fire department), it appears that the North Windham, Windham Center and South Windham volunteer fire departments and the Willimantic career fire department are focused on getting the job done, together. While the career department staffing is limited, the area volunteer departments can, at times, provide the much-needed additional staffing. And while the volunteer departments have resources available, the career firefighters provide a more rapid availability. With this fire and the related close calls, the four agencies, as described above, worked seamlessly and set an excellent example of how it should work.

A note from Chief Goldfeder: We are assisting two very important causes raise to some funds. The firefighter safety and survival DVD "And the Beat Goes On" is an in-your-face program that dramatically identifies the issues directly impacting firefighter injury and death. The program is being offered as a fund raiser with 100% of the royalties being donated equally between the FDNY Deputy Chief Ray Downey Scholarship Charity Fund and to directly support the families of firefighters killed in the line of duty through the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) family survivor program specifically. Readers of this column will directly relate to the messages on this DVD. The DVD costs $39 per copy and may be purchased by calling 800-752-9764.

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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