Automatic Fire Alarm Becomes High-Rise Scare

Oct. 1, 2006

Before we get to this month's close call, we congratulate California Highway Patrol Commander Captain Gordon Graham on his retirement. Many of you know Gordon as one of the biggest fans of the fire service and an expert in fire service risk management. Gordon has instructed tens of thousands of firefighters and fire officers on how not to get in trouble and is also my partner on While retired after 30-plus years with the CHP, he will continue to train firefighters nationally.

Each month, we bring the readers of this column realistic, "it can happen to you" factual reports of close calls directly from firefighters just like you. This month, we have a response to an automatic fire alarm that turned out to be a very serious high-rise fire in Delaware that nearly claimed the life of a firefighter — a firefighter who was forced to jump from the seventh floor of a building. We are also adding a perspective from a veteran firefighter close to this specific close call and his experiences when training takes over in a moment of terror.

We thank Wilmington Chief of Department James W. Ford Jr. for his support, T.J. Healy III for these dramatic photos and especially the members of the Wilmington Fire Department who operated at and were impacted by this fire. While it was definitely a close call, it is clear that their training paid off and lives were saved due to their valiant efforts. Additionally, our sincere appreciation goes to Warren Jones and Tom Mitten from the Delaware Fire Service News for their insight and related information.

As Chief Ford advised us, "We critiqued the incident with all our people and tried to determine areas where we needed more training. We identified those areas and are now trying to get training classes together to address our members concerns. The bottom line is that as a firefighter or fire officer, you have to continue to train, train and train. These incidents provide challenges constantly, but also opportunities to point out our needs and adjust by more specific training. It's all about customer service and firefighter safety. We constantly try to improve and do it better and safer."

The Wilmington Fire Department is a career organization with six engines, two trucks and one rescue company. The department sends three engines, two trucks, the rescue and two battalion chiefs on a one-alarm fire, with all companies staffed with four members. Daily shift staffing is 38 firefighters and officers. Additional staffing consists of a callback system for the WFD (171 members) and a positive mutual aid relationship with area New Castle County fire departments.

On May 30, 2006, at 7:45 A.M., the Wilmington Fire Department was dispatched to the nine-story Crestview Apartments, located at 2700 North Market St. in the northeast section of the city, for a fire alarm activation in Apartment 601. While a commonly dispatched condition often resulting in minimal damage or injuries, such was not the case on this morning, as the WFD and its members were pressed to the limits.

As units responded, the lieutenant of Engine 3 reported heavy smoke showing from the sixth or seventh story. Moments later, a second report indicated that heavy fire was visible from the area. Firefighters were now confronted with a large-scale evacuation and rescue effort, in addition to battling to contain the fire to its original location. Crestview's more than 200 residents include many elderly and disabled individuals, some not ambulatory.

On arrival, Battalion Chief 9 established incident command and immediately ordered that a second alarm be struck. Following that, Battalion Chief 1 arrived and assumed operations on the sixth floor, the fire floor. Firefighters from Engines 3 and 4 used the south stairwell to access the upper floors, while designating the north stairwell as the route of egress. Crews advanced two-inch handlines and 2½-inch blitz lines along hallways clogged with smoke and fleeing occupants. Upon arrival, Engine 5, the assigned rapid intervention team, was placed in service due to the severity of the fire. Ladder 2 was located on the A-side of the building and deployed the aerial ladder to rescue occupants from upper-floor windows. Firefighters brought several residents to safety down the aerial ladder.

The lieutenant of Ladder 2 and his follow-in firefighter entered a seventh-floor window to conduct rescue operations. Ladder 1 was deployed on the C-side of the building where the main body of fire was concentrated. The Ladder 1 lieutenant and his follow-in firefighter responded to the sixth floor for rescue operations. Engine 3's operator charged the exterior standpipe connection, providing adequate water to the discharges on the building's upper floors.

Deputy Chief 2 arrived and was briefed by the incident commander as to actions taken and planned. He then assumed command of the fire. Due to the concentration of activity in front of the building, the deputy chief established the incident base in the ground-floor lobby and assigned a firefighter as his aide. He also designated a captain as safety officer and appointed a lieutenant as fourth-floor staging officer.

Faced with numerous reports of trapped occupants, command ordered a third alarm, summoning all off-duty WFD personnel and requesting on-scene assistance from New Castle County volunteer fire companies, as well as citywide cover-ups. Engine 25 with a chief, Engine 16, also with a chief, and Engine 17 with another recall chief were first to arrive and took up assignments assisting WFD firefighters on the upper floors. Ladder 11 arrived and was positioned on the A-side of the building. As WFD chief officers arrived, they were deployed to provide relief for first-in supervisors, while arriving off-duty firefighters were pressed into service as well.

Sometime during the height of the fire, a Wilmington firefighter, alone, most likely out of air and disoriented, appeared in a seventh-floor window in need of help. Spotting Ladder 1's aerial device, the firefighter dove from the window ledge toward the waiting arms of another firefighter, who was atop Ladder 1 making his way to rescue his brother firefighter. Both men's efforts were successful.

Nearly 150 residents fled the burning apartment building, many suffering from smoke inhalation. EMS personnel attempted to triage, treat and transport the injured, while keeping a watchful eye on the rescuers. The New Castle County EMS chief and assistant chief supervised a total of four advanced life support (ALS) and 10 basic life support (BLS) units. Rehab for exhausted fire personnel was established and maintained to monitor the condition of rescuers. Progress reports streamed into the incident base regarding the removal of occupants, injury updates and fire suppression efforts. Relief crews were in place from the sixth to the ninth floors, searching rooms again for occupants and looking for any spread of fire.

At 9:45 A.M., two hours after the initial alarm was received, command placed the fire under control. The injury toll was great. Six firefighters and 22 residents were transported to area hospitals, with one occupant sustaining serious smoke-related injuries. Firefighter injuries consisted of lacerated hands, a broken thumb and physical exhaustion. Over 125 firefighters, dozens of EMS personnel and many unrecognized individuals worked to contain this incident.

The building suffered significant structural damage on the sixth and seventh floors, coupled with collateral damage throughout the building making it uninhabitable. City License and Inspections, Public Works, representatives from the mayor's office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Wilmington Fire Marshal's Office investigated the cause of the fire and addressed the path forward for residents. The fire investigation led to the arrest of the 60-year-old male resident of the apartment of origin, who was charged with starting the fire and failing to notify authorities in a timely manner.

The "all-hands" effort of everyone who responded to this fire kept a bad situation from becoming far worse. While significant, the injury and damage toll was managed effectively by the cooperative, professional response of all personnel.

The following account is by Warren Jones, a former fire chief and editor of the Delaware Fire Service News:

This account of the fire at Wilmington's Crestview Apartments told how that firefighter stood on the windowsill and jumped from the seventh floor of the structure during the height of the fire. He dove for, and made it to, the extended aerial of WFD Ladder 1 with a waiting firefighter.

While those reading about the incident speculate as to the reasons why it happened, the real reasons may never be known. Even the firefighter may never know or understand what actually happened that day. All one can be sure of is that he got out alive.

While we don't like to admit it, if we stay in the business long enough there will be times when we will be scared. When I think back about my experiences, there were two times that I remember being scared or apprehensive and one time when I was terrified.

The first time I got scared was at an industrial plant fire on the third alarm. When the fire was almost controlled, we were assigned to advance a hoseline up the steel walkways and make final extinguishment of the fire. As we climbed through the steel structure, I noticed how some of the steel was bent and buckled, but we made our way up regardless. We were about 40 feet in the air and had advanced over to the reactor (or whatever the vessel was that was burning).

As we started knocking down the last remnants of fire, our hoseline went limp and we ran out of water. Now there were six of us over a burning cylinder with no means of extinguishment and the fire started to spread. From out of nowhere came fire extinguishers and we made final extinguishment with them.

My worst experience occurred at what most of us would call a routine working fire. It was the early 1970s on a weekday at about 10 A.M. We were dispatched to an apartment fire. I responded to the firehouse and when I entered the station, there were three people there: the driver, an officer and a rookie firefighter. I got my gear and climbed into the engine. When we turned onto the street, there was heavy smoke showing. As we arrived at the building, I don't remember what happened to the rookie. He took the hydrant or something, but he wasn't there. Three of us stood in front of this burning apartment building with people outside telling us that someone was still inside.

The fire was in the basement storage bins. In those days, most apartment complexes had storage bins for the tenants located in the basement. Those bins contained large amounts of everything imaginable, from hydrocarbons of gasoline, oil and paint to resins of plastics and nylons and probably some carcinogens as well. There was a tremendous amount of fire load stored in those basements. As in a lot of garden-type apartments, there was only one entry and exit.

It was decided that the driver and the officer would advance a 1½-inch line down to the basement to cut off the fire and that I would conduct the search alone. I was a young, naive captain then ready to tackle the world. I put on my facepiece, turned on my cylinder, entered the building and made my way up the stairs. I was confident, probably overconfident, that I could handle this assignment by myself. I felt like Superman as I came to the first apartment. I reached back and kicked at the door. The jamb splintered, the strike plate went flying and I was in the apartment.

I had been to many hours of training and had quite a few working fires under my belt, so this felt routine. I followed my training, put my hand on the wall and ventured into the living room. I did the textbook search procedure through the living room, then the two bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen and now out of the apartment. No one found. One apartment down, three to go.

I crawled to the next apartment, found the door and stood up to kick it in. This time though, the jamb didn't split. So I kicked it again. Still, it did not open. I stood back a little, threw all of my 150 pounds against the door and came crashing through onto the floor.

As I lay on the floor, something different was occurring. My legs felt like they were burning. In the early 1970s, Nomex hadn't been introduced to the fire service yet. Few wore bunker pants either. It was rubber hip boots, cotton duck coats and aluminum or leather helmets. I figured out that I was in the apartment directly above the fire.

I stood up to get my legs off the floor and prevent them from burning, but the heat on my head was tremendous. It felt like I was in a furnace. I tried to pull my helmet down, but the aluminum was so hot it touched my ears and I could feel them burning. So I crouched. Part of me was saying that I have to continue this search, while the rest was telling me to get out. Now, because of the heat, I had put myself in a position in which I had to try to do my job differently than I have been trained to do it.

I continued to crouch and do my search. I was in the living room, I thought. I attempted to find the wall to go back to some normalcy. I walked crouching along. My feet got tangled up in a rug or something else and I fell again. This time, I crashed into a lamp or table or something. My mind started to wander. I began to panic. I am lost...confused. The only thing I could hear was my breathing. The inhaling and exhaling of my breath in my breathing apparatus was so loud. My brain was not functioning as usual. I was panicking. I was breathing faster and faster. Terror started to set in. My brain was telling me the heat was unbearable.

Now, the inevitable happened. I could feel myself running out of air or I thought I was running out of air. My mind was so confused. And then, "Crash!" Assistant Chief Walbert Chew and the driver of the second engine threw an extension ladder through the window in the hallway and then through the window of the apartment I was in. The sounds of the breaking glass and the currents of natural ventilation bought me out of my terror and back to reality. I could start to see and found my way out of the apartment and down the stairs.

Is what happened in Crestview the same thing that happened to me? I don't know. The times were sure different, the gear is different and the place was different. But it could be. Terror feeds physiological human emotions. As firefighters, we face our emotions daily in what we do on the street. We wrap ourselves in this veil of so-called machismo in an attempt to shield ourselves from what may happen.

We use sayings like "You go, we go!" And we start to believe it. We compete to be the first in. We drive ourselves for that adrenaline rush that puts us over the top. In so doing, we may forget the basic principles of survival and the simple rules that bring us back to reality. The fact is that this is a dangerous business! The simplest rule is to practice and think safety. Practice it, use it, do it! Deploy safety lines to find your way out. Use hoods and ear flaps. Wear seatbelts and chin straps. Above all, be defensive firefighters. Train so that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you are prepared to get out alive!

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

While the above close call provides numerous opportunities for tactical consideration, the "human factor" related to training is worthy of discussion. Tactically, this fire shows just how quickly one fire department — a well staffed, medium-size fire department — can have all of its resources urgently pressed into service and quickly depleted. Staffing to stretch lines, get water on the fire, open up for ventilation, perform search/rescue, treatment and transport can all be used up right away.

Think about all of the resource-driven tactical assignments required at this high-rise fire. In some cases, numerous assignments may have to be carried out at multiple locations, on different floors, simultaneously. Think about accountability/tracking, officer supervision and firefighters working with partners — all integral parts of lessons that are applicable in this close call and so many others.

How quickly can your fire department get the needed resources in service to the worst-case scenario within your community? Do you protect similar high- or mid-rise buildings? Have you pre-planned, trained and drilled on those buildings? Think about, for example, how many companies, firefighters and hoselines are needed for your buildings? What is the required fire flow? What is the occupancy? What is the fire load? What aerial devices will be needed? Now is a good time to find out.

As far as the "human" factor, when we first read this close call as well as Warren Jones' perspective, we agreed that "terror" can take over. But perhaps, in both these cases, while "terror" was a factor, what really takes over is a firefighter's training.

In our business, which is clearly a risky business, we encounter situations that do not give us much time to "think out" a problem. We have to be able to count on and rely on something to "automatically" help carry us through a bad — or terror-filled situation — and that "something" is your training as a firefighter.

There is nothing instinctive about knowing to cool a ceiling or sweep a floor with your line. There is nothing instinctive about knowing to open up and vent a building — or not to. And there is nothing instinctive about knowing how to get out alive when terror kicks in — unless you have been trained. Once you are trained and only after that coupled with experience do you then gain the instincts to react when things turn bad, or — better yet — know the signs on what to look for, listen to and follow before it turns ugly.

Here we go again. It's all about training. In a very simple example from the 1970s, my crew and I were operating at a working car fire in an unsprinklered below-ground garage of a multi-family dwelling. As described above, we had rubber pull-up boots, duck coats and leather helmets. As we crawled and stretched our 1½-inch line through zero visibility, we listened and looked; someone had taught us that. We followed the sounds and found the working car fire. As we started to get water on the fire from the corners of the car, a bumper exploded — but since recent training had covered this as an "expect it" factor, terror didn't take over; our training did. A fire instructor had taught us that. Nothing hit our crew. We didn't bail. We didn't panic.

At some point in his career, that Wilmington firefighter was taught that if he got in trouble, he was to find a window. He did — and there was a ladder. It was instinctive due to the fact that he was trained. Someone also taught that aerial operator that aerials are useless if left in the bed. Someone taught that first-due lieutenant to give a report that painted a clear picture. Someone taught that first-due battalion chief to size-up immediately and call for additional alarms. All these actions speak volumes about the professionalism of the firefighters and leadership at the Wilmington Fire Department.

Did some things go not so well at that fire? Ever been to one where something didn't go wrong? Those in our business who are trained may take successful actions for granted. Those in our business who are un-trained (but have only been successful by luck) will run out of that luck — and soon, because as proven time and time again, without training, untrained instinctive actions can, have and will create tragic results.

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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