In an Instant - From the Second Floor to the Basement

Sept. 1, 2004
This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder's comments follow:

A first alarm assignment was dispatched by our county fire communications center for a dwelling fire at 0157 Hours. This assignment sends 3 Engines, 2 Ladders, 1 Rescue, and ALS. Our Chief responded on dispatch, and County radio advised him of PD on scene with a working fire. The Chief arrived and reported a 2.5 story single family dwelling with smoke showing and fire visible on the first floor inside of a door on side 4. He requested the 3rd Truck Company due on the assifnment. It should be noted that we are all volunteer but operate a "box alarm" system that has several other FD's responding with us. Our FD responds to approx. 600 incidents annually with 25 active members protecting 15,000 in our first due area.

I arrived (riding the front seat) on the first arriving Engine Company, Engine 753. We laid 5" from a nearby hydrant going in. I ordered the driver to stop well short of the structure to leave room for the Truck. We approached with sides 1-4 visible. Smoke was in the street and the familiar smell of burning plaster was present. Flames were visible through a few windows on the first floor of side 4. At this point, things got interesting. Seconds after setting the parking brake, my driver advised me that the pump transfer was not working properly. This was a late 70's CF Mack, and with that style rig, you either know the manual transfer procedure, or you don't. That's the deal. My driver is known to be a good operator, but unfortunately, he was not sure on the manual transfer. I ordered the crew to stretch a small line to the front door, and I advised them I would join them shortly. I exited the front seat, went around the rig, and manually transferred the pump into gear. The driver took over from there with pump ops. No delay in fire attack occurred from this.

As I walked to the front of the structure, my crew had just finished forcing the front door, and was calling for water in the line. Conditions were such that visibility was not good for the next ten minutes or so. Smoke was pouring out of the front door, down to the floor. I dropped down on the front porch, and packed up-breathing air. I said a few words to the Truck Co. officer, who was now on the front porch beginning to remove window covering. Something to the effect of "get this place opened up".

This house was at the time of this fire, known to most likely be vacant. There was a recent eviction of a tenant, and we had gutted one room on the 1st floor during a previous suspicious fire. The whole house was one rental unit, it was not subdivided. As a result of us reviously venting of windows, many of the exterior windows were now covered with plywood and secured with substantial screws. The 1st arriving Truck crew was assigned OVM and opening of all doors.

The push of the handline was moving, but some problems were encountered. The nozzleman was concerned with good reason, about what they perceived were holes in the floor. I ended up ahead of the line, searching for the fire. I did find the fire. It was on the first floor, and rolling along the ceiling, near side 4 , in my estimation near 2/3 of the way back from side 1, and near the stairs to the basement. I knew the basic layout of the floor, as I was on the previous fire there. However, at this time, visibility was near zero. The crew of E753 operated the handline on all visible fire, and I confirmed by feeling, that the fire was at or near to the stairs to the basement. The stairs had been enclosed and had a door at the 1st floor level (these stairs run from 1st floor to basement). The wall and door assembly were gutted and at this point, I felt we had suppressed the bulk of the fire. I felt for the stairs, and could not find them. I was somewhat confused. Later, during line movement, I discovered that where I was reaching for stairs, there were in fact holes burned through the floor. Based on conditions, I felt we either were dealing with a fire confined to the 1st floor, or a basement fire that we knocked most of from the 1st floor stairway opening. In any case, this was a 100 year old balloon frame house, and we needed to get to the upper areas of the structure to check for extension.

My thought process was that we could not go to the basement as the stairs were burned through. Later that proved wrong. Being concerned about fire in the basement, I radioed the Command and advised them we had all visible fire knocked down, and that I was concerned that fire may still exist in the basement. I requested a company open the rear basement bilco entrance doors, and advance a handline to the basement to assure the fire there was out. Command assigned a Truck and Rescue and Engine to this task. The basement doors were forced, and a handline was advanced to the basement. No fire was found there.

At the same time, my Engine company crew began to move the line towards the 2nd floor. This involved moving to the opposite side 2 portion of the 1st floor, to access the stairs to the 2nd floor. Being the officer of the Engine, I went up the stairs first. I was concerned about the integrity of the stairs, as I knew from the previous fire at this address that the stairs to the 2nd floor lay in the same plane, directly above the stairs that run to the basement. I told the Engine crew, who were directly behind me, that we must proceed with caution, and expressed my concern for the stairs. Visibility was near zero. We were dealing with an obvious arson fire, and this place had been burning quite a while prior to dispatch. I was in the upright position, taking one step at a time, feeling for each step before taking it. My hands were several steps ahead of the step I was actually standing on. I came to a step that was burned severely in the middle. This was about four steps ahead of where I was standing. I stopped and turned to advise the I began to speak.....a loud snapping sound! What happened?

Pain. Out of breath. Disoriented. Where was I? Numbing pain in my right arm....could not see anything. What happened? Can I possibly be in the basement? I was !

In one instant I went from near the 2nd floor level, to falling through the stairs and landing near the base of the stairs that lye underneath the ones that collapsed. This was a total, instant collapse and I am very lucky. I landed on my right side, my elbow striking the stairs first, then I tumbled backwards to the basement floor. I banged my head strongly on the concrete floor. My helmet no doubt prevented a skull fracture. My facepiece was ajar, and air was leaking out of it. My right arm was anteriorly dislocated at the shoulder joint.

I attempted to remain calm, and assess my situation. I could hear firefighters yelling and lots of radio traffic! I could not reach my radio and my right arm would not allow it anyway. I repositioned my facepiece, and now was breathing SCBA air ok. Within seconds of this, firefighters working in the basement came to me and assisted me in getting up and walking out of the basement.

This happened so quickly that it was hard for me to even realize I was falling. It was over just like that. In retrospect, I would offer this about this incident;

2. A fellow officer in my career department (where I work) holds the opinion that we injure and kill lots of firefighters from poor tactics. I have always agreed with this. Prior to the fall, I had called Command and requested a handline be placed into the basement via a rear entrance because I know how dangerous it is to go above fires. This was a very much needed tactic. Granted, they found no fire in the basement, but had there been fire remaining there, after my fall it possibly would have endangered my life safety. Good tactics assured this would not happed.

3. I have always been a believer that you must have adequate resources early. It amazes me how there are still plenty of chiefs out there who are content to run small 1st alarm assignments. Career or volunteer, it is important to have adequate resources on the first alarm. The RIT resource is no good if it is not on scene when they are needed.

On this fire, the 2nd due Truck (on the 1st alarm) had arrived approximately two minutes prior to the accident and Established RIT. They were ready when called for my incident. Fortunately, I was out of the building on my own power within one minute of falling, and RIT services were present but not required.

On this fire, the 1st alarm assignment was used primarily like this; One Engine for fire attack. One Engine for 2nd handline to the basement to assure fire out there. One Engine arrived late and was assigned overhaul. One Truck assigned to opening the building up. 2nd due Truck was assigned RIT. Rescue was assigned to open up rear basement bilco doors. A power saw was needed for this.

Command had called for yet another Truck (3rd due) prior to the accident. I have been to a lot of jobs, more than 400 working fires in a span of 25 years. What many may not recognize is that had this 1st alarm assignment been smaller, say two Engines and one Truck with no out-of-department units (automatic mutual aid) , things could have been MUCH different. Realize that the 2nd Engine from our department was somewhat delayed in arriving due to members coming from home. All members in our FD must report to the firehouse-no one other than the duty chief goes to the scene-everyone else to the firehouse to staff apparatus. However, the 3rd Engine on the 1st alarm arrived timely, as did the Rescue and 2nd Truck since they all were from different departments on our automatic mutual aid box alarm system.

We played back an audio tape of the incident during a critique. My accident occurred approximately 9 minutes after arrival of the 1st Engine. Had I fallen to the basement and found fire there, things may have been a disaster if the proper resources were not on the 1st alarm.

  • The basement doors would not have gotten opened.
  • The 2nd handline would not have gone to the basement.
  • The RIT unit would not yet be on scene.

Many chiefs defend their small first alarm assignments saying, " I always call for help early, if I get on scene and see I need it". That means nothing in the fire scenario described above. The needed resources that did make this incident safer came from three miles away, and arrived at or just prior to the accident. Because they were on the initial dispatch. I must be honest and tell you that I never expected the fall to happen. I have worked around these conditions for years, and I did not see this one coming. It proves things can and do go wrong. It was an attention getter for me, and sort of ironic as even though I teach RIT curriculum, I too, like so many, "feel it will not happen to me".

Chief Goldfeder, this was a small, nickel-dime fire, and I almost paid a huge price for it. Firefighters must never let their guard down. This is the 3rd arson fire we responded to at this house. The structure was still very much useable, so that is why we were operating in the offensive mode.


When we got this story, it could have mirrored several others we recently received, heard about or read about. Actually, the title for this story could have been: "In an INSTANT-things got UGLY"...because, on the fireground, as all of us know, they do.

Actually, in the case months CLOSE CALL, things DID get ugly BUT because this FD was PREPARED-the "ugly" was dealt with immediately with ADEQUATE and TRAINED resources!

As far as the comments written to us by the writer, he stated:

1-He was lucky. Yes and No. Yes-because he didn't get hurt any worse than he did but NO-it wasn't LUCK that helped him-it was a PREPARED FIRE DEPARTMENT having what MIGHT be needed on the scene or responding to a dwelling fire. DO most responses require what they sent on this? No-but we DON'T KNOW until we get there-and when we get there and find out we need it-it is often too late. SO what is the answer: Worst Case Scenario Responses! How is that done?

The FD evaluates the community and breaks the areas down to "fire response zones" by neighborhood, zoning, construction, occupancy, life safety and similar tactical considerations. Then, they consider the required fire flow for the specific area or building. Then they look at the time of day and what staffing will be available from what FD's. Other considerations must also be water supply availability, time and distance and all of that is then applied to determine WHAT IS NEEDED in the WORST CASE SCENARIO.

Once all that info is put together-you have a response plan that can change depending upon conditions. For example: A reported fire at the "Lakeville School" on a summer Sunday at 0300 hours would be considerably different from a fire reported at that same school on a Tuesday, in November when school is in. Sure-the building is the same but the life safety considerations are much different-requiring a different response plan. The same goes for a "single family dwelling"...again, it depends where in your community that dwelling is on fire. For example: In the "old" part of your town, a SFD may typically be 1000' square feet, ordinary construction with "old" water system hydrants whereas in that same area, a SFD in the "new" part of town may be 3000 square feet, light weight wood truss with long driveways in a "gated" neighborhood with no hydrants! Obviously requiring a different RESPONSE PLAN!...and these plans must occur BEFORE the fire assuring an adequate response with the right equipment and proper staffing-determined by the tasks required!

What is your FD's "Response Plan" ? Do you get an adequate and timely response with the right equipment and proper staffing? Or does your FD "call for more help if needed" once you get there and are losing from the start-putting the civilians, their property and most critically, your firefighters in unneeded danger?

2-As a friend of the writer stated that we injure and kill lots of firefighters from poor tactics! And the two key ingredients to greatly increasing your chances of success and survival through "good" tactics are TRAINING and RESOURCES. You can train all day but if you don't have adequate resources responding for a "worse case scenario" response-you lose from the start. And, if you have lots of resources responding in a timely basis but have little to no training (and that includes training with the companies you respond with)...again-you have a predictable outcome.

3-Again, the issue of adequate resources responding on a timely basis proves itself. Many Chiefs have embraced the idea of this concept but many have not. Many Chiefs are concerned about putting "all that equipment on the road" and to that we say, what is it there for? Some worry that responding units will get in a crash? Time for better driver training with everyone wearing seatbelts and the apparatus stopping at all stop signs and red traffic signals. Some City Managers, Mayors and some Chiefs worry about the cost of putting "all that equipment on the road" for no reason? The "reason" is that someone called and said their house is on fire! Wear and tear? We are in the FD BUSINESS-when someone calls and says "fire"..."help"...etc, they want what you would want if it was your house!

Apparatus CAN drive carefully, members CAN be belted and units CAN be canceled when they are known to NOT be needed as opposed to screaming for help when you get there with poor staffing and resources, members then drive like lunatics (cause they know they have to get there NOW)! and the wear and tear is worse-or even tragic.

Generally, in this case study, it is a known vacant house so some would question "why even go in" and the answer is depending upon conditions. In this case, was the injury worth it? No-but the lessons were learned. Could someone have been inside? Sure-and the search must be done, again, depending upon conditions and the risk/benefit of us committing firefighters inside.

Two other items we also wanted to note is:

B. The firefighter was "reaching for his radio." Where is your radio? Is it under your coat? Can you reach it there? Where are the switches to change channel, volume or emergency? Can you HEAR your radio? What about the exterior radio pocket? After being covered with water and debris, does your radio still work?

The solutions to so many of the bad situations that have happened to other firefighters is for us to learn from them. By taking a look at what HAS happened, and then applying the lessons "they" learned to YOUR FD's operations in a pre-planned RESPONSE PLAN to insure adequate:

  • Resources (The right equipment)
  • Staffing (Trained firefighters, officers and command officers)
  • Tactics (Applying the right actions to the given conditions)

....we can greatly increase the chance for all firefighters to RETURN HOME after the alarm.

William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion 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 and 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 website Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected]. Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.

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