Sometimes, It's the Little Things That Count

Dec. 1, 2004

This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder's comments follow:

Every vocation has little issues that can add up to create big problems. Unfortunately, in the fire service, if the little issues keep adding up, the result can be catastrophic. These catastrophic events can affect the lives of the people we serve and the lives of our own people.

Our fire department covers 25 square miles and has two stations with 40 full-time and 20 part-time firefighter/medics. We respond to 4,000 total runs a year with 80% being EMS and 20% being fire runs. At our main station we have an engine, a medic unit and a battalion captain. At our second station we have an engine, a medic unit and a county hazmat foam trailer. Our department is a part of a very aggressive automatic fire mutual aid response plan.

In July 2004, prior to midnight, we received a call on the fire alarm phone informing us of a fire behind the caller's address. The Fire Alarm Office (FAO) stated it was having trouble getting it in the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. In our area, we normally are dispatched over the station's PA system and then the message is sent to the computer screens in our vehicles. Unfortunately, if a streets doesn't correspond to the system, the dispatchers can't send it and there is a delay. That's when the FAO starts making phone calls to get units started.

The first unit to arrive was our shift commander at the rank of battalion captain. He gave a rundown of a working fire that wasn't heard by anyone. The captain had changed the battery in his portable radio two hours before the fire, but the battery was faulty and it affected communications for the arriving units.

We immediately were told that a police officer discovered the fire while driving by and got the homeowners out of the house. This was a dwelling fire. He reported that there was no one else in the house. The first-arriving engine was manned by a crew of three: a lieutenant, a firefighter as a pump operator (his first fire as pump operator) and another firefighter, at his first working fire. Two other firefighters were on the medic unit assigned to the fire and geared up to assist the engine.

The attached two-car garage was fully involved, so we initially pulled the 2.5-inch attack line to the garage due to the amount of fire. Right away, I felt that there were problems with the 2.5-inch line - there wasn't enough pressure. I noticed a few kinks nearby and asked a firefighter to straighten them out. It was then that we decided that the garage was a total loss and entered through the front door to protect the house.

There was a closet in front of the entryway. The living room was on the right and the dining room and kitchen were on the left, with the bedrooms down the hallway from the dining room. When we entered the structure, the smoke line was down to the floor, but there was very little heat (a clue that I missed, the fire was above us). We attempted to go right toward the garage. There were four firefighters (big ones) on the 2.5-inch line and we could only get in approximately six feet into the living room. We kept asking for more hose, but it wouldn't budge.

I then instructed everyone to go to the left of the entryway to see if we could get around that way. We got in 10 to 12 feet, but again we had trouble extending the line (we later found that the line was caught on a gas meter under a bush at the end of the driveway). I then asked two firefighters to get the 1.75-inch line that had been stretched to the front door. I thought that we could at least get this line into the structure.

When they left, a firefighter and I tried once again to move the line to the living room toward the garage on the D side of the structure. It was then that the garage roof collapsed and there was a blast and fireball that went from the garage through the entire structure. The blast blew out the front and rear doors and virtually every window in the house. The fireball extended into the basement, luckily avoiding the gun powder and all the reloading paraphernalia stored there.

The blast knocked the firefighter and me to the floor. We both remember going from total blackness to being completely overrun by fire. The firefighter doesn't remember being hit by a beam that collapsed, but that probably helped him get to the floor quicker. I don't remember what made me turn around, but I do recall seeing a fireball the width of the living room coming at us and that's when I was knocked down.

We now had fire between us and the front door. There was also a two-foot-high metal dog gate at the entrance to the living room. I don't know if it was the blast or my falling to the floor that closed that gate, but when we were crawling toward the exit and reached the gate, it was closed. It was at that moment that I told myself that we weren't going to make it out. I learned once we were outside that the firefighter who was with me had the same thought.

At the time of the blast, the two firefighters were outside attempting to extend that 2.5-inch hose, one firefighter was at the front door and the other was walking the 2.5-inch hose to release it. Also at that time, a lieutenant from a neighboring department truck company (part of the first-alarm assignment) was putting on his last piece of equipment, his right glove. It was the only piece of protective equipment that was not on. The blast and subsequent fireball came out the front door and went over our firefighter attempting to move the 2.5-inch line and burned the lieutenant's right hand; he received second-degree burns to the top of his right hand. He gladly returned to work two duty days later.

Once the blast occurred, the battalion captain called for a second alarm and a personnel accountability report (PAR) immediately. He stated that he couldn't reach us and thought that the firefighter and I were dead from the collapse and subsequent explosion. It felt like an eternity passed in front of that gate, but I realized that it was just a small gate. It was moved quickly and we were six feet from the front door. That distance didn't take much time to cover and we were outside.

The outside crew hit us with a hoseline, which we appreciated, considering how much fire was on us! Neither one of us was injured due obviously to the fire gear that we were wearing; it did its job quite well. We later found out that the hood worn by the firefighter who was with me had two burn holes in its outer layer and my self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) mask lens needed to be replaced due to spidering from the heat.

A little later, a firefighter from the neighboring department asked if I was one of the guys inside when it went up. I told him that I was and he asked if I minded that he hit us with a straight stream instead of a fog stream. I told him "THANK YOU!" and that if he ever saw me coming out of a fire like that again, I would appreciate as much water as possible!

Our investigators later informed us of their theory: the house was recently re-roofed and there were no vents installed in the roof or soffits. They theorize that the fire was in the attic space (there was deep char in the roof space) and when the wall between the garage collapsed, this caused a backdraft in the attic. A number of people remember that there was no smoke coming from the roof, just from the garage.

After doing a critique with our guys and talking with a number of the other fire officers. Here is what we feel were the issues and what we learned from this fire:

The way the run was received greatly affected the lead time of the fire. The time that was spent figuring out who to send and where gave the fire a good head start. The FAO did a good job with what it was given. The all-important rundown wasn't heard by anyone. Our battalion captain had to get on a vehicle radio to communicate until he could get another portable radio. The way the 2.5-inch line was deployed limited its effectiveness. There was some "spaghetti" where the line became caught on the gas meter and that obviously kept us from extending the line into the building. One thing we could do in the future is train more on the basics, pulling lines and making sure they are free of obstructions. The next-in unit could help with the line instead of sending people out to do this. We all wish to be where the fire is, but there are many other needed and valuable tasks that must get done. Everyone I talked to felt that the backdraft theory sounded good, but couldn't come up with how we could have changed the outcome of the fire. There were no signs that anyone could come up with that would have changed the outcome of this fire.

Closing thoughts: I feel extremely blessed by God that we made it out of that fire. In spite of the problems we had, if the 2.5-inch line had been free, we would have been farther into the house during the collapse, and our department could have had four funerals to plan.

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

In some case studies, it is one specific issue that created the problem - or solved the problem or outcome. In others, it is a series of related or unrelated actions that are well worth looking at. In this month's close call, a number of actions took place that affected the outcome of this run.

A fire department's ability to succeed occurs well before the run comes in. Be it prevention, pre-plans, regular aggressive training, apparatus design/setup, relevant standard operating procedures (SOPs), focused leadership working with focused firefighters, alarm/response assignments with good staffing that matches the situation or any number of other factors, the bottom line is that we greatly increase our ability to "win" when we are well prepared before the alarm. In this case, the fire department was prepared-and even then members experienced a close call.

One area really stood out when I spoke to this writer: I found out that not only did his fire department respond with a total of 12 firefighters plus the battalion captain on the first alarm, but also a neighboring department automatically sent two engines, a truck, a rescue and a battalion chief with a total of 14 personnel, putting 27 members on the scene. These two departments (plus most of the other area departments) are all dispatched through one central fire communications center. Their operational response sent a solid number of firefighters to handle the typical tasks of a single-family dwelling fire.

Some people reading this may have the opinion that the departments sent too much, or that they "put all that equipment on the road without knowing if it was all needed" or some of the other old ways of thinking. Sure, we may not need all that equipment and people, and in most cases we don't. Sure, we may get into an accident on the way with all that equipment responding. And sure, it adds wear and tear to the apparatus. On the other hand, we very well may need all that equipment and a fire department that doesn't sent an adequate first-alarm assignment is not looking out for the safety of its personnel and the service needed to take care of the taxpayer.

If the apparatus is not needed when you get there, send them back. If you are concerned about apparatus crashes, re-teach the apparatus-driving procedures or even have some companies respond non-emergency. If wear and tear is your priority, it's time to re-prioritize. The public bought you those trucks for a reason - when "they" call and tell you that everything they own may burn up, believe them and send them enough equipment and people to fix the problem and send all of your members home safely. They will thank you.

Successful firefighting operations require the right amount of firefighters arriving safely and quickly performing numerous tasks in concert with each other, led by an incident commander who is focused on all members returning home safely. How many firefighters do you need on a first alarm? It depends on what you are responding to and what tactics must be performed. Issues such as water supply, line stretching, venting, searching, rescues, firefighter safety/rescue and building size/construction all must be considered to plan your responses.

In this case, the overall first alarm was excellent; however, firefighters operating inside experienced the emergency prior to the arrival and establishment of the rapid intervention team. The balance of what tactics are performed and when must be determined through training and SOPs, but most importantly at the job by the incident commander.

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 & survival website Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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