Town Hall’s on Fire!

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

Just after midnight, our police department received a telephone call from our sheriff’s department in regard to a smell of smoke in our township. Within 10 minutes of the call, we had a police officer drive by the vicinity of the report, but he saw nothing showing at any of the buildings in the area. Within five minutes of the officer’s report, though, a civilian saw smoke coming from Town Hall, and we were dispatched.

As a fire inspector, I knew as soon as the page went out that this was a working structure fire because the building is not protected by a sprinkler system and has no fire alarm system other than manual smoke detectors. I jumped on our first-due pumper with my captain and one other seasoned firefighter. We were the initial attack crew on this run.

As soon as we arrived, smoke was visible and the roof had just started to ventilate itself. On the A side of the building were many tall windows that had not vented themselves. Later in the course of the fire, I realized that we should have taken those windows out prior to our attack. Also located on the A side of the building were two doors located on the A/B and A/D corners of the building. Both doors were supposed to be locked, but during further inspection, one of the windows on the east door was smashed and the door was found to be unlocked. (The cause of the fire has not been determined.)

As we started to make our entry, we noticed through the smoke that there were stairs leading down to the basement, as well as stairs leading up to the main room of the building. The other firefighter took the line and started to make his ascent up the stairs with the captain as I fed enough hose for the attack. Once I accomplished that task, I started to make my way up to the landing at the top of the steps. As I did this, our second attack crew gained entry and was backing us up. As I reached the rest of my crew at the top of the steps, my partners were trying to gain access to the room in front of us, but the door was locked.

As the nozzleman tried to work the pipe around the cramped area, I suddenly felt extreme heat that started at the top of my head and worked its way down. It felt as if someone had poured scalding water all over my body. At the same time, my captain yelled for us to evacuate before the fire could flash over on us. Little did we know that an access hatch was located at the top of the ceiling that we had blown open with the nozzle, and all of the heat that had built up in the common attic was coming down on us.

With little time to react, my captain grabbed my shoulders and turned me around to go back down the staircase. However, as the second crew was bailing out, I was pushed into something that was blocking our egress path. With my captain still pushing me out, this unknown object ended up right between my legs. Fortunately, I managed to lift my leg over it just in time to get out of the building.

While exiting, I tried to take a breather and absorb what had just happened. I turned to the second attack crew to ask if they had seen the rest of my crew exit. They said they had not. Without thinking, I rushed back into the building to try to find my crewmembers. I found my crew 10 feet inside the building, trying to push past a stepladder that was wedged tightly between both walls of the stairway to make their exit. Finding one crewmember’s hands, I freed the stepladder and pushed it off to one side. I then made sure that my entire crew had gotten past the obstacle so we could make it safely outside to regroup and figure out what our next mode of attack would be.

After the fire was knocked down, my crew and I did a walk-through to figure out exactly what had happened in the stairwell. It turns out that the ladder was hung on a nail in the stairwell, and as we continued with our attack, it was knocked down and landed across the stairwell. We later realized that had the door at the top been open, we would have dropped into the basement hall through a hole in the floor just inside the doorway. After realizing the situation that my team had been placed in, I had to sit down and think about what I had done to save my crew. I feel that if I had taken my time upon exiting the building and not initially realized that my crew had not gotten out safely, my team could have sustained injury or even death.

Lessons learned as submitted by the reader:

2. Pre-plan the buildings in your response area. I cannot stress this enough. Regardless of whether you are a volunteer department with just a few businesses or if you are a career department, pre-planning buildings can and will save both the lives of your fellow firefighters as well as civilians who occupy these buildings.

3. Tag along with the person who carries out your department’s fire inspections. This can be a rewarding experience and can prove to be invaluable to you. It will give you a chance to ask any questions you may have regarding the contents of a building as well as knowing the insides of each structure. This can also aid you in knowing where specific hazards are located so you can avoid a potentially life-threatening situation.

4. Keep in communication with your crew at all times. This is something that is stressed in every incident that we as emergency workers respond to. If you don’t keep in contact and something goes wrong, you have just made the situation worse for both the crew that is in trouble and the crews that are trying to help. This should be maintained from the incident commander all the way down to the firefighters inside the structure as well as firefighters outside the structure. You never know what will happen, even if it is just a “routine” call.

5. Have a rapid intervention team in place for every call, even if you just get called out for a malfunctioning smoke detector or burned food. You never know if that smoke detector is “malfunctioning” for a specific reason or the burned food is igniting curtains after the person threw the pan into the kitchen sink. Anything can and will happen if given the opportunity. This call came in prior to any development and implementation of rapid intervention team protocols for our department, but the situation would have intensified if we could not have dislodged the ladder or would have fallen through the floor.

6. Try to avoid “tunnel vision.” Maintain a clear head and do not rush into situations that could possibly turn deadly for both your crew and/or the people you are trying to save. Try to walk yourself through the situation. You may have missed something along the way that could help.

7. Do not panic. That will just worsen the situation.

8. While performing routine fire inspections, try to look at all entry and egress points for potential hazards that can block your exit. Since this particular call, I have found many businesses in my area that have plants or other items that could tip over and ultimately block passage. Also look at objects that could possibly catch on hoselines and drag with you.

I was lucky enough to have read the warning signs in order to save my crew from being injured. If I had not kept a level head in this situation, my fellow brothers could have been injured or even killed. The training that I received from my Firefighter Level 1 and II classes as well as my fire academy classes are worth more than gold when these situations present themselves. I hope that by presenting my situation, I will help fellow firefighters avoid future emergencies like these.

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

Well, well, well – Town Hall is on fire. How many have us have ever pondered that fire? While there is a bit of firehouse humor in that scenario, let’s pass on that for now.

As far as the lessons learned as written by the writer, let’s take a look:

Recently, there was a working townhouse fire in a northeastern community. The first-in line went up the stairs through the front door on side A to the fire which was on the second floor, side C. The second line and its crew went in to the first floor. Suddenly, things turned ugly for the crews on both floors. After the fire, the first-floor crew made comments that “we had no idea there was a crew on the number 2 floor!” Why didn’t they know? Because they failed to size-up and look as they entered; if they had, they would have seen the first in crew’s 13¼4-inch hoseline in the front door, going right up the stairs.

2. As Frank Brannigan says, “The building is your enemy, know the enemy.” Walk-throughs and pre plans can help minimize some of that problem. It stinks to not know the building and have the building “surprise” you when it is on fire. Take time to pre-plan the buildings. When doing so, while you’re checking for factors such as construction, access, exposures, connections and occupancy, also do some radio checks to see where in the building your portable radios will work – and where they won’t.

3. Hang around with fire inspection-type people? Wow, I don’t know – I think that’s stretching it! Just kidding – relax. This is an excellent idea and one worth our time. On the other hand, do not confuse pre-planning with fire inspections. Fire inspectors enforce laws, while firefighters pre-plan buildings. Although the two certainly can “bleed over,” there is a clear difference in wanting to pre-plan the ABC Fireworks Co. versus conducting law and code enforcement inspections. If there is confusion on the part of the building owner, it may cause problems for everyone. I like to keep them separate – fire crews pre-plan and at another time the inspectors inspect.

4. Crew integrity is a major issue and one that has come up as a critical factor in several recent firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Essentially, the officer must have the crew together at all times. When a firefighter is observed “alone” in a building, or even on the fireground, a big red flag should go up in the mind of any officer seeing that, and that “lonely” firefighter should be questioned immediately. Once in a while, he or she may be alone for a valid reason, but in most situations that is not the case.

Constant communication also applies to the incident commander or operations sector and the crews operating on the interior, so everyone is aware of the big picture. Now, the big question is: Will your radios, the radio system and dispatchers as well as related standard operating guidelines (SOGs) function properly under firefighting conditions? Find out now.

5. Rapid intervention teams. Absolutely, a qualified rapid intervention team should be dispatched on all verbal reports of a fire. This is especially critical in areas where staffing is a concern (most of the U.S.A.), since delays can mean big problems. I was recently in North Dakota, where as you can imagine the distance between fire departments can be significant. In areas like that, or even in areas such as Long Island, NY, where firehouses are much closer, planning on where your rapid intervention team is coming from is important, but the qualifications of that team is the real issue. Once you know who the team members are and that they are qualified, don’t wait “to see if we have a fire” – get them on the road. You can always cancel them. And if they are not from your fire department, train with them – regularly.

6. Not getting tunnel vision is certainly a good suggestion, but easier suggested than done. Only through regular training coupled with experience can a fire department create firefighters and officers who don’t fall into this hole. Think before going in, and know what the plan is for your crew and for the overall scene.

7. Don’t panic. I start to panic whenever anyone says that to me! Seriously, though, what can we do to not panic? Make sure that all personnel attend regular and applicable training. What kind of training? The basics with lots of hands-on teaching that can often be done informally at the firehouse or nearby. Unfortunately or fortunately, it depends on how you look at it, every kind of weapon of mass destruction (WMD), terrorism and hazmat class is available today, and most are free, paid for by the feds. But in many areas, try to find a good, basic, formal hands-on class that covers fires in dwellings, strip malls, apartments, condos, townhouses, kitchens or cars. Those are the types of runs that firefighters are going to on a daily basis. Until those kinds of fires are handled with adequate staffing, good radio systems and qualified firefighters, company and command officers, without getting hurt – or making the incident worse “after” we arrive – how can we even begin to think we’ll be able to handle the other stuff? Regular firefighter training on the basic fundamental tasks cannot be overemphasized in any firehouse.

8. Inspectors, when conducting their routine inspections, should be encouraged to update existing pre-plans. However, inspectors should not be expected to do the pre-plans themselves. Pre-plans should be done by the firefighters who are going to be responding to a fire in the specific building. In addition to written pre-plans, I cannot overstate the value of firefighters actually “knowing” the building they are operating in, which can pay off when things get warm.

As far as the police investigating a report of smoke in the area – not a good idea. Police officers in many areas can play down certain situations and while sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong. The fire department should be dispatched as well so an adequate investigation can be conducted with qualified personnel using the right tools and equipment. If it is nothing, we all go home. If it is something, the right stuff is there and ready to deal with the problem.

The writer mentions taking out the large windows on the A side of the building. That might have been the right thing to do in this case, but improper venting can create problems at a fire. Reading the building, the smoke and related conditions is the best way to determine the tactics, including windows, where and when. A recent working fire was made horribly tragic partly due to uncoordinated venting by exterior firefighters while other firefighters were interior, and neither knew what the other was doing.

A quick comment about tools – they are useless when left on the rig. Every crew should have at least a halligan-type tool and a flat-head axe to gain entry or to get out! Additionally, in this day and age, a thermal imaging camera should also be considered essential as a part of the crew’s tools. There have been a few fires lately where firefighters “forgot” the thermal imaging camera and that may have led to the loss of life. The thermal imaging camera is not an “extra nicety” these days – it can make a world of difference when operating inside, but it is useless if left on the apparatus or in the chief’s car, a command unit or, in some cases, the firehouse! Now is a great time to review your fire department’s standard operating guidelines on the use of thermal imaging cameras – and that includes pre-determining what riding position on the apparatus is responsible to hand carry it or clip on a coat – or, for the light weight “hands-free” models, what helmet it gets clipped to. Always have the thermal imaging camera with you when operating on the interior.

In the above-noted fire, the reader points out how, when things got ugly, the captain’s focus, naturally, was to get them out. In that rush, the firefighter made it out, but then realized the other crew members were still inside! The quick thinking of that member enabled the others to get out. A solution to always keeping “the others” in mind is to drill on this scenario, with all gear, tools and equipment being used. Realistic hands-on training will show the reasons why we must stick together and know what to do when things get ugly.

The reader comments that “without thinking, I rushed back into the building to try to find my crewmembers “ I found my crew 10 feet inside the building.” In this case, that was “training kicking in” to an extent. No, rushing into a building by yourself isn’t the smartest move, but in this case it worked and the writer got away with it. After all, his brothers and sisters were still in there. Many of us might have done the same thing. But it also could have made matters much worse. After all, he was out and by going back in, threw accountability, command and control right out the window.

In repeated circumstances, the writer or the members trapped would use their radios to identify the trapped members, command would have directed the rapid intervention team or other firefighters to start the rescue procedures, and the writer would have been kept outside.

Regular hands-on, applicable training starting at the firehouse level lead by qualified and interested and motivated fire officers covering real-life scenarios can do a great deal to minimize the potential for any of us to get hurt or worse. Make every day at the firehouse a training day (for volunteer and career firefighters) without any lame excuses. Just as in pro football, we can’t expect to win the game on Sunday if we didn’t practice during the week. The difference is that our stakes are a whole lot higher.

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. Chief Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety & survival website

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