Close Calls: No Shocking Surprises…

Nov. 1, 2003
This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder's comments follow.

Although this is not a "dramatic" fire or major incident, this could happen to ANY firefighter!

We are an all-career fire department. We provide the city ambulance service, in addition to answering fire calls. We respond to a little more than 16,000 alarms a year. Our engine companies are staffed with three, except that Engine 8 is staffed with a captain, apparatus operator and a fire student from a nearby community college. Students must meet National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) entry-level training standards and our own performance criteria before they can ride as firefighters.

Our ladder trucks are 100-foot platforms with a captain and apparatus operator. A two-person ambulance crew is dispatched to alarms to augment the ladder staffing. The ambulance carries turnouts and bunker gear for the two firefighter/ paramedics. During this incident, the ambulance crew was recalled along with other engines.

We dispatch three engines, one ladder, one ambulance and one battalion chief (14 people) to any commercial structure fire. Information confirming a working fire usually warrants a second-alarm dispatch before our arrival. Our second alarm includes two additional engines, one ambulance, an air rig and a second battalion chief. The air rig is staffed by a second-alarm engine company. This gives us 21 people on scene.

Engine 8 and Ladder 2 responded to an attic fire in a detached laundry room at an apartment complex. We cut the power (so we thought), shut off the gas, pulled ceilings and extinguished the fire. (The balance of the first alarm was canceled because it was a small attic fire).

The one-story laundry building measured about 200 square feet. With Engine 8 and Ladder 2 we had five people on scene, one of them a student. The fire was smoldering in the attic and beginning to burn actively outside of the gable vents on one end of the building. We used less than 50 gallons of water to extinguish the fire.

Initially, it appeared to be a normal outbuilding with its own breaker box from underground power on an exterior wall. We killed the power by shutting off the main 200-amp breaker at the top of the box. This breaker box appeared to be normal from inside of the building. A couple of single breakers had tripped during the fire. The investigation kept pointing to an area of the attic near the wiring for a large-amp outside yard light fixture.

As the investigation continued, we noticed many odd building changes that did not appear to have been inspected after the work:

  • Extension cords for permanent wiring
  • A new interior wall that was unfinished
  • Disconnected gas lines and drywall that had been scabbed over the top of an older installation, rather than meeting in a nice joint

Looking more closely outside the building, we noticed a second underground power supply next to the main one. The second line went into an exterior magnetic switch box. The magnetic switch was triggered by a photocell switch, which operated several exterior lights for the building. No disconnect switch was installed. This entire exterior lighting system was still live, even though the main breaker panel for the building was turned off.

You guessed it - all of these "hot" wires ran through the attic. We had been digging through bare electrical wires only protected only by the sun on a photocell. The on/off switch for the yard lights was several buildings away. Our lesson learned: Beware when you see odd construction!

According to the property manager, the owner had just purchased the buildings and paid an independent contractor to inspect the building for defects. The building had been given a clean pass for defects. The small wiring was designed to feed several small outdoor lights on a single circuit. One of those lights had been replaced with a large-watt unit. We believe that the wiring heated the insulation slowly over time without causing open burning. The day of the fire was exceptionally hot. The increased solar heating and lack of ventilation caused a slow smoldering fire over the surface of the attic insulation. The only place that the insulation was burned deeply was where the lighting wires were pinched at a truss joint.

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

There are two primary areas of discussion in this incident. First, we'll look at this specific fire department and its response procedures. We like to push the issue of "more vs. less" when it come to response and staffing career or volunteer fire departments. Why? Without the right equipment and staffing, you might as well stay home.

This department sends 14 firefighters on a first-alarm assignment. That includes three engines, one ladder, one ambulance (for ladder staffing) and one battalion chief to any commercial structure fire. If the department receives multiple calls or indications of a working fire, it usually strikes a second-alarm dispatch before arrival. The second alarm includes two additional engines, one ambulance, an air unit and a second chief. It then gives them 21 firefighters on the scene.

Is it enough? The answer is in the required tasks that must be accomplished - establishing water, stretching a line, stretching backup and secondary lines, venting, search and rescue, and all the other tasks that we have discussed previously in these columns. How do you determine how many people are required to get the tasks done? Training and pre-planning! Take a look at a commercial building in your community. What would it take to establish adequate water? What is adequate water? Try the "ISO Needed Fire Flow Guide," which can be viewed at This document will assist you in answering the old question, "How much water will we need?" After you have that, then answer some of the other questions, such as:

  • How many people will it take our fire department to stretch a 13/4-inch line into the building? What about a one 21/2-inch line? What about five 21/2-inch lines?
  • How long will the hoselines have to be?
  • How long will it take us?
  • How effective are our master streams? How quickly can we flow water?
  • How will we ladder this building?
  • How will we ventilate?
  • How many firefighters will it take to search?

These and many other tactical questions should be answered before the fire through pre-planning and site training.

My point in bringing this up is not necessarily to ask whether this fire department sent enough firefighters, but to ask you, does your fire department send enough firefighters to accomplish the tasks?

How many firefighters do you need? It depends on the time in which you want the tasks accomplished, what the tasks are and most critically what level of survival you want to have on your fire scene. Having well-trained firefighters performing tasks in a timely manner under qualified and experienced commanders will usually lead to a successful and safe outcome. Remove or reduce any of the above and the risk of firefighter injury or death increases. It's simple, plain, measurable and predictable.

How about this specific case study? How many firefighters would your fire department have sent to this incident? Did you notice that the department will strike a second alarm before arrival if there are indications of a working fire? Could that be done at your department? Would you be questioned for doing that?

What this fire department is doing is the right thing. Its response staffing is probably average for the U.S, but those in charge know that it's not enough firefighters if there is an actual fire, so they take some proactive action to add more firefighters. So often, fire departments are ridiculed for "sending all that equipment" - in some areas, other firefighters are doing the ridiculing.

Why not send plenty of equipment and staffing to match the risk that may exist? Here are some "typical" reasons given with answers that may help:

  • "We don't want to add mileage to the apparatus." What did you buy the trucks for?
  • "We are afraid of too many rigs being on the road. They could have a crash." Drive carefully.
  • "If we need more help, we will figure that out when we get there." It may be too late. In some areas, getting more help to a scene takes a long time. "More help" should be dispatched initially.
  • "What if we get another call and all those rigs are tied up?" You have to deal with the call you know you have. If companies are not needed upon arrival, send them home (be SURE they aren't needed), but if they are needed, they are there on time. Use a pre-planned system of station fills to take care of those other calls.
  • "It costs too much to send all this equipment and people when we aren't sure they are needed." Maybe it's time to get out of the fire business.

For years, we have heard every excuse in the world on why a fire department shouldn't send more equipment with more staffing to an unconfirmed initial dispatch. The answer is to plan ahead and determine what may be needed if the specific building has a fire - and send it initially. If your department doesn't have the resources available now (vs. when the building is actually on fire), then now is the time to figure out the solutions. Maybe it's automatic mutual aid? Maybe it's more staffing internally or maybe it's the need for more career or more volunteer firefighters in the department. Whatever it is, figure it out "before."

The second part of this specific Close Call is the actual hazard the firefighters encountered. Why did we spend time on the above issue first? To demonstrate the point that if this incident had gone wrong, they would have had the needed people, equipment and resources to deal with the problem "now," not later, when more help is called for. Remember, if things CAN go wrong, they WILL go wrong. When they do, will you have a reasonable amount of planned and measurable resources on the scene to deal with the predictable outcome?

In this case, these firefighters encountered a relatively minor fire situation, but found themselves in harm's way due to the electrical power not being fully secure.

As they were looking outside of the building, they noticed a second underground power supply next to the main one. The second line went into an exterior switch box triggered by a photocell switch that operated the exterior lights for the building. The entire exterior lighting system was still live, even though the main breaker panel for the building was off and all of these "hot" wires ran through the attic. The firefighters were unknowingly handling the bare electrical wires, protected only by the sun (the switch) on a photocell. They further discovered that the main controls for that circuit was located several buildings away. If this fire occurred in the evening, it may have had a different, more tragic outcome.

Determining hazards before a fire is the best way to deal with this situation. Naturally, fire departments can't "police" all buildings all the time. On the other hand, regular pre-plans by in-service companies as well as routine fire inspections can help minimize the risk.

The writer stated, "Beware when you see odd construction!" That's an excellent point, but it is important to insure that firefighters have training in building construction. Without such training, all buildings can look the same! That training will then apply to pre-fire inspections and will allow the fire department to "look ahead" before the incident. Once the incident occurs, the pre-plans will help the department operate better tactically as well as safely. When I spoke with the writer, he informed me that there were no pre-plans for the complex.

Pre-planned or not, it is critical to look at the "big picture" when operating at any fire. In this case, communication with the building owner/operator as a part of the size-up is of great value. The occupant/owner, or in this case a site manager, may be able to provide the fire department with simple information that can make a big difference - and sometimes provide information that is not obvious to us. Any of us may have assumed the power was secure. After reading about this incident, we may not "be so sure" in the future when we are told the power is secure.

An old timer once told me "all wires are hot, no matter what" and that's worth keeping in mind. "Hot sticks" and related technology can also contribute to minimizing the risk. Many fire departments simply have the meter pulled to provide an additional layer of assurance that it will further enhance scene safety. We always recommend extreme caution and a clear policy before meters are ever pulled by firefighters. If further concern exists, remove firefighters from the area, call the local power company to disable the entire building and wait while closely monitoring the conditions.

Is it worth getting a firefighter electrocuted for an unoccupied (everyone is out and accounted for) building? We think not. Conditions can be monitored in or around the area of concern through normal visual observation and the use of thermal imaging cameras which should, in this day and age, be standard equipment as a part of any related response.

Although many of the Close Calls we write about in this column are dramatic - and drama usually equals tragic results - some are not. This is a classic Close Call of a minor nature that could have been tragic. No matter what the Close Call, the opportunity to learn from "their" incident continues to help reduce our risks on the fireground. Take these valuable Close Calls and aggressively discuss them with your firefighters, post them on the bulletin boards, and use them for "what-if" drills and training at your department.

Readers are asked to share their accounts of incidents in which firefighters found themselves in dangerous or life-threatening situations, with the intention of sharing the information and learning from one another to reduce injuries and deaths. These accounts, in the firefighters' own words, can help others avoid similar "Close Calls." We thank those firefighters who are willing to share their stories. We invite readers to share their experiences. We will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies. We thank Contributing Editor William Goldfeder for compiling these reports. You may send your reports to him at [email protected].

William Goldfeder, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 30-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 fire officer since 1982 and has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, recently completing his sixth year as a 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.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!