Know What You Can Handle— And What You Cannot

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

I am a chief officer of our volunteer fire company and I am approaching two decades as a firefighter. I also have served more than a decade as a career firefighter/paramedic.

I was on my way into work one cold winter evening. We had several inches of fresh snow on the ground. I had my turnout gear with me in my truck because I had attended a truck operations class that day. I did not have an SCBA. I was nearing our district when the company was dispatched for a dwelling fire. I had to pass the fire to get to the firehouse, so I used my Nextel phone to let my partners know I would be on scene. The chief also responded, but I knew he would arrive before me as he lived right around the corner from the location of the fire.

Upon my arrival, the chief had already radioed a "working fire." I parked away from the scene and donned my turnout gear. I immediately met up with the chief and let him know I was on scene. He advised me of a kitchen fire.

The residence was an old "true" 11/2-story single, up on a hill. We had a snow-covered yard. The driveway went up the hill to the rear of the house. The kitchen was in the rear C/D corner, and there was a rear main purpose door present entering the kitchen. There was a solid wood entry door that was open, but there also was a fully glass storm door that was closed.

Hearing the engine coming, I donned the chief's airpack and waited. The engine arrived and pulled up the driveway. I pulled the 13/4-inch crosslay and stretched it to the rear door. I was backed up by one of my very experienced partners who was bent over, ready to go. He was over my right shoulder. Two not-so-experienced volunteers were kneeling to my left. I was kneeling at the glass door.

I donned my facepiece, but had not connected my SCBA. Looking in the glass door to the kitchen, very little smoke was present, but I could see the top cabinets in front of me burning. (Just a two-bit, routine kitchen fire, was my thought.) I don't remember if I had water or if water was on the way. I opened the glass door. I immediately heard a rush of air and heard a loud bang. I awoke on my back, not near where I had started, to someone shaking me and asking me if I was OK. I still was not able to see anything.

I got back to my feet, grabbed the hoseline and hobbled to the door again. Back on my knees and in the door we went. I remembered crawling over cabinet doors and wondering what they were doing there. The smoke was heavy this time. We crawled into the kitchen and knocked down the immediate fire. That is when it dawned on me that I didn't really know what was going on, and that I was hurt - I had sprained my left ankle. I removed myself to the exterior, then was ordered to the hospital by the chief.

Immediately after I exited the building, my partner exited and began to rip my facepiece and hood off my head. I asked him what he was doing and he told me I was in a big fireball and he was checking me for burns. (I have no recall of the fireball). Apparently, the bang I heard was a very loud explosion to everyone else. My partner stated he landed on the hood of a car that was parked about 10 feet behind us. I don't know if I went through or over the guys to my left.

My immediate lessons learned were:

  1. Expect the unexpected.
  2. Wear full turnout gear. I specifically remember pulling my hood completely up over my facepiece. I don't know why, because I usually just throw it up and go.
  3. Vent early, vent high!
  4. Stay low. I was kneeling down at the door, pretty low. If I had been standing or even just had bent over, I would have taken the full blow.
  5. Any person or crew involved in an "unusual stress incident" (a flashover, backdraft, or lost or trapped firefighter) is benched. It was a good hour before I realized my bell was rung. I really didn't know what had happened and what was going on. We went back inside working on adrenaline and instinct without thought process. This is bad!

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

Another "routine" fire? Who HASN'T thought that? We all have! It takes discipline and experience to remember that no matter what the run, it has the possibility of NOT becoming "routine." Those words are easier said than done; therefore, we have to have "systems in place" in order to be able to "expect the unexpected."

In this specific case, the writer shared some of the "lessons learned" as follows:

"1. Expect the unexpected." As we commented before, it isn't so easy! So HOW DO WE EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED? About a year ago, in a moment of glorified brainsurge, we gave thought to the fact that WE all get something that we have termed "N.T.S." - "Non-Thinking Syndrome" - which affects ALL of us. There are times when N.T.S. is no big deal, but on the fireground it can deliver us some tragic results. There are "systems" that can be put in place that will help you avoid N.T.S., before the situation occurs. It requires you to look at and think about your department BEFORE the emergency and PREDICT what may go wrong! Examples:

  • If your career fire department has poor staffing, is it predictable that you will not be able to accomplish the required fireground tasks? YES!

  • If your volunteer fire department has a poor response during the daytime (or other times), is it predictable that you will not be able to get to the scene on time in order to accomplish the required tasks? YES!

  • If your fire department has little training on roof ventilation, is it predictable that you will have problems venting at a fire? YES!

  • If your fire department covers an area without hydrants, but has no initial response tanker procedures, is it predictable that you will run out of water? YES!

  • If your fire department has poor driving training and doesn't do thorough driver's license checks regularly, is it predictable that you will probably have a tragic accident involving your apparatus? YES!

  • If your fire department allows for "freelancing" and poorly managed emergency scene accountability, is it predictable that you will probably lose track of a firefighter(s) during a "sudden" emergency? YES!

  • And finally, fill in the blanks - if your fire department does not _____, then is it predictable that you will not be able to prevent _____? YES!

As you can see, it is simple to assess your fire department BEFORE the run to determine what areas require immediate improvement. The issue is, and always has been, will the leadership of the organization, city or community take action to deal with the "predictable" problem? Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen, but it is up to the firefighters to continue to bring the issues to the forefront.

Back to N.T.S. for a moment. We have all seen situations at "someone else's fire" that went wrong, and in many cases, it was due to NTS. Think back to some of those and ask yourself the question, did the "bad stuff" happen because:

  • Strict policies and procedures weren't followed (or don't exist)?
  • Proper supervision wasn't applied?
  • Strict and daily discipline is lacking?
  • Strict accountability wasn't followed?
  • Communication was incomplete? (Both radio and interpretation of orders)
  • Serious, applicable, disciplined and regular required training was missing?
  • "They" didn't have qualified people involved?
  • Strict and disciplined command and control wasn't applied?

NTS can be related to Murphy and his law. It appears that a constant and conscious state of expecting the unexpected (with the above considerations), whether on an emergency scene or a non-emergency duty, is the only way to minimize the unexpected. N.T.S. will strike all firefighters; we've all gotten nailed by it before. But it can be minimized with a regular "dose" of:

  • Organizational discipline.
  • Written, easy-to-understand policies.
  • Constant and applicable training.
  • Qualified supervision.
  • Command and control, at all times, emergency or routine details.

N.T.S. is the enemy of risk managers, which is what we're supposed to be. Expecting the unexpected (and preparing for it well in advance) is extremely difficult and challenging, especially when we are "laid back" or "narrow focused," failing to look at the "big picture." Expecting the unexpected is a state (or attitude) that we have to be trained into (it won't happen naturally) and it requires teamwork - skilled, trained and disciplined firefighters and officers constantly looking out for one another.

"2. Wear full turnout gear. I specifically remember pulling my hood completely up over my facepiece. I don't know why, because I usually just throw it up and go." Without a doubt, it is easy to find numerous examples of the critical need to wear full turnout gear anytime the situation MAY become hazard, which is nearly anytime we are on the fireground.

In so many cases, firefighters "take a blow" and remove their masks, hoods, coats and related personal protective equipment (PPE) in an area that is still hazardous. The issue of training (of the firefighter) as well as strict command and control by fireground officers to enforce the wearing of gear quickly solves the problem.

In this specific case, fortunately, the experience and discipline of this chief kept him protected. The writer says, "I don't know why, because I usually just throw it up and go." Why? The answer is that as a young firefighter he was taught why he should always wear his PPE, and over the years, he got into the good habit of wearing it-creating an atmosphere where N.T.S. can't survive!

"3. Vent early, vent high!" Coordinated ventilation through standard operating procedures (SOPs), training, experience and strict fireground command is the answer. Remember that ventilation takes staffing. Make sure your fire department knows (before the run comes in) what responding company (and its staffing) will be responsible for ventilation; it's predictable. In most cases, proper venting can minimize the chance of backdraft, but more importantly and much more common these days, flashover. And although it is a tool, and like any tool that must be used properly, positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) is not always the solution for fireground venting tasks. Many fire departments today have replaced a "vent crew" with a "fan in the front door" and that can lead to problems. Be sure you have the staffing enroute to "open the roof" or related tactics.

"4. Stay low. I was kneeling down at the door, pretty low. If I had been standing or even just had bent over, I would have taken the full blow." That is such a relevant comment, especially in these times. Due to excellent PPE, firefighters today find themselves "falsely comfortable" when entering a structure and don't stay low.

Based on conditions, firefighters need to be as low as possible. Get on your belly and crawl. The PPE you wear may protect you to a point, but unless you are low, you will be in deep trouble if conditions in the area change. We tell the public to "stop, drop and roll'' and that "the safest place is near the floor." We must think the same way when we enter a fire building and not assume our PPE will take care of us 100%. It won't.

"5. Any person or crew involved in an 'unusual stress incident' (a flashover, backdraft, or lost or trapped firefighter) is benched. It was a good hour before I realized my bell was rung. I really didn't know what had happened and what was going on. We went back inside working on adrenaline and instinct without thought process. This is bad!"

This excellent observation by the writer ties in with the issue of strict command, control and accountability by the chief in charge. Many times, members will not realize what they have been through and it's up to the leadership on the fireground to make the decisions for them. This is not only as "mental health" issue, but a medical/physical issue. Most firefighters, by nature of who we are, want to "keep going" and have to be told to stop. So tell them. It's leadership's duty to determine who is "in" and who is "out," and to do that a fire department must have SOPs, training and experience "before the run" to make the right decision.

Almost every story we read about occurred when "we weren't expecting it" and "without warning." as well as "this started off as a routine run" and, of course, my favorite, "It happened out of nowhere." That place.

Take time now to take a hard look at your department before the emergency and predict what may go wrong before and during a run. Once you have established that "list," determine what actions can be taken to minimize the problem, including realistic training, new policies and guidelines, or even some radical policy changes. The entire purpose of this column is to help you predict what may go wrong at your call, based on examples of when it did go wrong at someone else's expense.

We have been asking readers 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 Chief Goldfeder 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.

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