The Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award, presented by the Fire Engineering Courage and Valor Foundation, commemorates the life and career achievements of Deputy Chief Ray Downey, chief of rescue operations and 39-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). Meet this year’s nominees for the award, which is presented annually at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Fire-Rescue Lieutenant Curtis Warfield, Bethesda-Chevy Chase (MD) Rescue Squad. He has served 17 years in the fire service, four of them as an employee of Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad.
Master Firefighter John Klavon, Bethesda-Chevy Chase (MD) Rescue Squad. He has been a member of the fire service for nine years and has served the past two years in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad.
Comment: “Lt. Warfield and M/FF Klavon demonstrated uncommon bravery and remarkable skill and command of their protective equipment under the most stressful conditions imaginable. They quickly responded to unexpected challenges, such as the crib tents, with alternative courses of action. They maintained situational awareness.” Edward G. Sherburne, Fire/Rescue Chief Bethesda-Chevy Chase (MD) Rescue Squad, Inc.
On December 3, 2008, at 1327 hours, a house fire assignment was dispatched. A fire we now know was caused by an electrical short in the wiring for an outside hot tub, was progressing from the hot tub into the house. The fire entered the interior of the house and caused an intense smoke and heat condition on the interior stairwell, trapping two-year-old triplets in an upstairs bedroom, where they were asleep.
The children’s nanny entered the house to alert the occupants that she had found smoke coming from the hot tub. The children’s father was working at home in an upstairs office. He did not evacuate the sleeping children initially, because he mistakenly believed the fire was next door. He went outside. On seeing the smoke, he immediately called 911, momentarily sprayed the fire with a garden hose, and attempted to reenter the house to get to the children. During this short time, the fire had developed to a point that he was unable to reenter to reach the children because of the extreme heat and thickening smoke.
The first-arriving unit found a large two-story (plus basement) single-family residence with a large volume of smoke and fire coming from the rear of the house and thick black smoke coming from the open front door. The homeowner, who was covered in soot and had a deep laceration in his arm, and hysterical neighbors met the crew. As the crew was dismounting from the engine to establish a water supply at a hydrant directly across the street from the fire location, the homeowner approached the engine officer and screamed that his three babies were upstairs in their cribs. Until the arrival of the engine and its on-scene report, no information had been provided to the responding units that would have them suspect that the incident involved anything else than a short in an outside hot tub. The 911 center did not report the incident as the rapidly advancing structure fire with “persons trapped” that it turned out to be.
The engine officer decided to try and rescue the children and announced over his radio that he was entering without a hoseline. He and one additional firefighter entered the house, but they could not locate the stairs because of the thick, floor-to-ceiling smoke. The engine officer exited, found the children’s father, and got more specific directions to the staircase. He then reentered the house, ascended the stairs, and made it to the landing, halfway between the first and second floors, but he stopped because of the intense heat. The engine officer broke out a window at the landing on the stairs with his gloved hand; that brought slight relief to the smoke conditions so that he could see the door to the bedroom, but he also noticed that the fire was advancing up the stairs. He ran back down the stairs and grabbed the hoseline that another firefighter had brought to the door. They began to advance the hoseline to attack the fire.
Warfield, Klavon, and Driver/Operator Master Firefighter Charles Moyer arrived with Rescue Squad 741 (RS 741) as the second unit to the incident. The crew also met the father of the three children in the front yard. He told them his children were still inside and frantically identified the side A, quadrant D window of the room in which they were located. The front door still was billowing smoke as they rushed in. They met heavy smoke and fire conditions on the first floor but were able to climb the stairs despite the fact that a hoseline was not yet in place. At the top of the stairs, the crew from RS 741 split up. Klavon went down a front rear hallway to search the distant rooms toward side C; Warfield checked the rooms closer to side A.
Warfield located the room where the children were trapped in their cribs and called for his partner. As they entered the room, they noticed flames rolling over the ceiling of the second-floor hallway and closed the door behind them to provide separation and keep out as much of the heat and smoke as possible. However, the room quickly filled with the thick smoke, resulting in zero visibility. They were only able to use their hands to feel for objects and their ears to hear faint moaning, but they located the first two cribs.
As Warfield and Klavon tried to scoop up the children, they discovered that the cribs were covered with a fabric tent–a mesh covering the cribs to stop children from climbing out. They tried in vain to rip the tent open with their hands, but to no avail. Because of the criticality of the situation, Warfield and Klavon weighed the risk of taking off their gloves and decided it was critically important so they could remove tools from their pockets to cut open the crib tents and remove the now silent children.
Warfield called to command, which had been established moments before, and requested that a ladder be placed to the bedroom window in case they could not safely make it down the stairs. But, he quickly realized that the only chance of survival for the children was to rapidly remove them from the house, so he ordered Klavon to follow him down the stairs and out of the house. By this time, two additional engine companies and a ladder company had arrived. Water was now being applied to the first-floor fire, and an additional handline was being deployed for the second floor. However, zero-visibility conditions still existed from the heavy black smoke in the stairwell as they descended.
Once outside, Warfield initiated rescue breathing to the child he had rescued. Warfield and Klavon handed the children they rescued over to waiting emergency medical technicians. Both Warfield and Klavon then turned to reenter the house to rescue the third child, but they collapsed in the front yard, feeling the effects of their burns and injuries from their previous rescues. They provided the crews with the location of the third child, who was rescued shortly thereafter.
MARY JANE DITTMAR is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering and conference manager of FDIC. Before joining the magazine in January 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and a master’s degree in communication arts.