Close Calls

By Francis L. Brannigan, SFPE (Fellow)

A TV announcement of a fire in a paper recycling plant reminded me of the fact that I escaped possible death by the smart action of one of my students, a District of Columbia firefighter.

With my eye to the camera eyepiece, I was backing up to take the picture on page 306 of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition. Suddenly, I heard the imperative “STOP.”

I had almost backed into a deep paper-processing pit. The pit was full of water. Paper debris was floating on the surface, causing the top of the pit to look like the floor.

The picture I was trying to take was most important because at the time, about 1968, it was still widely believed in the fire service that throwing water on hot steel would cause it to fail. This picture helped to knock out that myth.

The student who saved me was Sgt. Witt of Rescue 1, who had operated the deck pipe to cool the steel, as he had been taught.

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In 1944, I was promoted to full lieutenant (Army rank = captain) in the Navy Firefighting School at Norfolk, Virginia. As part of the “celebration rites,” the instructors threw me into the 12-foot-deep drafting pool. My boots filled with water. I surfaced only because I was right next to the ladder and could climb out.

Francis L. Brannigan, SFPE (Fellow), the recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 60-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, (National Fire Protection Association, 1992), and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

“Close Calls”

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Every department, large AND small, paid and volunteer, experiences “close calls.” I’ve been involved in a few over my career not only as a firefighter and fire officer but in the role of incident commander. Too often these close calls seem to “die” on the fireground, or, worse, float throughout the department gathering steam and a few exaggerated facts along the way. That’s the sad part. We who lived the experience tend to suppress the incident because of the potential of humiliation, fear, or some other silly emotion. Most of us consider ourselves “good firefighters,” and if we can get ourselves into predicaments that culminate in a “close call,” then who or what will prevent the rest of the firefighters from making the same mistakes? It is our obligation to discuss and review these “near misses” for the sake of the rest of the fire service. If we can shed light on our own experiences that “almost” killed or seriously injured us, then perhaps others will avoid or be more cognizant of similar situations.

In December 2001, we responded to a house fire on Toledo’s east side. The engine pulled up and reported smoke showing from a single-family dwelling. As a rookie firefighter and the acting officer pulled a line to the side door, the driver started his pump work. The recruit firefighter donned her SCBA and started the advance on the fire in the dining room of the house. She took the nozzle and believed the acting officer was behind her. The acting officer realized he had forgotten his facepiece, fed some hoseline, and then went back to the engine. He failed to verbalize that he was going back to the engine. As the recruit crawled into the dining room, the floor began to sag and fail, and she quickly slid into the crawl space of the house. As she fell, the dining room table flipped and fell on top of her. Her first instinct was to activate her PASS device. She did so; within a few seconds, the truck crew heard the alarm and moved to her location. A firefighter grabbed the nozzle and began to douse flames that were burning in the carpet and flooring around and below her, the lieutenant from the heavy squad jumped into the crawl space and pushed her up, and the remaining members pulled her out of the hole and to the outside of the building. She was taken to the hospital and treated for second-degree burns to her legs.

We held a critique of the fire several days after the incident. This fire reinforced that firefighters must routinely practice activating their PASS alarms. When people are put in stressful situations, they revert to what is customary and routine. As a recruit, it was customary for her to activate her PASS alarm. Had this been an older firefighter who hadn’t “memorized” this action, perhaps the result would have been dramatically different.

Never trivialize these “near misses” as simply part of the job. Of course, this is a dangerous job, but we can make it less dangerous. How many times are we going to pull a brother from a collapse in an unoccupied auto repair garage at 3 a.m. before we realize that we probably shouldn’t have been inside in the first place in “those” conditions? How many times are we going to get blown off a porch of a house by fire before we realize that we shouldn’t have been up there to begin with? We all make mistakes, but rationalizing the same mistake over and over in the fire service by simply saying it’s “part of the job” is killing us.

Look at your close calls. Talk about them. Share them by writing articles. Learn from them so you can avoid the same circumstances in the future. As Vina Drennan, widow of Fire Department of New York Captain John Drennan, said at the 2001 FDIC, “The myth is that firefighters are dying carrying out babies in their arms. The truth is that we are dying in vacant buildings and unoccupied strip malls and McDonald’s restaurants.”

—John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Question: Describe one “close call” your department had and what, if any, corrective actions were taken.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief of operations, Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: A major fire in a strip mall is remembered by many firefighters in Gig Harbor as a “close call.” The fire started in the store at one end of a strip mall and progressed toward the center of the mall made up of several large occupancies. The common attic above high ceilings provided an easy route for the fire to travel and made access to the fire difficult for firefighters.

Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One is a combination fire department with limited staffing. The city is isolated by a major suspension bridge and a picturesque waterway. The limited staffing, the delay in calling for more help, and the isolation caused the initial firefighters on-scene to do double duty and play “catch up” in fighting the fire. A senior chief officer who responded to the scene got caught up in the firefighting instead of providing advice or fulfilling an incident management system (IMS) function. Although the fire was stopped before it reached the large occupancies, firefighters at this incident know that a full measure of luck supplemented their hard work to limit the fire damage and allow everyone to go home unharmed.

Here are the lessons learned from this incident:

Don’t delay in calling for more help. Consider your immediate resources and the time it will take for additional resources to be dispatched and respond. Response time may be affected by geography, traffic (time of day), and weather. Having enough firefighters on-scene increases safety, since firefighters can focus on one objective and won’t work to exhaustion. Additionally, an adequate number of firefighters on-scene helps you avoid playing catch up.

Use senior chief officers. Consider how senior chief officers will be used at working fires. They can serve as advisors to the incident commander or assume command, asking the initial incident commander to move to the operations role. They also can be invaluable in planning and as liaisons. Departments with limited staffing need to train company officers or other members to fulfill IMS roles if necessary. The objective is to support the incident commander, not be another person the IC has to worry about.

What’s the difference between a close call and a tragedy? It’s not luck. The difference is that close calls are an education at a fraction of the cost. Real change could result from a department or station environment that allows and encourages firefighters to share their close call experiences with other firefighters. This attitude adjustment would also require fellow firefighters to listen to descriptions of close calls with an open mind and without allowing ridicule and judgmental comments to disrupt an opportunity to learn.

Katherine T. Ridenhour, captain, Aurora (CO) Fire Department

Response: At approximately 1848 hours on January 7, 2003, I was on the highway at an auto accident with my crew when we heard Engine 6 ask over the radio, “Engine 10, are you alright?” and then a minute later, “Emergency Traffic, Emergency Traffic, this is Engine 6, we need a battalion chief, another paramedic engine, and two ambulances; and put a helicopter on standby. Engine 10’s crew has been involved in an explosion.” None of us said a word. We all looked into each other’s eyes with shock and continued working. E6 and E10 were miles away on the south side of town, and we could do nothing but listen to the radio traffic.

E6 and E10 had been dispatched to a report of a “brush fire.” On arrival, E10 pulled into a construction site and spotted the fire but not a brush fire. Members could see a small fire but were not sure of exactly what it was. They approached cautiously as the engineer and officer talked about the deadly construction site fire in Kansas City that killed six firefighters. They found approximately 35 large pieces of heavy equipment parked in rows. They came to one of the large earthscrapers; saw a small fire the size of a bushel basket, which appeared to be an engine fire; and noticed two more smaller fires the size of a coffee can lid on the front right tire—nothing unusual.

E10 told E6 to stay at the entrance, find a water supply, and stand by. E10 members then pulled a line and hit the fire from a 457 angle but needed to get behind the tire. They repositioned themselves to the rear of the front tire when it blew—and it blew big. Witnesses described a fireball 50 to 100 feet in the air.

At that point, the officer was thrown east, and the firefighter was thrown west—each approximately 15 to 20 feet—and both were slammed into road graders. The third firefighter was walking down a row about 30 yards away to inspect other equipment; arson had initially been suspected. He was violently blown into the dirt. The engineer and the fifth firefighter were at the pump panel 40 feet away, saw a piece of tire hurling toward them, and hit the dirt. Dirt and debris were everywhere; four of five firefighters were down. Three of them were able to stand up, one could not, and all were hurt.

Then the second tire blew. The explosion knocked them all down again with the noise being the “loudest sound imaginable.” The engineer was able to take the line and start fighting the fire again when E6 arrived to take care of them. The explosions were heard miles away, and items were knocked off shelves in houses more than a mile away. The officer and the second firefighter were literally blown away from their helmets, which remained near where they fell; the officer’s hood was found 75 yards away from its wearer.

Facts: Each tire weighed 2,700 pounds and was 8 feet high and 3 feet wide. The tire and wheel assembly of the second tire weighed 5,000 to 6,000 pounds, went 12 feet in the air, and was found 74 feet away. Injuries consisted of second-degree burns to three firefighters, some hearing loss, possible limb fractures, vision and eye problems, one concussion, and some respiratory problems. All five members returned to work within two weeks.

Lessons learned: Treat any fire or heat of these types of large tires as a BOMB (per Michelin Tire Co). Approach scrapers on fire from the front or back only. Stay 300 feet away from the sides of the tires. Use the hoseline with the greatest reach possible (deck gun, remote monitor, turret lay), and position your crew with the least amount of exposure possible. Once you think the tire fire is out, do not approach it for 24 hours (per Caterpillar Inc.) because of pyrolization and the off-gassing of the hydrocarbon gas inside of the tire. Wait until the pressure is released from the heat buildup.

Outcome: These are new lessons learned for us—they are not lessons we’ve had to learn time and time again. Please share this information with your department and crews. We were lucky—damn lucky—to be able to tell you this story and not read it in a NIOSH line-of-duty death report.

Larry Anderson, assistant chief, Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue

Response: I think everyone in the fire-rescue service will agree that the most serious and consistent danger we face is operating on roadways. Every department I know has experienced close calls regularly on roadways and highways. Dallas Fire-Rescue is no exception. Dallas freeways have been a source of extreme danger to our fire/EMS personnel for years.

We experienced a tragedy a short while back that took the life of a Dallas police officer. This officer was in his patrol car with his emergency lights on, protecting a construction operation on the freeway, when a vehicle traveling at an extremely high rate of speed struck his cruiser from behind. The fuel tank ruptured and exploded, incinerating the police car. Our fire/EMS personnel were tasked with extinguishing the fire and extricating the body.

The companies involved in this operation knew this situation could just as easily have happened to them. As a result, they asked Fire Administration to look at ways to further protect our people working on the streets. We already had procedures in place regarding placement of apparatus and such to protect our responders, but a decision was made to look into additional measures to enhance safety.

We are a fairly large department with considerable resources, and we looked at using whatever we had to enhance the protection provided to emergency responders. A decision was made to dispatch a ladder truck along with an engine and a rescue on every freeway or highway call. The ladder truck is intended to be a “blocker,” positioned some distance upstream from the accident scene, to provide additional mass between out-of-control vehicles and our personnel.

We fully expect to sustain damage to our ladder trucks but feel it is an acceptable trade-off to protect our people. Hey, we might even be able to replace our fleet at the expense of offenders’ insurance companies. The point is, rolling stock can be replaced, but caring human responders cannot. To the credit of our ladder truck crews, I have not heard one word of complaint regarding the additional run loads imposed on our trucks as a result of this program.

Josh Thompson, lieutenant, Avon (IN) Fire Department

Response: We recently had a serious close call or near miss at a church fire that occurred early one morning in January. I was not at the incident, but I was able to view a brief video recording of the events. Five firefighters were within the sanctuary portion of the church, with little to no smoke or fire. The members heard popping sounds and thankfully decided to exit the building. A minute later, the entire roof of the sanctuary collapsed, injuring no one. The only corrective actions taken were assigning a safety officer on all working incidents as early as possible and conducting a post-incident analysis for that shift to discuss what went wrong during the entire incident.

Lance Peeples, instructor, St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy

Response: In April 2002, members of the Webster Groves (MO) Fire Department responded to a reported “chemical spill” at a printing company. On arrival, the first-due engine company determined that the “spill” was really water from a sprinkler system that had extinguished an incendiary fire. Unfortunately, another fire had been set in a remote mezzanine storage area that was not protected by sprinklers. By the time the balance of the first alarm arrived, the fire was roaring through the cockloft.

Because of the large open spans, the firefighters attacking the fire realized that some sort of truss must have been holding up the roof. Given the fact that there was a heavy fire condition in the cockloft and that their handlines were having little effect, the firefighters notified the incident commander that they were evacuating the building. Approximately 10 minutes after they got out of the building, it collapsed. The lessons learned or reinforced by this fire are the following:

1. Use 21/2-inch handlines when operating in commercial occupancies.

2. Stay on the line. This is not a private house where a window is three feet away. It would have been very easy to get lost in this fire.

3. Preplanning works; training on building construction is imperative.

4. If serious fire involves a truss assembly, evacuate the building IMMEDIATELY!