Sounding the Alarm

By William Shouldis

The Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, like countless others in the emergency services, takes advantage of seasonal changes when implementing public education programs. A practical example is how organizations gear up in the fall and spring for the semiannual campaign “Change Your Clock, Change Your Battery.” Locally for many years, the television and radio stations have done their share by making numerous public safety announcements. Yet, many individuals still do not understand that smoke detectors must be present on several levels in the home. As emergency responders, we are the vital link in “sounding the alarm” for effective public education programs.

It was exactly 0509 hours on March 3, 2002, when a phone call was received and first alarm companies were dispatched to 555 Alcott Street in Philadelphia. This small two-story frame and masonry structure was situated in a nice neighborhood. The frantic caller stated that a “house was burning and a family was trapped.”

The first company to arrive, Engine Co. 64, was informed by the “soot-covered” stepfather that other family members were still inside the burning structure. The officer-in-charge gave a verbal status report to the Dispatch Center and then the four-person company went into action. A clear rescue situation overrode any considerations on the mandatory two-in/two-out rule.

Flames were lapping from the first floor and extending to an adjoining dwelling on side “D.” An immediate search was necessary. This initial incident commander correctly chose the mobile command option. The Fire Attack Group initially stretched a 13/4- inch handline by way of the front entrance to begin to “beat back the flames” and confine the fire. The crew’s mission was to stop the spread of fire and create a “rescue path” between the front entrance and the interior stairs. The first-due ladder company was given the task of conducting a primary search for occupants.

The Search and Rescue Group was formed when its members arrived on the scene. The supervisor split the company into two crews. Two firefighters began working as an interior search crew and followed the hoseline until they could find the stairs to the second floor. They deployed to the last known location of the trapped occupants. Others team members began the “labor-intensive” exterior work of raising portable ladders to the windows for rescue.

The tactical resources were quickly depleted, and additional first-alarm units were assigned to support fire attack, ventilation, and search. Soon, the Search Group found the victim, a 14-year-old boy, face down trying to escape from the second-floor middle room. In another room, two pet dogs were overcome by the smoke. All perished. The short but intense fire had taken a deadly toll. From the stationary command post in front of the structure, I watched as the final flames were confined and extinguished.

During overhaul, a “working” smoke detector was found, but it did not activate. Unfortunately, it was located below the fire floor in the basement. Tragically, a young life was lost because a simply fire safety message was not
completely understood. Informing the parents of a fire fatality is always difficult. In this case, it was troublesome because the death was purely preventable.

Firefighters must understand that “real” public education means more
than giving out pamphlets, showing children a nozzle pattern, and installing smoke detectors. It is a commitment to making a fire-safe community. Today’s responders face many tough challenges; sharing experiences is the easy part. Smoke detectors must be maintained and installed on all levels inside a structure. “Size up” your current risk reduction programs. Are you properly “sounding the alarm” for all to understand?

William Shouldis is a deputy chief with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he has served for more than 29 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy’s resident and field programs, teaching courses in fireground operations, health and safety, and prevention. Shouldis has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and a frequent FDIC speaker.

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