A Close Call
In my experience as a firefighter with the City of Englewood (NJ) Fire Department, I have responded to all types of alarms ranging from the mundane, everyday service call to a fourth-alarm defensive firefight. Yet, this seemingly routine fire will be etched in my memory forever.
I was the assigned truck chauffeur. Our department places heavy emphasis on truck company operations. Procedures for structure-related responses dictate that the truck be first due with the first- and second-due engines following. This gives the truck access to the front of the building, enhancing our operations.
On arrival, units found smoke pouring from the front door. The on-duty captain transmitted a second alarm as we rolled into the street. The other members of the truck company entered the structure.
Outside, engine companies were laying supply and attack lines in the street. I could not position the tower ladder for ladder operations because power lines were blocking access to the front of the building. The interior truck company was reporting a delay in finding the seat of the fire because of the presence of rack storage in the area.
After conducting my own size-up of the building, I realized we had a fire in a windowless basement and that my duties on the exterior would be limited. Therefore, I decided to enter the basement and assist the other truck company members in finding the seat of the fire. I notified my captain about my intention to do this.
While entering the basement, I propped open the door with my halligan tool. I felt that this would serve as our only vent hole, and I did not want the door to close and lock on us while we were in the basement.
At the base of the stairs, I was met by a heavy smoke condition with some heat. I could hear the sprinkler system operating on the fire but I couldn`t tell where. The engine company was beginning its advance down the stairs. I grabbed a wall and began my search. Visibility was zero, and the rack storage created a major orientation problem for me; during my search, I came off the wall numerous times.
I found the fire in the rear corner of the basement, at the C and D sides. It burned in boxes and other materials stored on the shelves in this area. I radioed the location of the fire to the engine company, whose members began to aggressively move in and extinguish the fire. I don`t know exactly how long I was operating in the basement–maybe 10 to 15 minutes–but right about this time, my low-air alarm activated.
TRYING TO GET OUT
I knew it had taken me some time to find the fire and that it was going to take me about the same time to get out. This was not a situation to be in. Deep in the basement with my low-air alarm sounding, I turned around and attempted to exit by following the same path I had taken on the way in. I remember thinking: If my low-air alarm is activated now, I will not have enough time to get myself out of the area. I oriented myself with the wall and began to move toward the exit. I think I got about 20 feet into my retreat when I hit a dead-end corner of the basement.
Now, I was totally disoriented and lost in the room. I reached for my radio and was about to request a “Mayday,” but this ego thing went off in the back of my head. I decided not to call for help. I figured that I would able to get myself out without any assistance.
I decided to find the attack line and follow it out of the basement. Now I was crawling fast and furious over debris on the floor, desperately trying to find the hoseline. I could hear the engine company operation on the fire, but I didn`t know where the members were in the room. Then I discovered a hoseline and began to follow it out. I was making good progress, I thought–until I reached the nozzle! (The first attack team was by this time exiting the building for a new air supply, and the relief attack team was entering the building.)
Now, panic quickly set in. I knew I was in serious trouble. My mind was racing so that I felt as though I had forgotten all the skills I had grasped throughout my career.
I had always believed that I could get myself out of any situation. How wrong I was. Disorientation and panic cause you to do things you don`t normally do.
I turned around on the hose and again began to follow it out. I got to a point where I found the hose kinked into a figure eight. I stood up to try to get myself through it. My air supply cut out.
Somehow, I got close to the stairs. It was there that second-alarm relief companies, just entering the basement, bumped into me. I screamed through my mask for directions to the stairs. They indicated the way. I began to run up to the exit. But someone had removed the halligan I had used to prop open the basement door on my way in. The door had closed (there was enough space between the bottom of the door and the floor for the door to close over the hoseline) and locked, leaving me stranded at the top of the stairs. I did not have a tool with me, so I gave the door a couple of stiff shoulders, and I was able to get myself out of the basement.
Once I was out on the street and at the rehab area, I began to feel shaken by what just happened to me. Many different thoughts were racing through my head–the panic, the smoke, and the seriousness of the situation.
LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED
We all make mistakes, but in this business, stupid decisions can cost us our lives. I also know that I possess excellent firefighting skills. I have had many great teachers throughout my career; they gave me the opportunity to learn and to become a better firefighter. However, I can tell you that once you become disoriented and panicked, all those skills and experience can quickly disappear.
At the very first hint of danger, I should have radioed for help. There was a FAST team in the street, and I didn`t call it.
My PASS alarm was on, but it never activated because I was moving. I should have activated it manually.
Since my first day on the job. I have always carried a 50-foot piece of personal search rope in my pants pocket. I should have used it.
I normally pay better attention to the amount of air I have used. I didn`t monitor it as I usually do. Not doing this at a fire could cost you your life.
I learned much from this experience, but what really sticks in my mind is that this story could have had a tragic ending–all for what started out as a typical, common fire. Obviously, the old quote “No fire is routine” certainly is true in this case. At first, I was a little apprehensive about writing about this experience, but Chief Moran convinced me that my experience would be a great lesson to share with my follow firefighters. This experience certainly has allowed me to improve my margin of safety on the fireground. I hope it will do the same for you.
MICHAEL MARINO has been a member of the fire service for nine years. For the past six years, he has been a firefighter in the City of Englewood (NJ) Fire Department. He is state certified as a Firefighter III, Emergency Medical Technician, and Confined Space Technician.