Common Sense for Uncommon Events

BOBBY HALTON   BY BOBBY HALTON

The Tulsa (OK) Fire Department responded to a school fire at a charter school for the Arts and Sciences at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday. The first due secured a water supply outside and gave a size-up that indicated significant fire involvement in a classroom on the A side with flames venting to the exterior. Handlines were laid to the window, and master streams were directed on fire inside. After knocking down most of the visible fire and performing considerable horizontal ventilation, crews decided to force entry and complete the extinguishment process. A full first alarm was on scene, and an additional alarm had been struck because of the size of the fire and the structure. The school was built in the 1920s and was well-maintained and cared for. The original tar-and-gravel flat roof had been replaced with a metal pitched roofing system.

With adequate personnel on scene, two companies combined to advance an extended 1¾-inch handline to the interior, a well-seasoned incident commander (IC) had command, and a veteran well-disciplined captain took command of the advance of the handline stretch. All outside streams were shut down, and the fireground was well-commanded; the rapid intervention team (RIT) was in place and ready. With deliberate caution, the captain positioned his personnel on the line and at the A side door to advance the line correctly. He checked the doors as he advanced approximately 150 feet down the hall. On discovering the fire room, he opened the door briefly to orient himself and saw flames in the corner, confirming the fire’s location.

The captain had three firefighters at the door with him and four back along the hallway and at the door. He opened the door to verify the fire’s location. As he shut the door, the floor began to shake violently and, unbeknownst to the interior firefighters, a backdraft occurred in the void space between the floor and the foundation, knocking down the firefighters at the door and dropping ceiling tiles and other debris on them in the process. The backdraft also stirred the gases and O2 in the void space above the room created by the pitch roof sufficiently to cause a second backdraft of much larger proportions to erupt, engulfing the entire hallway in flames. The firefighters feeding the line and at the door were knocked down and received serious burns, including burns to their ears where their double-walled Nomex® hoods were burnt through.

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The RIT deployed on command to help extract one of the firefighters who was at A entrance and knocked down the hall; he sustained burns to his torso and ears. The other firefighters, falling back on their recent self-rescue training, located the handline and followed it out to safety. With the structure now extremely well involved in fire, command accounted for the personnel, secured medical care and transport, struck additional alarms and notifications, and assumed a defensive posture. The entire event was captured on film by a local CBS affiliate.

All the firefighters are expected to recover fully. The fire was investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) national response team. ATF expert fire behavior specialist Jamie Lord provided the details of the hostile event. He stated it was a perfect storm: fire in a concealed void below, open space in between, and a large volume of gases above the room. An open vertical shaft in the floor just behind the door, fed by the cool air-gravity current when the captain opened the door, was the fuse that triggered the event. He further stated there were no warning signs whatsoever reported or visible on the film. The fire room was extremely well ventilated with several large window features completely removed, no puffing, no in-and-out smoke-no warning signs at all.

The ATF national response team also uniformly reported none of them; all experienced veteran investigators stated they had never seen anything like this double backdraft before. We should also note this was a structure fire and there was no unusual or significant fuel load or lightweight assemblies. Legacy construction structural elements were on fire.

As firefighters, we need to constantly be aware that every day we are encountering situations that, whether because of technology, society, advances, or changes, have never happened before. Many times, “because it has never happened before” is the reason we were called. There are no absolutes. Things which we have not dreamed of or modeled in simulations or in laboratories are going to happen and can kill or injure us quickly and unexpectedly. We will never know everything or be able to predict everything that can possibly happen. But we should prepare and learn especially from things that have happened, regardless of how rare.

There is a growing debate on the value of and need for RIT. Outside of the school fire, the public information officer for Tulsa remarked about how quickly and efficiently the RIT worked at this particular fire. He said, “Yeah, Bobby, we are really fortunate to have very squared-away firegrounds. We have had to deploy our RIT companies about six times in the past nine months, including to extract a firefighter in full arrest, who was resuscitated and has returned to work.”

Facts are stubborn things. RIT works. The numbers of saves don’t lie. We also need to have adequate backup staffing, or “on deck” crews, at all working fires. Tulsa does both. There is an old expression, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water.” It is time for common sense to prevail. We can’t have too much redundancy in our safety procedures. We must learn from the experience of others and do both: Staff your fireground and staff your RIT, because bad things are going to happen.

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