DON`T BE A VICTIM OF THE “ROUTINE” FIRE
Some fireground occurrences become imbedded in a firefighter`s mind as his firefighting experience builds. Through these incidents–good or bad–we acquire the experience needed to carry us safely into retirement. It is vital that this information be shared with other firefighters in an effort to reduce fireground deaths and injuries. The incident described below is one of those I will not forget. I share with you the details of this supposedly routine fire that almost turned tragic for several members of the Englewood (NJ) Fire Department so that the lessons it taught us will save firefighters` lives in the future.
On October 19, 1998, at 0843 hours, we responded to an activated water flow alarm at Sultan Dental Products. The 250-foot x 150-foot, one-story, commercial building of ordinary construction was divided into three sections: office, warehouse, and distribution. Fire protection was provided by a wet-pipe sprinkler system throughout the entire complex. No smoke detection devices were present.
Located beneath the first-floor office portion of the building was a 60-foot x 30-foot windowless vault-like section of the basement used for storing stock, records, and other miscellaneous items. This storage was located on several rows of metal-frame shelves (approximately 10 feet high x 30 feet long) extending from floor to ceiling. One stairwell covered by a hollow-core wood door entering into the first-floor office served as the entrance and exit point for the basement.
On arrival of the fire department, smoke was pushing from the front door of the building and the sprinkler system water motor gong was sounding. Employees were exiting the building. Occupants told the on-duty captain that they were not sure if anyone had gone down to the basement that morning and might still be there.
The captain along with a firefighter from his truck company (consisting of the officer, a chauffeur, and a firefighter) entered the building. They encountered a heavy smoke condition coming from the basement. The firefighter forced open the basement door and they descended. They had difficulty locating the seat of the fire and conducting primary search operations because of the heavy smoke condition and storage shelving in the area.
Meanwhile, engine company members established a water supply and stretched a preconnected two-inch attack line into the structure while additional lines were stretched to supplement the sprinkler system. Because of the need for additional personnel at the scene, the captain requested a second alarm. The transmittal of this alarm automatically brings a mutual-aid truck company to the scene as a FAST team and an engine and truck company to headquarters to provide coverage for additional alarms. It also recalls all off-duty department personnel and notifies the department chief and deputy chief to respond.
The heat condition encountered by initial interior crews advancing into the basement was high but not unbearable. The basement`s windowless construction made standard ventilation practices impossible. This led to an extremely heavy smoke condition, making the advancement of the initial attack line to the seat of the fire a slow, laborious task.
During the descent into the basement, a member of the engine company fell down the stairs onto another firefighter. This fall disoriented both members and knocked the SCBA face piece off one, subjecting him to the severe smoke condition. This mishap led to a delay in advancing the initial hoseline. Once reoriented, these engine company members continued their advance to find the seat of the fire.
On his arrival, Firefighter Michael Marino, the truck chauffeur, was unable to position the apparatus in front of the building because overhead wires prohibited the use of the aerial platform. His personal size-up of the building indicated that the fire was in a windowless basement and that any exterior ventilation would be impossible. Therefore, he decided to enter the building and assist the interior team with the search, contacting his officer inside via portable radio regarding his intention to do so. What occurred thereafter–Marino`s disorientation and the near tragedy–made this fire unforgettable for Marino and the entire department (see “A Close Call” on page 100).
The truck company members conducting primary searches in the basement located the fire and directed the engine company to the area so they could extinguish it. With the initial attack line now controlling the fire, the sprinkler system was located and shut down. All firefighting operations now appeared to be proceeding in routine fashion.
HAZARDS AFTER EXTINGUISHMENT
With the fire now under control, several of the off-duty members responding on the second alarm were assigned to salvage and overhaul duties. While completing this task in the still smoke-filled basement, these personnel admitted to removing their SCBA regulators, and at times their masks, to speak to each other. After only a few minutes of operating in this atmosphere, several of these firefighters began experiencing dizziness, nausea, and heart palpitations. Fortunately, they recognized that they were in serious trouble and self-exited the basement. The Englewood Ambulance Corps transported seven members who had been operating in the windowless basement to the local trauma center.
After their on-scene assessment, ambulance corps personnel indicated that the firefighters could be experiencing symptoms related to carbon monoxide poisoning. Because of the type of manufacturing process (dental products) conducted in the building and the unknown health issues confronting the firefighters, command requested that the Bergen County Hazardous Material Team respond to the scene.
Mechanical ventilation of the basement was implemented. A crew of firefighters then entered the area with a meter to determine if the injured firefighters were experiencing symptoms related to elevated levels of carbon monoxide or some other hazardous material. As soon as the firefighters entered the basement, the meter quickly rose to its maximum level of 1,000 parts per million (ppm). The decision was made to await the arrival of the haz-mat team so that the reading could be confirmed with the team`s monitoring equipment and the smoke-filled area could be checked for the presence of other contaminants.
The haz-mat team`s equipment revealed a carbon monoxide reading of between 3,000 and 4,000 ppm. At these levels, exposure to carbon monoxide can severely injure or kill firefighters operating within the environment. It was obvious that these high levels of CO were directly responsible for the injuries sustained by the transported firefighters.
At this time, command ordered all personnel to evacuate the building. An operational plan was developed to ensure that the products of combustion were properly ventilated from the area before any additional operations were initiated. After ventilating the area, the basement was constantly monitored during salvage and overhaul operations to ensure that personnel were not subjected to further contamination. Fire investigation unit members were then asked to come to the scene to conduct the origin and cause investigation, with which the Bergen County Prosecutors Office Arson Squad assisted. Investigators attributed the cause of the fire to be improperly discarded smoking materials.
LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED
Use of search rope in this type of environment is essential to firefighter safety. Primary search operations are difficult under any circumstances. This danger increases immensely when personnel are confronted with structures containing rack storage and areas incapable of being ventilated by standard practices. Where applicable, employ the team search technique.
”Cold” carbon monoxide (such as that created by sprinkler spray or nozzle streams) has little buoyancy. The amount of carbon monoxide in confined areas such as vault-like basements can rise to deadly levels.
Proper use of SCBA is imperative while operating within a smoke-filled environment. The days of “leather lung” firefighting are over. Materials involved in today`s fires often are very different from those in past years. At this incident, a smoldering fire led to incomplete combustion of burning material, creating a deadly level of carbon monoxide. Protect yourself and your fellow firefighters by wearing SCBA at every incident. Do not become a statistic.
Monitor the environment. Multigas and carbon monoxide meters are becoming smaller and less expensive. Monitoring the area in which you are operating for contaminants before removing SCBA will ensure the safety of fire suppression personnel operating in immediately dangerous to life and health atmospheres.
Use the buddy system for all searches, and maintain intracompany accountability.
All members must realize the importance of maintaining the integrity of egress routes–chocking doors, etc.
Prefire planning is necessary. All members of the department should have a thorough knowledge of the structures in which they will be operating and their internal hazards. Develop and implement a program that offers your department members the opportunity to visit these buildings.
Train personnel on the importance of proper communication. Without a doubt, the single most significant piece of safety equipment firefighters carry is a portable radio. Firefighters who find themselves trapped or in need of assistance can quickly relay their location to rescue team personnel to expedite their removal. In this incident, the disoriented firefighter felt he would be able to escape without assistance from the FAST team members. This attitude almost cost him his life. Firefighters should never hesitate to issue a “Mayday” when in need of assistance.
Following hoselines out of a structure is not a reliable practice of self-removal. This method is difficult to master under normal circumstances. When you factor in the panic and disorientation that can occur when a firefighter is lost inside a structure, it becomes virtually impossible. Train department personnel on the various techniques of self-rescue currently available to the fire service. Giving firefighters the opportunity to practice and develop proficiency with these common sense techniques will immensely increase their safety on the fireground.
Note: While critiquing this fire, we realized that our margin of safety with regard to using hoselines as a method of exiting a structure could be vastly improved. After several inquiries, we purchased a rather inexpensive piece of equipment called the “Bernard Easy Exit System,” which consists of a durable piece of rubber with a raised yellow directional arrow on two sides. The length of the individual attack line dictates the number of rubber “bands” that need to be purchased. When installed at predetermined points on these lines, firefighters can follow the directional arrow to the exterior of the building.
As a result of this fire, the Englewood Fire Department has developed new guidelines for the use of SCBA and has improved training in rope-guided searches and firefighter survival techniques. A personal lesson engraved in our memory from this incident is that our department should not play catch-up with our members` safety. We have talked about this fire extensively in our department, and we are developing standard operating procedures for our suppression operations.
Aggressive interior firefighting is dangerous and unsafe. Be prepared for the job before leaving the safety of the apparatus floor. Improve your chances of surviving an interior firefight by being proactive in developing policies and procedures dedicated to enhancing the safety of personnel, and train in them until they become second nature.
ROBERT MORAN, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the City of Englewood (NJ) Fire Department and coordinator of volunteers. He is also an investigator with the Bergen County (NJ) Arson Task Force. He has a bachelor`s degree in fire science and is state certified as a Fire Official, a Level II Fire Instructor, a Haz Mat Specialist, and an Arson Investigator. He is a member of the NJ Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 and an educational advisory board member of the FDIC.