Flashover. What is a flashover? What happens inside a flashover? What do you do if you or your crew members are trapped inside a flashover? How do you increase your chance of surviving a flashover? Are you physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to protect yourself in a flashover?
All of these questions race through your mind during training evolutions throughout the year. Truth be known, many firefighters will most likely tell themselves they and their crew will never experience a flashover if they are good at what they do. My crew understands how important it is to read smoke, look at the conditions presenting from the structure, and recognize the warning signs of potential failures. As a matter of fact, I was one of those individuals who thought I would never experience a flashover. I thought I was invincible! I told myself and my family that being injured on the fireground would not happen to me. I was wrong! I now live with the damage that third-degree burns from a flashover caused to 50 percent of my body. It was not planned or something I could imagine would happen to me. What if you happen to find yourself trapped in a situation where the only option is to go into survival mode? Are you prepared for that? Every firefighter understands the characteristics, definitions, and the warning signs of a flashover, but what about how to survive one?
(1) RIT members entering the structure to begin rescue operations. [Photo courtesy of the Bryan (TX) Fire Department.]
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My Encounter with a Flashover
The night I became entrapped in a flashover, I did everything I could to buy more time as I waited for fellow firefighters to rescue me from the building. The window of survivability was closing every second I was inside the structure. Every second matters.
On February 15, 2013, the Bryan (TX) Fire Department responded to 1500 Groesbeck Street for a commercial structure fire at the Knights of Columbus Hall. The first company officer on scene, Lt. Eric Wallace on Engine 1, reported fire visible from the A-B corner. Engines 1 and 2 and Truck 1 entered the building to conduct an offensive attack. After a short time, the conditions inside the structure changed rapidly, and Engine 1’s crew became separated and began to run low on air. Command deployed the rapid intervention team (RIT), consisting of the crew from Engine 5, Lt. Greg Pickard, Mitch Moran, and me.
On entering the structure, we encountered thick black smoke and high heat. The smoke was banked down to the floor and there was zero visibility. We followed Engine 1’s hoseline through the building and located Wallace 40 to 50 feet inside the structure. As the RIT was exiting the structure dragging Wallace, I heard a loud missile-like sound, and the room ignited instantaneously. We were enveloped by a sustained flashover.
I found myself crying for help not only for myself, but for all the RIT members and Wallace. I stood up and looked around for an exit or a safe refuge area. I had never been in a situation like this before and, honestly, I never expected to be. I immediately went back to my basic training, the foundation on which I base my career as a firefighter.
I saw bright white and yellow flames throughout the building; they were hampering my vision. They were moving very slowly across my face as if time were slowing down and coming to an end. As I continued to look for an exit, an exterior wall, or a safe refuge area, the high-pressure hose on my self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) melted, depleting my air supply. I told myself I had to stay low and get on the floor. The other firefighters and I continued to scream as we were trying to find an exit. As I took a step to exit the structure with Engine 1’s hoseline, I collapsed in the prone position from physical exhaustion.
Understanding that the SCBA mask is the weakest part of my personal protective equipment ensemble, I told myself that I had to protect it from direct flame and extreme heat conditions. I didn’t have any air supply at this point, so I held my breath and tried to stay calm. I had to collect my emotions while dealing with the physical, mental, and emotional pain. I was faced with the thought that I would not survive, and now I was scared.
The fire surrounded me. I was trapped with nowhere to go. I had never felt as fatigued in my life. I was not even able to crawl; I was so exhausted. I found myself in survival mode. I had to bear down and take it on the chin. I needed to buy more time in the hope that other firefighters could locate and remove me from this nightmare.
At this point, I covered my mask with my gloved hands to protect it from the direct flames. I understood that my SCBA mask could potentially fail and that pulling my hood over my mask would potentially gain me another second of survival. After pulling my hood down, I placed my gloved hands on my hood as an extra barrier in an attempt to keep my SCBA mask cool and away from the direct flame (photo 2).
(2) Pull the hood over your SCBA mask and use your hands to protect the mask from direct flames and heat. (Photos 2 and 3 by author.)
As I lay there listening to the roar of the fire surrounding me, I constantly prayed that this sound would end so I could continue to look for an exit. Instead, the roar got louder and louder. I heard loud banging noises coming from everywhere inside the structure, and I could still hear the other firefighters screaming inside the structure. I held my breath and prayed for a miracle.
My mind told me to take off my mask because I needed to take a breath. It seemed as if I had a five-minute conversation with myself about taking off my mask. I never took my mask or any other PPE off my body that night. I took small, quick breaths; every time I took a breath, I felt the suction of my SCBA mask on my face. I felt as if I were inside this inferno for several minutes and that I would never get out by taking minimal breaths alone. I never dreamed that I would face a situation where I was trapped and surrounded by fire, desperately trying to buy myself an extra second of survival.
The crew members of Engine 2, Truck 1, and Engine 4 rushed inside the inferno, began fire attacks, and removed the RIT members and Wallace from the structure. We were all severely burned and were taken to a local hospital for evaluation and then were airlifted to a burn center for treatment. Unfortunately, Wallace succumbed to his injuries at the hospital in Bryan. A few short hours later, Pickard passed away at the burn center in Galveston, Texas.
My Postincident Analysis
As I recovered from my injuries I constantly thought about the fire. I replayed the events of that night, including the actions I took to survive. It was as if they had occurred yesterday. Of those actions, what did I do that bought me another second of my life? When I joined the fire service, I was blessed with strong leaders who stressed the importance of training and always being prepared throughout your career. I read a lot of articles and publications about flashovers, but how do you increase your chances of survival during a flashover? What could I have done differently to protect my body and avoid the injuries I have today?
During the rescue, we were caught inside a flashover and trapped by fire. We were completely surrounded by the flames, and we had no exit path from the structure. We had no knowledge of a location of an exterior wall or a safe refuge area. We had only one option left: to survive. Stay low, stay calm, protect yourself the best way you possibly can, and pay attention to your surroundings.
As I mentioned before, I lay down on the floor in the prone position and covered my SCBA mask with my hood. I placed my gloved hands on top of my hood to help protect it from coming in contact with the direct flame. As a result, my hands were severely burned and are deformed today. I ask myself, what could I have done differently to help protect not only my respiratory system but my body as well?
After looking at my injuries and the injuries of the other firefighters with me that night, I wondered: If this were to happen to me again, what would I do to buy myself time and to protect myself from the extreme heat and direct flame contact? Because every second matters.
Last Resort Option
Consider the following information as an absolute last resort. This is advice for when you find yourself in a situation in which you are not able to move because of physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion and you are waiting for firefighters to rescue you from the structure.
Lie down in the prone position on the floor. Make sure your legs are together and not spread apart. This will reduce the areas exposed to direct flame impingement.
Use your hood to help protect your SCBA mask from failure from direct flame and extreme heat conditions. To do this, pull your hood down or up over your SCBA mask. Try your best to ensure the hood is covering the entire SCBA mask. Instead of placing your gloved hands over the covered SCBA mask, cross your arms and place both hands under your armpits. This method will hopefully protect your gloved hands from the direct flame contact and the superheated gases that could lead to severe burn injuries. Place your covered SCBA mask in the crease of one of your elbows and press down, ensuring your covered mask will not be exposed to the flames. This will help prevent the flame and heat from contacting your SCBA mask and causing possible failure (photo 3).
(3) Protect yourself from the direct flames and heat while reducing the direct flame impingement.
This will also reduce the surface area of your body exposed to direct flame and extreme heat. With your gloved hands under your armpits, you are also gaining access to several valuable lifesaving tools located on your chest. Your personal alert safety system (PASS) device is close to your armpit; you can activate and alert other crew members on scene to locate and rescue you.
The other tool is your portable radio. Depending on the manufacturer, brand, and style of the portable radio your department uses and according to local policies, many firefighters have a lapel mic on the exterior of the bunker coat for communicating with the incident commander or other crew members on scene. This will also allow you to activate the emergency button and initiate a Mayday while still protecting yourself and minimizing the surface area exposed from the direct flame and extreme heat conditions.
Stay calm! This is one of the hardest things you will have to do, but it is the most important action for survival. During a flashover, so many things are running through your mind at an extreme rate, and it is hard to focus on what is happening. The fact is that the more excited you become, the more oxygen and energy you consume. For the time being, you have not located an exit path, an exterior wall, or a safe refuge area inside the structure and have committed yourself to survival during the flashover. Continue to monitor the atmosphere and radio, and consider the possibility that other crew members may be on scene. Communicate with them as often as you can to give directions to the RIT so they can rescue you.
Train, train, train. This survival position will not come naturally to you, but training in this position will increase your chance of survival. This is true for everyone in the fire service, whether you are a new recruit learning how to properly put on your turnout gear or you have been in the fire service for a number of years.
I know firsthand how your entire life can change in a matter of seconds. I thought I was invincible. Being injured on the fireground is something I thought would never happen to me. I was wrong! All of us there that night were trained and equipped to perform RIT operations, and we came to realize that bad things can happen even when you’re doing your job to the best of your ability. You should always be willing to learn new techniques because you never know what situation you will encounter.
You train daily not only to protect yourself in dangerous situations but also to protect your family from having to deal with a nightmare. Every action you take on the fireground affects not only you but also your family. My life changed in the blink of an eye. Not only did my life change, but my family’s life changed as well. To this day, having been severely burned has been an emotional battle with good days and bad days. The pain and the struggles I experience are overwhelming not only for me but also for my family.
Train hard every day as if your life depends on it because you are training to protect not only yourself but your family as well. Every day you train presents an opportunity to shave seconds off the task you are trying to accomplish because every second matters.
RICKY MANTEY has served the Bryan (TX) Fire Department as a firefighter since October 2007. He has paramedic, hazardous materials technician, and swift water rescue technician certifications through Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. On February 15, 2013, he and his engine company were deployed as the RIT to rescue a down firefighter; he sustained third-degree burns on 50 percent of his body. Among the awards he has received are the Star of Texas Award from Texas Governor Ricky Perry; the Medal of Valor; and the Firefighter of the Year Award from the 100 Club in Houston, Texas. He returned to work in May 2015 in the Fire Administration Office.