Firefighter Trapped in the Floor: The Rochester Drill

BY SCOTT JOERGER

In November 2006, Rochester (NY) Fire Department members were dispatched to a report of a house fire in an area known for fire activity. There was an error in the dispatch, and the fire companies were first sent to the wrong address. When they finally arrived on-scene at the correct location, they were confronted with heavy fire from the first and second levels of a 1 1⁄2-story wood-frame dwelling. The structure appeared to be vacant, so firefighters began an exterior attack.

Crews headed inside to complete extinguishment, and hoselines were sent to the first and second levels. Wearing full turnout gear and SCBA, a nozzleman and a captain were the first to move up to the second level with a 1 3⁄4-inch handline. They headed across the floor from the rear of the house toward the front to extinguish visible fire. Both firefighters were on their knees working; suddenly, the captain began to fall through the wood floor, which was constructed of 1- × 6-inch tongue-and-groove boards. The ceiling of the first level below was constructed of plaster and wood lath. As he struggled to free himself, the captain continued to sink through the floor and the ceiling of the floor below. His SCBA cylinder caught and did not pass through the floor; this stopped him from going completely through and falling into the first level. He was now trapped in the floor almost up to his armpits and unable to free himself.

The wedged SCBA bottle pushed up on the back rim of his helmet. Since his chin strap was fastened, the front part of the helmet pushed down onto his face piece, pushing it away from his face. Air from his SCBA escaped, so he used his arms to try to push himself up to keep the SCBA cylinder from pushing onto his helmet so he could maintain a face piece seal. This proved difficult, and he was unable to call his Mayday over the portable radio microphone attached to his collar.

He also began to swing his feet in the hopes of finding a wall or something solid to stand on to support his weight so he could push up and free himself. There was nothing below him, and he lost more air as a result of this movement. At this time, the low-air warning on his SCBA sounded.

The nozzleman quickly realized what happened and came to assist, but he could not pull the captain up. Other rescuers arrived to help shortly thereafter; they also had problems pulling the captain up and out of the floor. Every movement caused more air to escape out of his face piece. Soon, the air pressure left in the captain’s SCBA was so low that the low-air warning alarm stopped. Just as his air ran out, rescuers were able to pull him up and out of the floor. He moved quickly to escape but inhaled several breaths of hot and toxic smoke. He made it outside the house and collapsed by a side door. He was transported by ambulance to the closest hospital and was treated for smoke inhalation, bone fractures, and exhaustion. It was a very close call for him, and he was unable to return to work for several months.

Another fire department in the area was not so lucky. Some years back, Avon (NY) Volunteer Fire Department Firefighter Keith Farr became trapped in the floor while battling a fire at a tavern. Firefighters were unable to free him, and the fire eventually became so intense that rescuers had to abandon the effort. Farr died in the line of duty.

FLOOR ENTRAPMENT

Firefighters can become trapped in the floor at fires for a number of reasons, usually the result of a localized failure of a wood floor. A large-area failure of the floor would result in floor collapse with the firefighter’s falling all the way through and landing in the lower level. The localized floor failure can be seen in wood frame (Type V), heavy timber (Type IV), and ordinary (Type III) construction. Type III and Type V construction wood floors are made up of floor decking supported by floor joists, wood I-beams, or floor trusses. Floor decking is typically made up of tongue-and-groove boards (in older construction), 3⁄4-inch plywood (in buildings built between the 1960s and the 1990s), and 3⁄4-inch oriented strand board (OSB) in newer construction. These floors may consist of a subfloor or two, also made of wood.

Type IV construction wood floors are found in the older mill-style buildings. These floors and supporting members have greater mass, but a localized failure can still occur. In neglected buildings, wood rot is a common source of failure and may be seen in all construction types using wood floors, but it is very apparent in Type IV construction as a result of age and use.

Intense fire can reduce the wood floor’s structural integrity and is the main cause of a localized failure. Intense fires can result from the heavy fire conditions following a flashover, a fire involving a foam chair or sofa (the floor underneath and around is an exposure and may burn with greater intensity), burning plastics and foam (which may liquefy/melt and flow to the floor), and flammable liquids (which pool on the floor or are absorbed into the wood).

A fire one level below can weaken the floor from the underside. This may be limited to one area, or the failure could create a trench that follows the underside of the floor bay created by floor supports and floor decking. Structure fires are very unpredictable, and there are many other reasons for the failure. For example, at the Avon, New York, fire, Farr had become trapped in a floor HVAC register after the fire had burned around from below. These situations are not apparent to firefighters when operating at a structure fire. As a result, a firefighter could fall into the floor and become trapped (the focus of this article) or fall all the way through the floor to the lower level.

The wood floor’s reaction when a firefighter falls into it is another consideration. If the floor does not completely collapse, the firefighter may become stuck and wedged in the floor. The whole floor does not give way, so the firefighter is partially or fully surrounded by floor, which will hold the member in place. Attempting to move the entrapped firefighter upward out of the floor may be difficult.

Also, in most residential buildings, floor supports run 16 inches on center, creating a tight space of just 14 1⁄2 inches between floor joists when dimensional lumber is used. When wood I-beams or trusses are used at 16 inches on center, the space between the wood chords will be less than 14 1⁄2 inches. Even the most slender firefighters wearing bunker pants and turnout coats can become wedged in the tight space between floor supports.

Finally, floor decking can act like a fishhook as rescuers try to pull the trapped firefighter up and out of the hole. When the firefighter first falls in, the wood floor components bend downward, creating the hole and the resistance that hold the trapped firefighter in place. As rescuers attempt to pull the trapped firefighter upward, the wood floor members straighten, reducing the size of the hole, and the floor members now dig into the trapped firefighter and hold him in place.

Any time a firefighter falls into a floor, the rescuers are going to have a difficult time lifting him up and out. When you think about it, a firefighter weighs 190 pounds; add on another 50 pounds for clothing, turnout gear, and SCBA. Add on more weight if the clothing and turnout gear are wet. Add more if the firefighter is stuck or wedged. It will probably take 400 pounds or more of force to lift this firefighter up and out of a hole. At least two to four firefighters will be needed for this rescue, and they will have a tough time finding something to grab or hold onto for the lift. The rescue can also be complicated because the floor around the trapped firefighter may be unstable as a result of fire damage.

THE ROCHESTER DRILL

You must learn how to rescue a firefighter entrapped in a floor before it actually happens. The drill should allow rescue firefighters to practice getting a firefighter out of the floor and what to do to remove themselves from the floor if they should become trapped. A vacant house or building with wood floors slated for demolition is the best place to set up the drill.

If this is not an option, construct a mock-up floor at the training academy or fire station, and add it to other firefighter survival mock-ups you may already have. Start by building a floor using 3⁄4-inch OSB or plywood for floor decking. Support this with 2- × 8-inch or greater dimensional lumber to serve as floor joists, running 16 inches on center. Design it so the trapped firefighter’s legs are not supported so he can practice self-rescue techniques with the legs.

Whether using a mock-up or a vacant building, take a saw and cut a 14 1⁄2- by 14-inch hole in the middle of the floor. Cut a triangular inspection hole large enough so an arm can reach in and locate the floor joist and its orientation. Expand the opening, making two 14 1⁄2-inch-long cuts about 14 inches apart between and parallel to the floor joists. You may need to expand the 14-inch cut, but try to keep the opening small (photo 1). You will find that even an average-sized firefighter weighing 190 pounds can fit into this opening. If using a vacant building, remove any obstacles inside the hole or below it, such as the ceiling of the floor below, if making the hole on an upper level. If on the first level, remove pipes, wires, and HVAC equipment.


1. Photos by author.

Place the firefighter “victim,” wearing full protective equipment and SCBA, into the hole so that he has his elbows and forearms on the floor for support. Prop the SCBA bottle up against the floor so that it pushes upward on the helmet, which in turn will push down on the face piece, breaking the seal and allowing air to escape, as in the incident described above.

This drill can be practiced using two, three, and four firefighters as rescuers from the RIT/FAST team and using normal and obscured vision. The RIT/FAST team should be equipped with hand tools and a spare SCBA or a rescue pack SCBA.

When the firefighters get to the victim, they should first determine if the area around the trapped member is a safe workplace by sounding out the floor with tools to determine its stability. How to make an unsafe floor stable enough to work on is discussed below.

Second, rescue firefighters should correct any air-leakage problems with the face piece affecting the victim by loosening the helmet chinstrap or disconnecting it if necessary.

Third, the team must ensure that the victim has enough air to exit the building. If the team is working with a rescue pack SCBA, it should use the high-pressure filling technique to top off the victim’s SCBA. This is the fastest and least cumbersome way to correct low-air problems. Using a low-pressure air exchange with the “victim” from a rescue pack or spare SCBA is more cumbersome. When the victim is moved, the rescue pack SCBA or the spare SCBA must move with him; if it does not, the face mask will be pulled from the victim’s face. In an actual incident, the high-pressure fitting on the victim’s SCBA may not be accessible if it is below the floor decking; this fitting is below the air cylinder on the SCBA, which may be hung up at floor level. Use this drill to try different air-exchange techniques and evaluate the pros and cons of each.

After correcting the victim’s air supply problems, it is time to lift him out of the hole. Pulling up under the victim’s arms or grabbing the SCBA straps is difficult, since most of this lift would be done with the back, not the legs, and thus with little leverage. Instead, use hand tools such as a halligan bar, an ax, or a short pike pole. Using two such tools, slide the handle of each tool halfway under each of the victim’s armpits. You now have handles, like those of a litter, with which rescuers can lift up the victim.

If there are two rescuers, one goes in front of the victim between the tool handles and the other goes behind the victim between the handles. If there are three rescuers, one goes in front of the victim between the tool handles and two would go behind the victim, each one outside of the handles. With four rescuers, each would go to the outside side of the handles, two in front of and two behind the victim. A rescuer in the front should take charge and advise the victim that the rescuers will lift him out using the handles of the tools. This rescuer should also inform the victim to hold his arms down and to yell “STOP!” if he feels pain from resistance. The rescuer in charge will then order the lift, and the other rescuers will lift the victim up and out of the hole using their legs, not their backs. Once he is out of the hole, personnel should check the victim for injuries and remove him to safety (photo 2).


2.

Alternatively, the two hand tools can also be slid under the SCBA shoulder straps above the air cylinder on the victim’s back. Cross the hand tools under the straps to form an “X.” Use two, three, or four rescuers to lift the victim out (photo 3). Both techniques depend on the victim’s holding his arms down so that the hand tools lift under the armpits or by the SCBA harness.


3.

If the victim is unable to assist you, use webbing or a rope. New turnout coats compliant with National Fire Protection Association 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, must have webbing that forms a rescue loop around the torso of a firefighter and that is accessible inside a flap at the back of the coat below the collar. If the coat does not have the webbing built in, use a piece of webbing or rope to form a rescue loop around the victim (photo 4). Have rescuers attempt to pull the victim up and out using the rescue loop. If this is difficult, cross hand tools inside the loop as described above.


4.

Another technique to get a trapped firefighter out of a hole in the floor is to go to the floor below and provide support underneath so that he can use his legs to push up and out of the hole. With lower ceilings, rescuers can simply use their hands to provide support on the trapped victim’s feet so he is able to push himself up and out (photo 5).


5.

With taller ceilings, use a hand tool such as the top of an ax or the adz end of a halligan bar to provide support to the feet. This is a simple solution to the problem, but it may not always be enough to free the trapped victim. If hand tools do not work, try a small extension, a folding attic, or an A-frame ladder to provide a ladder rung on which the victim can stand to push himself up. Brace the tip of the folding attic ladder or small extension ladder against the floor supports above. This technique may not be an option at a fire where you do not have access to the floor below.

These are all rescue techniques you can practice at a drill. Be sure to also review the reasons a firefighter can become trapped in the floor. Discussed below are other areas to address at the drill, including how to cut a firefighter out of the floor, self-rescue techniques, emergency procedures to follow, and hazards associated with a hole in the floor.

CUTTING A FIREFIGHTER OUT OF THE FLOOR

If the techniques described above do not work to free the trapped victim, as a last resort in an emergency use saws or an ax to cut the victim out. Provide support to the victim during this operation so that he does not fall through the floor. Use the techniques described previously, using hand tools and other rescue firefighters’ holding the victim in place.

Avoid running power saws close to the victim, but keep in mind that they cut very quickly and effectively. If using a chain saw or a cordless circular saw, set the saw’s depth cut; the cut does not have to be very deep, and you want to avoid cutting floor supports. Keep the depth of cut in mind also when using a rotary or a cordless reciprocating saw. With a power saw, cut one to two feet away from the victim for safety. The floor may consist of a finished layer on top of the wood floor decking. This finished layer could be carpeting, a finished floor, or some type of wood tile. Remove the finished layer before cutting the floor decking. You can easily rip or cut away carpet: Simply pry up a finished floor, or break away and pry up tiles to expose the floor decking.

When the floor decking is tongue-and-groove, make a cut two feet away from the victim and perpendicular to the long seams of the boards. Then pry the boards up at the cut and away from the victim. It may be necessary to cut only in one area around the victim—the front area, either side, or the rear area. This should be enough to enable personnel to lift the victim up and out when the floor decking is removed (photo 6).


6.

If the floor decking is plywood or OSB, first determine how the floor supports are running in relation to the trapped victim. In particular, look at the two floor supports between which the victim is trapped. There are a number of ways to determine how floor supports are running in a wood floor. Look for a nail-hole pattern in the floor, or try sounding the floor out with a tool. Most times, 4- × 8-foot sheets of plywood and OSB have the shorter four-foot side lined up and nailed on floor supports.

Also, look at the dimensions of the building in terms of length. Floor joints generally run parallel with the shorter length or dimension of the building.

You can also try using a thermal imaging camera, which may pick up a pattern of temperature differences of floor supports. If all else fails, cut an inspection hole in the floor big enough to insert your arm into and feel for the floor supports. In photo 7, turnout gear represents the victim’s position.


7.

After determining how the two floor supports between which the victim is trapped are running, make a wide V-shaped cut around the victim into the floor decking across these floor supports. The point of the “V” should be in the middle between the floor supports, pointing away from and at least two feet from the victim. The ends of the cuts should be just past the victim and about one foot away (photo 8). Pry up the decking along the cut and floor supports using a halligan bar. This will break and cut the floor decking away from the supports between which the victim is trapped. Remove the floor decking and have the rescuers holding the victim lift him up and out (photo 9).


8.

 


9.

 

SELF-RESCUE TECHNIQUES

Firefighters trapped in floors should also try self-rescue techniques. If you are unable to lift yourself out, try to move and rotate to perhaps find a different position that will allow you to push yourself up. Also, swing your legs and try to find something below that will provide you with support to push yourself up. If you find a wall, try to kick into it with a boot to get you a foothold so you can push yourself up. If this does not work, call a Mayday. If you are unable to use your radio, have your partner call it. If your partner does not realize you have fallen into the floor and are trapped, stay still and allow your PASS alarm to activate. This will draw attention so that a Mayday can be transmitted.

EMERGENCY PROCEDURES

It is an unusual situation when a firefighter becomes trapped in the floor while working at a structure fire. This emergency must be dealt with differently on the fireground. Listed below are suggested emergency procedure guidelines.

1 Call a Mayday. If immediate rescue cannot be made, notify Command of the Mayday and give the location and describe the problem. The National Fire Academy acronym LUNAR outlines the distressed firefighter information to provide when calling a Mayday: Location, Unit number, Name, Assignment, and Resources needed for rescue. This should start a FAST or RIT to assist with equipment and personnel. Command should also consider calling for an additional alarm or mutual aid.

2 Provide rescue support. The fire will still need to be fought, but Command should consider deploying a handline to the rescue area. This will protect the victim and the rescuers. If a victim is trapped and there is a fire below, a handline will have to be sent there to extinguish the fire as quickly as possible. If this is not possible, as in the instance of a basement fire where crews are having difficulty getting to the fire area, consider cutting small holes in the floor around the victim and using a cellar pipe or a distributor nozzle to protect him from the fire.

3 Provide support for the victim. If your partner is trapped in the floor, start to provide support before the FAST/RIT gets to the victim. Try to pull the victim up and out. You may not be successful, but always try. If you cannot pull the victim out, the best thing you can do is to help support him until more help arrives. If the victim is having problems maintaining his position and may fall through, slide a tool under his armpits to provide support. Try to keep the tool situated on the solid parts of the floor or across floor supports for stability. You could also use the hoseline as a tool to support the victim, but maintain control of the nozzle for fire control. If the victim is having air problems with the SCBA, correct the problem if you can. Size up the rescue and give as much information over the radio to your command officer relative to your location, fire conditions, and the equipment and staffing that might be needed.

4 FAST/RIT must size up the scene. Once the rescuers arrive at the victim, a quick size-up is needed to determine an action plan. What are the safety concerns? Does the victim need additional air for his SCBA? Is the floor stable? What are the fire conditions? Is the victim conscious and alert? Can crews get below the victim to assist? Are additional resources needed? Based on this size-up, a rescue plan is developed and communicated to the FAST/RIT.

5 Carry out the rescue. Keep the rescue plan simple, and expand it as needed. Communicate with your command officer on progress and needs.

6 Continue to provide support. Ensure that the victim makes it completely outside the fire building. He will need to be evaluated by EMS. This is also the time for Command to order a Personnel Accountability Report.

7 Communicate the hole’s location, and provide for safety. Once the victim has been removed, ensure that no one else falls in the same hole. This means communicating the safety concerns to all other firefighters working in the area, on the same floor level, and on the level below the location of the hole.

FLOOR-HOLE HAZARDS

A hazard you may encounter when attempting to rescue a firefighter trapped in the floor is the floor itself. The floor has been weakened by fire damage or wood rot to the point that it was not able to support one firefighter. It may also fail when the rescue firefighters come to assist. Rescuers can take a few steps to avoid falling through the floor: Try to stay low and crawl on your hands and knees; this will better distribute your weight. Use a tool to sound the floor and look for weak areas that should not be used to work on. If you find a hole or weak area, pry a nearby door off at its hinges and use this as a platform to work on and distribute your weight (photo 10). Just remember, buildings of lightweight construction are made to save money. This means the doors are probably cheap interior ones. Cheap interior doors are light and may consist of a small wood frame and just two thin sheets of veneered wood glued together with cardboard as the core. So if you need a platform to distribute weight, avoid using lightweight doors. A small ladder could also be used to work on and distribute the weight.


10.

Remember to use the thermal imaging camera to help determine floor stability. Scan the floor in front of you as you travel. This should help you to locate holes or hot spots that could mean weakened areas. If you should start falling through the floor, bring your hands into your chest and spread your elbows out and apart at the shoulders. Try to spread your knees apart as well. In this way, you may catch yourself on floor supports, which may be enough to stop you from falling in or all the way through the floor.

•••

All firefighters must be trained to recognize and avoid the many fire scene hazards. For holes or weak areas in the floor, you must avoid this hazard by ensuring you do not become trapped in or fall all the way through the floor. At a structure fire, if you find a hole or a weak area in the floor, communicate this to the others around you and to your commanding officer. Inform other firefighters working on-scene directly or by radio of the hazard and its location.

Also, put a barrier up or over the hazard site. Cover a small, localized hole or weak area with a strong door or a small ladder. For larger holes, put up barrier tape to warn others of the hazard, or use something to block access. If this cannot be done, post a firefighter near the area to warn others of the hazard. Every year, firefighters are injured and killed as a result of being trapped in or falling through the floor. Training on recognizing and avoiding these hazards, as well as on techniques to quickly remove an entrapped firefighter, will save lives and reduce injuries.

Thanks to Captain Chris McCullough, Firefighters Ed Tracey and Jamie Renner, and the members of Engine 10 and Quint 2 of the Rochester (NY) Fire Department for their assistance with this article.

SCOTT JOERGER is the captain of Engine 5 with the Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He is the former chief of the Pittsford (NY) Volunteer Fire Department and a former wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection and a bachelor’s degree in management.

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