By Raul A. Angulo
“To Bail or Not To Bail?” was the question Bill Manning asked in his Editor’s Opinion (Fire Engineering, April 2000). Bailing out always seems to be a negative term-like standing up a friend or quitting on an obligation. “That dog, he bailed out on us!” It’s not a term you want associated with your reputation. It’s too close to “abandon ship!”-the most dreaded order a Navy captain can ever give. It means all hope is lost except for one: saving your crew.
When I was in the U.S. Coast Guard, we practiced “abandon ship” drills. We jumped from various locations of the ship. We didn’t do this often. In fact, I remember only jumping off three times. It wasn’t the method of choice to disembark from a vessel, but it gave you self-confidence to know if you ever had to abandon ship, you could do it. And, like the naval officer, firefighters need to understand there may come a time when they have to “bail out” of a fire.
Manning successfully stirs the passion in American fire patriots with the debate of what is safe and unsafe fireground practice in the most dangerous job in America. Even the topic of who has the most dangerous job causes some debate, but FDNY Deputy Chief (Ret.) Vincent Dunn clarifies the issue best by saying we do have the most dangerous occupation because we work in an “uncontrolled” emergency environment.
It seems every time you turn around, there’s another alphabetic bureaucratic regulatory agency micromanaging our workforce. We can’t have live burns because of smoke, smog, asbestos, and so on. Certain drills in the training tower can no longer take place without a net or harness system, but any engine or ladder company from any fire department can be first in at an unusual and “uncontrolled” emergency that is too unsafe to practice for-but we are expected to perform at. If it is a high-profile incident, you can bet that OSHA or the state labor safety departments will be there, and it’s usually not to shake your hand and congratulate you on a successful rescue.
A few years ago, I was working for one shift at Seattle’s Ladder Co. 6. It had been a while since I had worked on a truck, and I suggested to the crew that we drill on aerial operations, including the stokes litter rescue. (The drill was mainly for my sake.) The very next morning, before shift change, what does Ladder 6 get dispatched to? A stokes litter rescue! A man was crushed in a large trash compactor. We could not have been better prepared. The only command I had to give was, “OK, guys, just like yesterday.” From our standpoint, it was a perfect evolution and a successful extrication. That’s always nice when the news cameras are there, but so were the state industrial safety guys.
A couple of years ago on a New Year’s Eve, a worker was setting up a fireworks display off the Space Needle in Seattle and slipped from his rigging. Ladder 4 and Engine 2 made the successful, daring, 100-plus-foot rescue.
Just the other day, some workers were burying some cable on a golf course when their trench collapsed, killing one worker (who happened to be the father of the second worker). The son suffered a leg fracture. Redmond (WA) firefighters made the high-profile rescue. The media interviewed the captain and firefighters first, and then interviewed the stoic department representative from state industrial safety about his “concerns” regarding the rescue.
What is this? Congratulations are in order. Not citations. The media is savvy enough to pick up on the “good guys/bad guys” sentiment between the two departments, and their reporting styles only encourage the development of this adversarial relationship. It’s becoming an “us against them” mentality, because no one I know in the fire department is glad to see these safety inspectors show up at an incident. Are they really helping make our job safer? Or are they just waiting for us to do something unsafe to clobber us on the head after making that heroic rescue? What if Matt Moseley had been deterred from that dramatic helicopter rescue because it was too dangerous, or the Atlanta Fire Department had shut that operation down to avoid a $100,000 fine from state labor safety? The Atlanta Fire Department was bold; it risked a lot to save a lot.
This year was the first FDIC WEST in Sacramento, California. What makes this conference most unique is the hands-on (“H.O.T.”) training. There were many California regulatory obstacles that had to be resolved for live fire training, but one obstacle for H.O.T. could not be resolved: the self-rescue, headfirst ladder bailout. Because of a recent tragedy involving Captain Thomas Moore of the Manteca (CA) Fire Department, it was deemed by some state officials unsafe and of no practical benefit to firefighters. Oh, really?
Well, let’s just see what human behaviors present themselves at fires. This is not scientific. I’m just reminding everyone, including state industrial safety personnel, what has already been documented human behavior on the part of civilians and firefighters.
- Our Lady of Angels Fire, Chicago, 12/1/58: 92 children and three nuns perished. Many of the children jumped.
- Ozark Hotel Fire, Seattle, 3/20/70: Many of the 20 who perished jumped to their deaths.
- Triangle Shirt Waist Fire, New York, 3/25/11: 60 jumped from the ninth floor; 30 jumped into the elevator shaft; 146 people perished.
- LaSalle Fire, Chicago, 6/5/46: Many of the 61 who died at this fire jumped.
- Winecoff Hotel Fire, Atlanta, 12/7/46: 25 people jumped to their deaths. One victim who jumped hit a firefighter on a ladder who was rescuing a woman, sending all three to their deaths. The final death toll was 119.
Let’s look at four firefighter incidents. I’m sure you know of more.
- On January 5, 1995, Seattle Firefighter Paul Andrews and another firefighter from Engine Co. 13 survived the collapse at the Mary Pang Warehouse Fire. How? They bailed out-headfirst. A news video documented these two firefighters bailing out a second-story window. They happened to land on the roof of the loading dock, but it could have easily been the concrete sidewalk. In other words, they took their chances by bailing out headfirst instead of suffering the interior fire conditions.
- The other evening, “Real TV” showed Firefighter Tom McDermott of the Libertyville (IL) Fire Department hanging out of a second-floor window of a residential occupancy. The fire room had flashed over and his exit was cut off. His head and upper body were hanging well below the sill to escape the heat. A ladder was raised, and McDermott assumed the ladder headfirst bailout position, flipped over the ladder to right himself, and was safely assisted to the ground.
In these two incidents, the video clearly showed that firefighters were caught in flashover conditions and bailed out. They bailed out headfirst, with or without a ladder in place. Something is happening in a rapidly deteriorating interior fire attack that, when given a choice, a firefighter will bail. Whether it’s a conscious choice or a physical reflex because you are burning-that you would have to ask the firefighters involved.
- Captain Mike Spalding from Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department Truck Co. 7 was trapped and burned in a fire that killed two fellow firefighters. He told a tremendous, gut-wrenching survival story at this year’s FDIC WEST. If you haven’t heard his story, you must. What struck me most was listening to him describe how “hot” hot really was. There are no words to describe the pain he was feeling as he was being burned. Spalding said (and I’m paraphrasing), “It was so hot and the pain so unbearable, that if I could have found a window, I would have jumped. Even if it was 30 floors up, I would have jumped.” That statement hit me like a ton of bricks.
- On April 5, 2000, Seattle had a three-alarm fire in the Ballard area of the city. The lieutenant on Ladder Co. 8 was working on the third floor. There was a center stairwell to the third floor and a fire escape on the “A” side of the building. The lieutenant got in trouble and ran out of air. The particulars are still under investigation. With thick smoke down to the floor, the lieutenant made it to a rear window on the “C” side of the building. The roof of the “C” side of exposure building “C” was only 31/2 to four feet away and a little lower than the windowsill-an easy jump across for a firefighter under normal conditions. The fire was still burning on the third floor and had now entered the cockloft. The lieutenant, in excellent shape, decided to jump to the roof of the exposure building. That was a better option than trying to make it back to the stairwell, but the fire had already begun to take its toll on his body. His misjudged the distance with his gear and ended up falling 30 feet, three stories down, and landed in the four-foot space between the two buildings. There was no access to this area other than a rear window at ground level of the exposure building. The lieutenant suffered numerous injuries but survived the fall. That’s a miracle in itself. Then he managed to remain conscious and break out this window with his SCBA, crawl into the rear of the building, and force his way out of the front entrance to safety on the next block! He gave Seattle firefighters a scare because they knew he either fell or jumped.
In the era of lightweight construction with plastic home and commercial furnishings, fires are burning hotter and flashovers and collapses are happening more frequently. Why do you think we are catching so many on video? Because they are happening. And people jump-including firefighters, when they are in trouble.
I don’t know about your department, but in Seattle, we are not in the habit of putting up ladders unless we see a need. And then, we only select those specific ladders. The ground ladders of the second truck in are rarely even touched. With the new practices of RIT, Saving Our Own, and Get Out Alive, why can’t we start putting up ladders wherever we can around the perimeter of the fire building? If they are on the engines and trucks, put them up! We can always take them down after the emergency. I’m positive they won’t save a life bedded on the apparatus, but maybe-just maybe-they can catch one of our own.
In all these firefighter examples, there were no ground ladders put up because there wasn’t an obvious need. If we change our thought process to put up ladders for the unexpected firefighter bailout, just maybe that ladder will be there for you. If staffing permits and firefighters are in staging waiting to be deployed, how hard is it and how long would it really take to put the rest of the ground ladders up that are hanging off the apparatus? Isn’t our job to expect the unexpected? Ladders can always be repositioned for a Tom McDermott faster than they can be retrieved from the rig.
As for injuries, I’ve drilled with the members of Engine 33 on the “headfirst then flip” ladder slide. On the last drill, I sprained my wrist. It’s a small price to pay for the confidence I gained on this procedure. I know I can do it and I know my crew can do it. That’s a good feeling for a company officer.
After reading that the Manteca Board of Inquiry concluded, “After analyzing all the potential variables and the aspects of risk versus gain, it is unreasonable to conclude that the emergency ladder bail technique has any practical benefit to the fire service,” I was furious and had to write this.
Bill Manning is right! “Anyone who says he cannot foresee circumstances wherein emergency ladder escapes might be the only recourse in a fire situation is living with blinders on ellipse” and is not fighting fires. And hopefully, he doesn’t work for your local state department of industrial safety.
RAUL A. ANGULO is a 20-year veteran with the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and captain of Engine Co. 33. He is president of the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters, Seattle Chapter, and instructs on fireground strategy and tactics and fire service leadership. He is on the Board of Directors of the National Fire Academy Alumni Association.