LIVE WIRES ENDANGER MAN IN BURNING TRUCK
BY PETER HODGE
Hurricane Bertha had been making her way up the East Coast of the United States. On July 13, 1996, she arrived in the New York/New Jersey area, a shadow of what she had been in the southern states but still a potent storm with torrential rains and heavy winds.
At 1146 hours, the East Rutherford (NJ) Fire Department was called to a vehicle accident on a heavily traveled state highway. A truck had struck a utility pole and snapped it off at the base, dropping power cables and parts of the pole around the truck.
As I responded, I asked the police officer first on the scene if the wires were arcing. He answered yes and indicated that the truck was on fire. Then, after a long, open-mike pause, he said, “Hey, Chief, there`s a guy still in the truck!” I wondered how far a dry chemical extinguisher would shoot in a driving rain storm.
I stopped my vehicle sideways in the southbound lanes approximately 150 feet away from the involved truck, attempting to stop traffic in that direction from driving over a downed cable in the road. Then I walked closer to the accident to size up the situation.
The truck on the northbound side was an empty 14-wheel, four-axle dumpster carrier. In heavy winds, these trucks are easily blown across roads. The truck had indeed struck the utility pole, causing it to snap off at its base, which in turn caused all three legs of a 26-kilovolt transmission cable to drop on and around the disabled truck. Guy wires and phone cables were also mixed into the mess. I could hear the cables humming and see the electricity arcing as the power cable grounded itself. The right front tire of the truck had ignited. Because of the driving rain, it was very difficult to see. Finally, the rain broke for just a second; there, seated in the cab, was the driver. The driver`s side door was blocked by the downed pole and the passenger side was blocked by the arcing power cables.
At this moment, Truck Company 1 arrived via the southbound lanes. I advised Captain Alan DeRosa of the situation and directed him to investigate further and see if there was a way to remove the driver from his predicament. The crew collected some tools–including two dry chemical extinguishers and an AC voltage detector–and scaled the fence atop the center barrier.
In the northbound lanes they met with Assistant Chief Hank Heber and began checking with the AC detector to see which lines were hot. Because of the voltage in the lines and the pouring rain, everything was giving them a hot reading.
The fire in the tire and now the fiberglass nose of the truck was growing larger. DeRosa and Heber advised me they could not get close enough to use the extinguisher (of course, we all knew that dry chemical extinguishers do not have much effect on tire fires, especially truck tires).
Heber, DeRosa, and Firefighter Justin Lahullier made a further survey of the area, then carefully made their way through a jumble of live wires and cables to the rear of the truck. The AC detector continued to tell them that the truck was charged with electricity. They asked for an ETA from the power company, which had been requested to the scene along with the fire department. I advised them it would be 45 to 60 minutes. Thinking ahead to a possible deck gun attack on the truck fire, I also informed them that an engine was en route.
At that time, however, DeRosa observed smoke filling the truck cab. It was then that he made his decision and acted. Taking a running jump, he landed on the rear frame of the truck and quickly made his way forward over the slippery frame rails. Then he broke out the rear cab window with his officer`s tool.
DeRosa quickly assessed the victim`s condition and ascertained that he could climb out of the window. He assisted the driver through the rear window and walked him to the rear of the truck. He then in-structed the driver to jump without making contact with the ground and the truck at the same time.
The driver leaped like an Olympic gold medalist, landing in the arms of Heber. As luck would have it, it stopped raining the moment the driver touched the ground. He was transported to a local hospital. DeRosa reported feeling tingling in his arms and legs from the hot frame but was not injured from his “electric slide.”
Two lessons reinforced
1. The nature of firefighting dictates that there will be times when difficult decisions will have to be made. Firefighters are people of action and will perform the extraordinary under extraordinary conditions. DeRosa saved a life in great peril at great personal risk, using intelligence, courage, physical skills, and determination to overcome the risk and effect a successful rescue. Ongoing risk analysis at the emergency scene is essential. It is also “individualized”; generally, hard-and-fast rules cannot be applied across the board. In this case, imminent danger to the victim and the delay in power shutoff led DeRosa to make a personal decision, conscious of the risk involved yet understanding that if he avoided grounding himself it was entirely possible that he could save the life in the cab. A major factor in this risk analysis was that DeRosa was capable of performing a physically difficult task; certainly, not every firefighter would have been able to make the jump safely.
2. Incident commanders often walk a fine line between risk and safety. Furthermore, there will be times when commanders must yield to and have confidence in the decisions of their officers. In this case, I was not informed of DeRosa`s intentions prior to his jumping onto the truck, which is objectionable in that it circumvents the chain of command and accountability; however, I was well aware that I had two experienced officers who had a close-up size-up of the incident. In DeRosa`s and Heber`s analysis, the extreme danger to the driver required immediate action. It is incumbent on chief officers/incident commanders to take into account at every incident and in every decision the firefighters involved–their skill levels, training, and experience. A good commander must know when to turn his people loose and when to pull on the reins.
PETER HODGE, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the East Rutherford (NJ) Fire Department and conference coordinator for Fire Engineering`s Fire Department Instructors Conference. He is a certified Fire Officer II, a New Jersey-certified Level Two instructor at the Bergen County Fire Academy, and an executive board member of the Bergen County Fire Chiefs Association and editor of its Command Post newsletter.