By Jim Kutz
One of the reasons most of us became firefighters–besides helping people and giving back to the community–is that every day is different. Knowing that no two runs will be the same is what makes this job exciting. Recently, while working the night shift, I was especially reminded that there is no “routine call.” This wasn’t some huge conflagration with wild rescues to be made, but an incident that evolved into something quite different and challenging.
(1) Exterior of Allentown City Hall.
I was the acting captain this particular night. Sometime after dinner, my engine was dispatched code yellow (non-emergency) to a vehicle accident into a building at the multi-story parking deck next to Allentown (PA) City Hall. While gearing up next to the truck, I read the additional information on our mobile data terminal reporting that a motor vehicle had struck a support pillar in the secure police area of the parking deck. The bottom two floors of this garage are secured for police vehicles, so I assumed one of the officers backing out of a spot may have backed into the building.
As we were pulling out of the station, another dispatch went out for a fire alarm in the city hall building. Our fire alarm box consists of one engine and truck company each, plus the battalion chief. I thought it was odd to have two calls next to each other and wondered if they were related, but, having responded to the parking deck before for fire alarms, I knew the deck we were going to was not attached to city hall.
I had my driver take a different route to keep main roads open for the other responding units. We arrived at the motor vehicle collision (MVC) as the battalion chief arrived for the fire alarm. The area was locked and nobody was around to let us in, which immediately struck me as odd, so I contacted the communications center and asked to have someone come out for us. As I was waiting for a response, the battalion chief’s driver reported the alarm was sounding in city hall and that they had a smoke condition on the first floor with an odor of something burning.
Now, wanting to free up for a possible structure fire, I again asked the communications center for a status update. They told me to go to the alley entrance behind both buildings. As my crew was maneuvering the engine to the alley, I walked around to that gate, again immediately finding no one. Finally, I noticed a police officer waving us up the alley. Along the way, I noticed smoke coming from the underground levels of garage and pointed it out to the police officer. He explained that a van crashed inside due to a runaway accelerator, striking police motorcycles and a support pillar; the vehicle was now possibly on fire. I immediately called the battalion chief and advised him that the smoke condition was because of our MVC.
I evaluated the situation and found there was no fire; the smoke was caused by the van running in place while braced against the support pillar, causing it to “burn rubber” on the garage deck. After confirming there was no fire and securing the vehicle to make sure it was not running, I turned to find the driver. I wanted to determine why his vehicle was here, since this area of the garage was for police staging and parking for city leadership. The driver was an elderly gentleman with some minor injuries. We contacted EMS and my crew rendered care until the paramedics’ arrival.
(2) Car and bikes at the incident scene.
THE SMOKE CONDITION
Next came to the hard part: getting the smoke out. We had a lot of smoke in the garage area that had to be removed. I advised the chief that we were going to need multiple fans at the garage door entrance and also on the first floor inside city hall. We made contact with city building maintenance to see if we could use the HVAC system in the garage to help exhaust the smoke and to silence the fire alarm so we could communicate effectively. We placed two fans at the garage entrance and closed the garage door halfway, both to help pressurize the space and to avoid losing momentum of air flowing out around the fans.
Building maintenance crews turned out to be unfamiliar with how the ventilation system worked in the garage and were unfortunately unable to help. While ventilating the space, personnel found other rooms in the basement filled with smoke. In addition, employees leaving for the day from upper floors were reporting that the smoke had traveled up the elevator shafts and spread throughout city hall. We placed another fan at the bottom of a stairway leading out to the exit to draw negative pressure ventilation. It took about 20 minutes to get the garage and other rooms cleared out. Personnel were sent to check carbon monoxide (CO) levels around the building.
The major concern when trying to ventilate a large area like this is to be systematic. Realize right away that this operation is going to be very time-consuming. Crews need to work one room at a time and do their best to isolate unaffected areas. Using systemic ventilation will help keep the building pressurized within the air-moving capacity of the ventilation fans, which will hopefully speed along the process. If we could have controlled the HVAC system and it if it was capable, we might have been able to use it to help exhaust the smoke from the garage and use it to pressurize the upper floor to create a kind of “pressure sandwich” and keep the smoke on the floor of origin. If it was not capable, we could have at least shut down the units to help stop the smoke spread to other areas of the building.
(3) Dual fans set up at the scene.
TAKING THE TIME TO SEE THE BIG PICTURE
While wrapping up, we were talking to some of the police officers about the incident. They commented how at first they thought the loud bangs they heard when the car hit the motorcycles and then the pillar were pipe bombs going off in the garage; then the fire alarm sounds and the building filled with smoke. This all must have been stated over the radio at some point because local news outlets were quickly at the scene. While giving a press statement later, I was asked numerous times about the explosions.
Afterward, I spent some time looking back on what made this an important educational experience. Let’s start with what was learned from the incident and what could have happened under other circumstances.
When you think it’s too much of a coincidence to have two separate incidents next to each other, you are probably right. Dispatchers are deciphering information from callers and, depending on the experience and background of the call takers, might categorize calls as different incidents, especially if information from the caller is sketchy. Our communications center has hired many new employees in recent months and this could account for why two separate incidents were dispatched.
Effective communication between the police, fire department, and communications center could have given a better description of what where the incident was. Dispatchers not familiar with the area might have misunderstood the officer when he stated the incident was in the secured police garage, not realizing there were two different garages close by. Why weren’t the reports of explosions passed along to the fire department? Was it because they were confirmed not to be explosions, or was it lost in translation?
Sometimes messages are lost in the “fog of war.” It is important to keep an ear open and make sure you do not miss anything. We have a police radio in the office at the firehouse for this reason; often, we can hear our police getting dispatched to our calls before we do. Also, a lot of time, they get different and more decisive information.
The next topic that should be addressed about this incident is that once crews on the scene stated there was smoke in the building, the call should have been requested to be upgraded to a full structure fire box, adding two engines (if the communications center didn’t count my engine) and a rapid intervention team, in our case an additional engine. Even though some departments’ one engine and a truck company brings eight to 10 members total to the scene, like most departments in this economy our numbers have been reduced. Our engines have three members and our only truck company has two members. If there would have been a vehicle fire or any other fire, additional resources would have been on the way instead of sitting in their stations.
It is easier to turn away companies that are not needed than to need them and not have them. It would have been all-hands operating if there had been a vehicle fire in the parking garage or a fire elsewhere in the building, and the five or so members on the scene would have had their hands full.
If the vehicle was on fire, as our initial on-scene assessment led us to believe, a long stretch would have been needed. This would have been accomplished by using a leader line– a 3-inch hose with a gated wye–and our hose bag, which has 150 feet of 1¾-inch attack line. This bag was originally designed for our high-rise fires but it was found to be extremely useful with a leader line for long stretches down inaccessible streets or other deep interior locations.
This could have been difficult and somewhat delayed since we’d been dispatched to a vehicle accident; we didn’t arrive with our firefighting gear fully on so we would have had to rapidly don our correct personal protective equipment. With limited personnel in the rear of the building where the incident was, stretching a 3-inch line over a distance plus getting the attack line further stretched would have taxed the two of us until other crews caught up. Our crew would have had to get the hose bag to where we would initiate the attack and then run back to the engine to stretch the 3-inch leader line. If other companies would have been there or once they arrived, one engine company could deploy the leader line while the other engine could have stretched the attack line. Operations of this magnitude show the importance of fully staffed companies.
If there would have been entrapment in the vehicle, getting tools to the incident would have been yet another personnel-intensive operation. We would not have been able to drive the truck inside because of height restrictions, and it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea anyway because of trapped exhaust fumes from the truck.
One benefit for us is that all of our hydraulic rescue tools are on portable power units. This is valuable because having tools on reel lines only would have limited us getting the tools needed to a car. The incident was at least a 200-foot stretch just to the passenger side of the vehicle. The portable power units, however, also would have produced toxic exhaust fumes and might even have had an issue starting with the initial smoke condition we encountered. Monitoring CO levels would need to be a high priority or we would have to figure out a way to keep the generators outside. Unfortunately, it would have been almost impossible for us because we don’t have many longer hydraulic hoses to make a stretch like that.
On the subject of exhaust, air monitoring while just investigating would have been valuable. When we arrived, there were many non-essential personnel in the smoke-filled garage, including our mayor. If these fumes would have been toxic, we would have been dealing with a lot of patients suffering smoke-related injuries. We found it difficult to control access to the garage, having numerous ways in and out, until asking police leadership to help us remove the people who were not needed. Controlling bystanders is extremely difficult since everyone wants to see what is going on and be a part of the action. We must maintain control with the help of the police to keep the public’s safety in mind.
Another procedure we could have executed better at this incident was performing a standard 360-degree size-up. Assessment of the building would have provided important clues to the situation. In this case, the building’s size was a challenge because it would have been inefficient to have the incident commander walk around the building; in hindsight, driving the command vehicle around the perimeter would have been efficient and likely would have found the incident in the rear.
WHAT-IFS: KEEPING YOUR HEAD ON A SWIVEL
What if it would have been a bombing or some sort of terrorist act gone wrong? Above I mentioned the question of how a non-police vehicle could get into a secured police garage; did it wait until the door was open then come barreling in, and crash inside before attempting to set off a device?
Think back to the failed Times Square vehicle bombing in 2010. Firefighters responded to smoke coming from a vehicle and it turned out to be a device that malfunctioned. Even though our location wasn’t Midtown Manhattan, it was a garage directly under the city council chambers of the third-largest city in Pennsylvania– a possible target for someone. As it turned out, the gentleman driving the car was planning to attend a zoning hearing to be held there that evening.
The tragic events in Boston remind us that we as responders need to be vigilant and ready for acts of terrorism every day. The “it won’t happen here” mindset has gotten us to drop our guard and the complacency that follows will injure or even kill us as first responders and civilians. Attacks can happen anywhere, regardless of what size city or town; we all must be ready.
If this incident had been an attack, keeping ourselves from getting tunnel vision and being pulled into the hazard or a secondary trap would be difficult. It is hard to turn off the quintessential American fire service style, the aggressive attitude to get in and help people. Good company and command officers have to reel themselves and their personnel in. It really is difficult sometimes to slow the momentum of an evolving incident, but that calm leadership comes with constant training and preplanning, not only with fire department personnel but with police, EMS, and emergency management. When people work together on a regular basis, things tend to run smoother, other agencies know what you are going to do ,and people tend to cope better than to have things dropped in their lap.
This is especially important when it comes to keeping non-essential people away. If this would have been a device, evacuating civilians would have been the top priority and the scene would have to be locked down to prevent others from entering the area. Unfortunately, we all know how difficult this is; in fact, even a truck that says “Bomb Squad” real big on the side doesn’t stop people from going around road blocks, as happened to me a few weeks earlier at a suspicious package call. Terrorism incidents should be treated like hazmat scenes. Crews need to establish zones and limit access to the scene.
It is important to make sure the area is secure to ensure the safety of the responders and the public. If a suspect is in the area and is watching, he could be waiting for responders to get close and initiate a second device. Also, terrorists could set up a hoax or minor incident to see how responders act and where commanders set up command posts; when they proceed with their plans in the future, this intelligence can be used to place those secondary devices for use against the command post.
Keep civilians out of eyes’ sight and off their cell phones. Cell phones could be used to initiate secondary devices that were set up to attack first responders, or to record procedures and our tactics for a later attack. We all know how hard it is to prevent someone from recording, especially with our rights of free press and speech; this easily can be combated very kindly by moving people back even farther. Hazardous device teams are going to need this to happen anyway when they arrive, so it’s a good idea to get it done while you wait for them
Be sure you know what you are getting into and make sure the incident actually is what it originally was thought to be. Too many times, things are a lot different when we arrive than we expect. This doesn’t always mean the next car accident you roll up on is going to be a weapon of mass destruction crashing onto Main Street USA, but you should expect the unexpected.
Always keep your eyes out for things that make you have that tingly feeling on the back of your neck–usually you are right. Train and plan with other agencies, make sure everyone can communicate with each other and know what everyone expects from one another. It is never good for the first time agencies work with each other to be on the scene of an incident.
Train as you play and, as always, stay safe, and keep your eyes peeled on all calls.
James Kutz is a 12-year career firefighter and lieutenant with the city of Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is assigned to Rescue/Engine 9 at the Central Fire Station. James is also a hazardous device technician on the Allentown Bomb Squad. Also is a suppression instructor for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and assist with the Allentown Fire Academy.