My Mayday: Lesson Learned Boosts Chance for Survival

By Ryan McGovern

The Boston (MA) Fire Department (BFD) has a long and storied history that began in 1678 when it became the first paid fire department in the country. Since its inception, the department has gone through many changes and has seen many tragedies. To this day, the BFD has lost 185 members in the line of duty.1 Throughout this history, there have been many lessons learned and changes to procedures to attempt to prevent these types of losses. The biggest such change came as a result of the loss of a fire lieutenant on June 24, 1994.

While fighting what would eventually grow to become a nine-alarm fire, two members of Ladder (L) Company 9 became lost and disoriented within a large, windowless warehouse in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, on Boston Harbor. At this time, the concept of a dedicated company for firefighter rescue had not yet been enacted. At the discretion of the incident commander (IC), a company would be assigned to this type of duty in a reactive posture opposed to the now proactive tactic of assigning a rapid intervention team (RIT). When these two firefighters became lost, the IC assigned L15 the daunting task of finding and rescuing these trapped members. During the search, conditions continued to deteriorate, and L15 was ordered out of the building, shortly after the two lost firefighters found their way out. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Stephen Minehan was not with them. He, too, had become disoriented within the structure. He was later found dead after exhausting his air supply.

BFD’s First RIT Team

In essence, Minehan and his crew became the first organized RIT team deployed by the BFD. As a result of his death, actions were taken to begin training companies in the skills necessary to rescue one of our own and incorporating large/wide-area search skills. These responsibilities would eventually fall onto the ladder and rescue companies to carry out, and when employed in this fashion, the crew would be known as the Firefighter Assist and Search Team (FAST). Since 1994, a truck or a rescue company would be designated to this function for the protection and safety of our firefighters operating at emergency incidents. But, after a few years, it was recognized that “FAST may not be so quick.”

The idea of providing the best resources to protect our firefighters while operating at the scene of a fire was reinvigorated in 2007 when a group of forward-thinking fire officers had taken a class on rapid intervention. On completion of this course, these officers brought the program back to Boston and, with the approval of the chief of department and fire commissioner, implemented a training program to train all 1,400 members of the BFD in self-survival and rapid intervention. It was also later determined that despite having a majority of the BFD trained in RIT operations, there should be a second tier to whom the response should be upgraded should the situation require it.

Advanced RIT

BFD’s Special Operations Command (SOC) began a three-week program to train all members of seven technical rescue companies in what was eventually called “Advanced RIT.” These companies were initially trained to the same level as their counterparts throughout the rest of the department, but they were then also put through their paces performing all the same drills under live fire conditions. They were then trained to integrate their skills in heavy and collapse rescue into a firefighter down with entrapment scenario. This was the culmination of years of training in structural collapse and the other technical rescue disciplines. Now, they were performing those same skills in a fire with the major challenge of attempting to get air to the down firefighter before his air supply ran out. Many who completed this training touted it as “the best training I’ve ever completed,” and “this may actually save someone’s life someday.” Since 2007, these companies have continued to practice these skills as part of their annual technical rescue training. I was one of the lead instructors in delivering this training.

On November 26, 2013, technical rescue companies were completing the first day of their two-day RIT refresher course. Day one consisted of completing thermal imaging-directed searches; performing ladder bailouts and ladder rescues; refresher training on establishing an air supply to a down firefighter using the RIT pack; and performing a search, harness conversion, and rescue in the flashover simulator. This day had gone like every other, with most companies dusting off some of the cobwebs from the previous year; everyone walked away successful and utterly exhausted. I, too, was feeling the effect of a long day of training and repeated evolutions within the flashover simulator. Like the students, I had to work that night in the firehouse.

(1) Photo courtesy of Mark Garfinkel, Pictureboston.com.
(1) Photo courtesy of Mark Garfinkel, Pictureboston.com.

At the time, I was assigned as a lieutenant on Engine Company 28, which is also assigned under SOC as a technical rescue company. That shift had progressed like most others, with a few calls after dinner, which stopped in time to allow me to catch some sleep before returning to the training academy in the morning. At approximately 0030 hours on November 27, we were dispatched along with the truck in our house, Tower Ladder (TL) 10, to a motor vehicle accident, which turned out to be nothing more than a minor fender bender. While returning, we heard the distinctive tone for a fire in the city. Over the radio, we heard, “In District 9, striking Box 2471, for a report of a building fire at number 12 Pond Circle.” This was in our first-due area, and we were already on the road and had a head start on responding.

When we turned onto the street, we could see fire showing from most of the front of the house, a typical single-family colonial home common to the neighborhood. Within seconds of calling off and giving an initial size-up, a second alarm was rapidly ordered. My company stretched a line to the front door while TL10 made its size-up and 360° walkaround, looking for anyone who may be in a window in the rear.

Mayday!

The major thing I noted from getting my 270° view as we pulled past the building was that there was no fire from the basement windows and that one of the second-floor bedroom windows had nothing showing from it while the other was fully involved. Taking into consideration that it was now about 1 a.m., a car was in the driveway, and no one was meeting us in the front yard to tell us everyone had either made it out or people were still inside, I made the decision to knock down the heavy fire with a transitional attack and make a push to secure the staircase so that the other bedroom could be searched. Once the line was charged, we knocked down a majority of the fire from the outside while pushing into the structure. We continued to advance, knowing that the second-due ladder company was coming in right behind us to search the upper floor.

Once satisfied that the majority of the fire had been knocked down on the first floor, I directed my crew to turn the hose around and begin working our way up to the second floor. I was the last one to follow, making sure my crew remained intact and safe. In the two seconds it took them to turn the hose around and begin working their way back toward the staircase, the floor below me began to crack; then, it suddenly let go. I fell halfway into the basement, and my leg caught one of the floor joists.

I immediately reached for my radio mic and transmitted “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” while giving my location, identification, and problem. I figured in such a small house, someone would see or hear me and get me out. Unfortunately, this initial radio transmission was talked over by typical fireground chatter. After repeating the procedure two more times with no response, I activated the emergency alert button on my radio and my personal alert safety system (PASS), which was the standard operating procedure at the time. This action immediately notified our fire alarm dispatchers that I was in trouble and identified who I was so they could notify command. I hoped that someone would hear my PASS. Once the IC acknowledged that I was in trouble, he immediately dispatched the awaiting RIT to find and rescue me.

Self-Extrication

While attempting to self-extricate, I saw a glow in the basement, which I was certain was a fire and did not expect to see. I viewed a fire in the basement as a guaranteed death sentence. I held on as strongly as I could. I could feel my right thigh and left hand burning through my bunker gear and gloves. After a few attempts at self-extrication, I freed myself from the hole and made it out the front door just as the RIT was about to make entry, approximately five minutes after I declared my Mayday.

(2) Firefighters sought to secure this second-floor bedroom because it offered trapped occupants the best chance for survival, as is evident from the minor interior damage. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Fire Department Fire Investigation Unit.)
(2) Firefighters sought to secure this second-floor bedroom because it offered trapped occupants the best chance for survival, as is evident from the minor interior damage. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Fire Department Fire Investigation Unit.)

I spent almost two weeks in the burn unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, receiving skin grafts to my leg and treatment for my left hand and wrist. I was fortunate that my experience and training kicked in. As soon as I knew I was in trouble, I was able to keep calm, conserve my air supply, and request help.

During the after-incident investigation, it was noted that as a result of my training and being an instructor, coupled with a high level of physical fitness, I was able to self-extricate and would make a full recovery and return to duty. The hole I had fallen into was not just a hole-it was the location from which the fire had smoldered through from the point of origin. However, it had been covered over by a piece of falling plaster from the ceiling. The plaster sheet covered the hole, making it virtually invisible when viewed through the thermal imaging camera, and it felt hard and solid when I banged on it prior to stepping on it. Having never left my crew’s side except for that brief period while resetting the hoseline, I had always maintained accountability of my crew, and they always knew where I was.

Lesson Learned

As a direct result of this fire, the BFD introspectively looked at the procedures on which we relied to save down firefighters lives. In this case, the radio transmissions were the weakest link in the system. We asked what could be done to improve this deficiency. At the time, firefighters were expected to make a Mayday radio transmission prior to any other actions and then activate their radio emergency alert button if possible. This resulted in my message being “stepped on” when I tried to call out, prolonging the time before a RIT was sent in. The department reasoned that if the order were reversed-activate the emergency alert button first-the dispatchers would take notice and immediately alert the IC of the emergency. The IC could then delve deeper into the emergency, reducing the time it would take to mitigate the problem and send in a RIT. This procedure was changed within two days of my incident.

We, as a service, need to instill in our crews the need to constantly evaluate whether we are ready for this type of emergency while operating on the fireground. Training and physical fitness are two of the primary components for firefighter survival, particularly when heart disease continues to be the number one killer of firefighters. Accountability is also a key tenet of survival, and it needs to be a two-way approach: An officer must know where his people are, and his crew must keep an eye on the officer. We are one cohesive unit, so we must function as one. In the end, we must be able to ask ourselves, If the improbable happens, can we recover and act in a manner that will save our firefighters’ lives? The answer is to be prepared for this type of incident before it happens so you’re not playing catch-up while someone is trapped and screaming for help.

Training and properly equipping our members are the first steps in laying this foundation for safety and survival. In my case, these two steps had been taken. As a result of many years of experience and of having dealt with these types of tragedies, the BFD had taken the necessary steps to protect its members, and it took another major step to alleviate a deficiency that was identified in this incident. The goal is that lessons garnered from my experience will prevent other firefighters from dying or suffering career-ending injuries.

Endnote

1. Boston Fire Historical Society. (2015). Line-Of-Duty-Deaths. Retrieved from: www.bostonfirehistory.org/bfdlineofdutydeaths.html

RYAN McGOVERN is a captain in the Boston (MA) Fire Department, assigned to Special Operations Command as the urban search and rescue program coordinator for the Metro-Boston Homeland Security Region. He has more than 16 years in the fire service and served in volunteer and career departments. He is also a rescue specialist for MA-TF1. He has a BS degree in fire science and investigative forensics.

Ryan McGovern will present “Living Through My Mayday” on Friday, April 22, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at FDIC International 2016 in Indianapolis.

Handling the Mayday : The Fire Dispatcher’s Crucial Role
Mayday : Are You Prepared If It Happens To You?
Firefighter Mayday? Reality vs. Myth

More Fire Engineering Issue Articles
Fire Engineering Archives

No posts to display