BY JEFF HELVIN
We sometimes think the unthinkable happens to the “other guy.” On October 7, 2008, I was that other guy.
I was working Sacramento (CA) Fire Department’s Engine 15, which was part of a full first-alarm assignment dispatched to a reported structure fire at approximately 9:30 a.m. Some six minutes later, we arrived as the first-due engine to find a newer two-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling with heavy dark smoke showing from the second floor on the A, B, and D sides of the structure. The 2,500-square-foot dwelling had stucco exterior, a tile roof with lightweight trusses, five bedrooms, and three baths. Although I sized up from sides C, B, and A, I did not do a complete 360° walkaround (photo 1).
|(1) Photos by author.|
We initiated an offensive attack and deployed a 1¾-inch attack line. I contacted the neighbor, who stated she was unsure if anyone was home. After forcing entry through the front door, our three-member team saw that the first floor was clear of any smoke or fire; we could clearly see from the front door through to a sliding glass door at the rear of the house (Figure 1).
|Figure 1. Floor Plan|
I committed the attack line up the interior stairs to the second floor. As we advanced up the stairs, the smoke became thicker; when we reached the top, we were in zero visibility with little to no heat. I opened a window at the top of the stairs to start horizontal ventilation and scanned down the long hallway to my left with the thermal imaging camera (TIC) but was unable to see the screen because of the thick smoke.
The second-due engine (Engine 18) arrived, assumed command, placed its engine on the hydrant to supply Engine 15, and assigned one firefighter to Engine 15. However, it was never communicated to me that I had been assigned an additional firefighter. Since the department has four-person minimum staffing on all apparatus, Engine 18 was understaffed with three personnel for a few hours that morning.
The nozzle firefighter and I were in the master bedroom, searching for victims and the seat of the fire, while the backup firefighter and the Engine 18 firefighter were at the top of the stairs, assisting with the stretch. As I searched, I opened two windows in the master bedroom to assist in ventilation. After some time, the nozzle firefighter reported that the hose “just went flat.” I was off the hoseline searching. Thinking it was just a momentary loss of pressure as a result of the engineer’s opening another line or switching from tank to hydrant water, I made my way back to the hoseline and confirmed that it was completely flat.
At that point, I went to check conditions in the hallway. That was when everything changed. I was met with a blast of extreme heat such as I had never felt before and very turbulent smoke conditions. The two firefighters near the stairway were now crawling down the hall toward us, trying to escape the intense heat radiating up the stairs, and to notify me of the drastic change of conditions. I immediately ordered members to evacuate, still not knowing where the seat of the fire was or why it was blowing up, but I knew we needed to get out and regroup.
We all started crawling back down the hallway toward the stairs in single file, pushed to the floor from the extreme heat, and I was at the end of the line. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening in a single-family dwelling.” Once we reached the top of the stairs to descend, we bottlenecked, and it seemed like it was taking forever for me to get into position to descend.
At this point, I did the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do: I turned back toward the master bedroom and left my firefighters. Because of the intense heat, I felt as if the skin was melting off my body and I truly had no choice.
As I crawled back to the master bedroom where conditions were more tenable, I was mentally inundated trying to process all that was happening. “I don’t know where the fire is or why it’s blowing up, I’m separated from my crew and am not sure of their survivability, and now I have to try to save myself.”
The first two firefighters tumbled their way down the stairs through the inferno and exited out the front door. The third firefighter made it halfway down the stairs and saw the conditions; he turned back up the stairs and bailed out from the window at the top of the stairs.
As this was going on, I tried to find one of the two windows I had opened earlier in the master bedroom, intending to bail out head-first. Any injury I would sustain from the fall sounded good to me at the time, as long as I was out of the house. I made two passes down the B side wall, searching for the window, but I couldn’t find it.
I was on my hands and knees in a corner of the room. This is where I turtled up, now realizing I’m not getting out of this house alive. This is where everything started to slow down and became very vivid. I was in disbelief that this was happening to me and it was happening in a bread-and-butter, routine house fire. As I was accepting my final fate, I thought of never seeing my wife and kids ever again, not walking my baby girl down the aisle at her wedding, never watching my son play baseball, and not growing old with my wife—all the things you take for granted as a husband and a father. I thought of the death I would soon experience and what it would be like to burn to death. I then reminded myself that I was low on air and would asphyxiate before burning. This thought somehow relaxed me.
I had to make one more attempt to reenter the hallway and hastily descend the stairs. I knew I was going to be burned but felt it was my only option for survival. At some point as I descended the stairs, there was fire all around me, and I jumped over the banister, landing in a small living room on the first floor.
I was very disoriented when I landed and didn’t know which way was front, back, up, or down. Burning and in extreme panic to escape, I started crawling from where I landed, which was toward the rear of the house and the seat of the fire. At some point I noticed a light out of my left peripheral vision; it was light from outside, and I headed in that direction and found a sliding glass door off the dining room that led to safety (photo 2). I was soon found by other firefighters and transported to the local burn unit with second-degree burns to both hands and my neck and face. The other firefighters also suffered minor second-degree burns.
It was later discovered that the original fire was in the kitchen, sending smoke up to the second floor through the stairway, and had died down by the time we entered. Opening the front door and windows on the second floor had apparently caused it to reignite and burn through our hoseline (photos 3, 4).
• All two-story house fires are now considered three-line fires. The first line goes to the fire floor, the second line goes to the floor opposite the first line to protect the stairs, and the third line remains outside as a backup line.
• Always check the floor below the suspected fire floor. This is not a primary search but a quick search to ensure there is no fire on the floor below before committing members up the stairs. Hold the line at the base of the stairs while performing this quick check.
• Independent action by other crew members on the exterior must be communicated to Command and coordinated with the interior operations. Random actions of any kind—in this case, horizontal ventilation at the wrong time—can increase fire spread and intensity.
• Firefighters must train in pump operations and officer responsibilities in the event they need to act in one of those capacities.
• All firefighters must make safety and survival procedures part of their morning check. Check your radio and your self-contained breathing apparatus PASS device as if you know you will need it today. Review your Mayday procedures every morning. When you are having your worst day, these procedures need to be more than automatic!
• Heavy use of synthetics, new building construction, and high ceilings are responsible for a rapid flashover rate and “black fire,” where the heavy black smoke is hiding the visible fire. Ensure the exterior size-up matches the interior size-up, and keep looking around to maintain situational awareness.
• Anticipate that the fire will be put out, but plan for things to go bad. Think what you will do if the fire continues to grow and personnel become trapped while maintaining your current assignment.
• Always know where your secondary exits are when things go bad and, if possible, have more than one means of egress.
• Most importantly, remember that sometimes your decisions affect not only those around you at the firehouse but also your spouse, your family, and your coworkers. If you can’t be motivated to train and stay current with the job for yourself, do it for the ones you leave at home.
Jeff Helvin will present the classroom session “Sacramento Near Miss of Four Firefighters” at FDIC 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Wednesday, April 21, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 a.m.
JEFF HELVINis a 20-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with the Sacramento (CA) Fire Department, where he has served for the past 10 years. Previously, he worked for the Chico (CA) Fire Department, where he received the Medal of Courage. Helvin is a California certified fire officer and has an associate degree in fire technology.