Risk Assessment: It Is Personal

By William Shouldis

Meaningful lessons from large-scale incidents will assist firefighters in gaining proficiency and increasing professionalism. The sharing of information must be practical and have “real-world” application to enhance personnel safety. Actions have risks and consequences. Each must be fully understood. True learning is directly linked to understanding the difference between the natural instincts of immediate involvement by firefighters and an avoidance of clearly recognized hazards during an emergency call. It is essential that a contrast between the “on-scene” factors of fire growth, building construction, and occupant survivability be evaluated by individuals during their decision-making process. A comprehensive training program for any emergency scene should focus on strategic considerations, tactical concerns, and resource gaps that can stall the achievement of “incident-specific” objectives. Risk assessment must be assessed prior to the implementation of any work assignment. Managing the modern emergency response may require special “collapse-rescue” operations, providing emergency medical care, and the deployment of various types of firefighting assets. Connecting “front-line” experiences with the development of written standard operating procedures (SOPs) will ensure orderly steps when confronted with a low frequency event that has the high potential for firefighter injuries.

It was in the middle of the night when a hotel fire was reported to the public safety answering point (PSAP) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Quickly, a full first alarm assignment was sent to the reported structure. The Carlyle Hotel is located in an economically depressed neighborhood with few fire protection features.

As Ladder Co. #7 turned from the fire station, the officer and crew members spotted the large column of smoke in the distance. None could imagine the magnitude of the situation. Soon, rescues, firefighting, extrication, and prehospital medical intervention skills would be tested.

While Ladder Co. #7 was still en route, the first-due engine company arrived and announced in a brief initial report (BIR) that leaping flames were venting from the first floor doorway. The upper floors had severe smoke conditions and numerous occupants needed help.

The initial incident commander instructed incoming units to stretch water lines and raise ladders. The scene was geographically and functional divided. The tactically assignments were clear and concise. Ladder Co. #7 was given orders to operate from Side “C” (the rear) of the burning building. The officer was designated as the Search & Rescue Group Supervisor. This officer recognized the issues. Aerial and portable ladders were raised to the windows at all levels. The visibly trapped occupants were removed. A high tactical priority was getting inside to initiate an interior primary search. Accountability, coordination, and crew integrity were essential. The primary search would start directly above the fire on the second floor. During the search, the officer noticed that there were few locked doors. Many of the small rooms in the hotel had only curtain to suggest privacy. Resource requirements for forcible entry could be reduced, yet more search teams were needed because the hotel was a hangout for many drug addicts, prostitutes, and illegal activities.

Continuing the systematic search, the officer noticed a red glow coming from the exposure on Side “D.” With smoke rising from the first floor, the officer could not fully ascertain the extent of the problem. The officer decided to assess the conditions by climbing out a second-floor window onto a flat porch roof. Once on the exterior, he determined that the radiant heat did not ignite the nearby exposure. He was witness to the bright reflection of the flames venting from the top floor of the hotel. The intense heat moving upward in the open staircase had ignited the combustibles contents and furnishings on the upper floor.

It was vital that the command post be notified of the changing conditions. The officer transmitted a progress report via portable radio while standing on the porch, inside the collapse zone. After completing the verbal report and requesting additional assistance, the officer, a 12-year veteran, tuned to re-enter the structure. Suddenly the wooden cornice and brick wall fell. The “curtain-type” collapse was quick. Later the officer would say that, as the “look-out,” he did not hear, see, or sense any trouble. The first indictor of danger was falling bricks striking him. The officer told how the hot bricks burned and buried both legs, and how the “tone” of the Mayday message was unmistakable.

Significant risks by co-workers were taken and the officer was removed from debris field. Instant medical treatment was sought. The officer claimed only to have intense pain in the shoulder area, but as a precaution the ambulance personnel, using a cervical collar, immobilized the spine. To the injured officer it was unnecessary–even the slow drive to the hospital was annoying. At the hospital the emergency room staff began the painstaking process of identifying the injuries. Bruises and cuts were obvious. An MRI revealed the most serious injury: a fracture to the C5 and C6 vertebrae. Restricting movement became the highest priority. The officer was instructed not to move. Today, the officer of Ladder Co.#7 still tells how he was “afraid to breath” for fear of paralysis.

This incident has many lessons to examine:

  • Look out for rapidly spreading fire.
  • Information on the status of internal and external exposures is necessary.
  • Having a “practiced” set of search procedure for small rooms and large open spaces is important.
  • The need for proper prehospital emergency care is universal.
  • The risks and consequences of violating a collapse zone should have an immediate impact.

Fortunately, after 14 months of healing, treatment and rehab, the officer was able to return to an active duty status.

Tragically similar stories are often researched by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the¬†Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). All the “Firefighter Fatality investigative and Prevention Program” reports can provide a powerful opportunity for professional development. Numerous recommendations reinforce the need for better situational awareness and decision-making at all levels. Maintaining a safe corridor to operate is vital at wildland and structure fires.

Conditions can change in a split second. Be ready for any response. Get prepared and stay informed. Lives can be altered forever. Risk assessment is personal. I know. I was the officer of Ladder Co.7 at the Hotel Carlyle fire.

William Shouldis served in line and staff positions with the Philadelphia Fire Department for 35 years. Currently, an instructor at the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) and guest speaker at the Graduate School at St. Joseph’s University.

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