Struck by Lightning

By Michael N. Ciampo

On a stretch of hot and humid days, a violent afternoon thunder and lightning storm rolled through our response area. During these storms, automatic fire alarms are set off by power surges, loss of power, and even lightning strikes. It is not uncommon to run numerous calls for trees and limbs down, wires arcing or down, and flooding. However, the runs that spark our interest are those reporting a “structure hit by lightning.” The calls can range from simply investigating the structure to find a ground wire blown off the cold water pipe for the electrical or telephone service to checking massive structural damage with no fire. These runs often occur when no one is present, which can result in the fire going undetected. Be prepared for runs a few hours after a storm passes and for a fire that may already be in the advanced stages, resulting in severe structural damage with the possibility of a failure of a component or a collapse.

A few hours after one of these storms, we responded to a two-story wood-frame dwelling for a report of “smoke coming from the structure.” The caller also stated that “the siding of the home was torn off the house with scorch marks.” A quick mental size-up while responding indicated the possibility of the sheathing on fire or smoldering where the home was struck by lightning. On our arrival, moderate smoke was pushing from the home. We established a water supply and stretched a handline to the front of the structure. Forcing the front door, we encountered a moderate smoke condition with heavier smoke upstairs and began our search for the seat of the fire.

Our initial game plan was to proceed up to the second floor and toward the back of the dwelling where it had been struck by lightning; we figured we would find fire in that room or in its walls. Our second thought was that it was already above us in the attic space near the lightning strike, but neither area showed any fire or heat. The search team on the first floor reported high heat levels at the other end of the structure in the kitchen. Luckily, with no known seat of the fire, we kept the hoseline at the front door until confirmation of the fire location. You may ask why it wasn’t brought up to the second floor initially. If you do so and the fire is downstairs, you would have to redirect the entire hoseline, which can cause delays and add time to the fire attack, especially if you are operating short staffed.

When we returned to the first floor, we ran into the other search team; members informed us they couldn’t locate the fire and hadn’t gotten to the opposite side of the structure near the lightning strike. We made our way to that location, which revealed no fire in the room or in the walls. After relaying that information, we were ordered to assist in locating the basement stairs. We wondered why that was an issue. Since we already found the stairs to the second floor, wouldn’t the basement stairs be under them? (Normally, there are two possible locations for the door leading to these stairs: on the side or in line with the stairs. Little did we know at this dwelling the stairs were closed off with a wall.) As we got back to the kitchen area, the heat level began to intensify. As one of the members crawled through the room, the flooring gave way and he fell through the floor, catching himself at the armpits.

The initial instinct was for all of us to rush out to him, grab him, and pull him back out of the floor, but the floor felt very spongy; if it collapsed with one member on it, what would two or three more do to it? Quickly, one member tried to reach him with a hand tool for him to hold onto as another rapidly removed a door from the hinges to throw on the floor for a solid work platform. Remember, one of the easiest ways to quickly release a door from its hinges is to place the head of a tool or a thick part that fits in between the door and frame, just below the hinge, and close the door on the tool. This will pop the small screws out from the frame or door, releasing it. Start at the upper hinge and, as it pops off, the tool will slide down along the opening to pop the bottom hinge off. Some firefighters attempt to put the fork of the halligan on the door’s hinges and twist or pull, but you’re fighting six to eight screws mounted on two different surfaces, which can make the door more difficult to remove.

Proceed with caution; only the minimal number of members should venture out across the floor. Using a door helps distribute the weight of one or two firefighters across the floor joists. In some situations, if no doors are present, flipping over the kitchen table or a coffee table may also work. Luckily, in a few seconds we were able to use a sound tactic to remove a trapped firefighter, and the hoseline covered our position as well.

Finally, we gained access to the basement through the secondary stairs located in the garage and stretched a second hoseline to the seat of the fire. Remember, when structures are struck by lightning, the seat of the fire can be in a remote area from the initial strike and can already be in the advanced stages on arrival.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 24-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC “Truck Company: Essentials” H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.

 

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Struck by Lightning.

Struck by Lightning.

On the 26th ult. a lightning shock was felt very generally in the City of Detroit, Mich. The most direct and serious result of the explosion was the partial burning of Fire Enginehouse No. 9 on Alexandrine avenue. The Foreman, D. Broderick, was standing in the west door of the building when the flash came, and not being particularly affected, stepped into the yard to see where the lightning had struck. He immediately became aware that the tower to the Engine-house was on fire, while the roof to the stable was also burning. Meanwhile, the lightning having burned the fire alarm telegraph wire, the stable-door latches were tripped, and, stunned and staggering like drunken men, the horses, seeing their stalls open as usual in case of fire, stumbled forward to their places beside the pole of the chemical engine. Broderick ran back into the house to give an alarm and found the hostler stunned, working in half-dazed fashion to hitch the frightened horses to the machine. The work being accomplished, the engine was drawn into the street, an alarm was turned in from Station No. 125. and within five minutes after the first shock, Broderick had his hosg and pipemen half way up the tower doing all in their power to stop the fire.

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