A successful (or lucky) fire operation can lull us–and our customers–into a false sense of security.

It was a call we dreaded.

“KEC 581, Engine 2, Engine 4, Truck 3, Rescue 1, Car 2: Respond to a reported structure fire at Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center. Time out: 0430 hours.”

It was also a wake-up call (in many ways) that opened this firefighter`s eyes.

Often, we consider success on the fireground an affirmation of our operational procedures. The fact that a firefighting technique or fire protection system “worked” does not necessarily mean that it worked as well as it could have. Would doing it another way have produced more effective, more efficient, or safer extinguishment or incident mitigation? All fires go out eventually, but at what price? Did we have an up-to-date prefire plan? Would better fire inspections have prevented the fire in the first place? The fact that a fire occurs at all in a targeted high-life-hazard occupancy tends to at least compromise the integrity of our fire prevention program. Are we really as prepared as we like to think we are?

These concerns were brought home to me with penetrating clarity during my command of this hospital fire.

We`d had many alarms for this sprawling hospital complex over the years. Ninety-nine percent of them were caused by foreign matter in a detector, a “funny” smell, a steam or water leak, overheated machinery, electrical problems, wastebasket fires, and the like. Two that caused considerable smoke and necessitated several rescues were fires set by patients in the padded cells of the psychiatric ward. Despite our regular hospital fire safety program, a fairly good relationship with hospital staff, and the countless ” false” alarms over the years, an alarm for Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center can still produce a little tingle in the chest. And this one sounded real.

I radioed en route.

“Car 2 to Central: “Telephone Hospital Communications. Get us an entry point, and find out if they`ve got something more on this. Be advised that we never received a red panel or box alarm.”

Moments later, the dispatcher`s voice came over the mobile radio:

“Central to Car 2: Communications reports that there is a confirmed large fire in the administration section and that their personnel are evacuating due to heavy smoke.”

“Ten-four. Fire in Administration. Dispatch a second alarm and place Union County Mutual Aid on standby status.”


As we approached the hospital, we saw 30-foot flames over the roof of an attached wood-frame loading dock located in the center court of an older section of the complex. Heavy fire was at the doors and windows of the receiving area.

“Car 2 is on scene, establishing Muhlenberg Command. Make this a Condition `C` Cat [a major fire, more help is anticipated].”

We would have to attack through the front in conjunction with a pincer movement at the sides to keep fire from extending to the contiguous emergency pavilion and general patient areas. We would also need quick ventilation of those areas together with rescue crews and at least some evacuation.

The fire attack was split into two divisions in an attempt to cut the fire off from the patients. Vent and rescue groups were quickly augmented (a bit unusual for us to combine both geographic and functional assignments, but it served the purpose). Several individual rescues were performed, one of a dedicated telephone operator who had refused to abandon her post until it was almost too late. A nursery on the third floor required mechanical ventilation, along with partial evacuation, as did the maternity wing and the emergency pavilion. In addition, roof ventilation was performed on the two-story frame administration wing that was heavily involved with fire.

A third alarm was sounded. Safety and Liaison sections were established as part of the command staff, along with Planning and Logistics sections as part of the general staff. A command post was set up in a nearby rear maintenance area. Staged mutual-aid companies rotated into the divisions and groups. The Union County Haz Mat Unit was called to the scene to handle biochemical waste involved in the fire. The county`s Arson Task Force was also summoned to assist in our investigation (the fire was suspected to be incendiary in nature). Our Bureau of Fire Prevention handled apparent code violations that were discovered.

The fire in the south wing of the administration building was extinguished with six lines. It was stopped in an area that had a large library computer section on one side and a storage room on the other. Although some offices and a receiving dock were heavily damaged, the fire did not extend to contiguous patient areas. Aside from a few minor cases of smoke inhalation, no civilians were injured. One firefighter broke his arm when he slipped and fell off the apparatus during the overhaul stage. One hates to see a firefighter become injured at any time, but it is particularly ironic and frustrating when the injury occurs after the fire is under control and life hazards have been mitigated.


The operation was generally considered a good stop of a potential catastrophe. Hospital officials reported a million dollar loss. They were happy it wasn`t more.

Everyone, in fact, seemed happy with the outcome (or, perhaps, just relieved that a major threat had been averted)–everyone, apparently, but me. I was bothered by a few nagging concerns about our performance. While the fairly standard strategy and tactics worked well enough, portions of several systems–planning, logistics, prevention, protection, and even operations–had broken down.

Unsafe conditions and practices that had contributed to the fire spread had not been noted during a recent inspection tour of the facility.

The reporting procedure put in place by the hospital (with fire department approval) did not work properly.

Communications and coordination between the incident commander and key hospital staff were poor.

Prefire plans were neither accurate nor nearly complete enough.

Despite heroic efforts by the troops and the general level of professionalism they displayed, tactical mistakes were made.

Yet the fire had been extinguished with no deaths or life-threatening injuries. The aftermath saw both fire department personnel and hospital staff congratulating themselves and each other on a successful operation. Many took the satisfactory outcome as proof that the system worked.

Soon afterward, our department was honored by the hospital hierarchy at a very nice luncheon ceremony. Our brass was presented with a handsome plaque, which was subsequently given a place of honor in our headquarters station. I was told that everyone seemed pleased. An emergency forced me to miss the ceremony. I had intended to offer the following remarks:

“Although it is true that firefighters and hospital staff members worked very hard and performed very well at this alarm and that there were individual acts of heroism, it is also true that we must look on this fire as a deadly serious warning of failed procedures. The simple truth is that we were lucky. We had a large fire occur–that in itself was a failure–in a relatively isolated sprinklered section of the complex. The fire occurred in an administration area and involved offices that were mostly unoccupied at the time. The offices were served by a corridor adjacent to an outside wall with good ventilation opportunities. The corridor was set off by fire doors on each end. Place this same fire in a heavy patient area or a location within the inner bowels of this vast complex, and you can be certain that we would have quickly run out of body bags.”

I did make essentially that same speech to various hospital administrators over the weeks following the fire. They nodded in polite agreement, but I could see that many of these very busy people were really having none of it. It is not very pleasant to accept that a potentially serious problem exists, especially when the alternative spin is a recent “success” that makes one feel comfortable.

Did we use this reality check to improve our procedures and plans? Yes. Improvements and modifications have been set in place, but much remains to be done. The task of convincing our customers–and our own people, in some cases–of the need for changes has fallen to those of us who are prepared to risk unpopularity in the cause of life and fire safety.

The fire service learns from the great catastrophes. They generally bring about the benchmark improvements in codes, standards, and established strategies. Wouldn`t it be far better–and far less costly–to learn our vital lessons from the near misses? n

CHARLES R. ANGIONE, a decorated 25-year line veteran, is deputy chief of the Plainfield (NJ) Fire Division, where he has served as suppression deputy chief for more than 12 years. He has a diploma in fire science technology from Union County Technical Institute; certificates in advanced incident command, strategic analysis, and executive development from the National Fire Academy; and certificates in hazardous materials response and arson/cause and origin investigation. He is a New Jersey state-certified fire service instructor II and fire official and is a columnist and frequent contributor to fire service publications.

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