By Micah Kiger
On May 25, 2008, Loudoun County (VA) Fire and Rescue responded to a house fire at 43238 Meadowood Court in Leesburg. During the course of operations, crews from Reserve Engine 6 (RE6) and Tower 6 (T6) became trapped by fire on the second floor while conducting interior operations. Even though this fire occurred almost 10 years ago, the lessons learned from this incident are just as pertinent today as they were in those minutes following the fire.
Everyone likes a story with a happy ending, but this story almost ended in a way that no one ever wants to read about, let alone be a part of. Many line-of-duty death (LODD) or firefighter close call reports generally begin, “The day started out as any ordinary day.” Not this one. Loudoun County has its share of sporadic fires. Meadowood Court was the third “working structure fire” to which we responded on that Sunday, not to mention the fourth box alarm to which RE6 responded. This was far from a “normal” day in Loudoun County and a beautiful Sunday afternoon on the Memorial Day Weekend.
Crews assigned to RE6 and T6 were responding to a commercial building fire at the Ross Department Store in Leesburg at the same time that the fire at Meadowood Court was being dispatched. Since the first-arriving engine to the Ross Department Store reported that they were “on scene with nothing showing, building not evacuated, crews investigating,” RE6 and T6 diverted to Meadowood Court.
Since Leesburg is generally a five- to seven-minute ride, I did what I always do when responding “to the west”: I pulled on my turnout pants and threw the rest of my equipment into the cab so that I could get dressed on the way because we had plenty of time before we would get there–that is unless you divert to a house fire that is half the distance from the original call and you are forced to locate the new address on a map, get dressed, listen to radio traffic, figure out what other units are on the new assignment, and realize as you look at the header of a clearly “working structure fire” that you are now the first-arriving unit on this scene.
I gave my windshield size-up: “A two-story, single-family dwelling, smoke showing with a fire possibly running side Charlie or in the attic.” Exiting the cab, I did as I had always done–I ran from side Alpha, around side Delta, down a small incline to the backyard (Charlie/Delta corner). Standing below grade, I noted fire venting from the second-floor window on side Charlie in the center of the house (third floor in the rear because there was a walkout basement). Vinyl siding was melting down the rear of the house and active fire was clearly entering the attic space. A large deck on the rear of the house (first floor), limited my view. However, I felt that I had seen all that I needed to see: The fire looked like so many others that I had been on in Loudoun County (fire walked the exterior of the home, up the siding, into the attic). Since we were not met by a homeowner, I told T6: “There’s nobody out here to meet us; we’re going to have to do a search.”
I provided a situation report to the communication’s center: “Confirming a working structure fire, number two floor; establishing command and need to transfer it ASAP.” Viewing only half of the house, I returned to side Alpha to meet my firefighter who was waiting on the front stoop. This was her second “real” working structure fire. She had deployed a 200-ft., 1¾-in. handline to the front door, forced entry, and was waiting on me. T6 was arriving on the scene. The firefighter looked at me and asked, “Where are we going, Cap?” I told her, “second floor, center of the house, it’s vented.” Through the front door we went. There was light whitish/gray smoke on the first floor, no heat. I would have looked with my thermal imaging camera to confirm, but my firefighter had pulled it off the engine, and it was left lying beside the passenger’s side front tire. (She did exactly what was expected of her: She pulled the equipment for me, but I failed to pick it up before I started my walk-around.)
Inside the Structure
We ascended the stairs to the second floor, flipped the hose across the bannister, and stretched into the master bedroom. Chief 11 was arriving on the scene and radioed me that he was ready to assume command when I was ready to transfer it. I told him to take it and that the fire was in the attack.
While one could deduce where the fire was (attic), the reason I told him this on the radio was because “the punishment wasn’t fitting the crime.” The amount of fire we were encountering wasn’t matching up with what I had seen from the vented fire at the rear of the house. There was active fire in the bedroom, but it wasn’t running us back out the door. Visibility was reduced, but you could see about a foot ahead of you. My firefighter was hitting active fire. While maintaining voice contact, I left the line to vent a window that was already cracked. T6’s crew had made it to the second floor. I acknowledged them as they passed the bedroom we were in. Knowing that they were on the second floor, delta quadrant bedroom, I left the line a second time to begin a primary search of the master bedroom.
At that time, I began to note changes. Visibility that was initially a foot was now a couple of inches. Heat that was initially coming from a central location was now coming from all around us; it felt as if it was trying to push us into the floor—it was as if you are making a hard push on an advanced fire and you are at the point where the situation was going to get better or we were going to have to back out. Heat went from warm, to hot, to uncomfortable.
I radioed command, “Any progress from the exterior? Visibility is zero.” He replied, “You’re starting to make a hit on it. It looks like it’s still in the attic and running the ridge vent.” With that information, I felt that we were making progress. But, I was wrong! Within seconds, the heat became unbearable. T6’s crew recognized the same thing we did: It was time to go.
When turning to leave the bedroom, we were met with fire from the first floor. Fire was blowing through the mezzanine railing over top of us like a jet engine. I tried to call a Mayday, but I couldn’t. My fingers were melting into my lapel microphone. T6’s firefighter was directed to call a Mayday, which he did. Command acknowledged the Mayday. Rescue 13 was deployed as the rapid intervention team (RIT).
We positioned the line at the top of the stairs to try to beat the fire back down the stairs so that we could exit. My firefighter told me that she didn’t have any water. Since this was her second “real” fire, I took the line from her and tried to figure out what the problem was. The problem was related to having no pressure because the hoseline burned about 10 feet back from the nozzle, leaving the hoseline basically useless. We had to drop the line and move on to plan B. We hadn’t prepared for plan B. We hadn’t looked for another way out, much less considering that we would have to drop our “lifeline.”
Every time we moved, we were burning. I was breathing like 100 beats a minute. Noticing how hard I was breathing, I immediately switched into survival mode. I knew that if we were going to get stuck, I would need to conserve as much air as I could. My breathing slowed down. The air from my cylinder was getting so hot that I didn’t know how many more times I was going to be able to breathe it. I was already preparing for what I was going to do when my facepiece melted off. I told my firefighter to get a hold of me and not to let go. I maintained voice contact with the T6 firefighter. While getting overrun by fire, we lost contact with the T6 officer. We called out for him repeatedly; there was no answer. He was presumed dead, and we weren’t too far from death ourselves. I thought we were going to die, too; but, as quickly as that thought came into my head, I pushed it back out because of the screams of the two firefighters who were still with me. It was my job to now get them out.
Crawling down the hallway, I came to an inward swinging door and started inside. As soon as my hands slid across the floor, I turned back around into the hallway to continue searching for other ways out. The transition into the first room was from carpet in the hallway to some type of slick surface; the surface was tile or linoleum. I recognized that I was entering a bathroom; bathrooms typically have small (if any) windows. I needed a bedroom. The next inward swinging door we came to was into a bedroom. As the T6 firefighter entered the room, he closed the door. This bought us some time and kept fire off of us as we searched for another way out. I reached as high as I could reach without standing up as I felt the wall for windows. There weren’t any windows on the inside wall. I felt that I had picked the only bedroom in America that didn’t have windows. At this time, I heard glass break. It sounded as if the glass was on the other side of the planet from where we were. I left the interior wall and went toward where I believed the sound was. I found a window.
The RE6 driver has thrown a ladder to the second-floor window, side Charlie, Quadrant Bravo. That was the sound we heard. I was completely up against the window before I saw daylight. Between the smoke and Venetian blinds, it was difficult to locate. I accidentally pulled the blinds on top of me as I grabbed the top and dropped to my knees to break them away from the window. Our hand tools were scattered across the second floor, so we had to clear out the remaining glass and screen with our hands. When it came time to get out, the engine firefighter went out first. When she made it to the top of the ladder, she slipped off the side and was hanging underneath the ladder with her arm stuck. We helped to free her. The T6 firefighter was next out the window. I followed. Prior to exiting, I again tried to yell for the T6 lieutenant, but there was no response.
Escape and Medical Aid
We made it to the bottom of the ladder and proceeded as a group to Side Alpha of the structure to get medical assistance. I advised every person I passed that the T6 officer was missing. While doffing our personal protective equipment, someone told me that the T6 officer was “over there.” The lieutenant had self-evacuated after becoming separated from us on the second floor. During the rapid deterioration, a truss assembly t blocked his exit from the master bedroom. He sought refuge in the master bathroom while attempting to break windows to escape. He was unable to break the glass because it was safety glass around the garden tub (known as Herculite glass). He completely separated one of the frames but was unable to clear it enough to get out. He used his TIC to look through the master bedroom (which was now completely involved with fire) and look for the cool spot in the room, which was believed to be a window. He ran through fire and leaped out of the window and into the backyard, rolling into the woods. The T6 officer was on fire when he landed in the woods. Firefighters extinguished the fire with their hands and carried him around to Side Alpha, where I saw him.
The T6 officer was on an emergency medical services (EMS) stretcher and was being taken up the street. The closer I got to him, the faster the crew was moving with him. I could hear him screaming, which meant two things: He was alive, and he had an airway. EMS was treating the T6 firefighter; the engine firefighter was following me up the street. After the lieutenant was loaded into the ambulance, we began receiving EMS care from units arriving on the scene. The T6 officer and firefighter were flown to the burn center; the RE6 firefighter and I were taken to the local hospital. I was subsequently transferred to the burn center because of injuries to my hands. The T6 officer spent around three months in the burn center, received multiple skin graft surgeries, and was medically retired as a result of his injuries. The remaining personnel returned to work after the incident and are still on the job today.
Lessons Learned and Reinforced
Following are the learning points from this incident (abbreviated version). The descriptions above of the incidents are condensed; the lessons below hit some of the highlights.
• Completing a full 360° size-up. The size-up was not complete, which might have led to different strategy and tactics. Taking a mental snapshot and referencing past, similar events are not good enough. Departmentally, we now have standard operational procedures (SOPs) that govern the completion of a 360° fireground assessment before the commencement of interior firefighting operations can occur.
• Designate two-in/two-out. No formal two-in/two-out was established. Rescue 13 was assigned RIT immediately on arrival, but no initial RIT was in place to assist the firefighters involved in the Mayday.
• TIC usage. As mentioned, the TIC for RE6’s officer was not taken inside the structure. This was solely the responsibility of the captain. The RE6 firefighter did exactly what was expected of her by placing the TIC next to the front tire (along with the irons pack), as she had done on numerous incidents prior. The TIC would have proven valuable for evaluating deteriorating conditions. The T6 lieutenant’s TIC likely had a hand in saving his life; he used his training and understanding of the TIC to look for the cool spot in the room, which was his means of egress.
• Melting mics and radios. While the RE6’s lapel microphone was inoperable because of melting, the radio would have still worked if he had pressed the push-to-talk button on the radio itself. The radio was in a leather radio case and strap on the exterior of the captain’s PPE. Studies have validated the melting concerns of radios and lapel microphones when worn on the exterior of firefighters’ PPE.
• Check first floor before sending firefighters to second floor. No investigation took place on the first floor of the house prior to personnel ascending the stairs to the second floor. While light smoke was present on the first floor, I directed crews to the second floor without checking the entire first floor for signs of fire. I didn’t feel any heat; therefore, it was “clear” in my opinion. The fire that trapped the crews originated on the back deck, burned into the first floor, and ignited overstuffed furniture in the family room directly below the operating crews. A flashover occurred and led to the rapidly deteriorating conditions.
• Plan for a second way out. It wasn’t until the handline became inoperable that crews looked for another way out. Had the hoseline not burned, it is highly probable that crews would have descended into the flashover while trying to retreat by the same way that we entered (creatures of habit). Crews were forced to make plan B decisions because of a lack of options vs. having a plan prior to needing it.
• Accountability. It took a long time to get full accountability on all firefighters involved with the Mayday. Loudoun County uses the Passport Accountability System; however, the passports had not made it to the command post. T6 was staffed with three personnel vs. the normal complement of four on that day. Consequently, it was believed that a firefighter was still missing.
• Consider keeping all of your injured firefighters together. After a stressful event, it is important to try to keep crews together. On this incident, all four firefighters could have been taken to the burn center, which would have afforded each to have the specialized care they needed, allowed them to be together, and would have allowed our department’s senior staff to be available to provide for the needs of their personnel in one centralized location.
• Counseling. It is important to get personnel the specialized post-traumatic stress counseling they need. Although counseling was available through our employee assistance program, more specialized “firefighter-geared” therapy would have been helpful.
• Ownership and accountability. Loudoun County Fire and Rescue accepted the negative and positive outcomes of this incident. A full investigation was completed that allowed all aspects of incident to be reviewed so that changes could be recommended. The changes are still in-progress today and will likely continue for years to come.
• Survival training works. Loudoun County Fire and Rescue requires all firefighters to complete the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDPF) Mayday Firefighter Down curriculum as part of their baseline firefighter skills training program. Skills developed in this class had a positive influence on the outcome from this incident. Continuous, emotion-based survival training is important because it allows firefighters to use muscle memory when extremely stressful events occur.
These are some of the “high-level” items that have been learned from this incident and continue to be a driving force for the culture of our department 10 years later.
MICAH JOEL KIGER is deputy chief-shift commander in the Operations Division of Loudoun County (VA) Fire and Rescue, where he has served for 18-plus years.