We Hate to Lose

 

Whether it was while playing a board game or on the school playground, losing wasn’t fun when we were growing up. As a fire service, do we grow accustomed to losing a building when pulling up to a fully involved one? Or do we know we can write it off as the “risk vs. reward size-up and we weren’t saving anything here” excuse? Hopefully, we’re aggressively hitting it with a power punch off the engine’s deck gun, protecting the most severely exposed building, and saving property or life there. Isn’t that what we signed up to do, protect life and property?

Arriving with nothing visible but people leaving the building with kids in their arms and clogging up the front stairwell, we used the rear stairs in the building. Luckily, this information was entered in the computer-aided dispatch system, which gave us the information on the rig’s computer screens prior to our arrival. Other information on the building’s shape was also documented: “E” type on one exposure and “H” type on the other. That led the officer to remind the chauffeur that he and the outside vent firefighter might have to reposition the rig if the fire is on the opposite side of the building.

 

Reaching the fourth floor, we encountered a bottleneck on the stairs’ half-landing: Tenants were trying to remove elderly people off the fire floor. One of these individuals informed us his relative was trapped in the front room of the fire apartment. Luckily for us, the tenants in the apartment directly below were exiting, and a firefighter entered to get a layout of the apartment while the other two firefighters went to the fifth floor to control the door and don their face pieces. Once the layout was known, the information was relayed to the entry team: “50-foot hallway, past four doors, it makes a right, two rooms on the left and one on the right.” The members entered rapidly yet cautiously proceeded down the long hallway. They didn’t want to pass fire and get cut off in an all-out effort to make the rescue.

Many of the doors were locked or had padlocks on their frames, which indicated to us that the apartment had been cut up into single-room occupancies. Duck walking down the long hallway, we made the corner but then were greeted by the fire. We used the pressurized water can to try to knock back the fire as one of the firefighters entered the opposite bedroom.

The fire began to grow. The transom window above the door to the bedroom failed and the firefighter exited the room, unable to locate the victim. We notified the chief that the fire had cut us off from the front rooms. Meanwhile, the outside vent firefighter working off the fire escape had been chased out of the other front room by the fire conditions.

As we tried to formulate if we could breach a wall to get past the fire or hold a door up as a shield and try to contain it, we heard screams coming from behind us. We thought the victim had made it past the fire and was in one of the rooms behind us. We left the firefighter operating the can at the corner of the hallway, trying to hold back the fire as we forced opened the other two rooms. We searched the beds and under them, the closets, and the rest of the rooms and found no victim, but the screams persisted.

As we came out of the rooms, we yelled for the victim and thought the sounds were coming from the next room over. We entered the bathroom; a quick sweep of the tub proved negative, but now the sound was close by. Sweeping the floor in between the toilet and vanity, we located the sound maker, a cat. Almost embarrassed that this high-pitched childlike scream and moan had us searching in all directions, we were upset that it wasn’t our victim. Plus, the fire was now rolling over our heads and we had to exit the apartment because our can was completely expelled.

The engine company was ready to enter the apartment and began to make a push on the fire. As members advanced around the turn at the end of the hallway, an area lit up behind them. A closet, almost entirely disintegrated, exposed hidden fire extending up a channel rail to the floor above and across the ceiling in the bays. The hoseline’s advance was stopped so it could operate up into this vertical channel to stop the fire spread. Once this area was knocked down, the engine continued with the advance.

A metal scissor security gate (normally used on windows) was secured across the door frame of the adjoining room. The truck company was in the opposite room completing its primary search; there, members located access doors to the room with the scissor gate. Because of the amount of clutter in the rooms, truck members used the halligan to pop the doors off for access. Then the primary searched continued, and the victim was found on the floor between a wheelchair, a walker, a dresser, and the scissor gate. Quickly, members grabbed a blanket off the bed and wrapped up the victim; then the race to remove her from the apartment began. Members used cardiopulmonary resuscitation to revive the victim, but sadly we got word 12 hours later that she had passed.

No matter how hard you fight, remember that you’re going to lose from time to time. Losing stinks, but hopefully your training allowed you to perform to your highest standards and enabled you to give it your best effort. If you just show up halfheartedly and give a lackluster performance, then get back into the training arena. You only win as a well-trained team; be a part of one.


MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 33-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 International Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.

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