A ROUTINE CALL BECOMES A NIGHTMARE
ON THURSDAY evening, May 26, 1988, the volunteer firefighters from the Twin Hills (CA) Fire District were concluding their weekly drill when Sonoma County’s Central Fire Dispatch alerted Twin Hills to a grass fire in a front yard at Kennedy and Bloomfield Roads. The time was 10:15 p.m.
I responded in my department vehicle, expecting this to be an illegal burn barrel or some other type of nuisance call. The night was cool and damp, so a raging brush fire was unlikely.
I approached the location and saw a grass fire in an apple orchard just off the road. Tlie fire was about a quarter of an acre in size and was moving slowly through short grass.
I notified central dispatch, then slowly cruised by the fire, making my size-up and checking for exposures. I noted a pickup truck parked at the side of the road near the edge of the fire and wished it would move on. I wanted that spot for the first-due engine.
As I drove past the pickup, I heard someone yelling at me. I thought it odd that people were getting so excited about such a small fire in an apple orchard.
I parked at the south end of the fire and walked back toward the pickup truck, satisfied that no structures were in danger and that this would be a oneengine operation. An easy pickup. What happened next changed the situation drastically—and maybe even changed my life.
A woman approached me and said, “You’d better come quick. My sons have been electrocuted.” I stared in disbelief as she explained that there were live wires down. It was pitch black, except for a dim glow from the grass fire. I asked where her sons were, and she said, “Over there,” motioning toward the orchard. I was afraid we might step on the power lines in the dark, so I told her to point to where the boys were as we walked carefully down the paved roadway.
I could make out two adults lying in the orchard about two feet apart, approximately four feet off the road into the orchard. One of the boys had his right hand clenched around the power line. I could see bolts of electricity traveling through him. The second victim was no longer in contact with the power line but was still in an extremely dangerous area.
I immediately radioed for an ambulance to respond code three to an electrocution. I also requested that a warning be broadcasted to all responding fire units that we had live wires down, exact location unknown. The emergency crew from the power company was also requested to respond. The engine company arrived and staged clear of the hazard in response to the warning of live wires down.
I was trying to remove the victim’s mother from the immediate area, as I feared she might also come into contact with the wire or might collapse from traumatic psychological shock. As expected, she had to be forcefully removed from the immediate scene, both for her safety and for ours.
We used the Incident Command System and it worked well. I established a command post and designated the captain of the engine company as the operations officer. We still had units responding and the scene remained unstable and unsafe. Sectors were established for medical treatment, fire suppression, staging, and safety.
While we were lighting the area to determine the location of the power lines, the victim’s father and a passing doctor started CPR on the youth who was clear of the power line. This was in an unsecure area, as the fallen power line was burning in the limbs of an apple tree overhead. Those performing CPR were also too close to the other, stillelectrified victim.
Firefighters and paramedics from Redwood Empire Life Support took over CPR prior to moving the victim who was clear of the power line out of the orchard. The victim was placed on the life support system and removed to the ambulance for transport to the hospital.
The dispatcher informed us that the power company quoted a 30-minute ETA. We replied that it was unacceptable-one victim was still electrified and burning and the rescuers, too, were endangered by the live power line. Instead the ETA was shortened to 15 minutes.
Things happened quickly as additional fire units arrived and began setting up road closures and handling crowd control. We allowed the grass to burn freely until the power was shut off. The fire was still confined to the orchard and was threatening no exposures. Meanwhile, Sonoma County Sheriff deputies arrived on the scene to investigate the cause of the accident and to assume crowd control.
A ROUTINE CALL BECOMES A NIGHTMARE
The Twin Hills fire chaplain arrived, consoling and ministering to the parents of the victims. We found out that the family had been going home from church when they saw the grass fire. They stopped to extinguish the fire and in the dark one son, David, age 18, came into contact with the downed power line. The other son, Peter, age 19, rushed to the aid of his brother and was electrocuted when he made contact with him. both parents went to assist the boys and were thrown back by an electrical jolt. The father suffered electrical shock and was kept overnight at the hospital.
The sheriff’s watch commander, who also is a deputy coroner, responded and declared David dead at the scene at 11:15 p.m. The power company arrived a few minutes later; however, it was 11:30 p.m. before the power could be shut off.
The mother of the victims deserves credit for protecting the lives of the responders. On my arrival, she warned me of the fact that power lines were down. Also, a Twin Hills Explorer, responding from home to the grass fire and unaware of the hidden danger, was providently saved from harm by the mother’s strident warning. Yet another well-meaning neighbor escaped injury when he was stopped from stretching his garden hose through the orchard to fight the fire.
My wife and two sons, all Twin Hills firefighters, were on the first-due engine. I shudder to think of the consequences had they arrived and put water on this very routine-appearing grass fire.
This incident underscores the need for all firefighters to be careful and to scout for unseen hazards. Officers need to consider all hazards when sizing up.
Our training paid off; the incident was handled according to plan and department policy. However, we learned a few lessons and reminders that we would like to share:
- Make a good size-up. Know exactly what you’re dealing with, even on seemingly routine incidents.
- Appoint safety officers for multicasualty incidents and other major emergency calls.
- When a hazard is determined at a fireground or scene, have dispatch repeat the warning announcement. Be sure that all responders are aware of any dangers.
- Do not get tunnel vision and risk the lives of the victims and rescuers by administering to the victims in an unsafe or hazardous area.
- Establish a department policy that crews stay with their truck until given specific instructions from their company officer. This kept firefighters from charging into the orchard to fight fire.
- Any time you have a traumatic incident, be sure to have a debriefing soon after the call. Have the critique later. Provide counseling should firefighters be troubled by the call.
- Use the Incident Command System—it works well. As a rule of thumb, we use a road name or landmark to identify a specific incident command post.
- Never assume that power is secured until the power company declares it safe. After the power company lineman had climbed a pole and done some work, two deputies approached the victim and were stopped within one foot of the victim as 12,000 volts continued to flow through his lifeless body. There was a feedback of power until a switch could be thrown.
Our community lost two good Samaritans that evening: two young men just starting their adult lives.
This incident was a tragedy that at first masqueraded as a routine call. However, because of good communication and teamwork, no firefighters were injured or killed.