FEMA Review Of Deadly Stockton, CA House Fire Provides Insight Into Lessons Learned

Washington, D.C. – A technical review of a residential fire in Stockton, CA that claimed three lives is being released by the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). According to the review, large, open areas and non-standard construction are indicators of potential collapse in a burning residence and the existence of these must be conveyed to interior fire crews whose vantage point may prevent them from being aware of the potential danger.

“This report offers valuable insights that will help prevent deaths and property loss in the future,” said Michael D. Brown, Homeland Security Under Secretary for Emergency Preparedness and Response. “With the help of local officials, our fire experts compile these ‘lessons learned,’ which all fire departments can benefit from.”

The review, compiled by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), also states that a standard accountability of personnel system is a critical part of an incident response. “When something does happen, the system should be in place and the crews should have the unit discipline and self control to quickly account for all personnel and report their status to the incident commander,” the review states.

Other lessons learned cited in the report include:

  • An incident commander must be responsible for overall operations and should establish and maintain command throughout an operation as self-initiated and self-directed efforts of firefighting crews lack coordination and control;
  • An operator can be assigned to handle radio traffic, but the incident commander must be aware of all important messages, direct all assignments and control the communications process;
  • Rapid intervention teams outfitted with appropriate equipment should be provided to rescue trapped or missing firefighters;
  • An insufficient number of radios for firefighting personnel impacts the success of a fire response;
  • Smoke detectors in homes and second exits from rooms for evacuation of occupants enhance the likelihood inhabitants of a burning residence can escape.

“This was a terrible fire that caused the death of two firefighters and an elderly resident,” said US Fire Administrator R. David Paulison. “Lessons learned from this review are relevant to every department in the nation and underscore the importance of communication, training and established systems.”

USFA develops reports on selected major fires, usually involving multiple deaths or a large loss of property. The objective reviews are intended to uncover significant “lessons learned” or new knowledge about firefighting or to underscore ongoing issues in fire service. USFA, which has no regulatory authority, sends an experienced fire investigator to the community after a major incident only after conferring with local fire authorities.

The 1997 fire in Stockton, CA began early in the morning on Feb. 6, in a second floor master bedroom occupied by an 82-year-old resident. The small lot size, a crowded driveway and limited access from the sides and rear complicated the fire response. A second story addition not visible to firefighters entering the building from the front subsequently collapsed, killing two firefighters. A third firefighter was seriously injured. The resident also died, from carbon monoxide poisoning.

A copy of the full report can be ordered by visiting www.usfa.fema.gov.

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