Every fire department in the United States must have in its jurisdiction a restaurant similar to the one presented in this month’s scenario. Additionally, the vast majority of these departments run engine companies with fewer than four members at least part of the time.
There are several “givens” in this scenario:
- The fire occurs in an occupied restaurant during business hours.
- Heavy smoke is showing on arrival.
- Civilians outside tell you that they believe many people are inside.
With staffing set at three (including the officer) and knowing that help is about six minutes away, the first-in officer must make several decisions. The first is whether “to lay in or not to lay in.” At a fire with this potential and the limited staff, I wouldn’t drop a firefighter at the hydrant—even with conditions showing as they are. I would rather take my full complement (as full as a driver, a firefighter, and I can be) up to the fire and have the driver get me water in the 21/2-inch line when I call for it. The firefighter in the back and I will stretch a 21/2-inch line into the restaurant. The next-in unit would get us water.
We have only one objective at this fire: to darken down the fire as quickly as possible. With two members on the line (the officer and one firefighter), we probably would take the line in dry and hope for the best. We have an indication that the fire is inside near the stage area. Our objective is to get as close as possible, charge the line, and then knock down the fire.
Any other action, including rescue of victims, needs to be put on the to-do list until the fire is knocked down. After the fire is knocked down, I would vent as quickly and as aggressively as possible with whatever I have, be it a positive-pressure ventilation fan or the 21/2-inch line. If you don’t have the staffing to remove the victims from the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere, remove the IDLH atmosphere from the victims.
—John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.
Question: You are the officer on a three-person engine company in a five-station fire department. Your station is on the outskirts of town, where future city expansion is expected. If you catch a fire in the far end of your district, you are about six minutes away for your next-in unit, which is another engine company.
You pull up to a nightclub with dozens of cars in the parking lot and heavy volumes of smoke coming from the building. You see fire inside the front door near the stage area. Civilians tell you that they believe many people are still inside. What would your initial strategy and actions be?
Larry Anderson, deputy chief, Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue
Response: This scenario is a classic example in which the situation dictates your actions. As long as we stay within the strategic priority framework of rescue, exposure, confinement, extinguishment, and overhaul (RECEO), our actions will be evident. The tactics chosen will vary according to resources and individual style.
The number of cars in the parking lot indicates that people are inside the restaurant and may need assistance. Extinguishment efforts should support solely the rescue operation. This is also true of forcible entry, ventilation, or any other tactical operation. The tactics must support the strategy. All available resources must be committed to the strategic priority of rescue until rescue has been completed or has been proven unattainable. There doesn’t appear to be any exterior exposure issues here, but interior exposures are going to be major. This building appears to contain quite a few areas in which fire could travel unseen. Cutting off the fire in those areas is key to mitigating this situation. By addressing the interior exposure problem, confinement of the fire naturally occurs. Extinguishing the fire is actually fourth in the priority pecking order. Jumping to fire extinguishment without considering the first three priorities causes more headaches than just about any other factor.
Understanding strategic priorities and having a sound knowledge of tactical operations will result in good initial decisions and effective deployment.
Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Response: In the outlying areas of Phoenix, this scenario could take place, except for the portion about the regularly staffed three-person engine company. All of our units are staffed with a minimum of four members, but there are times during a shift when, because of training, short-duration vacation leaves, or a few other situations, a company may have only three people.
The initial actions of the first-due engine company in this scenario are fairly straightforward. The time of day, 40 cars in the parking lot, the way the fire and smoke are presenting, and a few other factors dictate an offensive strategy. The first-due engine would lay a supply line into the scene from the nearby fire hydrant, or the pump operator would hand jack a supply line to the nearest fire hydrant if one is close. The engine would spot its apparatus near the front door.
The company officer would assume command in the fast attack mode (going inside with the firefighter), transmit a brief initial radio report to alarm headquarters for all responding units to hear, and then order that a 13/4-inch quick attack line (from a transverse hosebed) be deployed through the front door. The firefighter and officer would don their SCBAs and extend the attack line inside to control the fire.
Considering all the cars in the parking lot, no people standing outside, and the time of day, the best option for the initial crew would be to remove the fire from the people instead of trying to remove the people from the fire. In reality, based on the known factors, most (if not all) people should have self-evacuated from the structure before our arrival. If they were not able to self-evacuate, the number of people in need of rescue is far greater than could be successfully rescued by a single engine.
The only viable option in this scenario is to attack and control the fire using an offensive strategy. Once control is achieved, search the structure for any victims, and hope that additional help arrives quickly.
Katherine T. Ridenhour, captain, Aurora (CO) Fire Department
Response: Two different approaches that can be successful would be to play it safe and conservatively or to mount an aggressive interior attack with the potential to save more lives. Regardless of the choice, to be successful, the officer must decide priorities, identify problems, define the strategy, employ good tactics, and ensure that resources are adequate.
A more conservative officer will lay in—you have obvious fire and you must protect your crew as well as ensure water supply. You call for a third alarm with a mass-casualty response, go in fast attack mode, and do a quick size-up. You have a single-story occupied restaurant of wood-frame construction with a probable cut roof, not a lightweight truss. Then you read the smoke (volume, velocity, density, color). The smoke tells you that a “critical fire event” is about to take place; you need to act fast.
Your strategy is simple—save any savable lives. You pull the 13/4-inch line (for speed and maneuverability), go to the main entrance, enlarge it if you can, wait for your firefighter, and go in. Your hoseline is for protection at this point; you have rescue work to do. Entry without a rapid intervention team is justified, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for firefighting in IDLH environments. Once you go inside, your engineer keeps an eye on the changing conditions and tries to get more information on possible locations of victims.You make as many rescues as possible until the next rigs arrive to assist. You played it conservatively, but you did rescue lives.
However, if you want the potential to save more lives, play it more aggressively. Take the same initial steps except do not lay in—you will lose valuable time if you delay in the least. Laying in is always good insurance and certainly a safe career move, but it can give the fire the opportunity to grow to the point of flashover.
You read the smoke and realize a significant fire event is going to happen; your job is to prevent flashover, because flashover will kill everybody inside. You pull the 21/2-inch line, proceed to the front entrance (still expanding it if it is possible to do it quickly), immediately work to get the line between the fire and the occupants (sound familiar?), and remove the main threat to survival—the fire. You may be thinking that the 21/2-inch line will flow water for only about 11/2 to two minutes, but you will be able to cool the superheated gases as well as knock down the fire. Therefore, you must pencil/pulse the solid bore or straight stream across the ceiling to bring down the temperature as rapidly as possible to stop the flashover. Then blast the seat of the fire as hard and as fast as you can. This quick attack will buy you more time, give you the opportunity to vent the building by breaking windows, and rescue the greatest number of occupants until more units arrive.
If you run in and save the first people you see, the others will probably die. By being more aggressive, you will control the fire and give more victims the chance for survival.
Either way you play it, this scenario is challenging for even the most experienced officer. As an officer, you must hope your action plan will succeed in saving the greatest number of lives possible in this turbulent situation.
Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One
Response: This is a very realistic scenario for our fire department. As I have noted in previous Roundtables, we train our members to follow standard protocols to help determine initial strategy and tactics. The first would be the two-in/two-out protocol. Given the fire conditions and the report of “many people” still inside, our initial objective would be rescue. Consequently, our members would enter the structure to initiate rescue without waiting for additional firefighters as a standby team.
The second protocol would be to give a proper size-up report over the radio to communicate the following: (1) a description of the building, occupancy, and fire conditions; (2) initial actions; (3) the need for additional resources; (4) the urgency for the initial company to enter the structure without a standby team; (5) the initial company is concentrating on rescue vs. extinguishment; and (6) the direction of subsequent actions that must be taken.
The third protocol must be to focus on the initial strategy of rescue. The initial company would enter the structure with an attack line. The fire conditions, compounded by the number of people attempting egress, may impede advancing a hoseline to knock down the fire to significantly reduce or eliminate the danger. However, the hoseline might be used to protect the egress long enough for people to get out. Additionally, positioning the initial engine company and identifying or establishing a water supply are critical and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the other arriving units.
Responding to emergencies and creating order out of chaos are difficult tasks. Training fire officers to follow protocols or to get in the habit of following a routine at an emergency is essential to mitigating the emergency.
Leigh Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: There are many variables and unknowns that would be major factors in deciding the actions to take. The situation given (five stations, three-person engines, six-minute backup) is very familiar to me and my career here in Florida.
Therefore, with only the information provided, my response is to spot the engine at the front and perform a 360° evaluation on foot. What you find could alter your strategy and tactics. Assuming you find nothing that would change the tactics (such as 50 people standing out back reporting everyone is out or a rear door with people “stacked” in it), attack the fire as aggressively as you can with the resources you have. To save lives, once you have committed, do the following:
- Communicate your size-up and the actions to be taken on arrival.
- Pull a hoseline with sufficient flow but maneuverable enough to attack the seat of the fire quickly with only two people (such as a two-inch line with a solid tip).
- Know when to continue your attack and when to back out.
- Be aware of how much water is in the booster tank (there was no mention of a hydrant).
- Immediately remove any nearby victims as soon as the fire is knocked down.
This situation is a classic example of a low-frequency, high-risk call. It is also an example of when severe risk to firefighters is justified and when to take exception to certain rules, such as two in/two out. Risk a lot for a lot. Risk only a little for a little. Note: The scenario presented is very similar to that of the Bayview Restaurant fire, Seaside Park, New Jersey, which occurred at 7:30 p.m. on July 30, 1985. In that incident, a fully occupied restaurant (a full parking lot and 75 people inside) presented about the same conditions—heavy smoke rolling out and flames showing inside. The first-arriving engine company did not know that all patrons had escaped until the size-up revealed this. A Newark (NJ) Fire Department captain was inside when the fire started and reported to the first-arriving units that everyone had escaped. Therefore, the strategy changed to protecting the #4 exposure, which was a 21/2-story frame structure only four feet away.
Steve Yonker, lieutenant, Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety
Response: The engine company should lay a large-diameter supply line, leaving a firefighter to dress the hydrant and start water. The officer should pull a 13/4-inch line to the front door and wait for the firefighter who was dressing the hydrant; they would then enter the restaurant and try to knock down as much visible fire as possible.
The reasoning behind this strategy is that a three-person crew is not going to physically rescue many people. By going through the front door with a hoseline, they may be able to knock down or hold back a significant amount of fire. This would improve interior conditions and keep the smoke and heat away from the front door.
People tend to exit a building the same way they entered. By pushing the fire and smoke away from the front door, any trapped occupants, if capable, could still escape on their own. Anyone who could not make it out might be able to survive long enough until more firefighters arrive.
Thomas Dunne, deputy chief, Fire Department of New York
Response: This engine officer’s adrenaline will really be pumping, since he is dealing with a lot. His very first action when arriving at the scene should be to request a multiple alarm/mutual-aid response, given the potential life hazard.
All indications are that a good number of people are inside the nightclub, many of whom probably are not that familiar with the building’s layout. A mass exodus through the main entrance is a certainty if the people inside are still capable of movement.
Protecting this means of egress with a charged hoseline should be the officer’s first decision. The recent Rhode Island nightclub tragedy clearly highlighted the need for this tactic. Even if the victims inside are incapable of self-evacuating, protecting this exit will be vital for the success of the entire operation.
Since the fire is visible, a hoseline can be stretched directly to it through the main entrance. If it is not a long stretch, three firefighters should be able to accomplish it quickly. By using the engine booster tank water, they may at least be able to knock down the visible fire without having to wait for a hookup to a hydrant or other water source.
As soon as water is being put on the fire, one member of the engine crew should be breaking windows to accomplish whatever horizontal ventilation is possible. This may reduce the smoke condition just enough to help some of the trapped victims.
Concentrating on venting and operating the initial hoseline while ignoring immediate search and rescue attempts is a difficult and seemingly harsh decision. However, if the engine officer has the discipline to order these simple and relatively quick tasks, he will be much more effective in reducing the overall life hazard.
In this fire scenario, given the very limited initial resources, it may be better to have the later-arriving units get involved in the more time-consuming job of victim search and removal. The first engine officer’s tactics should be geared to confining and limiting the fire’s potential to kill.
Lance C. Peeples, instructor, St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy
Response: Responding to a serious fire in an occupied nightclub with an understaffed engine company when the next-due engine company is six minutes away presents a difficult situation indeed. Ideally, this tragedy-in-the-making should have been prevented by a requirement for automatic sprinkler protection. However, things being what they are, it is necessary for the company officer to size up the scene and determine a course of action. Many things go into a size-up; unfortunately, we do not have enough details to formulate a plan. Would it be possible to take out large show windows to create a larger exit opening for escaping patrons? Is there steel mesh across the windows that would prevent this? Are large numbers of occupants escaping through a single, narrow front door? Would stretching a line through this door delay the evacuation and actually result in more deaths? Is an alternate entry point available by which the first line can be placed between the escaping occupants and the fire? Is my engine carrying a rotary saw with an aluminum oxide blade that would allow quick forcible entry through a side door, or should I use the saw to cut the steel grate over the front windows? How good are my firefighters at forcible entry? If victims are jammed in the main entrance, would we do the most good simply by grabbing hold and pulling, thus relieving the bottleneck? How big is the fire?
None of this information is available, as it would be if we pulled up to a real fire—and that is the value of experience as opposed to book learning. Book learning is essential, but it is merely a supplement to experience.
Here, the first course of action should be to ensure that sufficient fire and EMS resources are responding. It is doubtful whether a five-station department could muster the resources necessary to handle this fire, so summon mutual aid as soon as possible. Next, the engine company officer should realize that, in most instances, the correct course of action (the one that will save the most lives) is to put out the fire! However, there may be rare instances (this may be one) where experience might dictate that an exception be made to this general rule and that other actions be taken before placing the first line in service.
Richard Tremitiedi, chief (ret.), Hoboken (NJ) Fire Department
Response: My initial strategy is to protect and rescue/evacuate the occupants with an offensive operation. I would do the following:
- Assume command in mobile attack mode; inform Dispatch and incoming units.
- Call for additional alarms because of the life hazard and conditions on arrival.
- Give a situation report.
- Order the first engine company to drop a supply line at a hydrant and forward lay to the fire building with the entire crew (allows for quick tactical action).
- Direct and assist in stretching and charging a 21/2-inch hoseline (from the water tank) with a smooth-bore nozzle (11/8-inch) to quickly knock down the fire and protect occupants. This hoseline will supply ap-proximately 265 gpm at 50 psi nozzle pressure with reach and penetration. The hose stream can also be deflected off the ceiling to reach the fire without obstructing occupant egress.
- Inform dispatch of my actions over the portable radio, and order the second engine company to connect the hydrant supply line. Have them, except the engineer, proceed to the fire building with forcible entry tools to open up exits, provide horizontal ventilation, and assist the first engine company with a primary search off the hoseline.
- When able to get away from assisting with the hoseline operation, I would continue sizing up to find a better way (large windows, for example) to attack the fire other than through the front entrance, since every effort should be made to keep this entrance as clear as possible. This would include questioning civilians about exit locations.
- Order the truck company to vent the roof over the fire and clear any other exits.
- Prepare for transfer of command.
Note: Since details were omitted from the scenario, I noted that this was an “outskirts” company and probably had a 750- to 1,000-gallon water tank. With a six-minute response, it would be feasible to have a second engine hook up the supply line. In view of the staffing limitations of the first-arriving engine company, my risk-vs.-benefit analysis warranted a quick and aggressive course of action.
Tom Sitz, lieutenant, Painesville Township (OH) Fire Department
Response: Our strategy would be to protect the means of egress with line placement, put water on the fire, and then search. I believe that this approach would do the most good for the most people. We could certainly abandon the stretch and attempt to grab a couple of people before the fire drives us out, or we could put water on the fire in an attempt to buy everyone some time.
First, you want to give a brief, as complete as possible, on-scene report: “Working fire. One-story nightclub. Report of people trapped. Engine 1 going fast attack. Second due, we need a supply line.” You would follow that with a request for additional resources. It could be a second alarm, a second with specials, or even a third, depending on how beefed up your boxes are for this type of alarm.
We would place our engine as close to the front door as possible without blocking access for incoming units. We would stretch a 21/2-inch hoseline through the front door. We picked the front door because we want to protect the means of egress most people will try to get to, the one they came in, which is probably the front or main entrance. By stretching through this door, we accomplish our first static goal, protecting the means of egress. We stretch a 21/2-inch because of the occupancy and the fact that our goal is to hit the fire as hard and as fast as we can. The operations incident commander (OIC) and the jump firefighter will darken the fire or completely dump the booster tank water on it to slow its progress. Once the fire has darkened down or you run out of tank water, the OIC and the jump firefighter will search from the fire area back to the front door.
Our chauffeur, after charging the line, would take a position at the front door with a six-foot hook. He has several tasks to accomplish:
- Feed the line to the interior from the front door so the stretch can be as fluid as possible.
- Take whatever windows he can from that position. Performing horizontal ventilation and simultaneously putting water on the fire are the two most important tactics a three-person engine company can accomplish with people trapped. Certainly, the horizontal ventilation will make the search easier and faster for the interior crew.
- Maintain radio communications with incoming units, and try to keep track of where the interior crews are.
The most important part of this operation is what you do before you respond to a fire like this—training. Everyone should know his position on the fireground. If your chauffeur and jump firefighters do not know what they are supposed to do prior to the call, the fire will have the advantage. We have drilled on several scenarios with people trapped and worked out who is responsible for which task.
Douglas Edwards, battalion chief, Gloversville (NY) Fire Department
Response: As you arrive on the scene, advise other responding units of your size-up, and call for an additional alarm (ladder, rescue, engine, incident commander, depending on what is sent on the initial alarm). The first engine in will have to lay its own hydrant line on the way in. The pump operator will have to connect the hydrant line and charge the line alone. The attack line will go through the front door toward the stage, to darken down the fire or put a line between the fire and occupants. As the fire is being held by one firefighter, the other one has to be removing occupants. The firefighters attacking the fire and making rescues will have to determine on their own if conditions will allow them to vent or remain in the building. This is one time it may work to your benefit to attack the fire before doing rescue. If you can put out the fire, you have minimized the hazards for the occupants. I am not worrying about two in/two out; I have other units responding, and I have life safety inside the building.
Anthony M. Brooks, lieutenant, Columbus (OH) Fire Department
Response: I would do the following: lay a supply line going into the scene because of the large volume of smoke issuing from the structure, announce a second alarm on finding out that multiple victims are still inside, and stretch a blitz line and try to keep the fire from extending while rescue attempts are made. It is important to rescue as many people as possible and to keep the fire in check, possibly protecting people by extinguishing the fire until they can be removed from the structure. If the fire is left to burn, our time in the structure would be severely limited. One person could operate the blitz line while another drags victims from the structure. The pump operator would have to cut in the hydrant by himself while the attack/rescue team operates on tank water. Would it be tough to be faced with this scenario? Ab-solutely! Would it be impossible to accomplish the goal of rescue and extinguishment? I don’t think so.
Brian Cameron, firefighter, Lansing (NY) Fire Department
Response: The first concern is life safety. The two members of my engine will be assigned to primary search and evacuation. The second concern is the large number of patients and triage/treatment/transport. The third concern is exposure protection and suppression. Depending on the construction of the building, it may end up being a surround-and-drown attack because of the time needed to remove patients/victims.
If the building has a fire department connection, my engine would connect and supply it using the booster tank while waiting for the second-due company.
I would immediately call for a second and possibly a third alarm, as well as an EMS task force for multiple burn and smoke inhalation victims. I would also request that a chief come to the scene and tell him that we would probably need significant mutual aid—if not for suppression, then for standby at our stations. I would also request multiple helicopters to be on standby and would notify the nearest hospitals to expect a large patient influx for smoke inhalation and burns.
The second-due unit should hit a hydrant on the way in, but the members will also be immediately assigned to assist with the primary search or perform a secondary search. The next-in will be tasked to search/evacuate (if needed). Additional companies/trucks would be tasked to search/evacuate, if needed; exposure protection; and then suppression.
Additional staffing would be an immediate concern, as would triage, treatment, and rehab areas. I would request a city bus or two buses—one for firefighter rehab and another for treatment and transport of victims with minor injuries.
A staging area needs to be set up for EMS services, as well as possibly landing zones for helicopters.
In short, the priorities should be the following:
1. Patient evacuation and treatment.
2. Staffing, staffing, staffing.
Kai W. Rieger, firefighter/paramedic, Jackson Township Fire Department, Canton, Ohio
Response: In this scenario, the first-arriving engine has little choice. As we have seen from prior nightclub fires, trapped victims have small windows of opportunity for survival. Their survival is based on the occupants’ fire notification, proper exits, and the occupants’ locations in the building. Look back at the fires at the Cocoanut Grove in Boston, Massachusetts; the Happy Land Social Club in Bronx, New York; and The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island, which left hundreds dead. They died quickly.
We can’t go by a count of cars in the parking lot to estimate occupant numbers. Additional occupants may carpool or park in the street or nearby parking lots to get to their favorite club.
The nightclub may be one-story or the first story of a four-story building with apartments above.
It really doesn’t matter whether you come from a department with five stations or 105 stations. The first-arriving engine at this incident will protect the greatest number of lives and hold down overall damage by mounting a quick and hard offensive attack on the fire. The water will stop fire spread, searing heat, and the generation of toxic gases and choking smoke. A fast-moving fire in an occupied building with limited known exits is a mass killer. Any initial actions other than suppression will only endanger more victims. Victim removal may take hours, and ventilation opportunities may be limited. We hope to have ventilation and rescue support close behind. Searches, laddering, and ventilation prior to getting water on the fire will kill more civilians and make our job that much harder.
Bob Zoldos, captain, Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department
Response: The fire presented in this question presents a complex scenario for any response, especially an understaffed engine company without truck company support. At first glance, this fire seems similar to the West Warwick, Rhode Island, fire at The Station nightclub. This fire claimed 100 lives and brought to our attention the danger of these small nightclubs.
Overcrowding, blocked/locked exits, combustible decorations, and dark/obscured exit signs have led to many tragic fires in recent years. The fire described in this question could easily have any or all of these challenges. The life hazard should dictate our strategy, especially within the first few minutes of on-scene operation. Our strategy will have to be to aggressively protect life within the structure.
A proper size-up will tell us many of the things we need to know. We learn that we have fire inside the front door near the stage, possibly cutting off a means of egress. We know that it is Friday night and a nightclub like this may be over the occupancy limit. We also know that our staffing is only three and that additional units may not arrive for up to six minutes.
Since rescue is always our first priority, my first impulse is to work solely on evacuation. This would entail abandoning the engine and using all three members to work on forcing doors and creating/improving openings. This could allow those inside a chance to escape, assuming we can efficiently force a commercial, possibly chained from the inside, door that is in close proximity to those trapped and then move them (conscious and unconscious) to the exit. There are a lot of unknowns in this scenario, which together lower the probability of success.
A better choice would be to stretch a 21/2-inch line to the front door and make an attack with a smooth-bore or fog nozzle on straight stream. We must remember that since fire increases in size exponentially in relation to time, it is very important to quickly attack the fire to stop or slow the spread of the fire. Effectively applying water on the fire would quickly increase the chance of survival for those still inside.
Another reason to attack the fire first is that it can remove the hazard altogether. If we made a very aggressive attack and moved in and extinguished the fire, we would remove the cause of the hazards to those trapped inside. Extinguishment coupled with prompt assisted evacuation of those inside will go a long way in saving as many lives as possible.
Some may worry about the ability to maneuver and advance a 21/2-inch line efficiently, and I would usually agree with them. But we should try to safely use all the assets available at the incident. One of them may be the civilians who made it outside the structure. We can recruit some of them to assist with pushing the line into the building. We should easily be able to find enough helpers to allow us to make the fire area and protect those left inside.
Another on-scene asset is the engine chauffer. Once we have established a water supply, charged our line, and set the pump, the chauffer may be able to start forcing entry to the other doors.
A scenario such as this denies the first-in officer the ability to properly deal with the fire and trapped occupants at the same time. A decision needs to be made to do one task and do it well. The chosen tactic should be the one that makes the greatest positive difference with the limited resources available.
Bobby Halton, deputy chief, Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department
Response: With a thermal column as visible as this one, we would tag a plug as we roll in. We would gather as much information about the exits as we could by driving by and looking at three sides of the building. The nozzleman would stretch out our 250-foot preconnected 21/2-inch commercial line with our wide-bore nozzle to the stage door. The engineer can hook us up after we charge the line.
The building needs to be immediately evacuated; maintaining control of the exits is critical. The line placement must not impede the customers’ ability to exit the nightclub. There are usually access doors near the stage area for loading and unloading equipment. The initial line will operate from this location. With luck, we might have a good shot at the seat of the fire from this vantage point. The nozzleman would flake out our working hose, and we are ready for our advance.
History and lessons learned recently from Rhode Island and Chicago have taught us customers are going to leave the way they came in. The window of opportunity to extinguish this fire is very small; conditions could deteriorate very quickly, causing a panic inside. We will strike a full first alarm with additional medical companies for transport and treatment of customers. Our size-up should signal the urgency of backup support.
Based on the nature of the bystanders outside, we might be able to enlist some to assist in forcing doors and exiting customers. We would advance as quickly as possible on the seat of the fire with our two-person crew and direct as much flow as possible on the fire to prevent the production of smoke and toxic gases. The standard for Albuquerque on a commercial line is 325 gpm; we can deliver more, if necessary, and stay in contact with our engineer. The engineer would ensure our supply line and charge our attack line. We would direct and have the police or other responsible party try to control the exits.
With our limited staffing and the obvious threats, my choice would be to get a quick knockdown and protect civilians by removing the threat. This is based on the information given and our knowledge of human and fire behavior.
It is difficult not to immediately evacuate the nightclub, but the crowd could easily overcome two firefighters.
Marc D. Greenwood, lieutenant, Akron (OH) Fire Department
Response: The officer must begin sizing up immediately. Weather conditions, time of incident, occupancy, and exposures can be assessed en route. Occupancy type impacts firefighter safety. A four-year National Fire Protection Association study reveals that 3.1 firefighter deaths occur for every 10,000 residential fires, compared with 11.6 firefighter fatalities for every 10,000 commercial fires. Studying data arms officers, enabling them to initiate sound incident action plans.
On-scene, smoke spews from the building, fire rages inside near the stage, dozens of cars dot the parking lot, and bystanders bellow that patrons are still inside. Your puny resources are overwhelmed. Request a second alarm or mutual aid now. “The time to call for additional help occurs as soon as the need can be determined. It is better to call help too early than too late” (William E. Clark, Firefighting Principles and Practices, Fire Engineering, 1991). Then inform dispatch that patrons are still inside, direct the next engine to secure a water supply, and request the police to control traffic.
You direct your engineer to fire up the pump, the firefighter begins stretching an attack line, and the officer checks the rear of the building. Locating, confining, and extinguishing the fire posthaste are your only means to providing an escape route for occupants. The officer and firefighter must exercise discipline, stay together, extinguish the fire, and direct patrons to safety. Meanwhile, the engineer can direct floodlights on the structure—lighting the fireground helps occupants flee to safety and firefighters to operate in a safer environment. When battalion chiefs and additional companies arrive, establish incident command and create a stationary command post.
Nightclub fire deaths, including the following, have plagued the fire service for years: Rhythm Club, Natchez, Mississippi, 1940, 207 deaths; Cocoanut Grove, Boston, Massachusetts, 1942, 492 deaths; Beverly Hills Supper Club, Southgate, Kentucky, 1977, 165 deaths; Happy Land Social Club, New York, New York, 1990, 90 deaths; and The Station, West Warwick, Rhode Island, 2003, 100 deaths. Smoky environments, impaired patrons, overcrowding, and panic contribute to fire deaths in nightclubs. The advent of super pumpers, SCBAs, and state-of-the-art turnout gear can’t eradicate nightclub tragedies.
Fire suppression is only one component of the fire protection mandate. A viable education, enforcement, and engineering program must drive today’s fire service. Lip service won’t do.
Danny Kistner, battalion chief, Garland (TX) Fire Department
Response: I think recent experience has taught us to think outside the box in these situations. Clearly, our initial focus would be rescue.
History is a great learning tool. The Cocoanut Grove Fire and others have shown how people react in panic situations. Familiar exits become so cluttered with people trying to evacuate that the exits become nonfunctional. In fact, people are so tightly packed that the fire service cannot enter.
A good preplan would be extremely useful. Among other items that should be included in the plan are avenues of ventilation, utility shutoffs, potential breach locations, occupancy loads, and building construction type. What is the flame resistance of interior decorations? Where are the exits, and how many are there? What were the results of recent fire and safety inspections?
With a crew of only three, initial actions will be extremely limited but can be life saving. Multiple alarms or mutual aid needs to be requested early. A good size-up and radio broadcast of initial actions to be taken are musts. The focus then needs to be on opening the building.
Crews should disembark from the engine with tools such as irons, saws, pry bars, axes, or others that could prove useful in opening the building. First efforts should concentrate on those areas that civilians would likely funnel to. Doors and windows should be opened. Locks and burglar bars should be removed where appropriate. Finally, walls next to doors and windows should be breached to allow additional exit.
Firefighters who have practiced with hand tools and power saws can be extremely quick and efficient in creating openings. Care must be exercised to avoid injuring civilians who may be immediately behind the areas being breached.
Additionally, once openings are created, firefighters should resist the temptation to render care to one individual but should work to free as many as possible first. As soon as it is known that it is a mass-casualty situation, this information should be broadcasted and appropriate plans should be implemented.
As soon as staffing and time allow, stretch protective lines and ventilate, but first actions should focus on creating avenues through which panic-stricken people can escape the building.