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At last night's officers meeting, one of our deputy chiefs presented a follow-up from a fire in Price William County, Virgina in which a firefighter was killed. Its something we do as part of training, so its not that it was unusual but this one really hit home for some of us.
This was presented in much the same way as the last one we did (the tragedy in Charleston, SC). We listened to the audio recording timed with photos showing the fire's development and some 3D models showing the layout and the heat progression at different points in the house as the fire and the clock advanced. That kind of modeling is done as part of the incident report when a fatality like this is investigated.
While we watch and listen, we jot down things we notice -- things we don't like about how its being managed, problems, etc. Basically, we're trying to figure out what we should have and hopefully would have done differently that would have had a better outcome. For a department out size, we're pretty progressive in terms of training and we usually have a long list. The fire in Charleston was the worst I've participated in reviewing. We just got angry listening to it.
This one, however, was more frightening. It was more frightening because there wasn't a lot to disagree with. Sure, looking through hindsight you can find a few things, but even the post incident reporting is pretty generic. It suggests more manpower, buying newer stuff, and training more. There was nothing really there though. See, they sounded a lot like we try to. Their training regime is stronger than ours. The man that got turned around had more experience than most of us, the RIT was top notch and actually made two really amazing pushes back into the house to go after the guy. It just went bad and there was nobody to blame.
The incident happened at around 6am on a day where very high winds were hammering a fire that had started out side. The fire had climbed the outside back wall and got into the vents and was going pretty good in the attic when the first crews arrived. There were two cars in the garage and nobody out on the front lawn to say the house was clear. The first team went in to do a quick primary search while the others outside got ready to bring in water. The search team made the second floor landing, and found only light hazy smoke and temperatures at head height of around 80 degrees. In short, it was a very tenable environment at that point. What they didn't do was poke up through the ceiling to check the attic. They started a primary search, getting to the far end when in the course of about 10 seconds the temperature at head height climbed to almost 900 degrees. The fire had come down on top of them. One of the two made the stairs, but fell down them and got stuck in a wall on the landing. The other thought the stairs had collapsed and got turned around in the dark and smoke. He called a mayday in a calm voice, but couldn't tell anyone where he was in the 6000 square foot house. The other man was luckier. The next guys in saw his helmet through the flames on the stairs and dragged him out. The man upstairs never made it despite some really heroic effort on the part of a very experienced RIT. Eventually, the RIT along with a 2 1/2 inch line and a pair of 1 3/4 in lines managed to make the top of the stairs and hold them, but they still couldn't find the guy.
What could have been better? Well, there are a few things that may have helped. First, we don't do a search like that without our Thermal Imaging Camera. I think its fair to say we'd have seen the heat building a little sooner with that. In theory, we'd have poked a hole into the attic from the top of the stairs and seen fire. Our more experienced guys would have for sure. I don't know that I would have. I will now in that situation. That's why we do this kind of training. I also know to be over cautious when the smoke conditions don't match what you're seeing out side for fire. A light haze inside doesn't match the roaring flames visible from outside.
Modern construction is dangerous for firefighters. Engineered beams instead of solid lumber are held together with resins that fail after just a few minutes at fire temperatures. Roofs are held up with trusses that are only staying together with cheap metal 'butt-plates' that fail quickly and bring down the roof. Everything you own is synthetic and quickly fills the house with toxic, black, sticky smoke that isn't completely burned and is just waiting for a little fresh air to ignite. Many very good fire departments now have a policy that says in a trussed roof building, once the fire is in the structure -- not just the room -- they no longer enter the building to save it. Other departments are no longer doing a primary search without a charged hose line, adding another 60-90 seconds before a search can even start.
Here's the scariest part --
Even with all the hindsight, I asked my chief and some of the most experienced guys there what they would have done. Its not an easy answer. I'm pretty sure I'd have gone ahead with the search. Imagine it is you doing that first primary search. You quickly make the second floor and find it very tenable. This isn't a case where you can see that nobody could be alive in there. Its not even hot yet. You know there may be fire overhead, but RIGHT NOW the space is livable. Its early in the morning and there are cars in the garage. Nobody is on the front lawn telling you that they're all out. Would you turn around and leave?
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