Is this one of my firefighters? Have I sent one of my brothers into harms way just to finish the firefighting effort?
In 2003, the members from our Dept (in Central Georgia) responded to a reported structure fire located in the south end of our County. The initial dispatch for any structure fire is four (4) engines, one (1) squad, one (1) service truck, one (1) battalion chief and the command staff. The department is made up of a combination of volunteer, part-time and career personnel. Each engine has one person on board and the squads carry two (2). We depend heavily on non-paid support to make our operation run. On that day while enroute, I requested an additional alarm made up of two engine companies. Engine 10 and engine 13 were requested to respond to the scene, I also requested that the on-call fire investigator be notified of the fire. Engine 11 was the first to arrive, and reported a working fire. He also advised that there was ammunition going off inside the structure. This engine is staffed with one firefighter. Engine 8 was second to arrive with one off-duty firefighter. This engine established a, much needed, water supply by laying a single three inch supply line 300 feet into the driveway. Squad 12 arrived and firefighting efforts were well underway. The Fire Chief arrived and assumed command of all operations. By this time engine 9, as well as, engine 1 were on scene and were assigned water shuttle operations. When members from squad 1 arrived they were able to boost the firefighting effort. Upon my arrival at the scene there was still a great deal of fire and smoke showing from the structure. I then met with the IC and proceeded to manage all fire-ground operations. I saw that I had two 1.75 lines operating in and around the structure. I immediately established a staging area for personnel as they arrived at operations. I completed an accountability check of the members that were already working. Two divisions were established, interior, which was headed up by the captain from squad 12 and an exterior division, which was headed up by the captain from squad one. Upon the arrival of engine 13, members were assigned to replace members that had been operating in the hot zone. The captain from engine 13 was assigned to manage the rehab and staging area (base). Within 20 minutes there was a tremendous change in fire conditions, the kind that we all like. The two lines were starting to take control of the fire. As the smoke cleared it was obvious that the house had sustained heavy fire damage. The interior crews advised that the floors were spongy and they would be exiting the structure. I concurred and had them move to side three to control the remaining hot spot from the exterior.
The Captain asked to meet with me face to face. He advised me of something that I did not want to hear. There may be a body inside the structure! If you see a red pickup or a motorcycle he might be inside the structure. At that time I completed a walk around of the structure only to find no vehicles around the house. I then requested that all operating personnel report to rehab (The Personnel Accountability Report was completed at this time). I met with the officers that had been assigned to the two divisions to find out any additional information, as well as, to brief them on what I had found out. By this time I had found out that the ex-husband of the owner of the home had threatened to kill the female owner, burn down the house and kill himself. I had a crew reenter the structure to confirm that there was not a body inside of the structure. The second entry team confirmed this. The scene was now being treated as a crime scene. Members from engine 13 were assigned to cordon off the area and all personnel had limited access to what had become crime scene. Meanwhile the owner arrived and she asked that she be allowed to come up and search for here missing dog. She was allowed to come up, however she was not allowed in the cordoned off area. She found her dog and she moved from the warm zone.
Upon the arrival of the fire investigator (700), he requested a second investigator (701) to respond. Preliminary reports were sounding more like this was a case of arson. The investigator requested that someone complete a walk around of the perimeter. I sent one firefighter to walk the edge of the yard to see if he could see anything that might help in the investigation effort. A few moments later I was called via radio and asked to report to side three of the structure. Unit 700 and I met the fire lieutenant in the rear. He had located a red truck parked in the woods approximately 100 yards from the structure. The fire investigator and myself at this time walked down to the vehicle to see if there was any signs that this might have been the ex husbands truck. We walked back to the fire ground and had the hot zone expanded back to the road. All personnel were now staged at the roadway. The sheriffs department was now summoned to report to the scene. A report of the situation was given to deputy and a decision was made to call for the swat team. It would take 20 minutes for the team to assemble. Once on the scene, the information was passed on to the lead swat team member. I told them to advise us when the scene was safe and we would have members return to finish the overhaul phase of our operation. Within ten to fifteen minutes the Swat team advised that we could re-enter the fire zone. The two investigators and three firefighters returned to the area to commence completing overhaul and the investigators began to collect their evidence. Ten minutes into this operation a bone chilling voice came across the radio. Everybody down, lets go, go, go! Then the sound the sound of a single gun shot. Shots Fired We need a medic! Then it seemed like total chaos for a moment. I called over the radio and advised that shots were fired and we needed an ambulance to respond to the scene. I wasnt sure who was down. I initially thought maybe one of the swat team members was down. Radio communications were hectic with personnel calling trying to find out what was going on. When I got down the hill, fire and EMS personnel were attempting to work the ex-husband. He had suffered a self- inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Our crews worked to try and keep this man alive. However, all efforts were proven futile after his arrival at the Medical center of Central Georgia. Once the victim was transported remaining personnel returned to the fireground to complete overhaul operations. When all was said and done all units returned to service.
Our Lessons Learned
This was a first for many of our personnel as well as me as the incident commander during the time of the shooting. Although it is rare for a fire or EMS agency to experience this type of incident each department should be prepared. It is the responsibility of members to provide for safety on all emergency scenes. Always keep your eyes and ears open for rapidly changing emergency scenes. Lets not become the emergency within the emergency. Now let us share some lessons that the Monroe County Emergency Services has learned from this incident.
Notify law enforcement early in the incident
Establish safety zones early in the incident
If it is determined that the situation could become violent, keep all personnel back.
Each apparatus should be staffed with more than one firefighter; if a firefighter were injured maybe a second or the third firefighter would be able to render aid.
Always work in groups of 2 or more, the one firefighter that walked the perimeter could have injured or killed.
Once law enforcement arrive and they are going to be operating in an offensive mode, all fire personnel should be staged a minimum of 150-200 feet back in a safe zone.
Anytime law enforcement officers are operating in an offensive mode an ALS transport unit should be on scene.
All bystanders including property owners should be relocate to a safe zone away from the incident.
If the property owner is the known victim of the domestic viol
ence they should not be allowed to enter the scene until law enforcement has arrived and the fire scene can be released by lead fire official.
Firefighters should have not been allowed to re-enter the hot-zone although it had been determined to be safe prior to the shooting.
This was an obvious case of domestic violence. The property owner stated that her ex-husband had threatened to burn the home earlier that morning. This type of information should be found out as early as possible during the incident. If the situation has been to be possibly violent the structure should be allowed to burn. At no time should the lives of firefighters be put into jeopardy to control a fire. If the victim is on-scene do not allow them to enter the area where firefighters are working. This incident could have been much worse for the emergency service personnel operating on that scene. Remember keep your eyes and ears open to your surrounding and be safe.