Mike Danahey and Janelle Walker On Feb 25, 2018
Feb. 25–A fire engine ran out of water before a second engine crew was able to re-establish a water supply to fight a fatal fire in Elgin this year, according to documents obtained by The Courier-News.
Elgin fire Chief David Schmidt said that, according to radio communications, firefighters at the scene were without water for 77 seconds while trying to extinguish the blaze in a mobile home in which a 63-year-old man died.
“There are multiple variables happening on each and every call that affect the outcome of an incident,” Schmidt said.
Department guidelines recommend the first engine on the scene hook up a hose to the water it carries, Schmidt said. When the second engine arrives on the scene, it connects a line from a hydrant to the first engine there, creating a continuous flow of water, Schmidt said.
According to Elgin Fire Department documents, a neighbor called in the fire just before 6:42 p.m. Jan. 21. Records state it took 77 seconds from dispatch for Engine 5 to bring a crew of three to the burning home along the 400 block of Sadler Avenue. The dispatcher also sent out an ambulance from nearby Station 5, a fire truck and battalion chief from Station 1, and fire engines from Stations 4 and 2. The second engine arrived 7 minutes, 29 seconds later after the dispatch, according to the documents.
Both Schmidt and Joe Galli, president of Elgin Association of Firefighters Union IAFF Local 439, said it is unusual for an engine to run out of water before a second source has been established.
Galli told Elgin city officials this month that recent shift staffing cuts contributed to a delay in response to the incident.
“Since Engine 1 was left unstaffed and unused because of the staffing cuts, an engine from across town and about 4 miles away had to be sent,” Galli said Friday.
Ken Willette of the National Fire Protection Agency said it sounds like the department followed accepted protocols in attacking the fire. Willette also said mobile homes are some of the worst fires to attack because of their construction materials.
After that first engine arrived, its three firefighters attached a hose to the engine and began pumping water on the blaze. The two-man crew from Ambulance 5, the second unit on the scene, attached a second hose to the engine, the documents state.
The reports note that when firefighters from Station 1 arrived, they “assumed we were going to be responding in Engine 1, but CAD/Communications dispatched Truck 1,” according to the documents.
Truck 1’s firefighters were assigned to enter and search the home with Ambulance 5 firefighters as Engine 5 firefighters worked to extinguish the fire underneath the home and around the entrances, according to the reports.
“Because this was early in the new deployment, it appears there was a little uncertainty on the apparatus recommendation,” Schmidt said. “Our philosophy for the deployment change was to get two engines and one truck on the scene as quickly as possible.”
Firefighters ran out of water, though the fire continued to burn under the home and through the floor, vents and a wall, the report states. That delayed crews from entering the building, according to the report.
When Engine 4 arrived, according to the reports, some of its crew worked to connect a hose to a hydrant at Olive Street and Sadler. Engine 4 crew members also assisted in putting out the fire underneath the mobile home after the water was connected.
“There is no way of telling if the resident would have survived had we been given the opportunity to get inside sooner. Running out of water stalled the rescue effort,” Galli said.
Schmidt said Station 6 on West Chicago Street normally would have sent the second engine, but that crew was responding to a medical call. That put Engine 4 from the firehouse near Elgin Community College next in line to respond, Schmidt said.
David Moncatch, 63, was found on the kitchen floor. He was taken to Presence St. Joseph Hospital, where he later died.
The state fire marshal’s report called the fire accidental in nature and caused by energized electrical heat tape.
Elgin Fire Department reports note that the tape was being used to prevent pipes from freezing under the mobile home. It was being powered by an extension cord plugged into an outlet inside the residence.
Materials along the skirt of the mobile home caught fire first, which then ignited an adjacent garbage can. The fire ran up the exterior and entered the mobile home through its ventilation system, according to the reports.
Elgin fire reports note that Moncatch presented symptoms of a cardiac arrest. However, it is an open case still under investigation, and Kane County Deputy Coroner Steven Laker declined to provide further details.
The fire was declared under control 13 minutes, 10 seconds after the 911 call.
Galli said the $700,000 cut to the department’s budget affected how events played out that night.
“Your staffing cuts are impacting and have impacted our effectiveness and service levels in the Elgin Fire Department. After only 10 days, your staffing cuts contributed to the delay in response to a house fire in which a human life was lost,” Galli said.
Schmidt disagreed and said Galli was politicizing the death.
“Safety remains a top priority of the city, not only for the community but for our firefighter personnel as well. The city is and remains safe, and to suggest otherwise is misleading,” Schmidt said.
While the National Fire Protection Agency recommends four-man crews on a fire engine, having three on an engine and two in an ambulance is acceptable, based on the organization’s “1710” standard. Elgin also arrived well within the agency’s standards, he said.
“The first arriving engine and ambulance is making the determination to go with an aggressive attack with two hose lines. … They were addressing it as taught at the national fire academy,” Willette said. “The first thing is life, the second thing is incident stabilization, and the third is property conservation.”
The first engine on the scene could have chosen to immediately attach to the hydrant, but Willette noted that making that choice when another engine is en route is hard to make.
“Those are tough, tough, tough decisions,” Willette said. He emphasized that he was not on the scene and could not question decisions made.
“The fact of the matter is we responded quicker to the incident on Sadler Avenue than the industry guidelines provide for an effective response force,” Schmidt said.
Janelle Walker is a freelance reporter for The Courier-News. Naperville Sun reporter Suzanne Baker contributed.
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