I would like to share a close call I experienced a few years ago. Let me start by telling you I have been in the fire service for twenty-four years and this was, as you will read, a real close call.
It was Friday in January just after 5:00 PM. Our department was dispatched for a possible fire in the wall of a autobody, autobody supply and repair shop which measured 70 x 200 and was located across the street from one of our firehouses. The first unit on the scene reported smoke showing and a second alarm was immediately transmitted. The first unit then stretched a line in to the south end of the building and started to pull the ceiling in the up stairs storage area were they found heavy fire. The second engine out of headquarters arrived and stretched a second line to backup the first unit. I was riding the second engine out of headquarters along with a driver a lieutenant and another fire fighter who is happens to be my brother-in-law. We arrived and laid a five inch supply line to supply the first units and then stretched three hundred feet of hand line into the auto repair shop at the north end of the building.
There was only a very light haze and it didn’t seem like it was going to be a problem.The Assistant Chief handed me a radio and asked us to check the up stairs portion of that business for extention.So having only a light haze we took the radio and a light and left the hose at the door. We walked through the first room unlocked a door into a second room went through a plywood door and found the stairs. We started up the stairs and came to a landing were we started to encounter more smoke. We continued to the top of the stairs and found a locked door with heavier smoke and radioed the Asst. Chief of the conditions.He advised use that he was going to have the line advanced to our position. Within the next minute the order was given to evacuate the building. We started down the stairs to find smoke banked to the floor and could not find the plywood door, which we entered through. I immediately radioed that we could not find the way out.
The crews out side tried to come in and find use but because we were moving it was like playing cat and mouse. We found a metal wall which we thought was an exterior wall and started to work our way along it and banging on it only to find that it was an interior wall that put use in a tool room. We continued to work our way along and to bang on the wall hoping the guys outside would hear use. We could hear fire crackling out in front of us and feel the heat we new the fire was in the south end of the building so we turned and started working the other direction. At that time the one guys low air alarm started to vibrate we knew ours wouldn’t be much longer. With in the next minute or so, our alarms were vibrating also. At that point we got on our knees for a second and tried to stay calm and get our heads together….it was getting hard not to panic we continued along the wall when my brother-in-law felt the tracks of an over head door. We started to pull up on it….but the owner had vicegrips on the top of the tracks to keep it locked!! Some guys on the outside heard us banging at the door… saw our fingers under the door and we were all able to get the door up just enough to crawl under. The other guy who’s air ran out had to be dragged and had to be hospitalized over night with smoke inhalation. My brother-in-law and I were checked out and released. It was later learned that the third guy that went in with us had already been in and out of the building so he didn’t start (with us) with a full air bottle. This incident scared the hell out of me… I was starting to think that we weren’t going to get out… I would not see my wife who was nine months pregnant and my son again. We were very lucky that night as we stayed together and used our training which helped us not to panic and to get out. A home video taken at the scene timed use being lost about fifteen minutes. In all, one hundred firefighters from nine departments battled this fire with the last leaving at five the next morning. Three businesses were gutted a fourth opened for business on Monday morning. The lessons learned were:
Don’t get complasive and think that “the run” you are going on is “just another run”…it won’t be.
Always take a hose line with you in case you need to follow it out…as we found out, things can turn to crap real fast. If you are a truck company-rope your exit.
Don’t free lance, the third guy was in the building and was ordered out…but went looking for action anyway.
Always have a radio, every interior firefighter in our department now has a radio.
If you have accountability, train with it and use it if you don’t have one, get one.
Always stay together–this is how all three of use got out of that building.
Train on getting lost firefighters out of the building with out putting more FF’s in the building. We have a system using portable air horns at doors and windows and communicating on the radios to which horn they can hear best and they can move in that direction it works.
Think ahead and be safe so you go home at the end of the call, your family will be waiting.
Spend MORE time training…do an evaluation of how much “real quality” time is being spent on “real quality” training.