I had a sobering discussion with my son last night. He is 23 years old, works as a part-time firefighter, and also serves as a resident volunteer firefighter. He is testing everywhere, intent on “winning the lotto”. I have no doubt he has what it takes, including common sense, strong work ethic, respect for the profession, grace under pressure and a clear absence of the “Rescue Me” mentality.
Late last week, Dave Statter, of Statter911 fame, posted a link to a video digitally reconstructing the sequence of events leading up to a 2011 line of duty death of a Baltimore County firefighter. The video, produced by the ATF graphically detailed fireground actions, scientific behavior of fire, including fireground audio and photographs. The audio included the last radio transmissions from the trapped firefighters, one who perished and one who barely escaped by bailing head first out a window and down a ladder. I had watched it, and called my son to watch it, hoping he would pick up on the same things I did. I mostly wanted him to have that moment of clarity when a firefighter realizes he/she does not control the environment, it controls them. Mission accomplished. The video rocked his world.
As I watched the video, I was struck by the command presence and direction by the first in officer. The fire quickly escalated from a simple apartment fire, to a multi-alarm fire with trapped occupants, vertical extension and multiple rescues. No doubt some heroes were born that night. Unfortunately, one of them, Baltimore County Firefighter Mark Falkenhanin did not make it home that night.
I became frustrated and saddened. No doubt, crews were working their butts off making rescues and trying to coordinate Division Alpha and Division Charlie operations. Crews were initially thwarted from entering the Alpha side and descending to the below grade fire apartment because the occupant had left the apartment door open, allowing heat and smoke to chimney up the interior stairwell, trapping occupants on the second and third floors (that’s where the hero work came in). In short order, initial attack crews knocked down the fire from the Charlie side. Ladder/Squad crews ascended ladders and stairs to access the upper floor apartments, removing unresponsive occupants and searching for more. So, what happened?
- Even though crews had knocked down the bulk of the fire initially, it wasn’t out. Fire extended up the outside wooden decks to the upper apartments, insidiously creeping into lightweight and highly flammable contents until they reached flashpoint.
- The trapped crew operating above the fire had no hose line protecting them and only one portable radio. When things got hotter than Hades, and it happened in a heartbeat, they were screwed.
- Interior crews noted changing conditions, but did not report what they were seeing. Division Sups and IC’s operating on the exterior don’t have Superman’s x-ray vision. Folks on the inside need to report conditions, especially if things are changing. This can be tough to do when performing rescues, etc… But, we are good at multitasking right?
- To paraphrase Jester from the movie Top Gun…. “Never, ever leave your wing man”. The two firefighters who became trapped on the third floor were searching different rooms when it got ugly. Fortunately, the firefighter without the portable radio was able to bail out the window. Firefighter Falkenhanin wasn’t so lucky. He was able to call Mayday, but could not find safe refuge before being overtaken.
- Think before “unleashing the tiger”. In other words, we really need to think about what may happen and what we want to accomplish when we break a window or open a door. Is the tiger going to leap out of the cage? Or is it going to lie in wait, ready to pounce? Will it leap out, uncontrolled and feast on anything it encounters? Can you shut the cage again if needed? In this particular fire, an open cage was one factor that had a profound impact. ATF’s modeling of the effect of air currents on this fire should be thoroughly reviewed by all firefighters, along with NIST’s analysis of the effects of wind on ventilation of structure fires.
I shared these thoughts with my boy, who sounded shaken by what he read and heard on the video. Hearing a firefighter call a Mayday under severe distress, and knowing that he died, was an intense experience for someone relatively new to the fire service. Heck, it was to me too. I could tell in his voice and the questions he asked that he was perhaps having doubts about his career choice. In a way, I was glad. He is eager to learn and not repeat others mistakes. I want him to be a firefighter with a strong sense of his own mortality, able to calmly perform legit risk vs. benefit analysis on every emergency scene and exercise constant vigilance in the heat of the battle. I also want him to be a competent and confident firefighter. This can be a fine line, one easily ripped apart by the tiger…
Keep learning Evan, and honor Firefighter Falkenhanin’s legacy.