In the earlier article, the similarities among the 2009, 2005 and other Houston line of duty deaths were compared using recent department and national reports. This article looks at the differences and the question of whether or not these errors give Houston’s ‘fast attack’ tactic a bad name. The article will also look at the communications in each of the mayday situations.
Each dwelling was a one-story wood frame rancher; however the 2005 fire involved a vacant/abandoned dwelling. This property was frequently ‘used’ as indicated by the amount of debris found on the floors and noted in the report. As units arrived on scene, the obvious conditions were greatly different. In 2005, initial reports stated an obvious working fire:
“At 06:04:21 E46 arrived at 8510 Brandon and made the following report: “E46 on location, One-story heavy fire showing. E46 initiating “Fast Attack”.” At the same time, D46 reports he is also on location, has a one story house with heavy fire visible and that he is assuming Brandon Command. (Hereafter referred to as “Command”.) At 6:04:58 Command orders E46 to make a fast attack on the fire.”
In 2009 the report from Engine 26 likewise indicated a working fire; however the fire behavior was such that smoke conditions prevented the engine company from immediately determining where the burning structure was located.
“Captain Harlow reported over the radio that there was “heavy smoke coming from a one-story wood frame, Engine 26 will be making a fast attack,”” Each structure was confirmed as a working fire and treated with the same initial tactics (‘fast attack’), yet each had special differences. The vacant structure had significant fire showing from the north (Delta) side of the exposure. The dwelling in 2009 had initial information that all occupants were out of the house. Despite these differences, each fire was attacked using the same tactic. It is correct that calling party information may not always be accurate, or adequately relayed, and the vacant structures cannot be confirmed vacant until a search is done; however, the initial fire conditions in the 2005 fire were obvious enough to the incident commander that a primary search would not be possible. It was another three minutes, six in all since arrival, that companies were evacuated from the fire building. It requires asking that if the primary search in a vacant structure is not possible, why deploy additional hoselines and personnel to support an interior attack? Each structure had a different occupancy, alarm information, size up and quickly changing conditions, yet each was battled with the same tactic. ‘Fast attack’ was announced, a 1 ¾-inch handline was stretched, ‘Grace’ accountability established, the front door was kicked in, and crews went face to face with intensifying fire conditions. Despite these changing conditions, tactics were not altered until interior positions became untenable or firefighters were lost or trapped. It is also worth noting that the 2005 fire was not adversely affected by weather conditions as was the 2009 fire.
There were striking differences in the details about the mayday and related communications for each fatal fire. During the 2005 fire, the initial indications of a mayday, or similar, come when the captain of Ladder 46 reports members trapped and needing help. He then reportedly dropped his radio (see earlier article about radios and manual dexterity). It is then surmised that shortly afterwards the roof collapsed and the incident commander began withdrawing personnel from inside the structure. During the personnel accountability record, additional mayday-similar transmissions were made,
“At 06:11:41 Command requested a Personnel Accountability Report (PAR) from all companies assigned to the fire. At 06:12:02 the following transmission from an unknown source is recorded “Engine 46 Captain,… all are lost.” At 06:12:12 Command transmitted “RIT Team, Engine 35, I’ve got somebody in the house talk to me.”
At 6:12:25 L46 transmits “Ladder 46 We’re trapped…Ladder 46 (unintelligible)” followed at 06:12:40 by “Ladder 46…We need help!” At 6:12:51 Houston Fire Radio transmits a long alert tone followed at 06:12:57 with “OEC to all units…We have a trapped firefighter, we have a trapped firefighter…we have a trapped firefighter at this location…. Time 06:13.””
Throughout the investigative report, no actual ‘mayday’ was transmitted. Does it matter that the actual word was not used? Most likely no, as each department uses its own terminology, however this fatal fire follows two others in Houston where members transmitted similar information. While the state reports do not specifically address transmitting mayday information, they do offer general recommendations [5, 6]. Fortunately, a completed NIOSH report makes recommendations regarding mayday transmissions and communications. In the 2009 fire, keeping in mind that there have been three state issued investigative reports issued, there is no transmission of a ‘mayday’ until the dispatcher asks if the incident commander wants one announced,
“00:24:58 Alpha Division calls for Engine 26 captain and asks his location. OEC asks Command if he wants a MAYDAY 2-11; Command confirms – calls a MAYDAY for Engine 26 and states the RIT 29 is going in after them.”
For nearly five minutes, as interior crews regrouped an accountability reports were taken, the incident commander and sector officers had no response from two members of the first due engine company. Unfortunately, while the report makes recommendations regarding fireground communications, there is no recommendation specifically addressing mayday issues. It is interesting to note that as in the 2005 fire, manual dexterity played a role in radio transmission. Instances where firefighters are lost or trapped adversely impact the communications, even if members have continual training to prepare for such situations. In the 2005 fire we see a record of communication that highlights the constant need to practice for such times,
“At 6:12:25 L46 transmits “Ladder 46 We’re trapped…Ladder 46 (unintelligible)” followed at 06:12:40 by “Ladder 46…We need help!” At 6:12:51 Houston Fire Radio transmits a long alert tone followed at 06:12:57 with “OEC to all units…We have a trapped firefighter, we have a trapped firefighter…we have a trapped firefighter at this location…. Time 06:13.””
Since 2001, a number of articles and training material has been published in textbooks, trade journals, magazine and websites that convey the importance of transmitting the mayday. Despite the terminology, the basic details need to be broadcast in short order, clearly understandable, and with information that can help rectify the situation.
Following the death of Captain Grady Burke in 2005 and Captain James Harlow and Firefighter Damion Hobbs in 2009, local media questioned the use of the ‘fast attack’ in each death, as well as previous ones. A 2005 article by the Houston Chronicle provided most of the rhetoric by using NIOSH recommendations for thermal imaging camera use, mainly since the federal agency does very little when it comes to questioning department tactics. Instead, it called into question the 2005 fire and earlier fatal fires where the technology was left behind, thus trying to reason that the initial attack was flawed and thereby leaving strategy and tactics open to anyone’s interpretation. This may be a good way of avoiding the difficulties expected in trying to change said department’s operations, but it leaves reports open-ended and indirectly argues that tactics are flawed. In the Chronicle’s story, then Chief Boriskie was quoted as saying that the department has learned from its five deaths since 2000 and has begun fighting fires more defensively. That news report much like the NIOSH report alluded to the fact if the personnel operating at the fatal fire had used a thermal imaging camera, then many of the problems would have been remedied.
“”It is highly unlikely that firefighters would have had trouble locating an exit or locating a downed firefighter if all crews were equipped with imagers. This is the second firefighter incident in two years in which an imager may have saved the lives of department firefighters,””
So, the original question begs again, is it the tactic that is killing Houston firefighters or is it something else? Fast forward to 2009 and the news reports on the fire that killed Harlow and Hobbs. In an 11 News story, the blame shifted from tool to tactic, as the risk management survey was explained. Again, much like the TIC in the NIOSH report, the philosophy of risk/gain was mentioned, referring to earlier NIOSH reports and quoting former Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini. While not questioning specific actions, the reports and stories do a handy job in guiding readers to the notion that Houston’s ‘fast attack’ might be flawed. This is the dilemma we have when given a string of similar federal and internal investigative reports that provide recommendations for improving general performance. In both the 2005 and 2009 fires, there were serious errors with size up, communications and engine company operations. If ‘fast attack’ is intended to mean quick access into the structure and positioning of the hoselines for a quick knockdown, then it is dead-on in probably the majority of working fires in Houston. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the same tactic works for your department as well, considering that most departments subscribe to the philosophy of quickly placing a hoseline between the fire and the occupants while protecting the means of egress. This tactic gets scrutinized when vague, but well repeated, recommendations begin to get placed on a department for not one, but two, three, four or more fatal fires, that all sound very similar. Only the Houston Fire Department can answer why, despite earlier advice, the thermal imaging camera was not used. The same goes for why radios had been lost, why multiple lines come off the same engine, and why mayday communications vary. The answers aren’t found in trying to correct or eliminate the tactic, but in trying to understand what personal actions, collectively (i.e. company level tasks; engine, truck, rescue) need to be relearned. Even the poorest of statisticians would argue that the probability of the tactic being at fault would have to include the number of successful fires as well as the fatal ones, before making a conclusion. We know, based on probability alone, that the ‘fast attack’ works. If it didn’t then we would begin to see a trend of departments going back to the days of extinguishing the fire by standing on the outside spraying water through a window.
- – - – -
1. “In his statement, Firefighter Pate described the living room as having “(expletive) on the floor and all around.” SFMO Firefighter Fatality Investigation # 05-218-02 Page 5
2. “Engineer Lindsley later stated that dense smoke was encountered more than a block west of the house, making it difficult to drive, especially while maneuvering around parked vehicles and walking pedestrians. The smoke in the area was so heavy that determining which house was on fire was difficult. When the Engine was passing the front of the involved house, the smoke cleared enough to see the house was on the driver’s side and Lindsley stopped at the south end of the structure.” SFMO Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Case FY 09-01 Page 18
3. “At 6:07:08 Command transmits “District 46 calling OEC, Primary Search is not possible at this time.” Dispatch acknowledges Command’s transmission at 06:07:16.” SFMO Firefighter Fatality Investigation # 05-218-02 Page 10
4. “Captain Currie radioed that they were “trapped” and “need help” on his handheld radio. He then dropped the radio while trying to change channels because burns to his hands affected his manual dexterity.” SFMO Firefighter Fatality Investigation # 05-218-02 Page 8
5. “Investigation Number 04-285-04 Firefighter Kevin W. Kulow Houston Fire Department April 4, 2004”
6. “Investigation Number 02-50-10 Captain Jay Jahnke Houston Fire Department October 13, 2001
7. “Recommendation #5: Fire departments should instruct and train fire fighters on initiating emergency traffic (Mayday-Mayday) when they become lost, disoriented, or trapped” NIOSH, High-Rise Apartment Fire Claims the Life of One Career Fire Fighter (Captain) and Injures Another Career Fire Fighter (Captain) – Texas
8. “’Fast attack’ questioned in Houston fire death” Bill Murphy, Houston Chronicle 2006
9. “Is the ‘fast attack’ firefighting strategy worth the risk?” Courtney Zubowski, 11 News 2009
“Giving ‘Fast Attack’ a Bad Name? Houston LODD Similarities March 2010
“Houston’s ’10 Rules of Survival’ After LODDs” FireRescue1
“Houston Fire Department 2007 Annual Review” Houston Fire Department
“Is the ‘fast attack’ firefighting strategy worth the risk?” KHOU 11 News
“Career Fire Captain Dies When Trapped by Partial Roof Collapse in a Vacant House Fire – Texas” NIOSH
“High-Rise Apartment Fire Claims the Life of One Career Fire Fighter (Captain) and Injures Another Career Fire Fighter (Captain) – Texas” NIOSH
“Restaurant Fire Claims the Life of Two Career Fire Fighters – Texas” NIOSH
“Investigation Number FY 09-01 Captain James Arthur Harlow, Sr. Firefighter Damion Jon Hobbs Houston Fire Department April 12, 2009” Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office
“Investigation Number 05-218-02 Captain Grady Burke Houston Fire Department February 19, 2005” Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office
“Investigation Number 02-50-10 Captain Jay Jahnke Houston Fire Department October 13, 2001” Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office