What Is It Going To Take?

Dave Leblanc shares his Cape Cod Times Op Ed piece on the close call in Sandwich.

On Monday May 31st, 2010, while the rest of America was celebrating Memorial Day, the Sandwich Fire Department responded to a reported house fire. Short staffed because of EMS runs, like so many fire departments in the US, there were only two firefighters available for the initial attack.

(Cape Cod FD.com photo)

What started out as a “routine” fire suddenly turned bad. An explosion rocked the building, and two firefighters were thrown forty feet. The rescuers now needed rescuing. Firefighters with unknown injuries had to be dragged away from the building so that they were further injured or killed by debris during a collapse. This may seem unusual, such a dramatic event at a house fire. Maybe for Cape Cod it is. But this scenario plays out daily in the US. Thousands of firefighters are injured every year at structure fires. On Cape Cod, fire staffing often suffers because of EMS responses. Why you ask? Because there are more EMS runs than fires runs, so it is easier to justify.

But EMS depletes fire coverage and in the eyes of many that is ok, because there are not that many fires. Then something like Monday happens and all the sudden everyone wonders why. The why is simple. We fail to staff for both services. Sure at 8am before the first run comes in we are all set. But then that first ambulance goes out and we start playing catch up. Except it is ok to staff with three for the ambulance, but two is ok for the fire engine. Or in some cases, zero is ok and we will rely on those firefighters to come from home.

But these things delay response and they delay fire attack. Less firefighters equals more work for fewer people, because the fire doesn’t care what your staffing is. If burns the same is New York as in Seattle. It burns the same in Chicago as on Cape Cod. An every second you add to getting water on the fire increases the danger to the firefighters. And we aren’t even talking about the civilians that may be trapped.

It takes 4 to 6 minutes for a fire, burning unchecked, to reach flashover. Flashover is a point in the development of a compartment fire in which surfaces exposed to thermal radiation reach its ignition temperature more or less simultaneously and fire spreads rapidly throughout the space resulting in full room involvement or total involvement of the compartment or enclosed area.

In English this means that the room or space is suddenly filled with fire. It means the end of any rescue operation in this space, because no living being can survive the temperatures of Flashover. So 4 to 6 minutes until someone trapped in a fire chances for survival reach zero.

(Cape Cod FD.com photo)

In Sandwich it is believed that the event that injured Firefighter’s Keane and Burrill was a backdraft. A backdraft occurs when a smoldering fire gets an influx of oxygen. It can be prevented with ventilation. This is when the public thinks we are smashing windows and cutting holed for no reason. In reality we are letting the heat and smoke out, so that other firefighters can attack the fire and extinguish it.

When we arrive on scene with only 2 or 3 firefighters, we are no longer able to properly coordinated fire attack and ventilation. There just aren’t enough bodies to complete all the necessary tasks. Something must suffer and the safety of the firefighters decreases. Yet every day fire departments and firefighters are faced with these situations. And every day they keep going in and doing what needs to be done, because that is the job they signed up for.

My question is what is it going to take to stop this from happening? A firefighter to be killed? That happens about 115 times a year, more than 25 of those at structure fires. A firefighter to be seriously injured? Well that happens thousands of times a year.

Maybe this will be the wake up call. Thoughts and prayers to Brothers Keane and Burrill.

“Injured Sandwich Firefighter in Stable Condition”, Cape Cod Times
“Sandwich Fire Chief Defends Staffing”, Boston Herald
“Budget Cuts Leave More Firefighters, Residents at Risk”, WCVB
“Plan to Reopen Station Rejected”, Cape Cod Times, 2008
“Sandwich Fire Chief Asks Selectmen to Reopen Station”, Cape Cod Times, 2008
“Sandwich Fire Chief Raises Alarm”, Cape Cod Times, 2007

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  • An unfortunate event indeed. The only way it will change is when the affected agencies develop written policies stating what the operational objectives will be when staffing is at a certain level.


    I. When two or fewer properly equipped firefighters are on scene at a structure fire with any of the following conditions, the operational objective shall be to confine the fire to the structure of origin:

    A: presence of smoke within the structure in quantities sufficent to reduce visibility at eye level to less than 10 feet.

    B. Issuance of flames from any opening of the structure including doors, windows, vents etc.

    C. Presence of exigent circumstances including but not limited to vacant or dilapidated buildings, adverse weather conditions, buildings under construction etc.

    II. When an additional two properly equipped firefighters arrive on scene, the operational objective may be changed to confine the fire to the room or area of origin.

    A crude policy, but you can get my drift. Seeing this policy in writing may convince the bean-counters that firefighting is a serious business and requires a serious commitment.

    Of course once the policy is written and adopted, then WE have to abide by it.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Rob says:

    While I agree with the premise of the article, I have to say that a few solutions to the problem would have been appreciated. You certainly can’t start understaffing the EMS side to fill in the fire side. Clearly, the majority of calls (and therefore the need for adequate staffing) is for EMS. On the other hand, all cities, counties, fire districts, etc… are constrained by how much money they have to hire additional firefighters. Taxpayers aren’t generally in the mood to raise taxes. How about offering some solutions instead of just repeating the problems.

  • allwaySledge says:

    It is very easy to Monday morning quarterback any incident we read on the internet, i a trade magazine, newspaper or hear about around the table at shift-change. This call is no different. I have read numerous articles and blogs discussing this call and so far, I don’t think one has been the same as the next. The biggest example, I still do not know if the two injured brothers were inside the structure or outside when the explosion occurred.

    Different articles say different things. I am not a hard-and-fast rules guy, but, if there was no life safety issue and the brothers were inside what happened to two-in-two-out? There will be numerous people who immediately label that as non-aggressive, being chicken or whatever. Short-staffing such as this was one of the reasons behind two-in-two-out. Would the explosion and injuries still have occurred if another two guys were on the scene? Possibly, but at least the injured brothers would not have had to wait for assistance after they were injured. Which leads me to another point.

    The area I work in has had automatic aid and mutual aid agreements for nearly 30 years. Yet the more I read about other areas, particularly the East coast, it seems like these agreements do not exist or are handled on a call-by-call basis. I readily admit I know nothing about the Cape Cod FD, but it certainly seems that no other department was dispatched at the same time as Cape Cod with the reported fire. It seems as if additional units were not requested until the radio calls of the injured firefighters.

    Rob, your looking for answers? 1) Don’t go in with only two guys unless there is a known or heavy possibility of a life safety issue. 2) Chiefs, Presidents or whatever they are called that are responsible for running these departments need to get over the “my kingdom” mentality and get some help in a prearranged, structured way. Not when it’s too late or the other neighboring departments are busy with EMS runs also.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    I will address some of the comments.

    This piece was written as an OP ED for the local newspaper. If I had been writting it for the internet or a trade magazine, I would have offered more insight as to solutions.

    The Departments in my area rely heavily on Mutual Aid, and have for well over 30 years. Barnstable County has a well developed system of runcards and speciall call assignments and most if not all departments use Automatic Aid on their 1st alarm assignments. Unfortunately the same issues that plague one Department with staffing often face multiple Departments. Automatic Aid is not supposed to cost the sending Department any money, so off duty firefighters are not recalled. The reason being so many reported fires end up being minor and it was viewed as wasteful. As soon as it is a confirmed fire, then all bets are off and the piece can be sent.

    My argument is quite simply that if you begin the day with 3 or 6 or 9, then you should maintain that throughout the day. We start the day with more and then allow that to dwindle as EMS responses come in. I am not suggesting taking from one for the other, infactg I am saying don’t take from fire for EMS. All Departments run both services and Fireifhgters are all either EMTs or Medics.

    I am not going to second guess how or why they went in. As much as possible I have tried to stay away from any comments about Sandwich’s operation, because the events that happened could have happened anywhere. Their Chief indicated that there were more than 2 firefighters on scene initially and also when the explosion took place. The house was not vacant, and the family happened to be out when the fire occured, how do you know that? When is a building truely vacant? Even with 2 in and 2 out, how well are we able to accomplish the tasks required for proper fire attack and coordinated ventilation?

    Is 2 in 2 out really the answer? Here is an Article with my feeling about that.

    Thanks for the comments so far. None of this should be new to any of us, and staffing will be the issue that dominates how we operate for a long time to come.

  • Engine CaptainMissouri says:

    I have to agree with Dave for the most part. My dept runs 2 ALS/RESCUE engines out of 1 house, we have a private ambulance do our transports. This system is great if both companies are in the house when a fire comes in, bad if both companies are picking a resident off the bathroom floor. We do not have a crystal ball to tell when a structure is on fire, although, ask a politician, you may get a different answer. Elected officials, see a ambo as a money maker, in 28 years, I haven’t seen that yet. Like Dave said, keep the same number of folks for each. As officers we must use “common sense” to make the best choice of actions that can be taken based on the whole picture at that time.

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