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.
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.
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