Calls show hindsight and misguided blame. Are we sure we're headed in the right direction when looking for "lessons learned"?
Two Ohio fires in the news were made significant because of their identification as a close call and how the blame is maligned and accepted according to news reporting. Sadly while each one has different reporting they each take a different plan of action to ensure the mistakes are not repeated. Consider as you read this that each is a news report and in the case of every fireground story we don’t have all the details. Still, the highlights should raise eyebrows and prompt questions within your own department.
The first close call occurred in East Cleveland at a house fire on Auburndale Avenue where the East Cleveland and Cleveland fire departments responded. During the course of the fire attack one group of firefighters had advanced a hoseline to the upper floor of a two-story private dwelling. At one point they called for their hoseline to be charged but according to WKYC-TV a radio malfunctioned and the message never went through [1, 2]. Four firefighters ending up having to bailout from the second floor, two onto a porch roof and two straight out a second floor window.
According to a quote from one of the firefighters who bailed out, the four evidently remained in an increasingly untenable position while waiting for water,
“"The fire went from bad to worse in probably about five seconds. We had to make decision," said 15-year veteran firefighter Mike Celiga of his decision to jump out of a window to escape the flames. Celiga dropped to the ground 15 feet below moments after his partner did the same. "I was still on fire when I was coming down," Celiga said.”
Firefighters need to be aware of the sudden changing environment they enter and one way is to maintain an area of refuge. Not that this may or may not have happened in East Cleveland, but that the area of refuge is a common practice that can be easily employed amid all the various and sometimes complicated situational awareness teachings. Best in apartment buildings, we create the area of refuge by forcing the door across from the fire apartment first. This gives members inside an area they can retreat to if the fire violently extends into the public hall, as in a wind-driven fire. Other advantages include having a rough layout of the apartments and a place to properly flake out any excess hose off. For the engine company in a private dwelling, the area of refuge can be the top of the stairs, the floor below or even the front porch. The main benefit of an area of refuge is having a place to back away to when there are problems getting water in the hoseline, or when or call for water fails to go out. There have been instances of firefighters being injured and killed while staying close to the point of attack while waiting for water. An example that should stand out to all engine company firefighters is the death of Cincinnati Firefighter Oscar Armstrong . In this tragic fire Armstrong remained at the edge of the fire room with an uncharged hoseline, all the while others were frantically trying to chase multiple kinks caught up in shrubbery out front, and after numerous requests to have the hoseline charged. The fire continued to grow to the point of flashover, enveloping Williams [4, 5].
The East Cleveland fire also points out two other significant behaviors, the unpreparedness to face a line of duty death and the reliance on technology over behavior to be a solution. Deputy Fire Chief Rick Wilcox said that he had never seen a close call like this in his 21 years as a firefighter. That may be interpreted as a good thing, a positive attribute to both his leadership and the department. However, in this day and age, no company or chief officer should be unprepared to face a close call or line of duty death. It is not being fatalistic to have this view, but it helps to be prepared for what to expect when the fireground goes horribly bad. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation provides excellent resources for chief officers in what to expect when facing a tragedy .
The solution to East Cleveland’s radio problem was the immediate purchase of 15 new radios and batteries, rushed to the field well before their scheduled in service date of May. Add to these new radios an urgency to use FEMAS grant of $100,000 to purchase a new communications system. While new radios and batteries can make operations and communication easier, they do little to rectify any actual behavioral problems. Suppose you have a group of firefighters who extend themselves a bit too far in the fire building. At each working fire they come out with gear severely impacted by thermal conditions. Melted front-pieces and eye shields, gear discolored because of flame impingent, SCBA facepieces bubbled. No amount of better protecting PPE is going to keep that group of firefighters safer and no amount never will. The best course of correction is to retrain them on their behavior, identify the faults and teach better methods for working within that increasingly untenable atmosphere. Relying blindly on technology without incorporating behavioral changes is like giving an M40 to someone who has never fired a rifle in their lives and expecting them to put every round in the 10-ring. It’s not going to happen.
“[East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton] also credited the firefighters' experience and training with being able to avoid a tragedy.” We can easily pass this off as a politician speaking about something he doesn’t know but that statement has also been said by many fire chiefs as well in similar situations. Lately, and considering what we see in news and our own departments, we may be better off to replace “experience and training” with “lucky”. Reliance on training is not be simply put off, but we have to ask ourselves when we read, see, or experience close calls was it training that saved them or got them in that spot in the first place. I placed a poll on FireRescueMagazine/FirefighterNation’s Facebook page once asking about training, how much is done on basics, fire behavior, and saving our own. The least responses were for fire behavior, surprising that this is the one area where greater awareness is needed in order to “save our own”. Sadly, I’ve heard it said and read from others that fire behavior training, minus the popular flashover chambers, is boring. It’s easy to see why bailout training is as popular as is it since the majority of it is a hands-on lesson. That’s the problem we face, honestly asking if some of our training is unintentionally giving a “false hope” that we can survive nearly every situation. That is not the exact situation in East Cleveland, but whenever a close call is indicative of being mostly behavioral problems then we have to honestly ask what our training really did as a solution and why can’t it work as a preventive measure?
The second fire occurred among Colerain Township and Forest Park. A house fire on Sudbury Drive and sent one firefighter almost plunging through the roof. According to FOX19 a chimney fire had extended into the attic. As firefighters stepped off a ladder and moved across the roof to make a vent cut, one firefighter fell through a weakened spot only to catch himself with his arms. Interestingly before this happened the incident commander had tried numerous times to raise them on the radio to evacuate the roof .
“In today's fire, Colerain Township Battalion Fire Chief Randy Ellert says Forest Park firefighters climbed onto the roof the burning home. Ellert says he knew the pair was in trouble. "We observed them on the roof…we were questioning them being up there based on the fire conditions. As we tried to get through we got six or seven busy signals and we weren't able to tell them to get off the roof and the gentleman disappeared. It was one of those deals where we watched it and we really couldn't do anything."”
Four years ago the Colerain Township fire department experienced the tragic loss of two firefighters during a house fire [8,9]. As reported by the news article, the awareness of the constantly changing, modern fireground was foremost in the incident commander’s mind. Ellert says a burning roof always has the potential for danger. "Residential homes typically fail within six to ten minutes of heavy fire impingement is what we had here and based on that the roof was probably weakened and as he stepped off to the peak he fell through and then caught himself which is very fortunate."
The difference here is that the radios are not the point of blame. Coincidently, the radios acted as they were designed, providing a “busy signal” when an important message was trying to be transmitted. Part of this difference lies in the reporting. The East Cleveland story faults the radios, while the Colerain Township faults the judgment of the firefighters on the roof. The similarities between the two are the firefighters’ behaviors.
Radios and personal protective gear are extremely valuable, however they are only tools and the biggest error in their use, aside from lack of, is intending mistaking them as a blank check our body can cash in when our ignorance or stupidity takes us too far. There is no tool, big or small, that has yet been designed to operate independent of the firefighter and provide for his or her safety. Think it over, go through your firehouse and consider everything large and small:
Apparatus. Designed and built to keep you safe, we still crash them when operating them incorrectly.
Pumps. Providing you the GPMs to knock down the fire, they don’t chase kinks and they can’t fix a broken standpipe.
PPE. It only works when you wear all of it, and yet we see many firefighters on the fireground sporting “experience makeup”.
SCBA. Like PPE it only works when you use it. On your face, breathing the bottle air is the only time it is protecting your lungs.
Bailout Kits. Great for when you’re at the window, but we tend to forget they are for “bailing out”, aka last resort. What about training on how to avoid being in that spot first?
Radios. Only as good as the battery inside and what you want to say.This is where the fire service should look at close call incidents such as the two in Ohio and look with scrutiny to see if the reason why firefighters had to bailout or get pulled from a hole in the roof is a legitimate reason or if the blame is misguided. East Cleveland, according to the story, will have all their problems resolved with the rushed implementation of new radios. The story reports that the mayor also credits the firefighters’ experience and training in avoiding being burned on the second floor. We should ask what specifically among these two helped. Obviously bailing out, assuming the East Cleveland firefighters undergo bailout training, and some bit of situational awareness as far as what windows take you to the porch roof. But seriously, when you are up on the fire floor calling, waiting, calling and waiting for a hoseline to be charged while you stay near the growing fire, what are you exemplifying? What classes out there teach that you’ll be fine, all buttoned up and the fire extending, temperatures increasing, so long as you keep calling for water on the radio? Ask yourself, since we enjoy military metaphors so much in the fire service, what soldier is taught that if he runs out of ammunition, he can remain in the open away from cover because he’s wearing his body armor?
Don't mistake this as intentionally critiquing the two Ohio fires, as there is no perfect fireground and even the best news coverage can be missing vaulable details. Instead use it as a lesson for reading comprehension the next time you read and watch the details of a close call. Ask yourself, 'is what they are reporting the real issue?' 'Is what everyone is sharing on Facebook missing the true point, the real lessons?'
3. Line of Duty Death Enhanced Report, Oscar Armstrong III, March 21, 2004, Laidlaw Investigation Committee
4. Ibid, page 35
5. Career Firefighter Dies and Two Career Firefighters Injured in Flashover During a House Fire – Ohio, NIOSH, March 31, 2003
8. Career Captain and Part-Time Firefighter Die in Residential Floor Collapse – Ohio, NIOSH, April 8, 2008
9. Line of Duty Death Fact Finding Committee Preliminary Report, Colerain Township Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, July 11, 2008
Bill Carey is the daily news and blog manager for Elsevier Public Safety (FireRescue Magazine/Firefighter Nation, JEMS and LawOfficer sites.) Bill also manages the FireEMSBlogs.com network and is a former volunteer lieutenant with the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George's County, Maryland.
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