If you have ever reviewed NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) firefighter fatality reports, there is one common comment repeated throughout the reports, "things changed in an instant." It is that microcosm of time, that instant that I want to focus on.
It was during my time with Southwick Fire Department as a call force captain that changed the way I look at fire scenes for the rest of my career. At the time, Southwick was 100% call force serving a busy town of 9,000 residences. Like many communities, we saw our share of serious accidents and occasional structure fires and applied an aggressive training schedule. The town provided great support with good equipment, training budgets, and personal protection equipment. This support will prove crucial later in the story.
While the commercial and heavier populated areas of town had municipal water much of the rural and farming areas did not. It was 1996 on Christmas Eve day. As typical of this day, many call force members were off from their career jobs doing last minute shopping. By mid-morning, we received a call for a chimney fire in a rural area of town. The home was a restored historic farmhouse built in the early 1800’s. This home was attached to an additional residence, garage, and a large barn. First arriving units from a distance could see heavy black smoke showing from the chimney. Closer inspection revealed this was a working structure fire. It was not the first nor last time that a reported chimney fire called in by a passerby was, in fact, smoke being released under pressure through the chimney due to a fire in the residence.
So began the battle, with the first fire being located in a single-story kitchen area, heavy smoke and fire conditions quickly spread through the adjoining home. An interior attack was attempted early with no success as the conditions were too intense. We also faced live ammunition going off in the residential portion forcing a defensive operation. The property layout allowed us to squeeze our ladder truck into the area, and with ventilation, we were able to stop the fire from spreading to adjoining structures. Mutual aid companies from Massachusetts and Connecticut provided tanker shuttles, manpower, and medical support. While a water source was on site (a pond), the farm was a cow farm, so let us just say; utilizing the pond was like pumping a liquid biohazard onto the fire. We were not sure what was more toxic the smoke or the water. However, we had drilled numerous times with our mutual aid partners and moving large amounts of water was never an issue. The organized chaos that goes with such a scene was typical to one of this magnitude. The defensive operation was successful, keeping the fire to the main structure. This battle was at its most intense for the first hour and as time went on the event began to wind down, but that was about to change.
Remember, this was nearly twenty years ago, and manpower was plentiful.
I was asked to take a crew of three starting on the A-side going counter clockwise and attempt to extinguish hot spots and check for extension. The floor had collapsed in the main residence, so we were simply going from window to window at ground level and hitting what we saw. Everyone was tired after being there all day, but it was a no-brainer. Per SOP (standard operating procedure) we donned our gear, packed up, grabbed some tools, and off we went. There was, or had been; a monitor flowing off and on for a while hitting the main section of the structure but not near our assignment. We were taking our time working as a group. We began to hit the hot spots moving from window to window. We made our way over to the D-side maneuvering through some shrubbery next to the structure when things drastically changed.
It happened in an instant, no warning - BANG! - I was driven to my knees, and a half-second later another BANG and my face was planted in the snow. I remember thinking what the hell just happened? Was it an explosion? They always joke if you see the flash you don't hear the bang. Thoughts were flying through my head, almost like noise, with the volume turned up full, as my body tried to understand what just happened. I didn’t feel any pain but should I? As quickly as I was pushed to the ground I sprung to my feet. The volume of thoughts subsiding as I hear members of the crew yelling “GET THIS BURNING SHIT OFF ME!" I realized our crew was now spread throughout the lawn area 20 feet from each other. It was if a bowling ball had split us like bowling pins. It appeared something had come down with burning debris around us. You could see a leg with burning boards on top of the PPE's (personal protective equipment) reflective stripes in the bushes. It was unclear if the wall was still coming down. I transmitted a mayday, which to this day, I don't know if anyone heard it.
People started coming, firefighters, and EMS crews. The first effort was to get water on the burning debris and get everyone away. Crews were removing debris and dragging those that could not move initially. We had performed “rescue our own” training before, however; we had never taken it to the next level. EMS had to deal with removing air packs, masks, soaking-wet dirty PPE, all while holding c-spine, which proved to be a challenge. Two of us were walking around, running on adrenaline, and two were down, unsure if they had lost consciousness and complained of neck and back pain. The care from EMS continued with two firefighters being transported (me being one of them) to the hospital, and I would be released later in that evening with neck and back injuries. I often thought if this event had happened in a smoke-filled environment the outcome could have been much-much different.
Original incident video of the structural collapse injuring several firefighters.
I cannot explain enough what “things changed in an instant” means but when it happens, you cannot go backwards. You cannot say wish I gave the IC my tag, wish I found my hood, or more importantly, does anyone know where I am. There is nothing worse than being in command and not receiving any communications from the interior, no reports on conditions, no personal accountability reports, location changes. I understand it is bothersome to call out to command from time to time in a difficult environment, but what if "things change in an instant"- you are in need of help - can RIT (Rapid Intervention Team) find you? It is in YOUR best interest to communicate key information throughout your interior operation.
When Chief Billy Goldfeder was in Springfield recently, he spoke about "Swiss Cheese Management." The concept of preventing or minimizing future events - every drop of the ball creates another hole in the cheese until you do not have much cheese left. From buckling up when responding, to diligent monitoring and repair of equipment.
As I mentioned earlier, the town had been great supporters of the department. The members that sustained the heaviest impact were wearing newer helmets. They were designed to have the shell separate from the substructure should there be a direct blow. That is exactly what happened; members were found with what looked like a bicycle helmet still attached and the yellow shell was lying in the bushes. If they had the old hand-me-downs, the outcome could have been devastating. Good modern equipment equaled one hole in the cheese avoided. Accountability, Mayday procedures, and PARS avoided another hole in the cheese.
We are in a dangerous business - call force or career - the fires and dangers are the same. We are against unknown circumstances and physics that play at every incident; the variables are huge some are unpredictable. Accountability, maintenance, equipment, training - there are a lot of areas we can minimize our risks. BE PROACTIVE. When "things change in an instant” odds will be more in your favor, and you'll have a better shot of surviving your incident.
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Chief Russ Anderson started his career as a firefighter with Southwick Fire Department in 1977. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1992, Captain in 1994, and was responsible for training and fire investigations in addition to line officer. He is the previous owner of Flashpoint Communications serving corporate visual communication needs throughout New England, and the Connecticut Fire Academy. Anderson became Chief of Granby Fire Department in 2006 earning accredited Fire Chief Status in 2012. Recent president of the Hampshire County Fire Chiefs, and Chairman of the board for NoFires juvenile fire setters program. Chief Anderson is currently Hampshire County representative to the Western MA Fire Chiefs Board of Directors and a member of the state mobilization team.