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Mike Lombardo, Commissioner (retired) -- Buffalo, NY, Fire Department
Risk analysis models influence much of the fireground decision making in the fire service today. But at times we are called to go against these models, act against the odds. The results of such actions are sometimes tragic and sometimes successful. Regardless of the outcome, the fire service must remember that we are a human service, and a standard set of rules or guidelines cannot always dictate the actions of firefighters who serve the public.
We were part of the full first-alarm assignment dispatched to a report of a fire on Townsend Street in Buffalo, New York. The assignment consisted of three engine companies, two truck companies, a rescue company, and a battalion chief.
Truck 11 arrived right behind Battalion 3; the fire was only two blocks from the unit’s quarters. It is a single unit stationed only with the chief; it carries no water and was staffed that evening with five firefighters and an officer. On arrival, the fire was observed venting from two doors and two windows on the number 4 side, from the first-floor rear apartment of this two-story wood-frame dwelling.
With very heavy fire venting from every opening on the number 4 side of the building except one and no engine company yet on location, the prudent decision would have been to await the arrival of an engine and the stretching of a line. However, there were also a frantic mother and father screaming that one of their children was not yet out of the apartment.
Battalion Chief Tom McNaughton also relayed to us that a child was indeed inside the building. He requested that we attempt to enter and search for the child.
There were no openings on the number 3 side of the structure, and windows on the number 2 side were immediately inaccessible by security bars (doors to the apartment were on the number 4 side).
I made the decision to enter the only remaining window into the apartment that was not venting fire. Heavy smoke pushed from the window. Firefighters Tom Jackson and Chuck Sardo and I entered the window into a bathroom. There was a high heat condition in this room. Ahead was a small hallway, where fire was rolling across the ceiling. Jackson crawled through the hallway and into the kitchen. Conditions were worsening rapidly. Fire was heavy in the kitchen.
Outside, Truck 11’s driver, Firefighter Tom Schmelzinger, handed a 2 1/2-gallon extinguisher into the bathroom window to me while Firefighters Tom Sullivan and Mike Taube went to the number 2 side of the building to force entry through the security bars on the windows there. (There were also scissor gates on the doors of this apartment house, though they were not a factor in the fire.)
Jackson traveled through the kitchen, with Sardo following. I tried to protect them as much as possible with the water can. Then Jackson entered a small bedroom off the kitchen. He searched a set of bunk beds in this room, with negative results. He came to a pile of clothes in front of the bedroom closet. He found a two-year old boy.
The bedroom window was barred, providing no exit. Jackson rushed the baby out of the room and almost became trapped in the tiny space at the beginning of the hall between the kitchen sink and hallway wall, which measured less than 18 inches. His helmet was dislodged halfway off his head. He handed the baby to Sardo, who handed the child to me, and I passed him outside to firefighters. The child was in cardiac arrest, and the firefighters performed CPR as they rushed him to a waiting ambulance.
Meanwhile, I used the water can to protect Jackson and Sardo as they made their way forward to the bathroom. It did not extinguish much fire but slowed its progress. I ascertained from Chief McNaughton that this was the only person reported to be in the structure, and we exited the structure. Engine 3’s crew had advanced a line into the building by this time and pushed into the apartment, quickly controlling the fire.
What Would You Do?
There was tremendous heat in the bathroom, where our team entered. The tub surround had melted into the bathtub, and a medicine cabinet had melted off the wall. Firefighter Jackson received minor burns to his head when his helmet was dislodged in the hallway. These types of conditions normally would indicate that entry should not be made without a handline.
However, with reliable reports such as those given that evening by the child’s family, an attempt must be made to enter and search. If a handline had been immediately available, it still may not have guaranteed success; it most likely would have been advanced in through the apartment door, and crews would have had to delay the search while this line was advanced.
About two months after this fire, a man and woman walked into the quarters of Truck 11. With them was their son, Elijah, the boy rescued from the fire. The child had a fairly large burn on his head that was still healing, but otherwise he was in great shape. If his parents were asked about the firefighting risk vs. benefit of the rescue of their child, there is no question what their answer would be. And with the successful rescue of the baby, I am sure that the collective fire service voice is in agreement. At the time we entered, Elijah Hall’s life was in the balance, and the duration of that life would be decided within the next few seconds.
But what happens when the child does not survive, or a firefighter does not survive or is seriously injured? It seems, then, that the collective fire service voice is very muddled with armchair quarterbacks saying, “I told you so.”
Decisions such as the one made on Townsend Street are not made by a computer or in a classroom with time to ponder. They are made in a split second and often without complete information. Elijah Hall’s life was saved primarily by the actions of Firefighter Tom Jackson, but also in part by all the members of the team of firefighters who responded that evening. He was saved because Tom—with his training and experience and his team behind him, fully recognizing the risk—“went out and did what he had to do.” And that’s the essence of the fire service.
Events like this take place throughout the fire service. We seldom see names associated with these types of actions. They are not a component of ICS. What drives them cannot be taught in the classroom. Even with our ever-increasing reliance on technology and business management philosophies, the fire service must not lose sight of our primary mission—to save lives—and the fact that it is often the immeasurable personal qualities of individual firefighters that are the driving force behind the accomplishments of that mission.