The title of this article may sound pretty basic, but there are too many times in which critiques narrow down to a couple of events or even a single action during an incident. The result is a misguided but well-intentioned lesson that doesn’t focus on the overall incident.
This has occurred on more than one occasion during my career with the MFD. One particular incident occurred in December 2008.
We had a structure fire which resulted in a Mayday with two firefighters trapped in a basement. The firefighters were able to escape after a backup team entered the structure and knocked down the fire blocking the trapped firefighters’ egress. After this incident, a critique was performed, as well as an investigation by our department training officer. This resulted in spending the first four months of 2009 performing RIT training. Unfortunately, it did not result in training designed to prevent another Mayday.
The events leading up to the Mayday were not addressed. These included size-up, backup hose team, assumptions made by the interior crew, and failure to acknowledge radio traffic advising of changing conditions observed from outside the structure.
An adequate size-up was not performed by the first-arriving engine, or the Battalion Chief who arrived afterward. Had this been done, they would have found that the basement windows were below-grade with only a eight inch well, which no firefighter would be able to fit through. No full walk-around of the structure was performed by the IC. The IC never relayed to the interior crew information from the homeowner about smoke coming from behind all the trim on the Side A interior wall.
The interior crew entered the structure without waiting for a backup team to be established. It was known that everyone was out of the house before our arrival. The interior crew also entered without advising the IC, who was still talking to the homeowner. They assumed they were dealing with a dryer fire, but found nothing burning near the laundry area (the seat of the fire was in a separate room in the basement).
The IC immediately attempted to contact the interior crew, who never responded. Fire started showing in the living room on the first floor, and the IC advised the interior crew that it was behind them. The attack crew assumed that a backup team would handle the first floor fire between them and their egress. After several attempts to raise the interior crew, the signal was given to evacuate as the fire in the living room grew bigger. The interior crew, hearing the signal, climbed the stairs from the basement and opened the door as the living room flashed over. The Lieutenant dove back down the steps as the Firefighter hosed down the doorway. The interior crew broadcast a Mayday, which was heard by the Pump Operator and me. We advised the IC, who ordered RIT to action and requested mutual aid companies.
While this was occurring on the inside, outside we were dealing with other problems. The second-arriving engine did not lay a supply line as ordered by the IC, requiring them and me to drag one from the first-arriving engine to another hydrant. Also, due to snowy roads, the arrival of the third engine company was delayed. This crew was assigned as RIT by the IC. They had to walk into the scene due to the road being blocked by the supply line. I was assisting the RIT officer with the RIT skid and getting a backup handline pulled when the flashover occurred.
Since RIT had just arrived, they were not masked-up and had not had the opportunity to do a walk-around of the structure. Once masked-up, they grabbed the backup handline and entered the front door, knocking down the fire in the living room. When the interior crew saw the first floor darken down, they climbed the stairs again, making it outside. Since RIT did not know that they had passed the basement door, they were not aware that the interior crew had made it out until I told them.
Once everyone was out, a PAR was performed and the interior operation was resumed with fresh crews arriving from mutual aid departments. The Lieutenant from the interior crew was transported to the hospital for a burn to his wrist, and the firefighter remained on-scene.
When we performed a critique of this incident, much of what led up to the Mayday was discussed, and I’m ashamed to say that several people stated that this is how we’ve always done things and treated this like an isolated incident. We still have no written policy stating some basic rules for operating at a structure fire. Many crews still enter without a backup team in place, and size-ups are still not completed by the IC before entry of the interior crew. And many still confuse a backup team with RIT, which are two different things.
Since this incident, I have done more to observe everything on the fire scene. I am the pump operator at a majority of the fires I respond to, and see many things others don’t because I’m not focused on getting in the house. This has caused some to question my actions on a scene since I react to stop an unsafe act when I see it occur instead of informing everyone of my intentions first, and those questions fade away when they realize my actions have one purpose – to get everyone home safely at the end of the shift.
Broaden your views and you will find it easier and less stressful to slow down and perform the tasks which prevent a Mayday, rather than having to react to one.
Stay safe, Brothers and Sisters!