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Monday, August 22, 2011

Basement fire in the house of a Hoarder

I was up late working on a project at home when we were dispatched to a house down the block from my own for a "fire in the basement." When we got on scene, I sent two of our younger members to tag a hydrant, and I jumped off with my crew and left the engine to establish a water supply. When I got to the front of the house, there was heavy smoke coming out of the front door and windows, and I saw a hoseline was already stretched into the front door. I took my crew and went to the back of the house, put my mask on, grabbed my ax and partner and crawled in.
Me getting ready to enter the fire building
We found the stairs to the basement immediately and followed the hoseline in. I had a thermal camera in my hand, and scanned up around me before we went any further down the stairs. I slid on my ass down the stairs with my feet out, just in case the stairs gave way or there were missing stairs, I'd prevent myself from taking a nose-dive into god-knows-what.

When I reached the bottom of the stairs, it was absolutely pitch black, no visibility at all. I felt the hoseline stretch to the left, so decided to take my partner and do a search to the right to make sure there were no victims. Immediately I hit what felt like a wall when i turned to the right, which was odd since the stairs ran down the center of the house. I stopped and looked around using the thermal camera, which can see through smoke and uses heat of the objects in a room to paint a colorful picture for a firefighter. I was amazed at how confusing it was, it almost seemed like there were walls all around us, almost as if we were in a bathroom, yet we hadn't moved from the staircase we came down. I found a small space closer to the stairs, and pushed my way through it. Reaching down, I pulled a 25" piece of webbing (flat rope) from my pocket which I intended to tie onto the staircase railing so I could do my search and find my way back. I finally saw what looked like a boiler, but besides that I still saw a confusing mess of objects towering over me.
What a structure looks like through a thermal imaging camera (TIC)
The chief finally made his way to the staircase and asked how many guys we had downstairs, I was surprised to hear about 5 voices from the other side of the basement - way too many people for a basement fire which we still hadn't located. I took my crew and we decided to leave, go upstairs and do a search of the first floor.
Getting to the first floor, thigns were much cooler yet visibility was still near-zero. We were able to walk some of the time, and crawl others, and did a search of the kitchen, living room, 2 bedrooms and a few closets. Closets are always an important part of a search, as scared children will sometimes retreat to them in sticky situations like a fire.

All searched were negative, so I radioed this out to Command. At this point, the back door and kitchen, next to the stairwell, were getting overloaded with firefighters. There was probably 4 still in the basement, another 6 in the kitchen and probably another 5 outside the back door about to come in. The chief and I backed everyone out of the building and told them to wait in the back and Do Not Enter until asked to do so for relief for the basement crews.

This was a case where we haven't had a fire in a long time, so when one finally came in, every fireman and his mother showed up, every apparatus was overloaded with guys, young and old, who haven't gotten dirty in a while and were just way too anxious, creating a recipe for disaster in a crowded house where the fire still hasn't been located.

This is the point where I walked to the back door and noticed someone had set up a fan blowing directly into the basement where the attack crew was still working. I had not heard any call on the radio for this vent, and being that the fire hadn't been found yet I dismantled the fan. This turned into a fight with a few Chiefs later, and is still up for debate, but in my honest opinion, in an enclosed basement with no windows, when a crew is pretty far in and doesnt know where the fire is, pumping air into it without them knowing is like lighting a fuse. There's just way too many problems that this can cause, like drawing fire behind the attack crew or accelerating it where it is, and these downsides just totally outweigh the advantages in my opinion.

Once they found the fire, they called up for a relief crew to follow the hoseline down there and replace them. The fire ended up being in the rear of the basement, behind a makeshift wall. When we finally cleared most of the smoke, it was apparent why I was so confused at the beginning of the fire - there were stacks of at least 50 suitcases and boxes full of clothing, newspapers, comic books, DVDs, blankets, etc. from the floor to the ceiling, from one wall to another. The entire basement was loaded with contents, and just had a few narrow walkways through the crap for people to squeeze through. Had we known this, no one would have entered and it would have been a defensive fire attack from the start.

Needless to say, overhaul took about 3 hours to move the now-melted-together mounds of garbage, and even after that extensive overhaul, there was still a rekindle about 10 hours later, rather small but flames were visible.

The more we go into houses on activated alarms in my town, the more hoarders we're coming across and it's just a scary sight once you realize you're in a hallway where 6 foot towers of contents surround you. Not a place any firefighter ever should be, no matter what. Sometimes you don't know what you're up against until the smoke clears, but there are a few ways to prepare for this.

1. Preplanning - we go on a lot of alarms that some might call "bullshit", these are the dead batteries in detectors that alerted a nervous homeowner, or possibly a leak in the attic that made a hard-wired alarm go off. Do not waste these opportunities to enter a dwelling, whether it's commercial or residential, and take note of what you're up against. Who lives there? What's the fire load? Are there any things that the rest of the department should know about, like oxygen / acetelene tanks, wheelchair-bound residents or a hoarding situation?

2. Speak to the homeowner - a lot of fires we go to, the home owner is impatiently waiting outside the house and very often they're anxious to pass on info to anyone on scene. A few quick questions as you're approaching the house, like "Is anyone inside?", "Do you have any pets?" or even "Where is the fire?" (duh) could be worth it's weight in gold if the answer helps you in your search / attack.

In any case, extreme caution should be used if a hoarding scenerio is encountered, and always remember Life first, it is NOT worth the risk to try to save a room full of accumulated objects if there is no life within it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Rollover extrication with quarter roof cut

We were standing by in the next town over for a working house-fire that they had when a rollover occurred in our own town. Our town was low on manpower, and when the Chief got there he saw there was indeed an entrapment, so he called us back to town to take it. When we got there, one car was on its side and there was a lady pinned in the driver's seat, which was closest to the ground.

Trailer fire with windows glued shut

Just a quick post to share this experience about yesterday's trailer fire. We got dispatched to fire on the side of a trailer, and upon arrival we found a small amount of smoke and fire outside the main entrance to a residential trailer. The amount of fire was small enough that I knocked most of it down with a water can before the hoseline was even charged.

As I made entrance through the main door, there was quite a bit of smoke in the trailer. I saw children's toys thrown around the living room, so I immediately went to the back of the trailer and searched the crib and beds for any people, they were apparently all outside already. In an attempt to clear some of the smoke and heat, I went to the kitchen window and tried to open it - there was a clear plastic square blocking the entire window. I went over to the living room and there was a paneled window, but the crank was missing. I pushed hard against the frame and noticed the entire window was glued shut. I accidentally pushed hard enough that my hand broke through the glass, so we had a small vent hole now although my intention was never to cause that damage.

As I walked throughout the rest of the trailer, as guys outside finished their search for fire extension, I found that every single window in the entire trailer was securely glued shut using rubber cement. To begin with, there's only 1 entrance/exit in those trailers and the windows themselves are small as it is. By gluing all of them shut the homeowners essentially built a coffin, god-forbid the fire grew and cut off their means of egress to the main door.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Dead dog in a trailer fire

I had a crowd of people over my house, all ready for a nice holiday dinner when dispatch came through and reported a trailer fire in one of our trailer courts. While we were on the way to the fire, the chief on scene reported heavy smoke pushing from the trailer. We took a detour up a street that precariously committed our engine to the street the fire was on, however the nearest hydrant was one block east, so I got on the radio and called out "Engine 6 1 5 is on scene without a water supply, I repeat, we do not have a water supply. Second due engines must drop in."

As we pulled up to the fire, I went to turn on my portable radio but it was completely dead, so I quickly fumbled to change the battery in it and jumped out. By this time, one of our 1 3/4" hoselines was being stretched off the side of the engine. I grabbed it and started flaking it out, then yelled to one of our probies "You see what I'm doing here? Keep doing it." and left her to finish the job. As I got closer to the trailer, my Lieutenant had a 2x4 piece of wood in his hand and was walking around the trailer breaking out windows in an attempt to ventilate the trailer so we could make an attack.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Second floor bedroom fire of the hobby-taxidermist

We had our monthly meeting when a firecall came through. The dispatcher sounded real excited, so I had a feeling it was something good, when they said "Your response is needed on Calvin Drive for reports of a house-fire!" Because we had our meeting, guys were practically fighting for a spot in the cab of the engine since there were so many of us. (One of the great things about being an officer is the front-seat is always reserved, I never have to fight for elbow-room in the rear)

As we were driving to the scene, the chief reported that he had visible fire coming from the second-floor windows. We pulled onto the block and stopped short, looking for a hydrant. I jumped off and walked up to the scene to take a quick inspection and saw something burning in the driveway (air conditioner unit maybe?) and heavy fire/smoke coming from the second floor window above it. An ex-chief came up to me and said he was just upstairs, the fire is in the bedroom to the right.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bloody extrication with foot wedge

I just got home from dinner when my pager went off for a car accident with entrapment on the exact highway I was just on moments earlier. When we pulled up on scene, I yelled to the back to my guys "Stabilize that car. Cut the battery and secure the wheels." I saw a bunch of EMS standing around the car while a few of my guys went to pop the hood.

As my guys searched for the car battery, I went around to the driver-side where I took a look into the car and saw the driver pinned between his seat and the steering-wheel, with blood all over the dashboard. They had already thrown a blanket over him as the cutting began.

I called for a hoseline to be brought from my Engine and posted one of our newer members to stay with it throughout the extrication once it was charged with water.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Belly-crawling in an attic fire

We had a holiday weekend for the 4th of July, and I was out in the back w/ my little sister with a telescope when a call came in for a "small fire started by fireworks that is now out." I opted not to go, but 2 minutes later they re-broadcasted a working fire at the same address.

When I got to the firehouse, my engine already left so I jumped in the car with my Lieutenant and drove to the scene - a 3 story condo with smoke pushing out of the eaves and roof. I yelled to my Lieutenant "get dressed, we're doing a search." We got our gear secured, and I grabbed the thermal camera and we walked up the stairs, pulling a dry hoseline in as we went. I noticed small shoes and a baby-gate, which alerted me there could be kids inside. The crew on the 3rd floor came over the radio and said they did a search of all rooms for occupants.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Fire at the Sushi Cafe

Last night we had elections in my firehouse and I was voted in as the new Captain. Not 3 hours after I got home did the pager go off (around 12:30AM) for an activated fire alarm. I shot down to the firehouse and as I'm gearing up, dispatch came again and confirmed it was a working fire, and that the Police on scene stated there was heavy smoke coming from a strip-mall. My new Lieutenant was driving, and I had 1 experienced guy, 1 kinda-experienced guy and 1 new guy in the engine with us.

As we pulled up, I yelled that the 2 least experienced were to grab a hydrant and tie the engine in to the water supply, and being that it was a strip-mall, I told my experienced guy that him and I were to stretch a 2 1/2 inch line as the initial attack line.

We slowly rolled closer to the fire building. The strip mall had about 8 units in it, the middle-most unit was Sushi Cafe - the fire unit. Heavy smoke was coming from the eaves of the fire unit and both adjacent units. I stretched a dry hoseline to the front door to get a better look and noticed the front glass was jet-black with streaks coming down it. Something didn't feel right. I looked at the glass door and it had cracks in the glass from left to right. No smoke was coming from the door, just from the eaves.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Flashover training container

We've been pretty slow lately so I scheduled flashover training up at the fire academy for our company. Flashover is defined as the "near simultaneous ignition of all combustibles within a confined area." Basically this is when a room gets so hot due to fire that everything lights up at once. This typically happens when the temperature reaches between 800 and 1300 degrees F. This can happen as soon as a few minutes after a fire starts in a room. It's somewhat predictable by a few telltale signs: 1. thick, black smoke banking down from the ceiling 2. sudden increase in temperature which is felt even through fire gear  3. the rolling over of flame and fire across the ceiling.  The problem is that the first indicator usually masks the third. And with fire gear being so protective nowadays, the second indicator usually fails to give firefighters enough time to evacuate.

The flashover course is meant to give firefighters a heads up on what imminent flashover conditions look and feel like. Because survival is impossible for anyone in a room that flashes, the flashover container at the fire academy is built so the firefighters are actually set 3 feet below ground level. 

On the raised portion, the walls and ceiling are lined with inch-thick pressboard. A 50-gallon metal drum is placed in the middle and filled with some wood from broken up pallets. In front of the pail is a small pile of shredded paper. Paper ignites at around 300 degrees, so the shredded paper stands as a simple thermometer for us to tell when the floor of the room about to flash reaches that temperature.

We had 5 firefighters on their knees on the left side and 4 on the right side. Down the middle were two instructors, one with a hoseline and one who's job it was to monitor the conditions. Flares were used to ignite the barrel and we were told not to go on air until we absolutely feel the need to.

As the fire started growing, we used our temperature guns to detect the heat in the areas around and above the flame. A temperature gun (heat gun) shines a red laser dot on objects which then reflect back and tell us how hot that object is. Like thermal cameras, heat guns cannot detect the heat of the air - just the heat being radiated from a solid object.

As the fire grew, temperatures quickly shot up from 90 degrees to about 300 above the fire and smoke started increasing. The smoke was nearly down to the floor by the time the last of our guys tied the regulators of their air packs into their masks. Now, it was just a matter of time. As temperatures in the upper room got up to about 600 degrees, the back doors of the flashover container were opened to let in some fresh air. Then the fire really took off and think black smoke quickly banked down from the ceiling to about head-level where we were sitting (remember, we were 3 feet below the ground level of the fire-floor.)

The instructor yelled "VENT" which meant the front-most guy on the left side was to pull a lever, opening a small vent in the ceiling. Within seconds, the thick smoke began to clear as the fire grew exponentially. At once, the entire front compartment was ignited in vibrant, bright hot flame. The fire came back towards us right above our heads and danced around a bit before the instructor had the vent closed and the fire died down a bit.

Both sides of guys were told to rotate so the front guys could catch a break in the rear and someone else could have front-row seats. As the back door was opened again, we could see all the standing smoke above our heads rush towards the fire as it sucked in the fresh air. The fire in the barrel grew in intensity again and we could see slow-moving black smoke just being sucked out of the particle board lining the walls. This was mostly products of incomplete combustion and carbom monoxide. In a typical house fire, all the contents (couch, tv, carpet, walls) would give off this gas. Upon the vent being opened again, we all saw for ourselves that that gas was exactly what ignited in the air.

Now that most of the smoke was clear, we had a much better view of each subsequent flashover. Some flames slowly snaked through the air right above our heads to where we could actually reach up and touch them. It was truly amazing. Between flashovers, the thick black smoke slowly came down from the ceiling. It was thick and looked like bubbling soup from our view from our knees. The temperatures our heat guns displayed were between 300 and 400 degrees righit above our heads, and up above the fire-barrel went from 800 to off-the-charts when it flashed.

When there was no more fuel left for the fire, we all crawled out and slowly took off our smoking gear, keeping our gloves on so we wouldn't burn our bare hands on the buckles.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cat in the couch

A caller phoned dispatch and said their kitchen was on fire. I shot down to the firehouse and someone said the homeowner now reported it was a dryer in the kitchen that was on fire. The chief told us there was a hydrant on the corner. We followed the ladder truck in and tied into the hydrant before realizing the fire was at the total opposite end of the block, so we laid probably like 600 feet of 3 inch supply lines when there happened to be another hydrant almost in front of the house. Oh well.

When we pulled up I didn't see much smoke, so I told 2 guys to stretch an 1 3/4 inch hoseline off our right side reel while I went to the back of the engine to get tools. As I approached the side door, I saw heavy smoke up 4 stairs in the kitchen, but there was already about 5 guys in there and no room for more, so I told the chief behind me not to let anyone else in the staircase to keep it clear in case guys needed to bail out.  The kitchen door had an auto-close mechanism on the top of it, and fresh out of door chocks I used the adz end of a halligan under the door to prop it open.

As I finally managed to work my way in, I saw the fire was knocked down with water cans only, so I took a few guys with me to open up every window in the house to start ventilation. The smoke cleared pretty rapidly when one of my guys showed me all melted plastics all over his gloved hands. Everyone had the same, and we realized there were a few plastic trays above the dryer that they all put their hands in while moving it out to secure the gas line behind it.

A word came from the outside there was a cat inside, so I took one of the young guys with me to search for it. I searched pretty thoroughly before the homeowner came in and said it's probably in a couch. WTF?   I lifted all the couches in one room aand looked under them, but the homeowner was convinced the cat was there. Finally he came in and as the couch was lifted he went up inside the cushions with his arm and pulled out a cat, apparently scared shitless.  Who woulda known that thing was way up in there like that.

In the end 2 cats were saved and the fire was knocked down before it could get up into the walls.