|Me getting ready to enter the fire building|
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)|
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.