Published Thursday, August 2, 2012
The fire service progresses when departments and individuals are willing to share their stories of incidents that went wrong. Although reliving such incidents, and examining the actions that led to injuries or fatalities, can be painful, it’s necessary to ensuring that others don’t make the same mistakes.
One such incident: a wind-driven dwelling fire that led to the serious burning of two firefighters in Arvada, Colo. Deputy Chief Mike Piper’s Fire-Rescue International seminar, “We Got Burned: Lessons from a Wind Driven Dwelling Fire,” focused on this incident. When I chatted with Chief Piper prior to the conference, he explained that although the incident had life-changing consequences, the lessons it taught ultimately changed the firefighters, their families and the entire department for the better.
April 3, 2011, was a windy night in Arvada, Colo., a suburb of Denver. But when the call came in for a fire in a single-family dwelling, firefighters from the Arvada Fire Protection District (AFPD) responded in their usual fashion. “That’s part of the lessons learned,” Chief Piper, a 21-year veteran of the fire service, says of the response that day. “We’re not a novice fire department. Those were experienced firefighters who responded that day. We respond to fires, and it always works out—but when you have 20-mile/hr. winds, you can’t do things the way you always do them because you can literally get burned.”
Upon arrival, firefighters observed that the initial fire had started in one house and spread to the exterior of another. The four-person crew split up to tackle both houses: The officer and one firefighter went to the main fire building, while two other firefighters—Kevin Jacovetta and Chris Paine—went to the exposure.
A major contributing factor to the firefighter injuries sustained in this incident: Prior to arriving, the crew had received information that parties were trapped. “But we didn’t know which house they were located in,” Chief Piper explains. Hence, teams of two entered both houses.
The firefighters who entered the exposure building found it tenable, but there was a lot of fire on the exterior. The heat from the exterior fire caused a sliding patio door to break, and 20-mile/hr. winds rushed through the house, right on top of the two interior firefighters, who became burned, disoriented and separated. “In a sense, we got lucky because they both made it out, “Chief Piper recalls. “But they were in the burn unit for a while afterward, and they did go through skin grafting.”
In hindsight, the AFPD realizes the wind should have been considered prior to firefighters entering the houses. The major message of Chief Piper’s seminar: “You can’t treat the wind-driven driven structure fire like every other fire,” he says. “If we had to do it over again, we would do things differently.”
But checking for wind conditions is the obvious lesson learned from this incident. Chief Piper explained that there are many other important takeaways, such as:
- Situational awareness: Firefighters, company officers and command officers need to pay attention to the weather.
- Size-up: Firefighters entering a structure must have an understanding of the fire conditions on the exterior of the structure. A 360-degree survey is imperative.
- Attack strategy: Firefighters should consider a transitional fire attack.
- Communications: “In our system, 911 calls route to the police department. Some of the calls about the fire that day didn’t get transferred to the fire department,” Chief Piper says. “There were also no parties trapped, and people from other agencies knew that, but that information wasn’t conveyed to the fire department.”
- Training and command: Interagency training and unified command are critical to the success of any fireground operation.
- Support operations: Firefighters searching inside a structure need support from engine companies.
Additional elements were involved in the incident, such as lightweight truss construction and combustibles beneath the deck of the house. “There was a gas meter, propane cylinder and a five-gallon jug of fuel, and when the glass door shattered, our firefighters were directly in the flow path of the fire,” Chief Piper notes.
Much has changed at the AFPD, in both operations and the mindset of the department. “We are collaborating better with law enforcement, and we’re moving an engine company to a different station with a truck company so they can support each other year-round. An engine company should always be adjacent to a truck company,” Chief Piper explains. “We’ve also purchased different PPE. [During the incident,] one firefighter was wearing a thicker Nomex hood than the other, so the firefighter with the thickerhood wasn’t burned as badly as the firefighter wearing the thin hood.”
As many firefighters and fire departments know, however, physical wounds can be far less damaging than emotional or mental ones. According to Chief Piper, both Jacovetta and Paine are back to work, but it has been a challenging process for all involved. “It was a very traumatic experience for the firefighters, our families and our entire organization,” Chief Piper says. “I knew that, when it happened, it would either make us or break us; it would bond us or destroy us. And it has made us better and much closer.
“I couldn’t be more proud of how our people and their families supported each other, came together and didn’t rush to judgment or point fingers, “Chief Piper adds. “Everyone was helpful and we got ourselves through it.”
How did they “get through it”? Chief Piper credits the department’s dedicated chaplain service. “In the past, people would jokingly refer to them as the ‘God Squad’ at times, but they’re really there for our emotional support,” he explains. “After the incident, the department really leaned on them and valued their help. They helped us get through a lot.”
Chief Piper also points out that there’s “a lot less ‘tough guy’ mentality, and people recognize PTSD and how important it is to get help—I don’t think that would’ve happened before this event.”
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