By Author(s): John B. Tippett Jr. 
Published Friday, February 1, 2008
| From the February 2008  Issue of FireRescue 
Operating in stormy weather can challenge fire departments in unique ways. Tromping through snow and ice contributes to fatigue, and dealing with frozen hydrants, hoselines and access restrictions due to unplowed snow and poorly shoveled walks increases the potential for injury, property damage and structure loss.
This month’s near-miss report (No. 06-168) occurs during a house fire in the middle of winter. The reporter, a captain and the incident safety officer, found himself in the frightening situation of plunging into pool water for an unexpected swim. To view the entire report, visit www.firefighternearmiss.com , click on Search Reports, click on the green text that says “Search by report number by clicking here” and enter 06-168 in the field.
“Early in the morning of Feb. 14, 2006, I responded to a working house fire. Prior to my arrival on the scene, I heard the first-arriving engine company announce that there was a pool in the backyard.
“When I arrived, I checked in at the command post and proceeded to take a lap of the house as I usually do. I was concerned over some of the information that was broadcast prior to my arrival. The front door was padlocked, and there had been police activity prior to our arrival. I was contemplating the hazards that may be present, possibly a hoarding situation or a drug lab.
“As I reached Side Charlie, I used my thermal imaging camera to look through the open sliding-glass door. I was relieved to see that the basement was not overly cluttered and the thick smoke was pushing out of the basement but not under great pressure. This was going to be a routine fire. I planned to complete my lap of the structure, identify the wires, utility locations and other hazards. I would then grab my red hazard tape and mark off the pool.
“As I headed for Side David, I saw a table under the porch. It appeared that it was a few feet from the edge of the pool. My pathway was covered with snow. I looked back to examine the house as I proceeded past the table. Suddenly I felt the crunch of ice under my left foot and before I knew it, I was in the water.”
“Identify hazards and secure them immediately. When serious hazards are found on the fireground, they’re often announced over the radio but rarely are they immediately secured. The pool was announced over the radio; they were preparing to take a hoseline into the rear of the house.
“In similar situations, Command must assign someone to address the hazard immediately (RIT, EMS crew, etc.) On this particular incident, the safety officer (myself) arrived along with second-due companies. I should have barricaded the hazard immediately. My plan was to complete a lap of the house and come back later to barricade the hazard.
“Water is cold in February! On the morning of Feb. 14, the air temperature was 21 degrees F. The pool was covered with a thin layer of ice. I have never participated in a Polar Bear Club event, but I think I am qualified now. Fortunately, I was only in the water for a minute or two. It took my breath away and my legs did begin to cramp. I hope my story will not only lead to many years of laughs around the firehouse kitchen table, but will also benefit at least one of you at some point in your career.”
“Hopefully my story will benefit at least one of you at some point in your career.” This simple statement forms the most frequent underlying reason why firefighters submit near-miss reports. The reporter seeks to pass along information to prevent another colleague from falling prey to the same situation. Despite the levity with which the report is written, the gravity of the situation cannot be overlooked. Considering that many drownings occur within earshot of others, this incident could easily have ended in tragedy. Being forewarned is being forearmed.
Averting similar events requires a mix of training, engineering controls, equipment and elevated awareness of the hazard. Here’s a short list to consider:
- Drown-proof yourself and your members by conducting water-survival skill drills so everyone will be ready to save themselves if they fall into water;
- Preplan the pools in your area so your members are aware of their locations at each residence. Mark them on your response maps. A second benefit here: picking up on some potential secondary water sources in rural areas;
- Carry a pea-less whistle to call for help. Falling into cold water can be such a shock to the body that speech is nearly paralyzed. You may not be able to yell, but gasping into the whistle may be enough noise to get someone’s attention while you’re trying to survive the shock. The sound of a whistle is also more recognized as a distress signal than someone yelling, especially on the fireground; and
- Remember where you are. In-ground, backyard swimming pools are common enhancements to upper-middle-class and affluent neighborhoods.
Preventing events like these may seem simple, but losing awareness is only part of the issue here. Operating alone on the fireground, as most safety officers and battalion chiefs do, is one of the contributing factors here. The fluid, hazard-rich, react-first/evaluate-later environment of the fireground, especially during the initial 5 to 10 minutes, can create sensory overload.
What are the chances of falling into a pool while operating on the fireground? If you’re the one who falls in, who cares about the law of averages? The reporter of 06-168 has given each of us a new cue to put in our memory. Armed with another experience for our recall, we are all better prepared to survive our next winter fireground.
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