By Dennis L. Rubin
October was a wonderful time of the year in our nation’s capital. The leaves were slowly changing to panoramic brilliant fall colors, signaling that Old Man Winter was just around the corner. The hot, hazy, and humid days of summer were gone and forgotten for a good long while. The midday temperatures were generally ideal with nothing but the sun shining on America’s treasured city. True Washingtonians were hoping (most of us praying) that Major League Baseball was still being played in the Southeast section of the city at Nationals Park. October 29, 2007, started off as just one more of those gorgeous days that had to be enjoyed before the cold weather set in. However, there would be a jarring surprise waiting for the District of Columbia Fire Department (DCFD).
Just before noon, a box alarm was sounded for 621 Fourth Street, NE, for a report of a fire and explosion on the back porch of the residence at that address. Five engine companies (Engines 6, 12, 10, 26, and 4), two ladder trucks (Trucks 10 and 15), one heavy rescue squad (Squad 1), two battalion chiefs (Chiefs 1 and 6), and one basic life support ambulance (Ambulance 7) were dispatched. Just as planned, all units were underway in only a couple of minutes and arriving on location in four to six minutes. Soon there would be 42 of some of America’s best firefighters arriving on location to combat what would seem like a routine rowhouse on fire.
During the 1930s and ’40s, Washington enjoyed a blue-collar population boom. To provide affordable housing for the newly relocating residents, thousands of rowhouses (modern term would be townhouses) dotted our cityscape. With so many of this type of housing unit (construction features, layout, access, and water supply), a rowhouse on fire is a “staple” of the types of calls that Washington responds to on a regular basis. Today, the “rowhouses” of DC have an occupant range from the wealthy to the very poorest of folks, and every socioeconomic group in between. The home that was on fire that day was in the “Capitol Hill” section of the city.
As we would learn during the fire investigation phase, the home at 621 Fourth Street was under major renovation in preparation to receive new occupants. The construction crew had been using finishing products that included linseed oil. The excess oil was removed with commercially available shop rags, which contained a high percentage of cotton fabric. The staging area for the work tools and supplies was in the backyard. Included with the construction materials was two 20-pound liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) (likely propane) containers. The exothermic reaction of the linseed oil and cotton rags delivered enough heat to ignite the nearby transient combustibles. As the outside fire in the backyard grew in size, sufficient thermal energy was released to activate the relief valves on the two LPG containers. Once the pressurized propane gas was released from the relief valve, it quickly caught fire. The flaming liquefied gas sprayed onto the rear building, much like a military flame thrower device. In fact, the first 911 caller indicated that there was an explosion associated with the fire, which was most likely one of the two LPG containers’ relief valves opening under high pressure.
Fire Control Operations
The fire department did not know it at the time of dispatch, but three rowhouses were burning before the alarm was dispatched. The primary area of origin was the first-floor wooden back porches. All three of the homes had “aftermarket” wooden back porches added to extend the living space of the modest size homes. Once again, this is a very common occurrence with the rowhouse style housing developments in DC. The first floor back porch outdoor space typically serves as a family patio and is used mostly at mealtimes. The second-floor porch space is generally a balcony, adding space to the master bedroom.
During my time in the DCFD, the initial strategy and tactics to properly manage a rowhouse back porch fire were simple and straightforward. The operational steps were known and practiced by all companies on a fairly regular basis. The first-in engine and truck companies extinguished or held the fire to the area of origin while protecting the interior of the building from fire extension. Great caution would be used by the engine and truck that entered the “fire building” to not go on to the back-porch space because of rapid collapse potential based on combustibility and lightweight construction.
The next-in engine and truck were assigned the C side (rear position) of the structure, which was usually accessible by a service alleyway. These two resources conducted a thorough reconnaissance and reported if the fire had extended (more likely than not) to the exposure back porches. The second-arriving ladder truck was responsible to ladder the main fire area for a secondary escape for interior operating companies and place the aerial ladder to the roof in preparation for roof operations, if practicable.
The next two arriving engines were assigned to exposure building B and exposure building D. Command decided which of the exposure assignments to cover first according to the wind direction and potential for the greatest life hazard. The fifth arriving engine company would have the responsibility to established the initial rapid intervention team (IRIT). The RIT took a position as close to the entry point of the first engine and truck as possible. If the size of the fire was a room and contents or larger, a working fire would be dispatched or requested (communications center and the incident command both had the authority to add resources at any time). Generally, the working fire dispatch companies would bolster the RIT to provide protection for our members working in immediately dangerous to life or health environments. On this day, the working fire dispatch was requested by the first battalion chief for the Fourth Street incident. The sixth arriving engine (Engine 18) and third arriving truck (Truck 4) would be assigned by the incident commander to the rapid intervention team. Twelve more firefighters arrived on the “working fire dispatch,” bringing the alarm staffing to a total of 54 operations members at this point.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday
Engine 10 went out of service for a mechanical breakdown a few blocks out from the dispatched address. Engine 4 was moved up in the order of response to the fourth arriving engine company. Engine 4’s tactical assignment was to protect the exposure building D as directed by Battalion Chief 1. Once assigned, the standard operating procedure directed the fourth-due engine company, protecting exposures, to be responsible to report on fire conditions in the building to the incident commander or the operations section chief, if activated. Engine 4 stretched a 1½-inch attack line and made entry into the D exposure rowhouse. The assignment to protect the exposure building was dull and not very exciting, to say the least. The back-porch fire at 621 Fourth Street was rapidly growing in size and scope, extending into both adjoining residents (side B and side D). Before this fire was extinguished, a total of three townhouses were heavily damaged. The fire loss for all three addresses was believed to exceed half a million dollars.
When Engine 4 entered the “exposure” structure, the collective expectation was this operation would be routine and mostly a precautionary position, keeping the fire on the other side of the load-bearing wall. This assignment was anything but routine or precautionary and left two DCFD members fighting for their lives at the Washington Hospital Burn Center.
As the members of Engine 4 entered the home at 619 Fourth Street (Exposure Division Delta), it was obvious that the fire had already extended into the second floor and was continuing to rapidly grow. No longer was this assignment “babysitting” the D exposure; in fact, Engine 4 now had a formidable, challenging enemy with fire involvement on the second floor. The hoseline was quickly advanced up the open staircase by the four engine company members. However, a mission critical step was omitted in the haste to reach the second floor to extinguish the flames. In the excitement of moving into the proper attack position, the basement was not properly checked. This would be the failed step (not checking the floors below the fire) that would cause a near miss. The DCFD dodged a bullet–actually two bullets–that horrible afternoon.
The members of Engine 4 moved into position on the second floor to knock down the flames extending onto the rear bedroom from the fully involved back porches. The fire on the back porch was fully developed with the collapse of the add-on structure imminent. Perhaps the extending fire on the second floor caused the urgency that would result in Engine 4 skipping the basement check. The member operating the nozzle reported (during the accident investigation) that the fire was extinguished quickly in the bedroom. There was very little smoke and heat on the second floor (because the bedroom window glass had failed, leaving the space well ventilated). The same member went on to say, “Suddenly, the room filled with smoke and heat from the fire extending up the staircase behind our crew.”
Our company officer received 30-percent second and third-degree burns. Serge was hospitalized for more than a dozen days, with about half of them attached to a medical ventilator. That day, the fire sergeant was quick to realize the conditions were rapidly deteriorating, and it was clearly time to retreat. The order was given to go down the stairs back to fresh air. However, the fire was intense and filling the entire stairwell. The thermal column would do its damage to all four of our firefighters. The sergeant’s words were something like, “We made a mad dash to go down the stairs through the fire.” Once the members appeared in the front porch, after stumbling out of the door with steam pouring off their turnout gear, a Mayday was transmitted. Command requested a second alarm without hesitation to support clearing the Mayday.
It took a few minutes for command to realize that the Mayday was cleared by the members in trouble by themselves. In the wake of this incident were two severely injured members and two others who had minor injuries.
The second member who was hospitalized had seven operations (skin grafts) followed by extensive physical therapy before he could return to work months later. After a roll call personnel accountability report, the fire was quickly handled by more than 100 firefighters on location. The damage was done to our members, and the lessons of checking conditions on the floors below a hoseline assignment was strongly reinforced.
For the next three months, the department took over the burn ward at the Washington Hospital Center. Both the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36 and Fire Administration held vigil for the two brothers who were in the intensive care section of the Burn Center. The department is blessed to have a great working and social relationship with the hospital’s staff that dates to the formation of the DC Fire Fighters Burn Foundation. The fire station’s staff rotated the responsibility (actually, opportunity) to prepare meals each day for the family members of our injured as well as the unit doctors and nurses at the Burn Center.
The Recovery Process
With our two firefighters in the great hands of one of America’s best burn surgeons, Doctor Marion H. Jordan of the Burn Center at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, it was time to build a comprehensive recovery process to focus on ensuring that the department never has a repeat performance. The first phase was to develop a detailed after-action review coupled with a comprehensive “walk-through” of the rowhouses that were burning. The standard format to develop the after-action reports was used to build a PowerPoint® slide presentation of what happened that day.
At the time of this event, the department had a world-class photographer and two experienced public information officers who were on location very early in this operation. Their photo and video contributions to the recovery training plan were simply outstanding. Those great video images coupled with actual incident radio traffic were the recipe for a very powerful, accurate, and sobering training presentation. Having attended several presentations of the Fourth Street After Action Report, the focus by the attendees in the classroom was so intense, not a single cellphone was out of a pocket. The Fourth Street fire of 10 years ago became a very teachable moment for our department.
With a little bit of luck, there was a DC public school located at 410 Fourth Street, NE, the Stuart-Hobson Middle School, just across the street from the location of the fire. The school’s principal was quick to allow the DCFD the use of a classroom and parking. So, four or five companies were assigned to this training program, twice a day, until all 2,200 active-duty uniform members learned from this outstanding incident after-action review.
It took about three or four months for every member to have a chance to hear and see the near-fatal operation presentation. It was at about this point in time that all the injured members were released from the Burn Center and ready to appear in an intense, comprehensive video training presentation. This was the opportunity to describe what happened that day, during the operation, in their own words, for the long-term benefit of the future members of the department. The focus of this video production was to preserve the lessons learned and reinforced in blood, pain, and suffering. In fact, the department had the funding to hire an outside video production company to make a broadcast-quality training program reviewing this incident. The focus was to develop a video program to properly preserve this near-disastrous operational experience. What a blessing to have all hands back to work. By far, this is the best way to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of this response.
A Training Moment Captured
It is amazing to think of the impact that one simple decision had on our department. The cost of the injuries alone was staggering, not to mention the overtime to replace the four members who were on performance of duty leave for an extended period of time. There is no price that can be placed on the pain, suffering, and emotional stress that a near-miss event places on a fire department. Failing to thoroughly check the floors below the assigned operational area was the last broken link in the accident chain that day. Once all the safety elements broke down, there was (and will likely always be) a significant impact.
From the events of October 29, 2007, the DCFD reaffirmed how critically important taking the time to conduct a 360-degree exterior view and a floor-to-floor check early into an event is to firefighter safety. Fire departments have been focused on conducting a 360-degree walk-around before and during operations at events. A 360-type process must be developed and used in the interior of the fire buildings as well. Early into the event and before companies are committed to upper floors, always check the floors below the fire area.
If you are interested in obtaining the Fourth Street After Action videotape program or the PowerPoint® guidelines to develop after-action reports, contact Chief Dennis Rubin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dennis L. Rubin has served more than 35 years in the fire and rescue service. He as been a line firefighter, company officer, and command officer. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program and has been an adjunct faculty member of the NFA since 1983. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Executive Leadership Course in Homeland Security. Rubin is the author of Rube’s Rules for Survival and D.C. FIRE (Fire Engineering). His third textbook, It’s Always About Leadership! will be released by Fire Engineering late spring or early summer 2018.