Training Credited in Rescue of 11 in Wisconsin Apartment Fire

The fire had started on the second floor, making evacuation difficult for some people on the second and third floors.
(Chief Rhodes photo, Twitter)

Multiple rescues during Janesville apartment fire

Ashley McCallum, The Janesville Gazette, Wis.


Apr. 15–JANESVILLE – The Janesville Fire Department had used the building at 120 St. Lawrence Ave. to train firefighters just one day before an actual fire barreled through the complex.

Training in real structures is part of a regimen fire department officials said was key in saving dozens of lives when a fire started in the St. Lawrence Avenue building in the early-morning hours of March 28.

Fire Capt. Josh Uecker said the March 28 fire was the “most significant” call he has responded to in his 15-year career. It required several ladder rescues and sent firefighters crawling through pitch-dark rooms as they looked for people.

“This is the fire that you train for,” Uecker said.

Crews responded to the apartment complex at about 3:30 a.m. that Sunday and immediately found a woman hanging out a second-story window and needing help, Uecker said.

The fire had started on the second floor, making evacuation difficult for some people on the second and third floors, he said.

Battalion Chief Ron Bomkamp said the cause of the fire is still being investigated.

Firefighters sent a ladder to rescue the woman hanging out the window. Soon afterward, they found several more people hanging out windows around the building, Uecker said.

Firefighters’ first priority is to rescue any people they can immediately see or reach, Uecker said. There’s typically no time to talk to people from a ladder; firefighters just pull them out, set them down and keep moving, he said.

Meanwhile, other city workers help organize people and offer aid, Uecker said. City buses were used March 28 to keep apartment residents out of the cold.

Before fire crews arrived, Janesville police officers had begun ushering out people who were able to evacuate with little assistance, Uecker said. One officer returned to the building to retrieve a tenant’s medications and other items people needed to get through the night.

As firefighters pulled five people out of the building via ladders, crews from another Janesville fire station began combing through the second and third floors, looking for people who might be trapped.

Some areas of the building, especially on the second floor, were in total darkness. At times, firefighters crawled on their hands and knees while searching behind cribs, in bathtubs, anywhere a person could be hiding.

Search training drills are among the most important drills firefighters do each year, Uecker said.

Moving quickly under dangerous circumstances is important. Two or three fewer minutes of smoke inhalation can save a life, he said.

Bomkamp said 11 people were rescued that day. Among them were five people who were evacuated from the third floor and one woman who had difficulty walking who was escorted from the first floor.

“In 21 years, that is the most rescues I’ve seen,” he said.

No injuries were reported among the 50 tenants who made it out of the building in time. Two people were treated for smoke inhalation.

It took crews eight minutes and 15 seconds to rescue and evacuate all 50 people.

When asked what made the response so successful, Uecker said it all comes down to training.

“We train a lot for it, practice a lot,” he said.

In recent years, the Janesville Fire Department has updated its training so all battalions are trained the same way, Bomkamp said. That ensures consistency and a seamless transition when major events require assistance from multiple battalions or stations.

Crews also were “very fortunate” that there were no other calls when the fire started, which allowed for more manpower, Uecker said.

The fire was extinguished and all 39 apartment units–a total of 18,000 square feet–were searched within 30 minutes of firefighters’ arrival, Bomkamp said.

The three-story apartment building is made of steel, concrete and brick. Those sturdy materials made a difference in how much time firefighters had to evacuate people, Uecker said.

Buildings in Janesville vary widely in age and materials, which means first responders have to be familiar with the kinds of structures in the community, Bomkamp said.

A fire will act differently in a 100-year-old downtown building than it will in a 50-year-old west-side building or a brand-new home on the east side, Uecker said.

That’s why crews were at the 120 St. Lawrence Ave. building the day before for training.

Regular visits help firefighters get acquainted with local buildings. Then they know where they can park an engine, where they can enter the building and where obstacles might be, Uecker said.

“The building is our enemy,” he said.

He noted that crumbling buildings are more likely to kill someone than the fire itself.

The building at 120 St. Lawrence Ave. is currently not occupied. It will remain vacant until it meets code and safety requirements, said Tom Clippert, city building director.

The displaced tenants are being helped by insurance companies or the American Red Cross, Bomkamp said.

What can people do to prevent fires such as the one at 120 St. Lawrence Ave.? Uecker and Bomkamp agree that maintaining fire alarms is critical.

If a fire does start, Uecker said, people should always shut doors behind them to prevent smoke and flames from spreading.


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