That was close!

What is the difference between a fairy tale and a firehouse tale?

Fairy tales generally begin with once upon a time, while firehouse tales begin with you wouldn’t believe what happened last shift and no, this really happened. This post begins with a firehouse tale.

A crew of firefighters advances a 1 1/2″ (45 mm) hoseline up a stairwell in a large wood frame house. The second floor is well involved, and the smoke level is down close to the floor. The young firefighter with the nozzle indicates that it is too hot to advance onto the fire floor. The officer moves up close to the nozzle and evaluates conditions, finding that the firefighter is correct. The officer calls the incident commander and asks for ventilation to raise the smoke level and relieve some of the heat that is preventing advancement onto the fire floor and an attack on the fire. Moments later, the officer is enveloped in fire and feels himself flying backward through the air. This ends when he slams into a hard surface. Everything is black, and he is unable to see. It is not hot, and eventually, he sees a glimmer of sunlight. Attempting to remove his breathing apparatus facepiece, he experiences discomfort in both shoulders, but is able to pull the facepiece off, discovering that the darkness was caused by blackening of the exterior of his facepiece lens. The building is still well involved, the hoseline extended through the front door, but the crew of firefighters that was with the officer are nowhere to be seen. The officer pulls his facepiece back on and crawls back in along the hoseline, finding the firefighters frantically trying to make the fire floor, thinking that their officer had been blown down the hallway instead of up and over their heads, balling down the stairwell behind them and rolling out into the street. The officer withdraws his crew as other crews extend hoselines to the second floor, and extinguish the fire.

In this incident, the officer with the hoseline was unaware that significant indicators of a potential backdraft in an enclosed section of the second floor were visible from the rear of the structure (where the incident commander and the crew performing horizontal ventilation were located). The effects of the backdraft were serous but could have been much worse. The officer received minor burns, injured both shoulders, and severely damaged his facepiece and turnout coat. What made this incident worse was that it occurred during live fire training with a group of recruit firefighters.

I know that this firehouse tale really did happen as I was the officer in the story. This incident occurred in the late 1970s while I was working for the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy as a part-time instructor. Unfortunately, while academy staff investigated this incident, the outcome of this investigation did not impact substantively on training practices, and at the time, the academy staff did not widely communicate lessons learned.

How many of you have had a close encounter with extreme fire behavior? One where you said that was close or you suffered a minor injury? What did you learn and how did you share this information?

Often, as in this backdraft incident, those involved learn a valuable lesson, but do not share the information beyond the firefighters and officers they work with. Many things have changed since the 1970s. One is the existence of National Fire Protection Association 1403 Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions. While not perfect (but that is another topic for discussion), it identifies systems of work that increase the safety of participants engaged in live fire training. Another, more recent change was the development of the National Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System. This system leverages the advantage of the World Wide Web to provide the ability to report near miss incidents and widely share our lessons learned. If you have been involved in or witnessed a near miss incident or have been told of the event, you can anonymously submit a report and share what you have learned.

The data submitted to the Near Miss Reporting System does not go into a vacuum. Following review, and removal of information which would identify the agency involved, reports are posted in a searchable database on the website.

This program is a tremendous resource! Visit the site and search on flashover (38 reports), backdraft (9 reports), rapid fire progress (4 reports), or smoke explosion (33 reports). Remember, this database contains self-reported information. This does not make it less useful. In many ways it is more useful than distilled and analyzed information presented in other types of reports (particularly when the individual was involved in or witnessed the event). However, there may be technical inaccuracies (particularly with regards to extreme fire behavior phenomena) and the lessons learned by the individual who submitted the report may or may not be what you want to take away. Read the reports, think about the factors that influenced the occurrence of the event, how it could have been prevented, trapped or mitigated, and draw your own conclusions.

If you are involved in, witness, or are told about a near miss event, report it. The more information in the database, the greater the potential to identify patterns of causal factors and develop strategies for improving firefighter safety.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

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