Pennsylvania Duplex Fire LODD

Special Thanks to NIOSH

I would like to extend my thanks to Steve Berardinelli and Tim Merinar of the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program for their assistance in developing the Case Study based on NIOSH Report F2008-06. Just prior to my first post regarding this incident, I forwarded a request for additional information to the NIOSH staff and received a quick response from Tim that he would forward my request to the investigators. This morning I had an excellent conversation with Steve and obtained additional information that was extremely helpful in refining the case.

I will be revising Developing & Using Case Studies: Pennsylvania Duplex Fire Line of Duty Death (LODD) and Pennsylvania Duplex Fire: Firefighting & Firefighter Rescue Operations based on additional information provided by NIOSH. Changes include addition of information related to the ventilation profile, initial fire conditions, and occupant actions.

Analysis and Critique

It is important to note that the observations in this post regarding the contributory factors identified in NIOSH Report F2008-06 are made as a critical friend. Most firefighters and fire officers who read this (or any) NIOSH report will agree with some of the recommendations, may disagree with others, and undoubtedly would make additional recommendations based on their individual assessment of the incident. Analysis of contributing factors and recommendations (rather than simply accepting them) is an important element in the learning process. Dig a bit deeper and build an understanding of why events may have unfolded the way that they did. Identify the critical points at which the outcome could have been changed (there are likely more than one). Think about how these recommendations might apply to you and your department.

As discussed in my earlier post; Criticism Versus Critical Thinking, the intent of this analysis and critique is to share what I have learned from this case, with all due respect to those involved. The firefighters and fire officers involved in this incident were faced with a difficult situation to begin with, having an occupant reported trapped in the building. This was compounded by challenging water supply problems due to multiple frozen hydrants. It is far easier to examine incident information in a comfortable environment with no time pressure than to deal with these issues in the cold, early morning hours.

My original intent was to examine both the contributory factors and recommendations in NIOSH Report F2008-06. However, due to length, this critique will be divided into two separate posts.

A Brief Review of the Incident

On February 29, 2008 The Grove City Fire Department, Pine Township Engine Company, and East End Fire Department responded to a fire in a two-story, wood frame duplex in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Initial dispatch information and the initial size-up indicated that a female occupant was trapped in the building. When the Chief and first engine company arrived, the unit on Side D was substantially involved with smoke in the unit on Side B. Several hoselines were placed into operation for fire control, but fire conditions precluded an offensive attack in the involved unit. Pine Township Engine 85 was assigned to search and rescue of the trapped occupant. Firefighter Brad Holmes and Lieutenant Scott King were tasked with primary search of Exposure Delta. Firefighting operations were hampered by two frozen hydrants, necessitating support of initial operations using only apparatus tank water while an operable hydrant was located. During their search, water supply was interrupted and rapidly deteriorating conditions trapped the search crew. After being rescued by the Rapid Intervention Team, both members were transported to Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital Burn Unit. Firefighter Brad Holmes had burns over 75% of his body, and died from his injuries on March 5, 2008. Lieutenant King suffered less serious injuries and was treated and released. A 44 year old female occupant of the dwelling also died.

Figure 1. 132 Garden Avenue-Side Alpha

Side A 0635 Hours

Note: Fire Department Photo – NIOSH Death in the Line of Duty Report F2008-06. This photo likely illustrates conditions after 0635 (approximately 19 minutes after arrival of the first fire unit, Chief 95).

Additional detail is provided in Developing & Using Case Studies: Pennsylvania Duplex Fire Line of Duty Death (LODD) and Pennsylvania Duplex Fire: Firefighting & Firefighter Rescue Operations. In addition, readers should review NIOSH Report F2008-06.

Contributory Factors

NIOSH Report F2008-06 identifies seven contributory factors in the injury of Lieutenant King and death of Firefighter Holmes. While each of these factors may have had some influence on the outcome of this incident, this analysis provides insufficient clarity and misses several key factors.

  • Inadequate water supply. Two hydrants in the vicinity of the burning structure were frozen from the cold weather.
  • The victim and injured Lieutenant did not have the protection of a charged hoseline during their search for the trapped occupant.
  • Inadequate training in defensive search tactics.
  • Non-use of a thermal imaging camera which may have allowed the search and rescue crew to advance more quickly through the structure.
  • Ventilation was not coordinated with the interior search.
  • Size-up information about the structure was not relayed to the interior search crew. The interior crew was searching in the wrong duplex for the trapped occupant and did not realize they were in a duplex.
  • The incident commander was unaware of the search crew’s location in the building. He did not receive any interior reports and was concentrating on resolving water supply issues.

Water Supply: The lack of a continuous water supply likely influenced the loss of the structure and loss of water supply to handlines was in all probability a causal factor in the injury of Lieutenant King and death of Firefighter Holmes. However, the volume of tank water available on apparatus that arrived prior to the search team becoming trapped on Floor 2 (5000 gallons) was likely adequate to support search of the uninvolved areas of the building and confine the fire to the unit of origin for the time required to search uninvolved areas of the building. Anticipation that a continuous water supply would be established may have influenced the tactics and water application used by initial arriving companies.

Protection of the Search Team: Failure to protect the search team with a hoseline was a significant factor in this incident. However, the outcome would likely have been the same if the search team had a hoseline as fire extended from below to cut off their means of egress. A backup line should also have been in place to protect the search team’s egress while they were working above the fire. There was an additional hoseline initially deployed to the doorway on Side A, however, the position and operation of this line while the search team was on Floor 2 was not specified in the report. Without additional tactical changes, the loss of water supply would have precluded effective hoseline support of search operations.

Training in Defensive Search Tactics: Identifying a lack of training in “defensive search tactics” is too narrowly focused. The issue here is significantly broader than stated in the report and should be restated as lack of situational awareness. This causal factor fails to identify the lack of situational awareness on the part of the search crew, the incident commander, and others on the fireground to developing and potential fire conditions and water supply limitations. This lack of situational awareness is likely due to inadequate training in fire behavior and applied fire dynamics (rather than simply inadequate training in defensive search tactics).

Use of a TIC: Undoubtedly effective use of a TIC can speed search operations. However the NIOSH report indicated that visibility was not excessively compromised during the initial stages of search on both floors 1 and 2. Reducing the time required to complete the search could have been influenced by use of a TIC, by assigning a separate crew to perform fire control on Floor 1 of Exposure B and allowing Firefighter Holmes and Lieutenant King to focus on primary search or by both of these actions. While technology may useful in improving firefighter safety, it is important to not simply look for a technological solution to a problem which can be substantively related to human factors such as situational awareness, communications, and decision-making.

Tactical Ventilation: The location, sequence, and lack of coordination in ventilation was likely a causal factor (along with failure to protect the means of egress with a hoseline and loss of water supply) in the injury to Lieutenant King and death of Firefighter Holmes. Creation of exhaust openings above the fire created a clear path of travel for hot gases and flames from Floor 1 to Floor 2 via the interior stairs and increased air supply to a fire which was likely ventilation controlled (resulting in an increase in heat release rate (HRR) sufficient to result in flashover. This contributory factor also points to the need for training on the influence of tactical operations (particularly ventilation) on fire behavior.

Communication of Size-Up Information: Size-up information related to the building and possible victim location could have been a significant factor in focusing the location of the search. However, the civilian occupant was not in either unit, but was located (after fire control) behind the door in the foyer. If it was known that the trapped occupant was from the fire unit, it may have appeared that there was no savable life (due to the extent of fire involvement). But this does not preclude the assumption that she may have been confused and gone into the other unit.

Note: There is some difference of opinion between the fire investigator and operational personnel as to the likely location of the victim prior to structural collapse. It is possible that the victim died on Floor 2 of the fire unit and fell to the position where she was found due to structural collapse.

Accountability and Situation Status: Accountability and communication of situation status is critical to the safety of everyone operating on the fireground. Clear communication in advance of the loss of water supply could have influenced the outcome of this incident. When operating off tank water, it is essential to follow a similar philosophy as the Rule of Air Management and retain sufficient water to exit from the hazardous environment. However, it does not appear that the lack of accountability regarding the search team significantly delayed the rescue effort.

My next post will examine the recommendations made in NIOSH Report F-2008-06 and will provide a link to a detailed, written case study based on this incident in PDF format.

Happy Holidays,
Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

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