For many Rescue Technicians, the opportunity to train in a real live environment isn’t something that happens everyday. We try to make the simulation and environment as real life as possible but are road blocked by having a safe environment without the potential of an incident to occur to us. This happens especially in the rescue aspect of Confined spaces. We are informed that the space may have a possible air quality hazard, that access and egress are limited and if we go into these spaces, who is it that will rescue us?
I recently had an opportunity to train in a true confined space with limited hazards (to negotiate all hazards is near impossible). The rescue company, to which I work for, was willing to send me to a group of Rescue Professionals in North Carolina, aboard the decommissioned USS North Carolina Battleship. I instantly jumped at the chance to train with other Rescue Professionals and to have a live environment.
Ronin staff have provided rescue standby services on sites across the country. As part of this service we are frequently asked to perform other tasks such as confined space hole watch, safety officer duties and first aid. Our staff also conduct tail boards and create other documentation such as fall protection plans to ensure the safety of both our team and our clients staff. On even a short shut down, this can lead to a great deal of paperwork being created. The staff often need to refer to previous paperwork to ensure continuity and safety. As such keeping the paperwork clean, dry and returning it to our offices in a reasonable time frame become issues. Auditing this paperwork is also necessary to ensure that it is completed properly and to identify any training requirements. As we were sorting through literally bankers boxes full of paperwork for a standby rescue project the thought occurred to us – why don’t we digitize this?
In 2014 Scott Young received The David Balfour Churchill Fellowship to “advance fire fighter safety by studying overseas developments in the vertical rescue industry”
Essentially, he was given the funding and support to travel the world and study the best elements of vertical rescue around the globe. He spent time in the US, Belgium, Japan, UK and France learning from the best practitioners.
He was kind enough to provide to us his complete report which is available to download and read:
It was a sunny warm morning around in July of 2001. One of those mornings, that it is great to live on the West Coast. Not too warm, however certainly shorts and beach weather. The crew of Engine 3 (E3) was out in their area conducting emergency vehicle operator training for one of their upcoming drivers. At around 10 AM the tones in the truck went off for a structure fire that would drastically change the course of the day and the departments operating procedures for years to come. As the crew listened to the call on the radio for the first alarm fire, Ladder 6, Engine 3, Quint 3, Engine 5, Duty Chief respond emergency, Structure Fire…, they could look up and see heavy smoke in the distance. The crew quickly went back to their regular positions on the apparatus and the driver started emergency to the scene.
The fire was in another firehall’s district. As such, the crew from E3 had to drive over a large bridge onto the island where the other fire district was located. As E3 and E5 (E5 coming from yet another district and over the same bridge) crossed the bridge, the bridge deck was obscured by smoke from the fire. Cars has slowed down to a near crawl in the thick smoke that engulfed the bridge like toxic fog. The crews looked out the window and saw fire already burning through the roof of the nearly 5-acre paper storage warehouse that was on fire.
Both E3 and E5 radioed this update to L6 who had just arrived on scene and taken command. The officer from L6 was into their 360 as E3 and E5 arrived on scene. E3 was tasked with catching a separate water source and hooking into the building sprinkler system and the E5 crew was split between RIT (Rapid Intervention Team) duties and interior attack. Once E3 completed the sprinkler hook up the E3 Captain and the two E3 firefighters reported to command (leaving the driver with the pump). By now two firefighters from L6 with the officer from E5 had entered the building. The two firefighters from E5, were assigned RIT duties and were situated next to the roll up door the attack team had entered through. This was in the inception days of RIT. Legislation had just been passed and RIT duties were still in their infancy. All Fire Department staff had completed training, and practical implementation had begun. As the E3 Captain reported to command, the two E3 firefighters stopped by the RIT team to provide a ribbing that they, as RIT, would be sitting this one out. On the fire floor no one likes to be “stuck” on RIT. Firefighters join the department to see action and watching others work while stuck on the yellow RIT tarp is seen as a let down. At least it was like that until this call occurred. It was around this time that the RIT team noticed that the 1 ½ hose the entry team had taken into the building with them had not moved in a few minutes. The RIT notified command and radio communication was attempted with the interior team. As the riders from E3 were there with the RIT team, command immediately created a four man RIT and asked them to take a look inside the building. As the RIT started to walk into the roll up door, the E5 Captain came out of a man door further down the Alpha Side of the building. He was missing his helmet, a boot and his jacket was torn open. He muttered out “Collapse, they are trapped”. Command then formally dispatched the RIT team in to find the trapped firefighters, updated the Duty Chief and called for additional resources.
The RIT entered the structure following the hose line of the entry team. They only made it in a hundred or so feet when they lost the line under piles of debris. The debris was predominately racking and paper products and was in a mound close to 20 feet high. Two firefighters, G and M1 were in the front digging by hand through the debris passing it back to the other two firefighters, S and M2 to clear out of the egress path. The visibility went from passable (the RIT could see each other within their 10 foot work area) to no visibility and back regularly as the air currents in the building and the PPV fan at the door moved the smoke and heat around. For those that fight fire you understand the engulfment in blackness that occurs as the black smoke blocks out all sources of light. The flashlight on the RIT teams helmets at times would not even penetrate it. Add to this blackness the sounds of debris falling and forklift propane tanks exploding. The sounds were different. Some of the paper stored in the warehouse was the minivan-sized rolls used in industrial processes, and of course not palleted. As the water from the broken sprinkler (the roof at this time had dropped in a section causing water to pour straight out of the sprinkler line onto the floor) soaked the bottom of these rolls they would fall over wiping out aisles of racking, other rolls and stacked product. This sound was a thud with additional crashing. When a propane tank exploded however it was a definite explosion. The floor would rock and the RIT could hear bits of shrapnel hitting steel and concrete. When the collapsing or exploding occurred the RIT would pause momentarily and uselessly look up at the ceiling or into the darkness beyond waiting to see if the next hit was on them.
Outside things were excited to say the least. Crews in halls that did not respond were pestering the Chief’s office to attend (while it may sound obvious not to do this as the Chief has enough to do, emotions start running high when its your team mates unaccounted for). Crews outside were deployed to the maximum and seeking assistance. At this point in the fire there was only a first alarm assignment on scene. 14 firefighters. Of which one was command, two were pump operators currently operating fire pumps, one was injured, two were missing, four were searching, two were performing fire control and the last two were conducting first aid and acting as the RIT to the RIT team. Full first alarm assignments from three surrounding fire departments were sent to assist as well as a general call back for the initiating fire department was enacted. This would put a total of 14 fire apparatus and associated staff (upwards of 80 firefighters) on scene, but it would take time. At this point the Duty Chief made what would become a controversial decision. He sounded the evacuation of the building.
It was a controversial decision, as firefighters will risk a lot for a savable life, even more so when those lives are their own. Many opinions came in about this evacuation call after the fact. Some opinion revolved around the idea that the Chief on scene should have been willing to risk more. That his training and experience were not up to the task. The other viewpoint was that the Chief was the “man on the ground” and as such had the best vantage point to make the decision. That he did use his training and experience, hence why he made the call. Throw emotion and type A personalities into the post incident analysis and it becomes almost a ballroom brawl. The take away however is that as a fire officer you require the training and the mental mindset that at some point in your career you will have to make a decision that will have a massive, negative effect on people on that scene. Whether that be to let a client’s home burn, triage patients and decide who is unsalvageable or remove your RIT from a compromised structure. As stated once about fire officer duties, you take the paycheck, feel free to do the job.
Inside the structure the RIT had no idea about the logistics in motion outside. While this may seem like hours, in reality this entire rescue took only 20 or so minutes. Not enough time to get mutual aid to attend, or multiple fire units to arrive. The RIT was digging, moving and searching in a chaotic environment inside the structure with debris falling. At times they had to shout to hear each other over the fire and collapsing materials. At times it was eerily quiet. There were always the screaming PASS alarms echoing through out the structure – until the batteries died (replace the batteries on your packs regularly – it may save your life). Tar was dripping onto their gear (the roof was compromised), however they were unaware of this, as they could not see the tar in the dark. Command could see this compromised structure from outside. Then the evacuation of the building was sounded. An announcement went out over the radio, the air horns and federal horns on the trucks were sounded. The RIT stopped and stared at each other. Evacuation. All of their minds raced. One of the firefighters eyes were like saucers in his mask – wide and concerned. If we leave can we find this area again? Will they let us back in? What happens to our mates? Are we abandoning them? One of the firefighters asked “Are we going?” and the response from another firefighter was “The only f*$king place I am going is to the bottom of this pile!”. A calm came over the RIT after this. No more looking uselessly into the air when explosions and falling racking rocked the ground. No more wide eyes. The decision was made. Live or die, the RIT was staying. While a calm came over the RIT, it was the opposite effect on the two trapped firefighters inside. Firefighter R was face down under 20 feet of debris. His nose was broken and his mask was full of blood. His back was also broken. He could not move. The evacuation siren was the last thing he remembers hearing until he came to in the Ambulance. Firefighter D was as mobile as one could be under a pile of debris. He took off his pack as it had run out of air (kids remember to turn off the PASS if you dump your packs – not that I am recommending pack dumping). He started trying to climb out. He was frantic – they were leaving him here and he was not interested in dying in this place.
The RIT continued their work at a frantic pace. They had removed close to 10 feet of debris by hand. And then they met firefighter D. He looked at one of the members with a cold, deliberate stare and said “Get me the f#$k out of here”. There was no emotion to his voice. He just wanted out. Two of the RIT escorted Firefighter D out while the remaining two RIT members continued their search. The RIT air packs had gone into low air alarm and since stopped vibrating. The members only had minutes of air left. It was looking increasingly desperate. At that moment the visibility cleared enough that one of the RIT noticed a hand sticking out of the debris. The remaining two RIT members, with their air packs now empty, took the regulators out of their masks, started breathing smoke and dug down into the debris. They dug out firefighter R, grabbed him from under the armpits and dragged him out of the building.
Shortly after the rescue the building started to collapse creating its own small firestorm in the process. Equipment was destroyed. A ladder truck was moved with a firefighter holding the override as it was still extended with outriggers out (raised a foot or so). The fight went on for another 27 hours until it was finally extinguished. The emotional toll took years. Some firefighters never returned to work, some firefighters retired, some had their whole attitude on life rearranged. No one died however. RIT proved itself to be a valuable asset on the fire ground. The attitude of “sucker, you’re RIT” changed to one of professionalism and responsibility. RIT was now a position not to take lightly. Incident commanders ensured that at least one member of RIT is a senior firefighter that knows the “ins and outs” of a fire ground.
Incident commanders should think about RIT as another tactic that is employed on the fire scene. Except this tactic is pre-planned. Imagine knowing where the fire was located and who was trapped prior to arriving on a scene. Imagine having a view of the area you will need to operate prior to the operation. The RIT does not have to imagine, the RIT has this ability. It needs to be created and then exploited if required by the IC. IC’s should utilize a senior firefighter at a minimum as the RIT Team Lead. It would be preferable to have an officer directly in charge of the RIT. The RIT team should not “rue this duty” of being “stuck on the tarp”. Equipment should be gathered for any potential rescue, a separate water line to a separate pump is preferable, a sketch of the building should be made and alternate means of entry/egress explored. The RIT should be able to identify where every attack and search team in the structure is located. Should the call come that an interior team is in trouble, the RIT should be able to deploy, immediately, to assist them. They should already have a feel for the structure and know the most direct entry and egress points to any team. They need to be prepared. Quite honestly, their teammate’s lives might depend on it.
Another point that was noted after this fire was communications. Not just radio comms on scene (that is always an issue it seems) however communications with the members on scene and the family at home. Imagine being on site, assigned to a pump panel, watching a medivac helicopter land, ambulances come and go and have no idea what has happened to your teammates. Imagine being the wife of a firefighter on duty sitting at home with their child listening to the radio as the breaking news of a massive fire with reports of firefighters missing and other firefighters being sent to the hospital hit the airwaves. And the fire is in your husband’s fire district. The Fire Service can learn from the Military regarding next of kin (NOK) notification. One advantage the military often has is the ability to lock down outside comms when an incident occurs. At a fire scene, the world shows up to watch. Every child with a cell phone can put a video up on You Tube. There is no ability to lock down these means of comms. At the time of this incident the department had no emergency contact forms for its firefighters. Staff were calling other staff who were friends of on duty members to get names and numbers of next of kin. Not an ideal situation, especially if the situation had turned out worse. Especially when you are trying to beat the 24-hour news media to reach the wife, husband, child, mother or father to tell them that their loved one is okay, however lying in a hospital bed. Create a quick next of kin form and keep it updated. Also be prepared for the onslaught of calls that will come into the department. The media will call, family members will call, off duty staff will call. Someone needs to be tasked to handle this communications traffic. None of these folks will take no for an answer.
And for the disclaimer. I attended this call. These are my memories. My mates may remember some of the small details differently. No one, myself included, is trying to “mislead” anyone. When “it” hits the fan and the adrenalin kicks in, the brain has a tendency to pick up on, focus on and remember different items, depending on the individual. Time slows, time flies, sometimes at once – those who have had these experiences understand this.
When most hear the term SAR (Search and Rescue), they think of a group in brightly coloured jackets surrounding a lost hiker or a basket being raised from a sinking boat. For many this is mostly true, but SAR has a darker side that people outside of the community don’t like to talk about.
What happens when the rescue team doesn’t get there in time?
A few years ago, a Lower Mainland, BC, municipality undertook an initiative to better develop its confined space rescue capability. The first goal was to train a group of 60 workers in confined space rescue. To maximize the learning experience, class size was limited to 6 students. The second goal was to create a pool of highly trained personnel which could be temporarily utilized to provide rescue services for more difficult and hazardous confined space entries. They were referred to as “Go To” personnel. For two years this group underwent advanced exercises, assisted in selecting and standardizing equipment and coached their fellow workers during training and entries. Before this group was stood to, the municipality had to hire contractors to provide rescue services.
Who better to provide such services than internal personnel who have experience doing the work and intimately know the spaces?
Many years ago I responded, as part of my fire department’s technical rescue team, to a confined space incident. The call was dispatched around noon on a Monday. I was a fire fighter, and one of the Technical Rescue Technicians on the responding crew. Our Fire Department is comprised of both full and paid on call staff and covers a response area of 318 square kilometers. This call was attended to by our full time crews.
The initial response to the incident consisted of a four-person Engine company (their district), a battalion chief and the technical rescue team (consisting of an Engine + Technical Rescue Truck, six more personnel) and the duty Chief. In total we had 12 staff on scene, six of whom were technical rescue qualified.
Upon arrival, the initial information relayed to the crews from onsite staff was that a worker had entered the space in an attempted suicide. The space was a concrete, underground electrical vault approximately 20’ x 25’ with a hatch approx. 4’ x 4’. A permanent ladder provided access and the space had approx. 6’ of head room. There was a concrete dividing wall which essentially created a confined space within the main space. This space was accessed by an opening approximately 4’ x 4’.
As part of the first in Technical Rescue (TR) apparatus, the initial request we had on scene was for documentation on the confined space (hazard assessment, entry procedures, etc). At this point we knew the worker had entered the site (verified by proximity entry card swipe) on Saturday approx. 36 hours prior. When the patient’s co-workers showed up on site for work on Monday, they found the patient’s personal effects on the their desk and a cryptic note alluding to the patient hurting themselves. The co-workers had initiated the 911 response.
Out in the facility yard, there was a hatch to the confined space propped open. When we asked the co-workers who found the note and personal effects about what had occurred to this point, they indicated that one of them put a fan into the hole and made entry into the space. The entrant noticed that the entry points into one of the interior spaces (confined space within a confined space) was covered by a sheet of plywood from the inside and appeared to be caulked or sealed shut. At that point the co-worker then left the space. The co-worker reentered the space with a second worker and a sledge hammer to ‘force’ their way into the interior confined space. When they finally broke thorough, the plywood ‘hatch’ fell inward and partially covered a compressed air cylinder of Nitrogen (to be determined later). From this point they are both unclear about what occurred. One worker indicated they immediately vacated the space. The other worker indicated he could ‘see’ the missing worker 20’ away in the space laying on the ground, meaning he had entered the inner space. He did not say he approached the patient however said the worker was ‘dead’.
Topside, some decisions had to be made and a rift began between responding agencies.
One group of responders took the stand that the worker had been in the space for over 36 hours and with the presence of the Nitrogen cylinder, they assumed a successful suicide attempt. They were of the opinion that it was an unsalvageable situation and therefore until HAZMAT team confirmed the atmosphere was safe, they would standby and consider it a ‘recovery operation’.
The Technical Rescue Team (TRT) took the stand that a subject isn’t ‘unsalvageable and dead’ until they are in the hospital ER, warm and confirmed dead. In the interim the TRT received the nod to get the rescue team dressed and ready to access the space and set up the associated rigging. The entry team of 2 responders dressed in full FR PPE and SCBA (the entrance to space was 4’ x 4’, ladder access and 6’ ceiling as ascertained by blueprints and confirmed the previous workers who entered). In the after action report, a concern about not using SAR and hardline communications was brought up. The TRT felt we had adequate PPE for the operation and that there was no need to set up SAR as the access point was large enough to allow for SCBA.
Law enforcement (LE) arrived on scene and considered it a crime scene. Police insisted on entering to document and collect evidence. Upon discussions however it was determined that neither LE or BCAS (British Columbia Ambulance Service Paramedics) staff are trained in confined space entry which prohibited either agency from entering the space.
It was finally decided to let the confined space rescue team into the space under the auspices that they document by digital camera every angle and item in the space. The entry team was equipped with FD issue radios and after confirming no atmospheric changes (the space had remained clean respirable air since our first monitor went into the space), we sent the team in. The team was told to progress slowly and methodically, then focus on gathering evidence via camera versus rescue. After a few minutes I looked down into the space to find a team member trying to get my attention (the radios had failed to transmit out of the concrete vault). The rescuer indicated that they had a ‘living patient’. This was repeated to all those around the site and the team continued to set rigging in place to extricate our ‘dead’, now ‘live’ patient. The team went from “recovery/evidence gathering mode” to ‘rescue mode”. Once the patient was extricated to the space opening, the patient was attached to a 4:1 mechanical advantage and extricated from the space. The patient was quite disoriented and lethargic and patient care was turned over to the paramedics.
The entry team confirmed that the patient had set up a small bed including foam mattress and 5 gallon bucket as a commode in the space. The patient had several prescription drug wrappers around the bed and a caulking gun. The nitrogen cylinder valve was closed and had not been discharged into the space.
What appeared to have occurred, was the patient had intended to seal themselves into the space, take a high dose of the medication, plug in their iPod earbuds and open the cylinder in order to displace all the oxygen in the space. It appears however that the medications either rendered the patient unable to operate the valve or unconscious.
Lessons learned from this event.
- At a rescue event, the trained and equipped Rescue Team needs to be utilized in the planning phase and their expertise considered.
- Never assume a recovery vs rescue.
I was a Search and Rescue Technician in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, in 2012; a newly appointed Team Leader, meaning I was the ranking SAR Tech in a team of two on a helicopter crew consisting of the two SAR Techs, two Pilots and a Flight Engineer.
On the opening day of lobster fishing season in the Bay of Fundy, I reported to work for what I thought was an administration day, which meant I would be attending to my secondary duties; helping support our training, maintenance and operations, and conducting dry land training. Essentially, I wasn’t on the flying standby crew, so I didn’t expect to go flying.
The Transport and Rescue Standards and Evaluation Team (TRSET) was in town to audit all of our squadron paperwork and records, and generally inspect every aspect of our operation. Part of their job was to evaluate our “in house” standards checkers; the people that evaluate the members of the squadron to ensure performance standards are upheld. TRSET’s task was to observe our standards member conducting a “no notice check ride;” a spontaneous test for a member chosen by the checker. I was chosen to be the member. So my relatively low-key admin day became a trial by fire, and my test anxiety was starting to build.
On February 4, 2007, a structure fire in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was reported to 9-1-1. What was supposed to be an “ordinary” and “routine” attached garage fire, proved to be anything but that, as well as an incident that these Winnipeg Fire Fighters would never forget.
Only a few minutes after arriving, two firefighters were dead and two others had been severely burned.
It was Super Bowl Sunday and the temperature, with the wind chill in Winnipeg, was minus 40 degrees Celsius. I was fortunate to have been called in for an overtime night shift, to my home hall, Station 1, in downtown Winnipeg.
As I was a Fire-Medic, I expected to be on the “Squad” that night. These trucks respond to our “man-down” calls. Not only that, you get to throw an extra $20 towards dinner and you get the “floor watch” for the night! But when I went into the Captain’s office, he asked if I’d mind riding on his truck, Engine 101 that night. I definitely had no problem with that. My Captain that night was Harold Lessard, a WFD vet for the past 31 years, who was a very well respected man and Captain.
After checking my gear, I headed to the kitchen to help out with dinner, while watching Prince perform at the Super Bowl halftime show. After listening to one of the other fire fighters getting hammered by the officers about Prince’s artistic ability, I headed to the phone booth to call my wife and kids before they headed off to bed. We said our usual goodnights and I mentioned to my wife that I was a little relieved to not be on the Squad. The wind had picked up and the temperature had gone down to minus 48 degrees, with the wind chill.
Two minutes later, the call for a residential alarm came in for Gabrielle Roy, a cul-de-sac in Winnipeg’s French Quarter. This would be our second-in district, so Scott, who was the driver for E101, went to the map. I had spent five years in that district however and said to him that I could guide him in. We were dispatched as a rescue; we carried the gear to respond as one. We got away pretty quickly and had no traffic, because of the weather and Super Bowl festivities.
As we were crossing the bridge from downtown to St. Bonifice, the District Chief (D3) radioed that it was a “working fire.” I reached for the thermal imaging camera to turn it on and then switched seats to face forward and guide to Scott in to the address. I noticed that Captain Lessard was on the edge of his seat, turning his air on.
As we approached the cul-de-sac, the District Chief’s driver was directing us to where we were to go. We saw the two-story home’s garage fully involved. The Captain and Nozzleman went to D3 to get our assignments and I went to grab tools for our driver and myself. Our crew was tasked to search the second story, while E3 attacked the garage and E2 accompanied us upstairs, checking for fire extension into the house.
We entered the house and turned left to go up the stairs. As we went up, we pulled hose to help E2, as they were making their way to the second floor and found light smoke with minimal heat. We did notice the wall on our left side, which was where the garage was, was very hot. We passed Ed Wiebe from our crew on the stairs, as he was pulling hose for E2. The staircase was open from the main floor to the roof, with a dormer window above, facing the Alpha side. We were tasked to search the right side, which took us to the bedroom whose window faced the Alpha side of the home. Scott proceeded to search the room, while I stayed at the doorway, scanning the room with the thermal imager. While scanning around the room, I noticed carbon accumulating on the screen that I kept having to wipe away.
At the same time, E3 was working on the garage door, to gain access to the fire and E2 is on the second floor with us, but on the left side, in the master bedroom. E2 radioed the IC (D3) that they had broken a window and were requesting PPV. Captain Tom Nichols was by the broken window, backing the hose out in order to pull down the ceiling and check the attic for extension. The IC came back with, “negative E2 to ventilate.” He was watching the smoke outside, suck back into the garage. He then ordered everyone to evacuate.
Hearing this, I called over to Scott that we were called out. He had just finished the primary search and had removed his glove to check for heat above, finding little heat. He then started toward me at the doorway and that’s when things changed drastically.
Approximately five to seven seconds after the evacuation call, it was like a window shade of blackness came down onto us, with a lot of heat. We were now in zero visibility. The Office of the Fire Commissioner called this event “black fire” – which is moments before a flashover occurs. We decided to head to the staircase to get out.
At this point, we could feel the temperature rising but our gear was still protecting us. As we made our way to the top of the staircase, we could hear the commotion on the other side the upstairs, where the other crews we assembling to evacuate. I felt the top of the stairs with my gloved hands and as I looked in the direction to go down, a fireball erupted up at us. It looked as though the wall against the garage had breached due to the fire in the garage, as flames filled the staircase up toward us. We felt the tremendous heat, but were partially shielded by the glass across the top railing. The sound of screaming and scattering fire fighters was all we heard after the roar of the flames. We were now left again in the blackness, but this time, the heat had intensified to where we had to get out.
Scott and I agreed to go back to the room we had just searched to use the window to get out. We knew the layout and we knew that we had a window. Scott let go of my jacket to turn to lead the way. As I turned to follow, I was blindsided by a force that sent me down the hallway, into the bathroom at the end of the hall. I landed flat on my back on my SCBA tank. Dazed and disoriented, I went to my TIC to get my bearings. The screen was white. Everything was hot! I dropped the camera (which was tethered to my gear) and had to get moving. The pain was starting to get intolerable from the dramatic increase in heat. I went to the right side wall to find a way out. All I kept thinking about was our plan to find a window.
As I followed the wall, I came across someone, thinking it was Scott. I grabbed onto him soon realized that it was my Captain, Harold Lessard’s voice. All I kept saying was, “We gotta find a window, we gotta go!” I was able to get the Captain up and we made our way into the first room on our right search. I scanned past the bed to the far side of the room to find a window in the far corner (C side). At the same time, Scott was also searching for his window to make an exit. He went straight toward where he thought the window was. He reached out into the dormer space and didn’t feel the window. He started to panic, but as he reached, his gloves brushed against the blinds making a recognizable sound. He tore them down and went at the window. I recall hearing Scott yell out, “Found a window, breaking glass.” When I heard that, I now knew that he was still moving and that I’d better hurry and get my window!
It was hot down low, but now I had to stand to break out this bedroom window. I had lost my axe when I was knocked down, so I went at it with both fists flying! It felt like I was punching a brick wall. Finally, the first of three panes broke. I actually stopped to make sure it was a window, not a framed picture or mirror. I felt around the frame and the crank was on the other side, so I knew it was a window. As I was punching, Captain Lessard and I were screaming back and forth, asking if it was really this bad. The pain was excruciating. Periodically, we would hear someone screaming from outside our room, and then it would stop.
Down below, two fire fighters, Scott Kissik and Leigh Gruener, had been on the “B” side of the house, setting up a ladder to knock down some flames coming from the soffit. The lieutenant, Ken Purpur, from Ladder 2, shouted to them to bring the ladder over to the window that I was breaking. They were unable to lower the ladder due to it freezing up and breaking one of the dawgs. They could hear us screaming but were unable to understand what we were saying.
I then heard the RIT on the radio, giving the IC their report. They couldn’t make their way up the stairs due to the heat and fire. A fire fighter from Engine 9 (third-in vehicle) came behind them with a 2-½” line to make a pathway for them. I could hear the commotion and screams outside of our room and that they were coming for us. As they made their way up the stairs, they came across a collapsed fire fighter, upside down on the staircase, which was Ed Wiebe. They were his screams that we had heard, but he was in and out of consciousness.
Scott broke through his window and jumped through, expecting to fall two stories to the ground. Luckily, he landed on the roof of the front porch, on the “A” side of the building. He felt himself sliding and caught himself from falling on the rain gutter. He couldn’t see because of the carbon baked onto his mask, blackening it out. Other fire fighters saw Scott on the roof and put a portable ladder up to help him down. Scott walked over to the IC and asked where everyone else was. No one else came out the window after him, so he thought the rest of us used the stairs. The IC then deployed the RIT who had just arrived – moments earlier, they were sitting with us in the kitchen at 1 Station.
Finally, my right fist went through the window. By the time it came back in and my left went through, I couldn’t feel them anymore. I don’t remember clearing the window. I then screamed to the Captain that I had the window clear. He said that it was too high to jump.
I then heard on the radio that the RIT was coming in for us, but we couldn’t wait any longer. We were screaming in pain for help, yet never went on the radio. At that time, it didn’t seem possible to stop and go on the radio to let them know what was happening to us. Everything had narrowed down to simply getting out.
Again, I screamed to my Captain that we had to jump and grabbed him from his kneeling position to get him up. By doing this, I compacted our gear, allowing our superheated gear now to touch our skin. Both of us screamed out in pain. I felt I should be able to pick up my Captain and thinking that I was doing it wrong, I bent down and tried lifting him onto my shoulder, using the power from my legs. Again, we screamed out, falling down together. The pain was now past any point I had ever experienced. Panic had set in. My Captain then said we had to go. I was able to get him to a standing position on the sill. I then tried to fit through the 18-inch opening, which was approximately 50 inches from the floor.
The summer prior, we had training sessions at our academy called “back to basics”, where we were practicing low profile manoeuvres. It came back to me, as I pushed my tank up to the top corner and swam through the window, falling 16 feet to the deck below, which was freshly cleared of snow, almost landing on one of the fire fighters that was shouting up to us. They didn’t see me come out because of the smoke billowing out.
It felt like an instant, being inside and then landing below on my left side and left arm stretched out, just as I went out the window.
There was no more pain. I remember taking a breath and closing my eyes. I thought the fire fighters had picked me up, but I later found out that when they turned to see what the thud was, I had gotten up and was lying in the snow in the back yard (C side). I had missed them and the ladder. They were from my shift, on overtime as well. I was so covered with black soot; they didn’t know it was me until they peeled my mask off. Leigh walked me around to the front of the house Scott Kissik jumped up onto the sunroom roof to help Harold. He had his upper body out the window.
As I made my way to the neighbor’s driveway, Scott Attichison saw me and came over, hugged me, saying, “I thought you were out.”
The RIT then came out with Ed Wiebe and other fire fighters helped to get him to another ambulance
Scott Kissik tried to pull Harold out but was unable to get him through. Another fire fighter, Ray Thompson, made his way up the ladder, supported by Leigh Gruener. The ladder was at an awkward angle and Leigh was under th ladder, supporting it with her back under the rungs. Ray tried pulling Harold through the window but was unable to fit him through. Harold then collapsed to the floor. Ray jumped into the room and with help from Garth Roswell, was able to get him out onto the ladder. Bob Wright, the Platoon Chief, was at the bottom of the ladder when they brought Harold down. He said to him “We got you Harold.” Harold then went limp and stopped breathing. The crews quickly got him to the front of the house and his fellow fire fighters worked to save him.
Now, the only remaining fire fighter that was missing was Captain Tom Nichols. Rescue 8 was tasked to search for the missing Captain from Engine 2. Now that the fire was through the roof and numerous windows vented, R8 was able to make their way up the stairs and with their TIC, saw a boot. The Captain was found in the same room that Captain Lessard and I were in, just a few feet away from where we were only moments earlier. He was unresponsive and when he was brought out, the awaiting crews started CPR.
Tragically, both Captains succumbed to their injuries.
I received burns to 70% of my body, with 20% of them being third degree, requiring skin grafting. After 16 days in the burn center, I was released to go home. After rigorous physical and mental rehabilitation, 11 months later, I returned to 1 Station, full duties as a fire fighter on Engine 101.
Since this horrific event, my family and friends have supported me in the search to find a path to wellness, both on and off the job. Having two little boys at the time of incident (Noah-4 and Nathan-2) encouraged me to try and regain the life that my family and I had before the incident. Sadly, that life would never return.
We realized that we needed more than just “talks” about how we were doing – we needed help. With the support of our management and Local 867, everyone that was involved in the February 4th fire, had access to professional help. Having never gone to a psychologist, it was hard to accept that I (we) couldn’t do it on my (our) own. This help was not just for us that were on scene, but also for those spouses that were at home, waiting for us to return.
On the road to surviving survival, we experienced many ups and down along the way. Personally, I have been blessed to have had more “ups” than “downs”!
Almost six years after this incident, my wife Joanna and my three children (a one year old little girl named Madison as well now) have been persistent in the relentless attention that ongoing survival truly requires.
Enduring the trauma was one triumph, yet the struggle to recapture our lives and reaffirm a sense of self and family was and is a larger indefinite trial.
Lionel, since the incident, has concentrated his studies and training on Fire Fighter Survival in its many forms.
He has been appointed as a Master Instructor for the IAFF Fire Ground Survival Program; is a trainer for the Petzl EXO Escape System; is a Peer Support and Trainer for Burn Survivor Fire Fighters; and is also the IAFF 13th District Burn Foundation Coordinator.
Only through constant training and support has Lionel been able to remain on the frontline as a firefighter. Without the support of his family and fellow firefighters, he would not be where he is today.
A HIV and Hepatitis C positive arborist cut their brachial artery with a chainsaw 50’ up a tree that they had topped.
As the arborist was attached via three lines to the tree (including a cable) the first in crews were unable to recover the body. As such, the Technical Rescue Unit (Tech Rescue) was dispatched. Tech Rescue was conducting recruit rescue training at the time of the incident and responded from the training, with recruits in tow, to the incident.
Upon arrival of the Tech Rescue we saw a worker, who had bled out, suspended in a tree.
The worker was visible from all directions as the worker was above the rooftops of the homes.
The first in crew had used a 40’ tormentor pole ladder to try and reach the worker. They had contact, however could not recover.
The tree was topped about 1.5’ above the worker. The tree was in the backyard of a private residence and ladder apparatus access was not an option.
The tree and surrounding ground was soaked in blood. There was an elementary school within sight of the incident.
On scene was the first in Engine Company and the Ladder Company. The District Chief had arrived as well as Police, Coroner and Ambulance service.
The first in Engine Company was from the Technical Rescue Hall and had trained Tech Rescue staff. There was also a Technical Rescue Instructor as well as 7 or 8 recruits.
Plan of Action
In discussions with the Incident Commander we ruled out cutting down the tree or trying to cut all of the ropes.
While the Rescue Team Leader felt this was the safest course of action, the IC ruled that the perception of such action would be a media disaster.
A plan was then formed to dress one Tech Rescue Firefighter (Rescue 1) in full PPE (tyvex suit, gloves, goggles – full precautions) and have them climb the 40’ ladder. The ladder would be tied to the tree and Rescue 1 would climb to the top rung of the ladder with a lanyard for safety.
At the top, Rescue 1 would attach themselves to the ladder and the tree. The tree attachment was with a choked Omni sling.
Using a combination of lines, slings and the ladder, Rescue 1 would then rig a high point on with another choked Omni sling above the worker. Rescue 1 would then use a B Suit (screamer suit) to package the worker, as the workers’ 3 lines went to different points on their harness.
The ground crew would then raise the worker, allowing Rescue 1 to unhook/cut the lines and the worker to be lowered to the ground.
Rescue 1 harnessed up and with additional carabineers, slings and a B suit, ascended the ladder.
The ascent of a vertical aluminum ladder on a blood soaked scene was trickier then imagined. For safety this climb was completed slowly and with as many attachments as possible.
Once at the top of the ladder, Rescue 1 secured themselves to the tree with slings.
With only 1.5’ of tree left above the worker, and the workers high point also rigged in this space, creating a high point was difficult. With the worker and workers rigging taking up around 8’ of vertical distance, this further complicated rigging of the high point.
Rescue 1 had to try and bypass the worker and then use the Omni strap in a choker configuration to maximize the available lift in the 1.5’ that was available. Rescue 1 then placed the worker into the B suit.
Once the high point was rigged and the patient packaged, the ground team raised the worker in order to provide some slack (max 1’ raise) in the workers lines. Even with this slack it was very difficult to disconnect the three lines. A combination of cutting ropes and carabineer disconnection was used.
Once the worker was clear of the lines, Rescuer 1 climbed down and the ground team lowered the worker. From Rescue 1 starting to climb, to the worker reaching the ground, was just over an hour.
There were many challenges that arose on scene.
Having the worker stuck in an area publically viewed (including a nearby school) was challenging.
Rescuers were put at greater risk (exposure to blood borne pathogens) since the worker could not just be cut out of the tree (ropes or tree), due to public perception.
There was also an unspoken urgency with the recovery due to the sight of the worker in the tree. This was never mitigated and remained a factor through out the recovery.
The lack of anchors above the worker was challenging. As the worker had already topped the tree above, there was only a 1.5’ area where Rescue 1 could rig. The worker’s two-line system was also rigged through a high point in this area further limiting the space.
Rescue 1 used a 5’ Omni sling in a choker configuration, and for the high point utilized the smallest pulley and carabineer we had available.
The vertical space occupied by the worker in a tight environment was challenging. Rescue 1 had to climb on the worker in order to get past.
Once the high point was installed, Rescuer 1 could sit in our rope system in order to bypass the worker (disconnecting after rigging and packaging was complete).
Packaging the patient into the packaging device was challenging. As the worker had three lines coming off of their harness in two separate directions, securing the B suit was challenging. The B suit was packaged as well as possible, however due to the lack of working space and the tightness of one of the lines, the packaging had to be altered by the use of another sling to match the D rings on the B suit. The worker being attached by three ropes was challenging. The worker was on a two-line system and a cable choker. The cable choker proved to be the most challenging part of the rescue. The cable was to loose to cut and with the patient attached to it, difficult to raise. It had to be unhooked, requiring the worker to be raised a foot.
The worker was successfully lowered to the ground (recovered). The worker was non-viable and vital signs absent upon arrival.
There are many lessons that can be taken from this recovery.
First and foremost, no one (or very few teams) practices for a recovery. Recoveries are different then rescues. Urgency is different. Other factors such as perception, cost of equipment, and tying up of numerous resources become an issue. From our experience we were expected to do the same, however with less. The risk vs reward model also becomes skewed.
Another take-away for our team was in regards to training. Not only to add more variety into our rescue training, however, to become very skilled with the equipment we had. At the time we extensively used Omni slings. Everyone knew how to rig them for daily use. When we looked at altering this use on site, questions arose. What is the breaking strength in a choker configuration? While we had been taught to not use the last hole in an Omni – when we have no choice, what does that hole break at? To summarize we needed to become more fluent and proficient in all aspects of our equipment use. Not just the regular uses we were all trained in.
Another take-away was creating more variety in our training. There are many operations that we do not train for and there is no way we can guess what the next call will bring. Adding variety in the training (new scenarios, new locations, new parameters) can provide your team with varying experiences and rigging practice that just may come in useful at the next call.