The following may sound like the opening of an episode of Chicago Fire, but it actually is a paraphrased 911 call received in Hamilton County, Ohio, on a Friday morning in October.
Caller: There is a noise outside my apartment door. I think someone is trying to break-in, and someone is calling for help.
911: Ma’am what is your name and address?
The caller gives the information. CAD indicates the address is a 3-story, 12-unit apartment building. The dispatcher sends the detail to the central police radio operator and stays on line with caller
911: OK, ma’am, the police are on the way.
The caller and the dispatcher hear a smoke alarm sound. The dispatcher sends that detail to the east fire operator. The response card calls for two engines.
Caller: It’s the fire alarm. … There’s smoke! The hallway is on fire! I can’t get out, I’m disabled — I’ll have to jump!
The dispatcher upgrades the detail to a structure fire, which calls for a total of four engines, two ladders and a medic unit.
911: Ma’am, the fire department is on the way, close the door and stay inside your apartment.
Caller: No, No! I’m disabled. I’ll have to jump. I’ll probably break my legs.
The dispatcher hears the woman open a window. After again telling her to stay inside, the dispatcher then hears the sound of air rushing, then a thud and finally silence
Dispatch receives additional calls from the same location. The callers are trapped on the upper floors. Using his discretion, the dispatcher supervisor upgrades the fire to a second alarm, which calls for an additional four engines, two additional ladders, a rescue, and an additional medic unit.
In less than two minutes, the morning had gone from relative calm to an intense, but orderly, operation that lasted well into the next morning.
Thanks to preplanning and experience gained from several less-serious fires in the same complex, the Lockland Fire Department’s first-alarm assignment knew the layout. There was building at the end of the street and limited access to the driveway, further narrowed by resident parking next to a fence that defined the property line. They also knew that the closest hydrant on the street was on a dead-end water main, so they laid a supply line beginning two blocks away from a hydrant on a looped main.
When Lockland’s first engine marked on the scene, firefighters found several jumpers who made it to the ground and several more residents at windows on the third floor. The crews from Lockland and Woodlawn, the second engine, deployed fire lines to the interior. The Woodlawn engineer extended his ground ladder to a window and rescued an adult male and two children.
Again thanks to automatic aid on the first alarm, preplanning and knowledge of the limited access to the building, the first ladder responding from Wyoming arrived to the rear of the building via a narrow alley off a side street. Unfortunately, this plan was foiled approximately 60feet from the building by an abandoned van that blocked firefighters’ access. The Wyoming crew initially carried additional ground ladders to the building, but command redirected it to start a vent-enter-search on the fire floor. The first-in medic unit, also from Wyoming, parked two streets away, then brought forward a cache of medical equipment and packaged the jumper who initially called 911 before handing the patient over to another medic unit for transport. Believing that additional victims would be found, the Wyoming medic unit assigned as the EMS sector remained on scene.
An acting deputy chief from Woodlawn arrived and assumed command, with the near-simultaneous arrival of chiefs from Wyoming and Glendale. Due to the close arrival of the first- and second-alarm compliment, operations and accountability were established quickly, followed closely by staging, safety and public-information. Command also subdivided the building into divisions and assigned crews accordingly. In all, nine chief officers from seven jurisdictions filled the ICS positions needed to safely handle the fire.
Fire crews confronted several other issues. Early in the fire, the interior stairway and floor in the apartment of origin partially collapsed, requiring the interior firefighters to withdraw and switch to defensive mode to knock down the majority of the fire. This also hampered a primary search of the third floor. Also, the fire burned through the electrical service while two ladder crews were venting the roof, causing serious arcing. When the firefighters completed their task, they had to exit the roof using a secondary ladder in a safer location. Once the electric service was secured, interior crews entered via exterior ladders to further darken down and extinguish the fire.
While first-alarm companies secured two separate water supplies, firefighters still needed a third source for adequate water supply. A second-alarm engine laid more than 1,500 feet of hose to a separate city water main in a nearby industrial area. To do this, they had to overcome two fences and other physical obstacles. In the end, 14 fire departments contributed in some way to this successful operation.
Despite the intensity of the fire and the multiple residents trapped, firefighters responded smoothly. Several factors contributed to the success:
- The Lockland Fire Department and its neighboring agencies use automatic aid on structure fires in their jurisdiction to ensure that an adequate number of firefighters will respond immediately.
- These automatic-aid companies use a common set of standard operating procedures that outline the duties assigned to the first and second engines, and the first ladder. Responders also knew the complex was a target location and were aware of the best apparatus positions from which to carry out their duties.
- Preplanning of target locations is essential, and knowledge of the building construction, access and water supply were integral factors in bringing this fire under control while overcoming adverse conditions.
- Second- and third-alarm mutual-aid companies were summoned quickly due to the nature of the fire, the number of known trapped victims and the potential life hazard still present. Every unit had some role assigned to them.
- The use of ICS and standard operating procedures and previously established relationships among the chief officers led to a seamless understanding of the duties assigned to each of them.
- The 911 communications center not only provided an immediate update to all responding units for the location of trapped residents, its played a key role in the effective response of additional fire and support units. These included the notification of the utility company; the Red Cross for relocation of the 12 families with more than 30 adults and children; a canteen for firefighters; as well as the need for the county fire investigative unit and the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
The ease with which these departments operated together under difficult conditions shows how automatic aid is well worth the time and investment.