Earlier this year, the U.S. Fire Administration reported that 90 firefighters were lost last year in the line of duty, the fewest in any year since 1993. This can be traced to many initiatives including the Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System and the untiring efforts of organizations such as theon several issues, including the mandatory use of seatbelts.
This month marks the second anniversary of a fire near my city that took the lives of Capt. Robin Broxterman and Firefighter Brian Schira, both members of the Colerain Township (Ohio) Department of Fire and EMS. Colerain Township is an ISO Class 2 combination career and paid part-time department that operates five stations with 30 to 36 firefighters on duty and serves a population of approximately 65,000 citizens in a 43.5 square mile area of Hamilton County. Colerain, like most other departments in the county, provides automatic aid to its neighbors on countless structure fires during the year.
I've written several times in the Mutual Aid blog about the Squirrelsnest Lane fire and related topics that included the loss of these two young firefighters, the preliminary report issued by the Colerain department in July 2008 and the report that echoes repeated concerns about operating in unoccupied structures. This article, however, is written to highlight the courage, fortitude and strength shown by the Colerain Township department to go the extra mile in examining every aspect of the Squirrelsnest Lane fire and, despite obstacles, muster the determination to not only learn but, more importantly, to implement change based on their final report of the incident that still is a work in progress.
I sat down recently with Colerain's Fire Chief G. Bruce Smith to discuss the report and the ongoing emphasis on the basics that he has implemented. Bruce is more than a very good friend and colleague; he and I fought fires together at Colerain for 27 years, so I know his dedication and commitment to this project. Despite a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family one of the deceased firefighters that names several vendors and the homeowners as defendants, Smith stated that the final report will be a thorough and complete account of what went right and what went wrong at the Squirrelsnest Lane fire.
Colerain Township had been working with several neighboring fire departments for many years prior to this incident, but part of the process going forward included a commitment from these departments to come to a unified consensus on their approach to future operations at structure fires. For example, Colerain has implemented a specific operations policy on basement fires that defines when they are to use an interior attack and when they are to be defensive for the initial attack. Colerain and its neighboring communities also have implemented a mandatory 360° effective size-up by the first arriving officer with the aid of thermal-imaging camera. The word “effective” is emphasized to indicate that, upon completion of the size-up, the officer has a thorough knowledge of the extent of structural involvement, the best means for ingress and egress, and an action plan for the initial attack that is announced over the tactical fire channel. “Effective” also means that if the officer has any doubt as to the thoroughness of this 360° size-up, they are to develop a more conservative action plan until any ambiguous factors can be resolved.
Colerain, as do most fire departments in the area, previously had given a situational size-up on arrival and announced the action plan according to the guidelines taught in fireground command, e.g., “Engine 26 on the scene of a 2-story, brick-and-frame, single-family dwelling with heavy smoke from the ‘A’ side of the structure; Engine 26 will be rocker drive command with an interior attack from the ‘A’ side.” Now, the department still conducts an exterior size-up and assumes command upon arrival at the scene, but the action plan is not announced until the 360° size-up takes place, e.g., “Engine 26 reporting heavy fire involvement in the basement of the structure; Engine 26 will be initiating an attack from the ‘D’ side through the attached garage at the basement level.”
In our conversation, Smith and I discussed several other issues related to these LODDs. The first is the “domino effect,” i.e., the death of a firefighter usually involves a series of several events during the incident that led to the fatality. Removal of any one of these events short-circuits the domino effect and the firefighter death is avoided — it either doesn't occur or results in a less-serious injury.
During the analysis of the Squirrelsnest Lane fire, several things occurred that probably contributed to the deaths of Broxterman and Schira. First, the fire was dispatched as a fire alarm from a nationally recognized central station alarm company; the indication was that a smoke alarm on the main floor of the residence activated at 6:12 a.m. Such “smells and bells” dispatches sometimes result in complacency and a subsequent failure to follow all procedures, such as the donning of full turnout gear. It appears that Broxterman left the station with her turnout pants on, but was not wearing the rest of her PPE.
The part-time shift change had just occurred at 6 a.m., but the career firefighters were not to change for another hour, so two of the firefighters were new to the overnight crew. Following department protocol for an automatic fire alarm, Engine 102 (carrying Broxterman and three other firefighters), Ladder 25 (with an officer and three firefighters) and District 25, the shift commander, responded Code 3, while the remaining first-alarm compliment traveled with the flow of traffic.
The normal travel time from Station 102 should have taken four minutes or less, but for some reason, in the pre-dawn light, Engine 102 missed the private drive to the residence and had to back-up 750 feet on Squirrelsnest Lane before finding the correct entrance. At some point during the initial response, a 911 call was received that indicated this was a structure fire, not just an automatic fire alarm, but it took an additional 8 minutes from the time of the second call for the dispatch center to notify the responding units of this additional information. By the time Engine 102 arrived on scene, 11 minutes had elapsed from the original dispatch and Engine 109 — having come with the flow of traffic — also was arriving on the scene at about the same time that the notification was being issued that this was, indeed, a confirmed structure fire.
Engine 102 pulled to the front of the building and found heavy smoke from the front door with the residents indicating there was a basement fire. Broxterman and two of her crew entered the first floor with an uncharged 11-inch fire line. Broxterman made three radio transmissions for water, but these initially were not heard by the fire-apparatus operator.
Engine 109's officer, seeing that Engine 102's crew was preparing to enter the structure, proceeded to conduct a 360° size-up. Upon reaching the “C” side of the structure, he realized the heavy fire involvement in the basement and noted two sliding glass doors on that side of the structure, one located on the basement level and the other on the first floor via a wooden patio porch. He continued around to the front of the structure, where he instructed command to radio Engine 102's crew to have them exit and redirect the attack from the rear of the residence. There is speculation that, in an attempt to make up time for the time lost by missing the driveway and having to don the remainder of her PPE, Broxterman may have felt pressure to begin the attack as soon as possible and, as a result, conducted an incomplete size-up.
The radios used by fire-EMS and police departments throughout Hamilton County are on an 800 MHz trunked system, with dispatch handled by either the Hamilton County Communications Center or the city of Cincinnati. At this point in the domino effect, the radio system becomes relevant. Prior to 2004, both Cincinnati and Hamilton County were on separate analog radio systems with very few tactical channels. Following the federal guidelines for interoperability, both agencies elected to purchase the 800 MHz system that provided both redundancy and the ability to communicate directly with a variety of responders.
While the older analog technology had many drawbacks, one advantage was that competing radio traffic, especially from portable radios, would come across as being garbled on both sides. Incident commanders, upon hearing a garbled signal, would know that multiple crews were attempting to get information to the incident commander — or one another. With the trunked system, the first radio to transmit captures the computer, the assigned tactical channel and the repeater — an all-or-nothing scenario.
The deteriorating conditions seen from outside the residence prompted several such radio transmissions. Simultaneously, Engine 102's crew made at least three attempts to capture the tactical channel, probably to report the deteriorating conditions inside or to initiate a mayday. Colerain's investigation revealed a little-known feature of the 800 MHz computer: in addition to capturing the radio traffic, it also captures all transmission attempts — whether successful or unsuccessful — including the radio identifiers of the units trying to transmit. The Colerain investigation showed that three attempts from Engine 102's crew were blocked by busy signals. Those attempts went unknown to anyone — except the computer that captured them.
Colerain has made it a point to emphasize the need for radio discipline with the 800 MHz system. In years past, under the analog radio system, only officers had portables, which reduced the potential for extraneous radio traffic. With the change in technology, virtually every riding position has an assigned radio for enhanced firefighter safety. The key, however, is that radio traffic needs to be disciplined: clear, concise and to the point. Radio behavior includes a general rule that only officers conduct radio traffic for the entire crew and that firefighters use their radio only when their message is mission-critical to either personal safety or the safety of the scene.
Engine 102's crew apparently knew they were in trouble. The second firefighter on the fire line was told verbally by Broxterman to exit the building and he did so by following the fire line out of the structure. Broxterman and Schira, for some reason, left the fire line once they made it back to the first floor. They crossed that floor toward the sliding glass door on that level. However, in the near-zero visibility, they fell through a hole in the first floor back into the basement, with Broxterman landing on top of Schira.
Finally, again stressing the basics, Colerain has expanded its standard operating procedures by enumerating the expectations for its first, second and third engines, as well as the first and second ladders assigned to the first alarm. The rapid assistance team assignments remain unchanged. Surrounding departments have trained together on these new expectations and, through consensus, have overcome any barriers between the new and previous SOP's.
There are three essential elements regarding these Colerain LODDs. First, Colerain decided not to sit on the information it uncovered during its extensive and ongoing investigation. Too often, fire departments have been afraid of having the information used against them in litigation or to be afraid of criticism from their peers. Second, Colerain has been extremely pro-active in re-emphasizing the basics that may easily be overlooked, and in adopting new SOPs where necessary. Finally, the department has shared these results with surrounding departments, with the further hope that these changes will be adopted fully at the county level, so that all departments and operations will be conducted uniformly.
Colerain's final report, when completed, will be available for download from a link at the township's Web page, www.coleraintwp.org. It is their hope that this report may help prevent any future firefighter fatalities from similar incidents.
Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, MIFireE, is the chief of Wyoming (Ohio) Fire-EMS, a 78-member combination fire department bordering Cincinnati. He previously served as the fire marshal of the state of Ohio. A graduate of the Kennedy School's Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master's degree in public administration from Norwich University and is the immediate past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers-USA Branch. He is a member of the FIRE CHIEF Editorial Advisory Board.