Survivability. When things go wrong for firefighters in the course of a fire incident, many factors come into play that ultimately dictate what the outcome will be. Some of those variables are controllable and some are not. The materials that are ignited, the age and condition of a building on fire, and the fire’s behavior and spread are generally out of the firefighter’s control. Factors that can be controlled include personal protective equipment and the firefighter’s training. For Dauphin Island (Alabama) Fire Chief Brad Cox, the quality and depth of his training played a significant role in his life during the evening hours of October 4, 2010.
TRAINING – A PATHWAY TO SURVIVAL
At approximately 9 p.m. the Dauphin Island Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to a reported house fire on Barcelona Way. Being a small volunteer organization, the initial response included the Chief and a three-person engine company. Upon arrival, they found a moderate amount of smoke emanating from one home. Chief Cox made the decision to enter the house together with two other firefighters and investigate what was producing the smoke. They observed a relatively small amount of fire burning the casing around a fireplace in a room near the front of the home. The three of them moved outside and Cox sent the two firefighters to retrieve some tools from the engine. Being what he estimated as a “bread and butter” fire, he decided he would go back inside and quickly hit the flames using the hose line waiting at the front door. Although he did not realize it, strong winds had been blowing above the level of the homes, and at the instant he went back inside, a 40+ mile per hour gust blew directly through the door opening. What happened next can best be described as a firefighter’s nightmare. Approximately five feet inside the home, Chief Cox found himself in what he expressed as a “flashover and pressure blast” situation. At that point, he realized his life was in jeopardy. To make matters worse, the front door had slammed shut on top of the hose line, pinching off his water supply and wedging the door closed. That’s when his previous training kicked in and helped guide his actions.
“I did have a sense of fear, but due to my training I thought, ‘OK – step 1, step 2, step 3, don’t go there – go there.’ I had taught this process to others so many times it kicked in automatically. I sounded the mayday call and activated my PASS device. There wasn’t a window in the entryway and I considered going to one. Then I remembered that I shouldn’t get isolated. I recalled my live fire training experiences, watching fire mushroom across a ceiling and down the walls. I stayed away from the wall. I went into a fetal position just far enough from the door that I wouldn’t block it when they forced it open. I started controlled ‘skip’ breathing from my air tank. I even radioed for my own ambulance. And despite running out of air, I kept my mask on to protect my face from the heat.”
Without any breathing air, Chief Cox lost consciousness. Fortunately, other emergency responders on the scene were able to quickly assemble a rescue team and pull him out of the inferno. To make matters worse, the howling winds were now pushing the flames that engulfed the home to other nearby buildings, igniting three of them. As many as twelve other fire agencies ended up assisting in the fire fight. (Continue to read and watch Brian’s video …)