Why firefighters die in the fog of battle

If we fail to apply the lessons from the past, we are doomed to learn them again — the hard way

"No, nobody ever fights wars as well as they should have, especially in hindsight." — Shelby Foote, Civil War historian

The same must be said of fighting fires.

In the frigid early-morning hours of Dec. 20, 1991, four Pennsylvania volunteer firefighters died when they were trapped by a partial floor collapse during a structure fire in the community of Brackenridge, north of Pittsburgh.

The four were members of a mutual aid truck company that were assigned to prevent fire extension from the basement to the ground floor of a two-story commercial building. It was a building that the local firefighters thought they knew.

Unfortunately they knew very little about the building.

Although the four wore full protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus, they were overwhelmed by severe fire conditions erupting as a section of the ground floor collapsed into the basement. The resulting collapse cut off their primary escape path, as the fire burned through their hose-line leaving them without protection.

The volunteers who died were all members of the Hilltop Hose Company. They were: Michael Cielicki Burns, 27; David Emmanuelson, 29; Rick Frantz, 23; and Frank Veri, Jr., 31.

What went wrong
The four men died in the line-of-duty executing a routine tactic while (apparently) totally unaware of the situation that was developing in the basement fire room below them. Not only were they unaware, but we have to presume that the command officers also lacked full situational awareness.

The four men died in spite of the fact that they were experienced firefighters operating within the standard tactical framework of the era and with adherence to known safety factors of the time.

There was no pre-fire plan that might have helped them understand the risk. The warning signs were not heeded and, as in so many cases of firefighter fatality, the triggering circumstances flowed from the result of multiple failure points conspiring to create the worst possible outcome.

Almost always without too much deep thinking we chalk these firefighting nightmares up as inevitable given the fact that we mostly operate within the fog of battle. As pragmatic practitioners of the craft of firefighting, we willingly accept the inherent dangers and that is how it always has been and always will be.

An honest reading
We shy away from and fiercely resist any accusation or condemnation of the actions or judgment of those directly involved. We analyze the event, but only up to a point seeking not to point a finger, but to discover "lessons learned" with the hopeful intention to not repeat the mistakes.

If that is case, are we then fooling ourselves?

A report issued after the fire cited valuable lessons for the fire service and pointed out that the lessons were not new discoveries in 1991. Unfortunately, 23 years later, today's fire service still fails to absorb those lessons. An honest reading of the 1991 report leads one to ask questions, questions that flow naturally from the facts as presented.

Given the inadequate water supply, were there too many small lines in operation? Until an adequate water supply was set up, should the attack have been limited to one or two lines?

Given the faulty assumptions about the building's construction, how aware was the incident commander of the real situation inside the building? Did the commander sufficiently confer with the sector officers? Was the commander overwhelmed with problems that might have been dealt with by delegation or a chief's aide?

Were the problems with communications such that instead of just acknowledging them something else could have been done such as using face-to-face communication? Could freelancing have been contributing to the confusion affecting communications and preventing personnel accountability?

Lessons from 1991
There will always be lessons learned and until something changes those lessons will be repeated time and again. We know well the lessons from the Brackenridge fire.

  • An effective pre-fire planning program should cover all major structures in the community.
  • The need for standard operating procedures for incident management is particularly great in areas where there are numerous autonomous fire companies.
  • Fireground information must be effectively communicated and processed to formulate a risk assessment and incident attack plan.

Over two decades later it is easy in hindsight to critique the people involved and what they did that December morning. We ignore the facts, not because it is the truth pure and simple, but because the facts get in the way of what we want to believe.

The sadness from a tragic and sudden loss leaves us uncomfortable with the reality that this was not a case of inevitable fate. We have to memorialize the loss of the brave firefighters because our failure to fully know the enemy in the fog of battle and to willingly accept the risk demands tribute. 

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