Rapid Response: Basement fires can be difficult, dangerous and deadly

Howard County, Md., firefighter dies after falling through floor

By Robert Rielage

Most of us first heard of the line of duty death of Howard County (Md.) Firefighter Nathan Flynn early Monday morning. I, like most of you, paused for a moment to say a prayer, not only for our fallen brother, but also for his wife and children, knowing it is the worst day of their lives. Having experienced several LODDs in my career, I also know the toll it will take on the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services (HCDFRS) and those surrounding departments that will assist them through this difficult and almost unthinkable time.

What happened: From news reports, press releases and audio of the radio traffic, we know that Firefighter Flynn was operating at a well-involved fire in a very large single family dwelling in Clarksville, Md., just west of the city of Columbia, near the Howard and Montgomery County borders. The fire began just before 2 a.m. and was initially dispatched for “smoke in the house.”

Howard County Fire and EMS firefighter Nathan Flynn was one of the first to enter the home to battle the 7-alarm blaze.
Howard County Fire and EMS firefighter Nathan Flynn was one of the first to enter the home to battle the 7-alarm blaze. (Photo/Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services Facebook)

The first arriving fire units found visible smoke showing and a report from the owner of heavy smoke in the basement area. They initiated a 360-degree size-up that revealed sliding doors on both the C and D sides of the structure, and began an interior attack on two levels, what appears to be the ground floor and basement levels.

Command called for a task force additional assignment just before the crews in the basement backed out due to the escalating fire conditions. The fire eventually would go to 7 alarms, bringing assistance from Anne Arundel, Prince Georges, Montgomery, Baltimore, Frederick and Carroll Counties.

Firefighter Flynn was operating as part of an offensive interior attack on the ground level, when at approximately 2:20 a.m., he fell through the floor into the basement near the C side of the structure. A Mayday was immediately called by the second firefighter on the interior fire line and the designated RIT was deployed. It is not clear from the audio if the second firefighter fell as well or remained on the ground level, but the word “basement” can be heard and confirmed in the Mayday traffic.

The second firefighter was found within minutes and assisted out of the structure. Firefighter Flynn was found, extricated, treated and transported to the hospital at approximately 2:42 a.m., but despite every effort, he succumbed to his injuries at the Howard County General Hospital.

Why it is significant: Partial structural collapse, including the failure of floors can be present in any occupancy, in this case a very large, expensive and relatively new single family dwelling. For me, Firefighter Flynn’s death brought back the memory of the loss of Captain Robin Broxterman and Firefighter Brian Schira in April, 2008 when they fell through a kitchen floor into the basement while trying to exit a well-involved fire in a single family dwelling.

In addition to the investigations from NIOSH, the State of Ohio, AT&F and the Hamilton County Coroner, their department, the Colerain Township (OH) Department of Fire and EMS, spent nearly two years writing their own report and developing new SOGs and tactics in the hopes of never repeating such a tragedy.

Despite the length of time since their LODDs, Colerain continues to offer their lessons learned, including a presentation by Assistant Chief Allen Walls this year at FDIC entitled, “Three Similar Basement Fires, Three Dissimilar Outcomes,” comparing and contrasting tactics and lessons from these Colerain fires.

Top Takeaways on the Howard County LODD

Here are my top takeaways on this tragedy:

  1. Basement fires are not only difficult and dangerous, they can be deadly.
  2. Modern lightweight construction should be a key factor in considering the potential for structural failure.
  3. A 360-degree size-up, along with a risk-versus-benefit analysis, are essential at every fire to determine the best strategy and avenue of attack.
  4. An RIT should be assigned early in the fire as many Maydays occur during the initial operations phase of the fire.
  5. For the ongoing accountability of units and personnel on the scene, a PAR should be taken whenever the strategy changes, critical benchmarks are reached or approximately every 20 minutes throughout the duration of the fire.
  6. Even when all of these factors have been successfully implemented, firefighting is inherently dangerous, and we can never completely eliminate the risk we take as firefighters, company officers or chiefs.

What happens next: We need to now honor the memory of Firefighter Nathan Flynn, support his family, the HCDFRS and the personnel from the other responding departments. To quote my good friend and colleague, Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder, “We maintain that one of the best ways to genuinely honor a fallen firefighter is to learn, study and train every factual aspect of how that firefighter gave their life.

Stay safe!

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