Report outlines factors in Houston LODDs

It is important that we honor them by learning from the incident, say investigators

By Jamie Thompson
FireRescue1 Editor

HOUSTON — A report into the deaths of two Houston firefighters at a house fire stresses the need to perform 360-degree assessments and follow standard fireground tactics at incidents.

Investigators said the LODDs on Easter Sunday last year also highlight the importance of assessing weather and wind conditions and structural elements that may influence fire travel and intensity.

Captain James Harlow, 50, and Probationary Firefighter Damien Hobbs, 30, died when conditions deteriorated rapidly while they were conducting interior operations at the single family dwelling fire April 12. The homeowners, an elderly couple, had already fled the property, it was later discovered.

"There were several factors that, when combined, may have contributed to the deaths of Captain Harlow and Firefighter Hobbs," said the report released Tuesday by the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office. "It is important that we honor them by learning from the incident."

Among the findings from the investigation are:

1) Initial crews failed to perform a 360-degree scene size-up and did not secure the utilities before operations began.

There was no indication that the east side, side "C," was visually inspected by any of the responders prior to the interior attack. A rapid and full assessment of the scene would have provided information regarding the potential impact of the failure of the large glass wall, together with the impact of wind, on the interior suppression tactics. Although the gate at the Northwest corner and the half wall at the Southwest corner would have presented challenges, a full assessment of the scene should have been completed.

Perform a 360-degree evaluation of the structure upon arrival.  

2) The initial attack crew was unable to communicate with Command or other crews operating on scene.

All personnel must carry and monitor portable radios. Captain Harlow did not take his radio into the structure and Firefighter Hobbs had his radio turned off and on the wrong channel. It should be noted that Houston Fire Department procedures and recognized best practices require that these items be carried by firefighters on structure fires.

Remain in radio contact with Command or others outside the building.

3) Members of the initial attack crew did not utilize a thermal imager camera (TIC) to assess interior fire involvement. The camera was removed from the engine, but was not taken into the structure.

Although the thermal imager camera was removed from Engine 26, it was found in the front yard. There is no indication that it was used.

NIST research on wind-driven fires

Investigators in the report say, "The effects of wind-driven fires have received much attention over the last decade. The overwhelming nature of this event is well documented, especially in situations where the wind concentrates in a narrow corridor or pathway.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has conducted extensive testing and research into the phenomenon of wind-driven fires and structural firefighting.

In NIST Technical Note 1618, January 2009, "Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions: Laboratory Experiments"; Madrzykowski, D. and Kerber, S. I., experiments provided insight into the fire behavior and travel patterns within a structure with even minimal fire load.

Experiments show the fire's intensity upon opening the downwind doorway as having sustained temperatures above 1200-1300° F, with heat flux values in excess of 70 kW/m². Flames were exiting the downwind opening with extreme velocity, ceiling to floor.

Even when a firefighter maintains a low posture or goes down to the floor attempting to get below the thermal layer, significant life threatening injuries are likely." 

Utilize thermal imager cameras (TIC) when available to evaluate the amount of fire in void spaces, especially overhead.

4) The initial attack crew was operating in a hostile environment in an upright position.

Engine 26 entered the structure with a charged hose line which was adequate according to later reports from Ladder 29, indicating that the nozzle had good pressure and volume. Two separate crews behind Engine 26 reported seeing the legs of the crew ahead of them (E26A and E26B) in an upright position while they themselves were down low due to the intense heat.

Maintain a low posture while actively engaged in interior firefighting operations.

5) Captain Harlow and Firefighter Hobbs were found away from their nozzle and hose line.

While it is possible that an intense thermal blast disoriented the interior attack crew, so as to separate them from their line, maintaining contact with the hose line is critical. Abandoning the nozzle and hose line meant leaving the only lifeline and pathway to exit the structure.

All firefighters should become familiar with techniques for self-rescue including following a hose line by identifying the male and female ends of the coupling

6) Entry was made before ventilation operations were completed, placing the interior crew between the fire and the ventilation pathway.

Although the ventilation point was high on the roof, when the team punched through the ceiling into the living room, it placed the firefighters between the fire and the point of ventilation.

Fire departments should familiarize themselves with and train on the proper techniques for vertical and horizontal ventilation. Ventilation is the systematic removal of smoke, heat and particles of combustion, thereby improving life safety, increasing firefighter visibility, and reducing the chances of flashover. Horizontal ventilation openings should be made as close as possible to the seat of the fire. Vertical ventilation should be performed as directly over the fire and as high as possible. Always consider wind direction and velocity when performing ventilation operations.

The report closes by outlining that a tremendous influx of fresh air from the failure of a large section of windows on the "C" side of the house and the burn-through of the roof on the back side of the ridge near the bathroom skylight simultaneously promoted rapid fire growth.

"The high winds then entering the east side directed the hot gases and flames through the narrow hallway at an even higher velocity with increased intensity," it said, "With sustained winds at 15-20 mph and wind gusts in excess of 2530 mph entering into the structure from the opposite side of the house from which entry was being made, it created a positive pressure environment and probably a downward draft of the hostile attic contents."

The fire that claimed the lives of Captain Harlow and Firefighter Hobbs brought the number of LODDs suffered by the department in interior operations to seven since the turn of the millennium.

It prompted high-level discussion within the department, which culminated with the creation last year of "The 10 Rules of Survival."

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