How to Escape the Web of Wires
My crew was sent out last week to a third alarm fire in a single family, two story wood frame dwelling. We were second due on a self-vented fire on the second floor of an L-shaped plan. Access to the second floor was only available with a spiral staircase. Two lines had been deployed — our firefighters were second in to replace the attack line and search team. Since this nighttime fire was self-vented, heat was no real issue. The majority of the fire was above us, so the biggest challenge was visibility from smoke and the fact that it was in the evening. During operations, two of our guys got caught in some wires hanging from the ceiling. We remained calm, radioed to command that we were partially entangled, and proceeded to use our personal cutting tools to free ourselves from the wires. Once finished, we reported we were free and continued to go to work. All fairly textbook, but all I could think of later that night was, "What if the conditions were far worse?"
In my research, I came across a 1994 fatality story from Memphis Fire Department regarding Lt. Michael Mathis and Pvt. William Bridges. Firefighters went to work on the ninth floor of a high-rise fatal arson fire. During operations Lt. Mathis became disoriented when he was caught in rapidly deteriorating fire conditions which resulted in SCBA malfunction and burns. Lt. Mathis was able to make his way to an area of refuge where he was later found with his SCBA air depleted. It was reported that firefighter Bridges was aware that Lt. Mathis was unaccounted for. This was a result of trying to make several attempts to contact the Lt. Mathis by radio. Bridges left the stairwell he was in to try to locate the missing Lt. Mathis. It is also reported that Bridges was in the stairwell trying to resolve a problem with his own SCBA. Fire investigators believe Bridges became entangled in a fallen cable TV wire within a few feet of the stairwell and died of smoke inhalation after depleting his own SCBA supply. News sources report that a MFD investigation found many violations of SOP's, including IC, coordination and failure to activate PASS devices.
What does this tell us? Under dire conditions, having the proper tools, training and confidence will give us the best odds of surviving these situations. Knowing the hazards is the first step. In our case we had flexible ductwork that had burned overhead. When flexible ductwork burns, it leaves floor to ceiling "slinkies" for us to navigate through. A specific problem with flexible ductwork coils is knives will not cut through them. You and your team need to be equipped with hand-operated cutting tools. This can include wire and cable cutters. I do not recommend multiple purpose tools or Leatherman style tools for the sake of having to use them under extreme conditions with firefighting gloves on. If you have trained and are confident in using more complicated tools for cutting under extreme conditions that is a different story. The key in keeping it simple allows you to focus on freeing yourself or a fellow firefighter rather than getting frustrated trying to open up a collapsible tool. Staying Calm is critical in your survival. Panic is deadly and contagious.
The following video gives an overview of how wire cutters can enable firefighters to survive entanglement situations:
A common problem in commercial and high end residential fires is plastic conduit or wire chases. Electricians will do a great job by consolidating their wires in a chase or conduit, but once under a fire load, the plastic casing often melts and drops the wires down into the space we crawl and move through. You need the right tool for the job. I prefer to have one tool that works in most or all cases, rather than having numerous tools to chose from. Keep it simple — if you get entangled and always go for the same tool during training, you will be less likely to get confused under life-or-death conditions. Knives work great on wires such as Romex, but once again if you have a wire encased within a protective coating such as BX is, you will not be cutting through this with a knife alone. As I mentioned earlier, having a hand-operated cutting tool that can do all of your work will allow you to remain calm and eliminate decisions and complicated maneuvers when getting the tool out and in use.
Another potentially not-so-obvious hazard is the components of a dropped ceiling. As a fire officer, dropped ceilings are probably one of the least talked about, but most dangerous to me. During fire suppression they offer nothing but potential hazards. Dropping tiles and grids allows for wires that are typically draped across the plenum or void space to fall onto firefighters searching below. There are also times when the actual grid itself drops. Trying to navigate through a dropped ceiling that has fallen is quite complicated. The grid itself is tough alone — now add the wires inside and the wires that suspend the dropped ceiling. All are a potentially deadly combo. Also consider the ability of fire to travel along the plenum or void space past your team without you even noticing.
Size-up your buildings and understand typical construction. Sometimes a quick peek inside a window will tell you valuable, potentially life-saving information.
How do we build confidence? Training. Entanglement drills are easy to set up. I have provided in this article a few examples of departments conducting entrapment drills and scenarios. Practice like it was the real job. Use all PPE and train with the tools you plan to use or carry. This is the time to test different cutting tools to see what you are most comfortable with. When you are confident, darken your masks. Continue to ratchet up the scenario until you feel completely confident. It is also worth refreshing yourself with some sound entanglement techniques. Read the related article on Conquering the Entanglement Hazard. It is also recommended to review your department's guidelines regarding entrapment, radio communications, and mayday procedures.
The following video explains the physical properties of various electrical wiring:
The following video shows entanglement training taught by the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy: