The rookie’s first shift: Two lives saved
Crews detail a dramatic rescue of two individuals trapped in a ranch-style home
Imagine you’re Olutayo Adewumi (Tao), a recent immigrant from Nigeria, now a proud Prince George’s County, Maryland, firefighter at Station 32 on Allentown Road, part of the 5th Battalion.
It’s Nov. 15, 2019 – your first day on shift, three days out of recruit school. Your first day to cook breakfast for your new crew. Your first day “riding the line.”
Shift starts at 7 a.m., so you’re there by 6 a.m. Equipment is checked, and breakfast is almost on.
You’d soon find out that your first breakfast with the crew wasn’t going to happen that day – but you’d soon have another important first under your belt.
Lining up the resources
At the next station about 4.5 miles away, Station 21, the scheduled crewmembers have been subpoenaed to court for a previous-run legal case. This lines up an overtime crew for the day’s runs, plus a lone “regular” shift member from the station.
At the Prince George’s County Public Safety Communications (PSC) 911 Center, Deidra Martin settled in in for her shift as a call-taker – another day handling all of Grandma Jones’ slips, trips, falls and ills. The 20-year veteran call-taker has heard a lot over the years – it’s probably true that not much rattles her.
Alexis Doubleday, about a year into her career, settled in, too – her role today as the fire dispatcher at the PSC 911 Center. Doubleday is engaged to Firefighter Mike Morrone, that lone regular firefighter at Station 21.
At about 7:30 a.m., Martin answered a 911 call from Marquis Drive, located in the heart of the 5th Battalion – part of my former firefighting stomping grounds – in the southwestern portion of Prince George’s County, bordering Washington, DC’s lower southeast neighborhoods and the Potomac River. Marquis Drive was situated among stations 32, 21 and 42 – the responding units to a call that would soon be etched into the memories of everyone involved.
I sat down with the crews, the battalion and deputy chiefs, as well as Martin and Doubleday, to talk through this story of training, perseverance and family – all brought together to save the lives of two others.
“I didn’t want that to be the last thing I heard”
Martin took the 911 call reporting a fire in the house on Marquis Drive, with people trapped. The caller was one of the two people trapped.
In the riveting audio, you hear the desperation in the resident’s voice, concerned for her boyfriend in the room with her and the fire on the other side of her door. Increasingly difficult to breathe, she coughs and tells Martin, “I can’t breathe.”
Martin, a 20-year 911-veteran (three years with PSC) defaulted to her training and the protocols at her fingertips. Using hot keys, Martin expedited the call to dispatch, then walked through the questions and directions for the caller.
“Make sure you close the door, get low to the ground, if you can wet a towel, do that and place it under the door. Stay low to the ground. Is there a window you can get out of?”
“No, I can’t breathe (coughing) … I’m ….”
Martin stayed on the phone with the caller while the call was dispatched and Station 32 with Battalion Chief 5 responded the short two miles to the home.
Before the fire department could arrive, you can hear the life draining out of the trapped resident, as she fades away and goes silent on the phone. It is still a haunting call for Martin, who commented, “I didn’t want that to be the last thing I heard from her.”
Note: Prince George’s County PSC uses The International Academy Fire Protocol Priority Dispatch System to guide dispatchers through taking control of callers in trouble, asking the right questions to keep people safe and, in this case, keep people alive.
“I could hear someone gasping for air”
Battalion Chief Donald Fletcher Jr. was first to arrive, reporting a single-story ranch-style home on a basement. Bystanders inform Chief Fletcher there might be three people inside, contrary to the note of two people relayed by dispatch.
“I established command and told responding units we had smoke showing from the eves, there might be three people inside, and that there was a hydrant on the other side of the street,” Fletcher said. “I ran around to side Delta to attempt a 360-survey, but I couldn’t see all the way around to the rear because of a 6-foot wood fence blocking the view – it’s a downslope to the basement area. I ran back to the Bravo side, same fence, this side with a gate. Unfortunately, the gate has a hard padlock. I saw a small window at the basement level that was darkened out. I felt it with my bare hand and could feel the heat.”
This all happened in a matter of seconds, and the engine was not yet there.
Fletcher continued: “I ran to the front door to force it for a quick search. We have had several fires in the Battalion over the past few years where double-keyed locks have prevented people from exiting their own homes and they’ve collapsed at the door, so we try to get that quick front door search when a hoseline isn’t immediately available.”
When Fletcher forced the front door, he was able to do a quick sweep; however, he noted there was no lifting of the smoke, a tell-tale sign that the fire was in the basement.
As Engine 832 arrived (8 is the regional radio designator for Prince George’s County), the chief advised Lt. Chris Hastings that the fire was in the basement, and that they’d need bolt-cutters to get through the fence gate. Firefighter Matt Kershaw took care of the gate while the Hastings and Firefighter Adewumi (the line-man) extended the line, and Mahon (the bar-man) made his way to the ground level Charlie-side basement entrance.
Mahon noted, “I don’t know that I’ve ever actually tried the doorknob, like we’re supposed to, but I did. It was locked.” As he forced the door, Adewumi was making his way around the rear with the line.
Dispatch continued to relay information to the crews, noting two people were trapped, that they were in a bedroom to the right.
Mahon made his way to the right, through a kitchenette, then into an open-door room to the right. There was a smoke-filled bathroom – nobody there. Mahon came out of the bathroom, passed a short hallway where he could see the fully involved living area, and arrived at a door frame. Not able to see at all, Mahon felt upward until he found the doorknob.
As Mahon entered the room, he yelled out and could hear someone gasping for air.
“There wasn’t as much smoke in that room compared to the rest, but I still couldn’t see very much,” he said. “As I swept the top of the bed and came down the side, I felt something like an arm. I followed that up until I could feel the shoulders and the head and yelled for the lieutenant.”
Mahon begins dragging the lifeless female out of the basement, as the line makes its way in.
Truck 821 arrived, and as Adewumi and the lieutenant made their way to the fire, Truck 821’s crew with Lt. Mike Kerper and Firefighter Morrone made their way into the basement for the second occupant. Kerper and Morrone carried the lifeless man toward the exit, while Adewumi and Hastings attacked the fire.
Mahon continued dragging the lifeless female up the outside slope until a transport cot made its way to the curb. Fletcher recalls “firefighters sprinting up the street with ambulance cots.”
A transport cot made its way to the basement entrance to secure the male patient. Both patients were in respiratory arrest, with CPR in progress.
A family affair
Chief Fletcher and the other responding units were looking for a third person, as reported by bystanders. Ultimately, searches were unable to find a third person.
In the back of the ambulance, the female regained consciousness and asked how her grandfather was, confusing commanders. It was later determined that the grandfather had been picked up early in the morning to attend an out-of-town church event. The fire was determined to have begun in the grandfather’s living area – likely an accident.
As previously noted, Doubleday was the fire dispatcher relaying information to the firefighters and her fiancé, Firefighter Morrone, helped rescue one of the occupants that she relayed information about. This was all made even more interesting by the fact that Doubleday’s father, Deputy Chief Alan Doubleday, was part of the command team.
The closed door
The Marquis incident is yet another example we’ve seen that shows how a closed door gives occupants that extra chance to survive. While pictures document the burned-out basement, the particular bedroom within the basement had smoke staining about two feet down from the ceiling, with carboard-style wall decorations still hanging untouched on the wall – a further testament to the extra time the door gave the victims.
We’ll be working with and following a series by Underwriters Laboratory (UL) documenting and studying fires where this simple step of closing doors is used. UL has developed the website closeyourdoor.org, highlighting a Fairfax County, Virginia, case, and we are working with UL on documenting the St. Louis rescues and another incident from Phoenix.
Coupled with the “Close Before You Doze” campaign, firefighters can see how this simple step is saving lives all over the country
“Just solid work”
Adewumi’s first shift riding the line will be one he’ll always remember – likely the same for everyone involved.
Later that evening, Engine 832 and the crew returned to the scene to look for a missing tool. Amazingly, both transported patients were back at the house surveying damage with relatives.
Among the throngs of media and insurance adjusters on scene, there were hugs and pictures to go around, as the crew got that rare opportunity to see the true fruits of their labor.
Chief Fletcher credits everyone’s strong and solid work – the resident, the call-taker and dispatcher, the firefighters and paramedics, and the hospital staff for the successful outcome at this fire.
“We do mental-reps on these things all the time, we’ve run this 100 times in our heads,” he said. “Just solid work, I can’t speak enough about the teamwork and how proud I am.”
Firefighter Kershaw summed it all up well: “This was one of the smoothest fires I’ve ever been on – everything fell in place. We’re a disciplined Battalion, everyone trains – I put our crews up against anybody!”
On that day, both that pride and product showed.