‘Alone Again (Naturally)’: When a firefighter dies during tactical operations – alone

There are few reasons why a firefighter would be operating by themselves

Besides what I hope is an obvious love for the fire service, I have a great love for music. There's very little music I don't like – and most I love. And I’m a drummer, have been since 4th grade and still love it. 

Almost all the music I like is upbeat, be it country (and western), swing, jazz, ska, reggae, old rock, doo-wop – whatever it is, I like it fast and loud.

Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule, and there are a few songs that aren't upbeat but still resonate with me. One of them is a 1972 song called "Alone Again (Naturally)" by Gilbert O'Sullivan. (Note: Please keep reading; I am not forcing you to listen to old music, I promise.)

"There are few reasons for a firefighter to be operating by themselves – and then be found dead. And when a firefighter is found dead in a building, clearly something went terribly wrong," Goldfeder writes. (Photo/Getty Images)

O'Sullivan is a phenomenal Irish singer-songwriter who was really popular in the 1970s with hits including "Alone Again." His songs were pretty distinctive with a strong play on words.

In the case of “Alone Again," it sounds pretty upbeat, but the words hit you like a slam on the head. It's a great song, but the lyrics, as once described "are crushing":

But as if to knock me down

Reality came around.

In my hour of need

I truly am indeed

Alone again, naturally

Some recent line-of-duty deaths

There have been some recent LODDs where the firefighters were found alone. While the internal and federal investigations haven't been released yet, the fact that these firefighters (all operating at separate fires, no connections of any kind whatsoever) were found alone is a fact, I promise. 

In these recent losses, the deaths were not due to direct medical emergencies. And it wasn’t that a firefighter fell through a floor or roof, etc., to become alone. Nope. In each of these cases, the firefighters were found ALONE during activities where, if lessons learned from the past had been followed, no one would have died. 

There are few reasons for a firefighter to be operating by themselves – and then be found dead. And when a firefighter is found dead in a building, clearly something went terribly wrong. 

Dying alone … when we are training?

Never. Training is just that – training. Complete and no-excuse supervision and leadership. Firefighters in tip-top shape. Head-to-toe physicals prior to starting. Equipment in pristine condition. State-of-the-art best practices lead by state-of-the-art trained and highly qualified instructors who meet the highest standards. After all, if it were your kid as the trainee, what would you want?

In a “duh!” reminder: Training is when we prepare firefighters for the worst while ensuring they don't experience the worst under our supervision. It’s sort of like pilot training: They learn everything that can go wrong and how to deal with it – without actually crashing a plane.

Dying alone … when we are attacking a fire?

If we follow "engagement" rules (which have been developed by firefighters and officers who experienced LODDs firsthand), then we know there are staffing minimums that any community should expect from their fire department. Recruit. Hire. Automatic/mutual aid. Box alarms. I couldn't care less. The bottom line is if you are going to be/have a fire department, then figure out your staffing so you stop fooling the public, fooling yourselves and, stupidly and predictably putting your personnel at unnecessarily risk. Expect fire. Expect victims. And when we do that, we figure out the staffing.

Dying alone … when we are searching?

We can't arrive at a fire that predictably requires 15, 20 or 25 firefighters with just 5-6 firefighters and expect a high-five outcome. While there are occasions where you may be "alone" while searching, your officer, partner or command must always have visual or voice contact with you, knowing your location. That's nothing new; there are decades of LODDs that have proven the need for that – and with that as a model, we improve the chances of us saving those occupants who need us. 

It's OK to be alone when …

Alone on the fireground in 2021 should mean you are the IC. You are alone. That's OK, but even that is happening less, as more departments have an assigned aide or someone arriving on the scene to function as an aide to the IC.

Alone on the fireground in 2021 should mean you are a pump or aerial operator – a critical role, but one where loneliness is generally accepted. Actually, it's not unusual to find a seasoned pump operator who, when operating, wants you to leave them alone. They know their job and want no disruptions. 

No excuses for loneliness

Want a glimpse into how this happens? Here are pieces of some of the unofficial reports from the last few months:

  • "The firefighter was operating with his crew, but was found alone, with severe burns and with a depleted SCBA on the top floor of the dwelling."
  • "The firefighter was in rookie school training and was found unresponsive while completing the training exercise with an SCBA. Alarms on the SCBA went off before the firefighter was found with no air remaining in the air pack and not breathing.”
  • "The firefighter was operating on an upper floor of the dwelling with a working fire in the basement ... he and his partner were separated ... he was found unconscious and his mask remained on his face."

The outcomes are factual – young firefighters have died in the past several months. How exactly did each happen? We shall see.

We’ve all thought about it

I am talking about several recent bad situations that have resulted in firefighters separating from their crews with horrible results.

There's not a firefighter who hasn't thought about dying alone. Lost. Disoriented. Suffocating with no way out. The worst. And that's important – we NEED to think about that, but we also need to think about that when we are training and operating. We need to think about it when creating fire response assignments. Over and over and over and never STOP thinking about it. Because when we think about it and apply our thoughts, we get serious about the staffing, training, leadership (command, divisional and task level) and the resources needed to "get in there and get those people out" while minimizing our losses – our brothers and sisters being lost … and dying alone. 

So as we await reports with (hopefully) the facts to come out, and we donate to GoFundMe accounts and buy shirts to support the grieving families and members of those departments, we once again have a reason to train. 

The critical part of that training is to focus on command, discipline, control, accountability and communicating to make sure we stay with our crew, we stay with our partner, we go where assigned, we don't wander, we don't freelance, and we are where we are supposed to be so we don't end up alone for the final time. 

To be very clear, firefighting is a risky "team-oriented" business, and our priorities are searching for and saving life, confining/hitting the fire, and preserving property. However, we also have to understand at every rank that we cannot accomplish that alone – and definitely cannot without adequate first-alarm staffing. We must engage in never-ending training, plus strong discipline, command and control, to ensure that we can say we have done our absolute best when we are called to help. 

Sidebar: Standard Staffing

Per NFPA (plus my opinion of what should be added to the minimum standard), the initial minimum tasks for a 1,500-square-foot single-family, two-story frame dwelling should include:

  • Establishing water: 2 firefighters – 1 hydrant/1 pump
  • Stretching a minimum of 3 1¾-inch lines (primary, backup, deployable) – 9 firefighters
  • Forcing entry/search: 2 firefighters
  • Search: 2 firefighters per floor
  • Rescue: 2 firefighters minimal per victim
  • Ventilation: 2 firefighters
  • Rapid intervention: 4-6 firefighters
  • On deck/firefighters reserve ready: 6-8 firefighters
  • Command and supervision: 2 chief officers

Take the above tasks (which ideally would be done simultaneously, with no one operating interior alone) and compare the suggested number of firefighters to the number you realistically receive in the first 5 minutes of a first alarm fire in your response area.

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