NIOSH: Inadequate size-up, high winds key factors in Houston LODDs

Captain James Harlow and Probationary Firefighter Damien Hobbs were killed during interior operations


By Ken Robinson
FireRescue1 Associate Editor

HOUSTON — Inadequate size-up and uncoordinated tactical operations were key contributing factors in the deaths of two Texas firefighters in a fire fueled by winds, investigators found.

Firefighters also failed to react appropriately to deteriorating conditions, according to a NIOSH fatality investigation report released Monday.

NIOSH diagramThis diagram approximates the location of the roof vent hole cut by the L-26 crew.
NIOSH diagram
This diagram approximates the location of the roof vent hole cut by the L-26 crew.

Houston Fire Department Captain James Harlow and Probationary Firefighter Damien Hobbs died April 12 last year at the wind-driven residential structure fire.

The firefighters initiated offensive interior operations through the front entrance as part of the first company on scene, but became disoriented and trapped as winds fueled rapid fire progression.

Rescue operations were immediately initiated, but were suspended as conditions worsened.

First arriving companies focused on fast attack procedures before conducting a thorough size-up, investigators said in the report.

"A complete 360 degree size-up was not attempted until after the roof ventilation crew descended from the roof after completing roof ventilation," the report said.

Fire crews made two attempts to conduct a 360 degree size-up, but were prevented from completion due to a brick wall and fence at one side of the structure.

A full 360 degree size-up earlier in the incident may have changed operational tactics in the incident by revealing obscured fire conditions, the condition of atrium windows, or other factors, the report said.

Assessments of conditions were further muddled as interior conditions were not relayed to the incident commander or the roof ventilation crew.

Acting without full information, the roof ventilation crew created an opening which immediately erupted with fire burning in a concealed attic space, and another crew pulled ceiling inside the house.

"These actions increased air supply to the ventilation controlled fire burning in the void space between the ceiling and roof," the report said. "Flames in the attic ignited the fuel-rich smoke on the ground floor."

Because first arriving crews did not identify wind as a key factor in fire conditions, NIOSH also recommends fire departments develop SOPs for incidents with high-wind conditions.

"Under wind-driven conditions an exterior attack from the upwind side of the fire may be necessary to reduce fire intensity to the extent that fire fighters can gain access to the involved compartments," the report said.

"In addition to exterior attack from upwind, use of a wind control device to cover ventilation inlet openings on the upwind side may also aid in reducing wind-driven fire conditions."

NIOSH also stresses fire departments should have a detailed Mayday doctrine and provide firefighter survival training, because no evidence was found of the victims broadcasting a Mayday call, and only one of the two firefighters had a radio, which was turned off and set to the dispatch channel.

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