Report on death of fallen Md. firefighter suggests changes, new procedures

The AAR on the death of Frederick County Battalion Chief Joshua Laird suggests revising SOPs to provide strategies for basement fires

Ryan Marshall
The Frederick News-Post

FREDERICK COUNTY, Md. — Frederick County's Division of Fire and Rescue Services should revise its standard operating procedures to provide strategies for fighting basement fires like the one that led to the death of a battalion chief in an August 2021 Ijamsville fire, according to a report released Friday.

Battalion Chief Joshua Laird, 46, died Aug. 11, 2021, from injuries he sustained battling a two-alarm house fire on Ball Road in Ijamsville. While fighting the fire, he fell through the first floor into the basement.

Battalion Chief Joshua Laird, 46, died Aug. 11, 2021, from injuries he sustained battling a two-alarm house fire.
Battalion Chief Joshua Laird, 46, died Aug. 11, 2021, from injuries he sustained battling a two-alarm house fire. (Career Firefighters Association of Frederick County, MD Local 3666)

He served 21 years in the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services.

An after-action report on Laird's death, including recommendations from an external safety review panel set up to investigate the incident, was released Friday.

Some recommendations in the report were:

  • The fire service should establish standards and tactics for fighting basement fires and provide training for crews in fighting those types of fires.
  • Incident commanders must act when notified of a collapse of the floor.
  • The fire service should require building construction training for all personnel.

"As an organization, we are committed to learning everything we can from our response to this incident," DFRS Chief Tom Coe said at a press conference announcing the report's release. "This report is not about assigning blame. It's about continuing to improve how we do our jobs every day."

Sara Laird, Laird's widow, said her husband loved being a firefighter and serving the residents of Frederick County.

"He was a consummate professional, even to the end," she said.

DFRS does not have a standardized procedure for fighting basement fires, which the report describes as one of the most dangerous types of fires because of the lack of ingress and egress and the difficulty of ventilating basements, among other factors.

"Even after the MAYDAY information provided by [Laird] confirmed that he fell into the basement, operations continued as if it were a first-floor fire, allowing and assigning companies to operate on the first floor even with the knowledge the floor had collapsed," the report said.

"These crews operated courageously to rescue Captain Laird, but their actions, in hindsight, could have led to a greater loss of life," the report said. "These actions seem to be indicative of a loss of situational awareness and understanding of how stress was impacting their decision-making as opposed to willful and blatant disregard of policy."

The fire, in the 9500 block of Ball Road in Ijamsville, was started by a lightning strike that caused a failure of the Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing gas line in the space between the trusses that supported the first floor of the house, according to the report.

Laird's engine was returning from another assignment when the fire was reported by someone standing in the driveway of a nearby house at 4:46 p.m., and responded to the scene.

At 5 p.m., an assistant chief on the scene saw Laird standing in a small breakfast nook area inside the house.

Seconds later, Laird issued a "Mayday" call that he had fallen through the floor.

As commanders tried to figure out what happened, the assistant chief who had seen Laird in the breakfast nook reported that "He was just in the window and fell through."

That transmission was followed by Laird reporting "I am in the basement."

Crews scrambled to find Laird, who had to move from where he had originally fallen because of the heat from the fire.

At 5:04 p.m., Laird radioed that "[p]robably the best thing you could do is drop a ladder down in this hole and put the fire out, and I'll walk out."

Crews tried to put a 16-foot roof ladder through the house's bay window and down to the basement, but couldn't get the heel of the ladder to sit on the basement floor.

At 5:08 p.m., Laird tried to describe where in the house he was, and that he had had to move because of the heat.

He tried to make three more transmissions in 23 seconds, but "The radio system rejected the first two attempts, and the third was unintelligible," according to the report.

He made a final intelligible transmission at 5:09:33. Three more attempted transmissions were rejected by the radio system, according to the report.

A few minutes later, firefighters found Laird unconscious, without his helmet or facepiece.

At 5:14 p.m., he was removed from the basement and crews began CPR and other attempts to save his life.

He was flown to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead.

The report on Laird's death also included a section recommending that firefighters and their officers receive training to help them better deal with stress when responding to fire scenes.

"Every chief officer, company officer, and firefighter who operated at the Ball Road fire navigated pervasive uncertainty, ambiguity, time pressure, and operational stress," the report said.

Analyses often rely on hindsight and information not available to people on an active scene, and don't consider the biological and psychological forces on people in stressful situations, the report said.

While stress generally has a negative connotation, appropriately regulated stress helps people achieve their optimal performance. But extreme or unregulated stress clouds humans' judgment.

"Hyper or unregulated arousal can lead to an assortment of factors that jeopardize tactical performance and compromise safety and survivability: impaired senses and communications, corrupt decision-making processes, and reduced situational awareness. Reduced situational awareness, more accurately termed perceptual distortion, is the chief consequence of elevated emotional stress, negatively impacting the body and mind's ability to function," the report said.

Members of the fire service should practice skills such as goal setting, process-centric objectives, performance routines, self-talk, tactical breathing, visualization and tactical imagery, framing, and resetting to help them manage stressful situations, it said.

Coe said it's important that that section of the report gets important consideration in training and professional development.

"We stand here today committed to bringing about lasting and meaningful change in the fire service, so that we can honor Josh's memory and to ensure that he continues to make a difference even after his tragic loss," Coe said.

More about Battalion Chief Joshua Laird

[On-Demand Webinar: Basement fires: Tactical options for the threat below]


(c)2022 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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