‘I’m trapped in the basement’: Lessons from my personal mayday experience
The same day a firefighter from an adjacent city died in a house fire, I found myself falling through a floor, trapped
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March 21, 2003, began like any other spring day in Cincinnati – gloomy, overcast and humid.
Colerain Township Station 26’s crew had just completed our morning checks and was sitting down at the dayroom table for a briefing and a cup of coffee when we heard that Cincinnati Fire – our neighbor to the south – had a mayday situation and it “didn’t sound good.”
Our thoughts and attention turned to our brothers and sisters from CFD as we learned about the tragic death of 25-year-old Firefighter Oscar Armstrong III of CFD Engine 9. We spent that morning reflecting on what it means to be a firefighter, the risks we face, and the toll this profession takes on our families.
After lunch, I took my crew into the bay, and we practiced firefighter safety and survival techniques – drags and carries, radio procedures, disorientation drills. This was our way to honor the memory of a local brother whom we had never met. It’s what firefighters do. We look for ways to make sense out of tragedy, and this is how we chose to do it, thinking we most certainly would NEVER have to use these skills for ourselves.
Aggressive attack – without all the intel
Runs came and went, fire alarms distracted us, and my crew of eight sat down to a late dinner.
As we were cleaning up, Engine 26 was dispatched first due to a working structure fire. Station 26 emptied the Engine, Rescue and Medic as part of a one-alarm complement to a working fire in a small residential occupancy.
Car 2503 (off-duty assistant chief) arrived on scene first with a working fire in a single-story ranch and declared an offensive strategy. When I arrived in Engine 26, I saw a working fire showing at the front window and heavy fire involvement in the attic. I was going in!
In 2003, the standard on-scene report simply stated if we had a fire or not. The 360-degree walk-around just wasn’t a “thing” yet. We typically felt that looking at three sides of a building was sufficient to get a good look at what we faced. Therefore, my radio report just mentioned the lightweight wood truss roof with heavy involvement. Had I completed a walkaround to the rear, I would have noticed that there was a walk-out basement with heavy fire that had already broken out a window, had auto-communicated up the side and into the eaves of the roof, thus giving us both a basement and an attic fire – a deadly combination that certainly would have warranted a reconsideration of the declared strategy.
I concluded that entry into the home would best be made through the breezeway between the house and the attached garage. Upon entry, we were immediately hit by high heat and heavy, dense smoke. We pushed our way into the kitchen and began knocking down the fire in the living room through the kitchen. I had left my thermal imaging camera by the door and asked my rookie firefighter to turn around and get it while I took a quick look down the hallway.
This is how quickly things happen.
A long fall followed by panic
As my rookie turned around to get my TIC, I leaned a little bit to get a view of the hallway when the floor suddenly opened, plunging me into the basement. The fall was 8-10 feet (standard basement height) down, and I imagined I rode the hose gently down to the floor.
Immediately after landing, I sprung to my feet and looked around to get my bearings. I remember things being eerily grayish-orange, but I could clearly see the hole that I had fallen through.
“EMERGENCY TRAFFIC! EMERGENCY TRAFFIC!” I called into my radio. I quickly realized that this was WAY WORSE than just “emergency traffic.”
“MAYDAY MAYDAY, I'M TRAPPED IN THE BASEMENT, I FELL THROUGH THE FLOOR, RIGHT BELOW THE LIVING ROOM!”
Command’s voice was calm and reassuring as he acknowledged the mayday and activated our rapid-intervention team (RIT).
Another firefighter was on the floor above me, lying down with his hand extended through the hole for me to hold and give me hope. I reached for the hand and yelled, “don’t pull me up!” For some reason, I remembered a former coworker whom I had worked with who was killed in a basement fire just two years prior to this, and when they went to pull him up through the hole, his gloves came off. (RIP FF Bill Ellison.) I certainly didn’t want that happening here. I just stood there and held his hand.
Looking back, it’s funny the things you remember during a stressful event. I imagined I had ridden the hose to the floor, when in fact, I fell 8-10 feet, and landed on my head. I thought the basement wasn’t on fire because I wasn’t hot, nor was I burning, when in fact the firefighter laying on the floor above me was receiving burns to his under-arm surface as he held my hand, and my other firefighters told me they were knocking flames down around me. I remembered panicking, and I pictured Bill in my mind yet was strangely comfortable.
Fire command instructed me to turn on my PASS device, stay calm and try to get my bearings. His reassuring voice helped me to regain my focus.
According to radio traffic, I was trapped for about six minutes, holding the firefighter’s hand off and on while trying to locate any kind of escape route. At some point, I just reached out my hand and identified some kind of structural component at a 45-degree angle. It could only be a stairwell, I concluded, and pulled my hand away from my brother holding my hand. I had located the basement steps and quickly climbed them to the top.
When I had become a lifeguard some 20 years earlier, I was required to memorize the definition of panic: “A sudden and overwhelming terror that destroys a person’s capacity for self-help.” I must admit, at this point, I was in full panic mode. I didn’t do the firefighter crawl up the stairs, nor did I not stay to the outside of the treads. I bolted up the steps only to be stopped by what I had perceived as a wall at the top of the stairs. I remembered thinking what a stupid thing to do, to put a wall at the top of the stairs. I began beating the “wall” until I had ripped the “wall” off its hinges and I was able to escape to the outside.
Once outside, I radioed to command that I was out. He quickly acknowledged my situation but continued with the mayday operation. I was totally unaware that during the RIT operations, one member of the RIT crew had also declared a second mayday. His mayday continued to a successful conclusion as they were able to rescue him without any injury.
My mayday was over, or so I thought. The fallout of a mayday and near miss event NEVER ends with the conclusion of the incident. We won’t delve into all that here, but we will address how we, as fire service leaders, can learn from such incidents and even grow as an organization, all the while taking care of the needs the firefighters involved.
Mayday aftermath and review
Looking back on this incident, there were clearly some things that went well, plus others that could have ended very tragically. As with every incident with unexpected occurrences, an after-action review (AAR) should be completed. Sometimes these reviews can be as simple as a one-page document or even a discussion during a bumper huddle, while other reviews should be more involved, methodical presentations for all to see.
Here's what stands out from my mayday incident:
- Incident command: First and foremost, I have to acknowledge the incredible calmness and organization of the incident commander. This IC was a captain working as an acting shift commander. Our organization has always taken a very strong stance on incident command, and this night it paid off. His calmness and reassuring voice over the radio kept me calm and focused while he organized the fireground, activated the RIT team, and continued with firefighting operations.
- Muscle memory: Our training earlier in the day in response to the Oscar Armstrong fatality in Cincinnati certainly paid off, as these firefighter rescue concepts were still fresh in everyone’s mind, especially mine. Muscle memory is very real.
- 360 size-up: The elephant in the room is undoubtedly the lack of a 360 size-up on arrival. However, as I stated earlier, these simply weren’t the practice in 2003. If it had been, I probably wouldn’t have made an interior attack. If I had done one, maybe I would have entered through the walk-out.
- AARs: Going along with the 360 and the “what ifs,” if we had done a thorough AAR on the incident, we may have recognized the need for a 360 and therefore began to stress its importance and require it as a new benchmark. If we had done the AAR, maybe our 2008 Squirrelsnest Lane incident never would have happened, and Captain Robin Broxterman and Firefighter Brian Schira would have known to perform a 360 size-up.
- Support for members: One of the other glaring omissions immediately following the incident was a follow-up and debriefing for those individuals involved. Anyone who has gone through a line-of-duty death understands the need for mental health services being offered to the members involved, but sometimes we seriously miss the these critical near-miss incidents that can have many of the same thought processes and anxieties surrounding them.
Give our future selves a fighting chance
Today, we have the added benefit of years of hindsight. Consider how much has changed in the fire service over the past 19 years. With this additional knowledge there’s no reason to hold our “old selves” in contempt or to blame them for not “knowing better.” This is why we do AARs – to give our future selves a fighting chance in this never-ending, unpredictable career we love.
About the author
Steven G. Conn, MSOL, BSN, RN, EMT-P, is a battalion chief and public information officer for the Colerain Township (Ohio) Department of Fire and EMS where he has served for over 30 years. He has a master’s degree in organizational leadership with a particular interest in organizational culture and how organizations are affected by major disturbances. He is also registered nurse with 30 years of experience in interventional cardiology.