From routine to rescue: Takeaways from the St. Louis house fire rescues

St. Louis FD fire chief shares how recent firefighter training was put to the test during a chaotic situation


It is refreshing – and necessary – to periodically return to the basics, in this case with a twist. This past spring and summer, instead of the traditional in-service training, the St. Louis Fire Department used the training schedule to send each company through a set of competitive scenarios. Scores for the scenarios were posted online, which created a healthy competitive spirit amongst the companies.

The second-floor fire training scenario was timed from arrival to water supply to extending an attack line to water on the fire. Every one of the city’s companies went through the training.

I spoke with St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson about the Aug. 15 rescues of four children from a house fire, and how this training may have had a direct benefit on those rescues.

Three children were in cardiac arrest and another severely injured. This seemingly “routine” fire was shaping up to be a catastrophe that no family, fire department or community should have to experience. (Photo/Fox 2 Screenshot)
Three children were in cardiac arrest and another severely injured. This seemingly “routine” fire was shaping up to be a catastrophe that no family, fire department or community should have to experience. (Photo/Fox 2 Screenshot)

Incident recap: Call goes from routine to rescue

On Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, St. Louis resident Mary McNary and her daughter were walking their dog through the neighborhood, when the dog stopped and tugged on the leash. Mary turned to see what the dog was pulling toward, and that’s when she saw smoke somewhat lazily coming out two second-floor windows of what Chief Jenkerson calls a “two-story flat.” Mary called 911 from her cell phone, reporting smoke coming from the building. As Chief Jenkerson told the story, he underscored that this was ultimately the ONLY 911 call received on this fire.

To the uninitiated, it would appear to be a simple “in the door, up the steps” fire for a quick knockdown. The building, however, houses single-story first-floor apartments from the front, with second-story apartment entrances from the rear – a potentially confusing setup for firefighters making entry.

By the time the fire department arrived, fire was showing from two second-floor windows. Chief Jenkerson said, “the first alarm assignment went to work on this ‘everyday fire’ with purpose, like every other incident our people approach.”

The crews were familiar with these buildings – lightweight construction built approximately 10 years ago, with NO sprinkler systems installed. If they didn’t get to work quickly, the lightweight construction could be unforgiving. While they could always throw a ladder, companies knew they needed to stretch to the rear to access the second-floor apartment entrances.

St Louis staffs four-person engine and ladders (quint or platform) companies and has a six-person heavy-duty squad company.

Chief Jenkerson reports that as the first companies entered the apartment and initiated their routine search pattern, the radio crackled with someone saying “got one.” The first child was found by a door and passed down the steps from person to person, as they had determined CPR could be initiated in the yard.

Then the successive transmissions – “got two more” and “got another” – drove adrenalin through the members on scene. The second two children had been found in a play tent and the fourth in a closet.

Three of the children were in cardiac arrest and the other severely injured. This seemingly “routine” fire was shaping up to be a catastrophe that no family, fire department or community should have to experience.

There happened to be several professional photographers on the scene who captured the rescues and resuscitations in progress.

“The photos are heart-wrenching and drive home the compassion and hard work our firefighters and EMS personnel display every day,” Chief Jenkerson said.

He added that, like many other urban area departments, the St. Louis Fire Department fire and EMS crews experience Narcan resuscitations daily – sometimes as many as 10 to 15 a day. “The biggest difference between those resuscitations and this fire was the photographers happened to be there quick enough to capture the documentation,” he said.

Top takeaways from the incident

Chief Jenkerson arrived on the scene after the rescues were complete, and as companies were wrapping up, he brought all the firefighters together for a quick on-scene hot wash.

Chief Jenkerson noted the following takeaways, successes and lessons learned from that hot wash and the successive interviews:

  • Dispatch sent the proper equipment to the correct location for the incident as reported. Chief Jenkerson also credits Dispatch with doing what needed to be done, without direction, when it was clear additional EMS assistance would be needed.
  • Every company followed the standard operating procedures (SOPs) like clockwork. Chief Jenkerson noted: “The SOPs make a difference on every call, every time. Everybody has a role making it work. If the first person doesn’t get water, and the second person doesn’t charge the attack line, then the third and fourth don’t have water or don’t make entry. None of it falls together without everybody doing their part and working as a team.”
  • Crews transitioned flawlessly from “routine” to “rescue” without skipping a beat. It’s important to remember that every call has the potential to go from routine to chaos with the snap of a finger.
  • Chief Jenkerson recognized the psychological toll that finding the kids had not only on the firefighters who found them but also on everyone operating at the scene – and dispatchers and community members, too. The 911 caller, Mary McNary, reported that it, “brought tears to all our eyes just to see them carried out like that.”
  • The decision to hold competitive training, which happened to be almost exactly this scenario, paid dividends – on this fire in the form of four children alive and recovering today.

Train like you fight, fight like you train

St. Louis is no stranger to tragic situations with children in peril. Chief Jenkerson recalled a fire a couple years ago where St. Louis crews pulled eight children out of a burning building, with six in cardiac arrest. All eight survived. Probably more troubling for his crews, he said, are “the 10 to 12 children who have been lost to gun violence in the last couple of months. Our crews can’t do anything about that but show up and do the best they can.”

“Knowing your job and knowing it well helped out here for sure,” Jenkerson said.

The incident on Aug. 15 drove home how crews working and training together can make all the difference, and how training like you fight and fighting like you train is more than a slogan, and can mean the difference between life and death!

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