Challenging ‘bread-and-butter’ fire highlights staffing challenges in rural areas

While fires burn the same in all our backyards, sometimes they burn a little longer where staffing issues hinder response efforts


A recent house fire challenged our crews at what many would call a “bread and butter” fire – a balloon-frame single-family house fire. But bread and butter doesn’t taste the same everywhere. Here’s how it played out – and what we learned from the incident.

SETTING THE STAGE

Highlands County is a relatively new combination department. With most structures at one or two floors, ladder trucks have never been a high priority, nor a fiscally sound option.

The fire spread from the half-story window above the front porch, but firefighters were able to knock that down.
The fire spread from the half-story window above the front porch, but firefighters were able to knock that down. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

Dispatch areas were recently split into box areas, providing measured response (in the absence of automatic vehicle-locator capabilities). At the same time, structure fire dispatches in the county were upgraded to provide for three stations to be alerted. The two city departments within the county alert one or two engines for structure fires, then callback off-duty, although automatic aid is being trialed with Avon Park. Sebring does not provide or accept automatic aide.

CHALLENGING FIREFIGHT

We’ll come back to the dispatch – what about the fire?

Multiple 911 calls reported fire showing from the rear of the home in the small town of Lake Placid, Florida.

The first-arriving unit, Battalion 2 with Chief Dustin Fitch, came from less than a mile away, and medic unit 36-1 (EMS only) shortly thereafter. Units reported fire showing from the Charlie side. A quick report from the homeowner indicated that everyone was out.

The structure was a 1½-story Craftsman-style or similar home. The half-story was unfinished and was only over the main portion of the home. The home had at least three additions, all added at different times and with different construction methods – tongue-and-groove meets plywood meets drywall – and that’s just the ceilings! The fire appeared to start in one of the additions.

There was a hydrant about 200 feet to the east and homes on both the Bravo and Delta sides, each about 30 feet away.

The first-arriving engine from Sun ’N Lakes Station 41, with a paid crew of a lieutenant and two firefighters on the engine and two firefighters on the medic unit arrived about 5 minutes after the Battalion 2.

Advancing a 1¾-inch line in the front door, crews began the attack but were unable to access the body of fire above them. It would be another few minutes before the next engine, with three volunteer firefighters, would arrive.

Crews quickly found tongue-and-groove ceilings with various layers of other coverings as challenges to access the area above them.

The fire soon spread from the half-story window above the front porch, but firefighters were able to knock that down. Believing the fire to be knocked down, the two crews operating retreated for rehab, while exterior firefighters individually kept any flare-ups at bay. Unbeknownst to command, fire was slowly building unseen and unchecked in one of four voids identified between the roof and ceiling areas.

Very quickly, smoke began to build to near flashover conditions on the first floor and in the half-story area.

The third station was unable to muster a crew to respond, and the next closest company was alerted, bringing three additional volunteers. Two additional command officers responded to assist with the organization and firefight.

This is where you REALLY see the deviation in how bread and butter tastes for the rural and semi-rural departments that struggle for both paid and volunteer staffing. Most urban or suburban departments have grown accustomed to some variation of “4, 2 and 1” (four engines, two ladder trucks and one heavy-duty squad). In 1,100-square-mile Highlands County, we only have one ladder truck, which was the closest company that wasn’t able to muster staffing to respond, and we don’t have any heavy-duty squads. So, how’s your bread and butter taste now? Where a lot of departments are able to muster 25 people or more to fight and rotate, many rural departments are lucky to muster 10 people to accomplish the same scope of tasks.

PULL THEM OUT

As the smoke continued to deteriorate and multiple attack lines flowing were unable to have impact, command ordered everyone off the roof and out of the house.

Fire had now been burning in various stages for well over 30 minutes. A wagon pipe was aimed in the half-story window and given a chance to get hold of the fire.

A third grueling entry (with the same 11 people, including drivers) was coordinated to mop up. It was during this mop-up that a portion of plywood and/or tongue-and-groove fell, injuring a firefighter. The firefighter was transported to a local hospital with what appears to be a minor shoulder injury. He was treated and released.

Finding multiple roof and wall voids, firefighters were finally able to access all the areas that fire had traveled and ultimately extinguish the fire after 2 hours.

[Read next: Overhang dangers: Maintain situational awareness while working near the collapse zone]

Two firefighters from the first-in medic unit, plus a firefighter from the first engine in, use the iced-arms trays to help lower core body temperatures.
Two firefighters from the first-in medic unit, plus a firefighter from the first engine in, use the iced-arms trays to help lower core body temperatures. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

REHAB NEEDS

Regardless of how many firefighters you have operating, you need to provide rehab for them.

Our evolving rehab program includes the standard blood pressure and oxygen saturation measurement, but also includes a dedicated rehab unit, which brings limited specialized tools/lights, cooling/heating chairs, tents and refreshments. Firefighters go to the rehab unit, after their pressures and oxygen saturation has been checked out by the medic unit.

This fire was our first deployment using the cooling chairs.

[Learn more: Beyond ‘high-quality H2O’: Rehab gets your tactical athletes back in the game]

FIRES BURN THE SAME WAY IN MY BACKYARD

Fires burn the same way in my backyard as they do in yours. For years I’ve used the backyard analogy to justify the need for standardization in training and policy, both in deployment of automatic mutual-aid and the development of on-scene command and control functions. The statement is an essential fireground truth that has limited exceptions, like differences due to weather and environmental conditions.

What’s different in our backyards is the number of firefighters and the number of resources we bring to the scene. Rural firefighters and command officers not only fulfill multiple roles but also tasks that would be “routine” with others, may take multiple attempts to complete or, frankly, may never happen.

LESSONS LEARNED

“Go big early” comes to mind. “Go big” not only applies to attack line choice but also to the aggressiveness of your crews to attack the fire and open up the voids – a not-so-easy task when you’ve got two or three people inside alone for five minutes, and only two more coming in after that.

Also, firefighters should expect 1½-story homes to have void spaces that will become breeding grounds for fire extension.

These 11 firefighters and four command officers, including both paid and volunteer members, did a great job with the resources they had. Trained and capable resources do make the difference, and while fires burn the same in all our backyards, sometimes they burn a little longer.

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