Monday, January 28, 2013

Hundreds die needlessly in nightclub fire

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” has been a callous call to arms for many these days when promoting a political opinion or new policy, but I can’t help but think of the phrase when hearing of the horrific loss of life in Brazil this week.  Over 250 people died, once again due to blocked and locked fire exits, use of pryotechnics, over capacity crowding . . . you name it.

Our earlier post on blocked fire exits helped fuel an extensive discussion thread on Linked In that contains nearly a hundred comments from around the world. The problem obviously exists worldwide, and is tragically highlighted when hundreds die trying to escape smoke and flames. The NFPA recently posted a short video calling for greater citizen awareness in nightclubs.  

I hope that fire officials and others everywhere will at least not let this horrible crisis go undiscussed and attitudes go unchanged.  Just noting a blocked fire exit shouldn’t be merely a cause for idle comment or polite suggestion to a manager.  It should stimulate an immediate demand, or an immediate cellphone call to the local Fire Department.

“Oh, but our staff is instructed that in case of an emergency, the obstructions must be moved (or chains unlocked) immediately,” is a common comeback from a clueless restaurant or facility manager.  

It’s usually those staff members that are at the bottom of the pile of corpses found stacked at the door following a fire.   

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Saving Betsy

 I’m sure that I’m not the only firefighter who may have saved more pets than people over the years. Most times evacuating pets is merely a routine part of residential firefighting, but can sometimes become a major effort.

1980 – something.  We had responded to a fire in the basement of a four-story apartment building on the city’s west side. The fire was contained in a maze of individual storage pens for renters, and though restricted to the basement, was a stubborn fire that continued to produce a lot of smoke as the first-in crew made their way through the maze to douse what flames they could find.

Smoke was still building in the upper floors and crews were dispatched to each floor. As part of Engine 61’s crew, I was assigned with John Bender to check out the fourth floor apartments to make sure everyone had evacuated.

We banged on each door loudly, hollered out “Fire Department! Is everybody out?” several times.  One or two residents responded, and one of us would lead them to the stairwell. At the last apartment we checked, the elderly lady opened the door in her robe and asked if we could help her with Betsy.  “Sure thing,” we answered. “That's what we’re here for.”

The lady pointed to the balcony. There on the other side of a sliding glass door was Betsy, a large German Shepard. Her mouth was wide open, tongue hanging out as she panted, with her tail tightly curling under her rear end.

Bender led the lady toward the door, assuring her along the way that “…the other fireman will bring Betsy along, don’t worry.” Bender had just reminded me who the senior man on the crew was, I figured.

Smoke was building as Bender and Betsy’s owner moved down the hallway toward the stairwell, still clear of smoke and the most direct route down to the outside. Muttering a few choice words meant only for Bender’s ears, I opened the balcony door, hoping that my turnout gear might be sufficient protection if Betsy decided to take a chunk out of me. 

As the door opened, Betsy turned, moved a few inches toward me, sat back on her haunches and lifted her front legs in an obvious begging gesture. Almost immediately she stood up on her hind legs and pushed up against me licking my face as she alternately pushed away the dangling air pack mask hanging around my neck.

OK, I thought, Betsy and me are officially buddies.

“OK Betsy, lets go outside with mommy,” I said reaching down to the dog’s collar to begin leading her through the door.  Once a few feet into the room, and getting a whiff of the smoke that was still making the air a bit hazy in the room, Betsy froze and tried to back away, my hand still holding her collar.  Further attempts ended with the same result, so I figured that I’d try to carry her out.

Standing to Betsy’s side and reassuring her all the way, I bent down and reached around just under her neck in the front, and behind her rear legs and picked her up off the floor, interlocking my gloved fingers. She squirmed a little, and kept twisting her head back to lick at my face and continued to do so as we left the apartment. 

Betsy felt fairly light at first, but by the time I got to the stairway, with Bender and Betsy’s owner more than a flight down below, the dog started to feel heavier. I continued down the stairs.

Just below, another team of firefighters entered the stairwell, bringing with them a gust of thicker smoke that followed them out.  When the smoke got to me, Betsy began squirming more, then began twisting a bit harder, making my grip harder to hold as well. I held on tighter, talking to Betsy along with each step, trying to keep her calm.

By the time we made it to the ground floor, my arms felt like they were burning inside, and my interlocked fingers had gone numb as I kept hold of the dog. Sweat was pouring from my face and I was nearly out of breath myself after fighting with what seemed like a scared little puppy dressed in a big grownup German Shepard suit. My knees started to feel like they would buckle at any moment.

Just before I reached the door leading to the outside, Bender had returned to give me a hand. “Need some help?” he asked.

“Yeah, take this dog before I drop her,” I said, as I dropped to my knees, hoping to get a chance to get my helmet off and feel some cool air.

Bender, now between me and the doorway to the outside, grabbed the dog in similar fashion, turned 90 degrees and stepped out the door to thunderous applause from dozens of residents, spectators and a couple of camera flashes.

That week in the newspaper, the photo caption read, “Firefighter John Bender rescues family pet from deadly smoke and reunites her with family.”

What a guy.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Unblock Those Exits Please!

Each time I go into a restaurant, banquet hall or other venue that normally provides seating for a large number of people, I quickly scan the room for the emergency exits. It’s an old habit I developed as a retired career firefighter, one that I used to do almost without thinking. These days, however, I find I’m thinking about it a lot more.

Over the recent holidays, I’ve noticed more emergency exits that are blocked by a full set of table and chairs. One was blocked by a large TV monitor on a stand that, though portable, would have taken someone considerable effort and time to move. Still one other blocked exit had a fully decorated Christmas Tree (see above) just to the side which completely hid the only fire extinguisher in the room.

You don’t have to be a Fire Inspector to realize that any location with a required fully lit “EXIT” sign is also required to keep that exit clear of all obstructions as well.  National fire codes are full of life-safety related requirements that were written following one of several major tragedies in the workplace, in schools and in places of public assembly.  Many of those were written after incidents where piles of burned corpses were found stacked against a locked or blocked exit. 

I know I should be more understanding of the restaurant owner trying to maximize profits by filling what would otherwise be an open space, but I’m more concerned about the disregard for customer and employee safety. I’m also disillusioned about the lack of responsibility shown by the many fire service professionals that I’m sure frequent these establishments and turn a blind eye to the hazard.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to pass on a friendly tip to the manager that blocking emergency exits not only puts their customers and employees at risk, but may even save them a visit from the local Fire Inspector.  In those areas served by volunteer departments, and not able to support a Fire Prevention Bureau, it falls on the volunteers themselves to extend their dedication one additional step to help educate local business owners who ignore this important safety rule. They’re protecting their own families as well.

These days we’re concerned about guns in public, violence in the workplace and malls, and even dedicate TV news segments on unhealthy kitchens.  Why not spend a minute or two to ask local owners and managers to keep our emergency exits clear? Don’t like confrontation? Take a photo with your phone and share with the local FD.

If those responsible for local enforcement won’t do it, you and I should.