October 4, 2011

Flashover fires push Wichita crews to safety's edge

The blaze was already raging out of control by the time the first firefighters arrived at the old two-story house on Dodge Street in west Wichita in the predawn darkness of a Sunday morning.

The blaze was already raging out of control by the time the first firefighters arrived at the old two-story house on Dodge Street in west Wichita in the predawn darkness of a Sunday morning.

They hadn't been there for more than two minutes when a woman came up and started yelling that her daughter was in the house.

A window on the ground floor of the 92-year-old house had melted, meaning a "flashover" — when temperatures climb so high an entire room catches on fire at the same time, blasting flames and toxic gases throughout the structure — had occurred.

Flames were rolling near the ceiling of the living room and dining room, meaning those areas were only moments from flashover as well.

But with someone trapped inside, firefighters knew they had no choice but to stage a VES maneuver — for ventilate, enter, search — the most dangerous tactic in a dangerous profession.

As soon as utilities were cut and a fire hose was hooked up — mandatory steps before any rescue can be attempted — they climbed a ladder and went in through a window to the bedroom, where 16-year-old Lindsay "Lu" Ford had been sleeping on the morning of Sept. 18.

"It's a risky move," said Sid Newby, a battalion chief for the Wichita Fire Department. "But it's a risk we're willing to take."

Sometimes, they're able to save the person trapped inside.

But not this time.

The rescuers, referred to as a VES team, could not find Lindsay in her bedroom and had to evacuate.

"They searched the room they thought she would be in and couldn't find her," Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said of the two firefighters who went in. "Had they gone any further, we probably would have had some firemen down."

A search-and-rescue team went in a few minutes later, after the fire had been knocked down considerably, and found Lindsay in an upstairs bathroom. She was taken to Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, where she died that evening.

It was the third time in four months Wichita firefighters have had to deploy the VES operation, which fire officials call their riskiest tactic.

A VES team found Bruce Wilkinson in the master bedroom of a burning house on West Ninth Street on June 7, but he died a little more than an hour later at St. Francis. Wilkinson's 75-year-old father, Don, also died in the fire.

But a VES team saved a 2-year-old girl early on the morning of July 22.

Two firefighters were refueling a squad truck just after midnight when they heard a report on the scanner of a house fire with people trapped. It was only a few blocks away.

They could see the sky glowing as they closed in on the 1600 block of North Pershing, and fire was shooting into the sky from the back of the house as they arrived.

Two people immediately approached Lt. Sam Hittle and Firefighter Josh Forbes and told them a little girl was "in the room on fire," Hittle said.

"I'm looking at that (fire) and my heart sank," he said. The fire was so intense "there was nothing we could do with it."

Just to be sure, Hittle asked the woman to point to the room where the young girl was when the fire broke out. She pointed to a bedroom in the front of the house.

There was hope.

They broke out a bedroom window and Forbes crawled inside. Black smoke filled the room and billowed out of the window.

Normally, Hittle said, firefighters performing a VES crawl to the door and close it to delay flames and toxic gases from entering and to provide just one outlet for the smoke to exit, cooling temperatures and delaying flashover.

But there was a bed next to the window, and Forbes heard the little girl's gurgled breathing as he crawled across it. He found her wedged between the headboard and the mattress.

Using Hittle's voice as a guide, Forbes brought the child to the window. The rescue had taken 49 seconds.

As Hittle laid her on the front lawn, cleared her airway and began attempts to revive her, flames blew out the front door of the house, next to the bedroom.

She was taken to St. Francis, where she was revived and has since fully recovered.

Normally, a VES team has three people: two who go in and one who waits by the entry point in case the other two get into trouble. But Hittle and Forbes chose not to wait for other crews to arrive before going in.

"We don't think of ourselves as heroes," Hittle said. "It was just our turn to perform and execute the training which we have been given."

Crisp said the VES team that went in search of Lindsay Ford did their job well, even though they were unable to find her.

"The fire's still raging down below" and they had no idea how long they had before another flashover occurred and perhaps caused the second floor to collapse, he said.

Firefighters deal with some degree of risk every time they answer a fire call, Crisp said, but a VES "is one of the more dangerous things that we do."

The fire on Dodge is an example of the bittersweet nature of the tactic, Crisp said.

"They did it right, they did it very well, and somebody still died," he said. "But sometimes it works and we have a great outcome."

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