December 28, 2015 Mayday .pdf
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December 28, 2015 Mayday
I called a mayday today. It was the second mayday I’ve heard on the job, and it was mine. The
first was the voice of my classmate, Jamie Dickman, on January 26, 2014. Sadly, that was the
last time any of us heard Jamie’s voice. We lost him and Stephen Machcinski at that fire. I share
my account to share what I and my crew learned in hopes that you can take something,
anything, away from it that will make you a better prepared firefighter. For those who aren’t
firefighters, I share it to give you a glimpse at a day in our shoes, where a slow, lazy day that
may make the taxpayers question why they’re even paying us can turn into a spine-chilling level
of fear in just minutes.
A Quiet Day
I woke up for the 0600 tones and, after an amazingly runless night on Medic 19, I excitedly
rolled back over for another half-hour of uninterrupted sleep. I was relieving at Engine 19’s
Company, the term we use for a two-piece, five-person crew here in Toledo; 2-person BLS
ambulance and a three-person engine. To get as much sleep as I did on this 24-hour shift was
nothing short of a holiday miracle. I almost felt guilty that we were so slow: one cancelled
regular alarm and two transports.
Around 0605, my phone buzzed alive with an alert from the PulsePoint app. As soon as a fire’s
entered into the computer in dispatch, before apparatus are assigned, it comes out over the
app. A quick glance: “3425 Stickney Ave., Toledo.” For a second, I thought my mind was playing
tricks on me, so I rolled back over. Engine 19 is on Stickney, right next to the Jeep plant. This
was our fire. And with that thought, my brain clicked and I sprung out of bed, sprinting to the
medic unit as the phone rang — the alert from dispatch, pre-station-tones — and Emily Montri
called out “Structure!” over the station PA.
With the exception of our lieutenant, the crew all came from the class of 2013. We’re all close
and work together often.
High Level of Suspicion
I turned to my driver, Adam Bevier, and read off the rig-mounted computer that police were on
scene — so “take a right turn and look for the blue lights.” We pulled past the story-and-a-half,
early 1900’s house, light smoke drifting from the eaves, and landed our rig in the parking lot of
an old KFC.
I hopped out and threw my SCBA on, but my waist strap was tangled and I couldn’t quickly
solve that puzzle, so I tightened my shoulder straps, grabbed the irons and headed for the door.
I wasn’t going to fight with it and leave one guy on the nozzle by himself.
I masked up as the engine pulled the line, and met Nick Smith at the enclosed porch. Our officer
gave his arrival report, and specifically mentioned that there was a basement while giving his
360, a fire-service term for walking around the entire house to get a full view of the building. As I
threw my gloves on before I forced the door, I turned to Nick and said something along the lines
of, “let’s consider this a basement fire until we know otherwise.” We tend to kill damn good
fireman going in above fire without knowing it. So much, it’s a frequent topic of discussion with
my brother and several close friends on the job. As a department, we’ve gotten much better at
avoiding this since January 26, 2014.
I forced the door and the fire was clearly right in front of us; stairs to the right, visibility perfect
with flames illuminating the whole living room and into the dining room. My level of suspicion
that this was a basement fire dropped upon seeing what appeared to be simply a couch or two
burning in a living room. This fit, in my mind, as an isolated contents fire.
Nick knocked it down, I gave the benchmarks to command, then the line went limp. I asked for
more pressure — not that there was any rush, but Nick later told me he didn’t want to advance
without a fully-charged line if we didn’t have to. Incredibly smart decision, especially with the
basement fire considerations.
The lieutenant of Rescue Squad 7 came in and asked to squeeze by to do a search; as we got
water, the ‘search’ stood out in my head as I noticed furniture and items on a coffee table meant
someone was probably living here. Instead of walking the straight line to the back right corner of
the room, I walked the Alpha (front) wall, turned at the Bravo (left-side) wall, clearing the area
quickly and expecting to soon be slamming my halligan into burned plaster to check for any
Instead, I took a step and everything else peeled away. In my head, I pictured every other
object, the floor, the furniture, rapidly flying away from me, leaving me in a void of black air. As I
fell, I felt like I could fall forever. Irrationally, I was convinced I was going to. Like falling was
somehow going to be the rest of my life.
The landing brought me back to reality.
In the Basement
I landed on my back. I felt like I was almost sitting up, on a pile of debris — pieces of plaster,
some mattress springs. I quickly looked around; “If there’s fire down here, I’m fucked,” I thought
to myself as I whipped my head around and simultaneously grabbed my mic.
Paraphrasing, as I’ve yet to hear the audio: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. We have a firefighter
who fell through the first floor into the basement about 10 feet in. I’m okay, there’s no fire in the
basement, I just need help out.”
My crew heard the mayday and spotted my flashlight shining straight up out of the hole. I stood
up and, to the best as I can recall, my eyes lined up with the floorboards. I’m 6’6”, so I was
hoping it was a short basement so I could just grab something and get out. The hole was about
6’x4’, and there was only one floor joist remaining. Nick got on his stomach and tried to pull me
up. I tried using my halligan across the joist and the floor, grabbing both to try and pull myself
up. I tried finding a piece of furniture in the basement to move and stand on to pop out. Another
firefighter tried to get me to grab a pike pole, instead inadvertently hooking and pulling the hose
leading to my mask-mounted regulator. That’s when those attempts stopped.
I stressed to these guys that there was no hurry, and to just bring me a “dinky” — Toledo’s
quirky term for a folding ladder, usually used to get up in the attic. As Bevier returned with that, I
looked to my left and saw two members of 7’s crew coming down the basement stairs. I
honestly hadn’t really thought about stairs at that point; I didn’t see them when I looked around
(they were behind me), and I decided to stay where people could see me to avoid any
confusion, unnecessary added stress. If they see me standing, I thought, they know I’m okay.
7’s crew led me up the stairs and out the Delta (right) side door. As I went to take my helmet off,
I realized I didn’t have it. It fell off, despite my religious use of the chin strap. I was directed to
talk to our ALS ambulance (Life Squad) crew, told them I was fine but also promised to let them
know if that changed. Matt Brooks, another from the Class of ’13, and I chatted for a bit as I
made sure nothing started to hurt as my body returned to a comparably normal state.
Ultimately, someone retrieved my helmet and I rejoined my crew, going back to work opening up
ceiling in the enclosed porch where some fire hid from us. After helping knock that down, Bevier
and I took Medic 19 back to the station to switch out crews, as it was nearly 0700 and B-Shift
was due to take our spots.
“On the drive back, make sure you guys avoid that hole at Manhattan; you know, don’t fall in it,”
my lieutenant quipped. This was the beginning of a long day of genuine concern and ballbusting, often in the same breath. Coping mechanisms in full effect for a department that
recently felt the full brunt of tragedy on the fireground.
Back in Quarters
As we sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee, waiting for the rest of the crew to return to
complete Mayday-related documentation, Bevier asked me if I heard about Hamilton, Ohio’s line
of duty death. I caught a glimpse of it on my phone just before he asked me. Five hours before
our tones dropped, Firefighter Patrick Wolterman fell through the first floor into a basement. He’s
28, I’m 27. He died, I was fine. A sobering thought, indeed, while my heart hurt for Wolterman,
his family and friends, and his department.
As best we can piece together, there was carpet but no subfloor. I’m waiting to learn if they were
burned out somehow, cut, or what the hell the situation was.
In terms of what I took away:
• I wish I brought my 4’ hook in to be able to sound the floor as I went. I’ll make more of an effort
of that, even if it means carrying the irons and my hook.
• I shouldn’t have let my guard down as much as I did. The visual evidence was there, but my
gut told me at the door something was off. I started suspicious, but should have stayed
suspicious. Gut feelings are absolutely a trustworthy sense; listen to them, always.
• Self-rescue and crew-rescue techniques are critical. We’ve trained on those techniques over
and over, but talking about them when we got back to quarters after a real-world event
reinforced what options we could have used in the context of “what-if” the incident played out
• If there had been fire in the basement, I have full faith Nick would have either knocked it from
above or handed down the line and given me the chance to survive. My first priority if this
happens again with a conscious, separated firefighter is quickly getting the line in a place to
• I should have created a better mental picture of the home in my head. I knew where the firstto-second floor stairs were, but didn’t think about the location of the basement stairs until 7’s
crew appeared. This is something I could have done earlier. Knowing the type of home and
location of the other stairs, this should have been a no-brainer, but wasn’t.
• Maydays don’t have to be LUNAR — just get out the information you need to, usually where,
what, and who. Keep that mic open as long as you have to, because once you let go, the
shitstorm of radio communication may quite literally ‘bonk’ you to death. Talk and keep talking
until you’ve got it all out.
• Enjoy life. A slow day can turn in an instant. And while we’re still more likely to die in a car
accident driving into work, we have a job that guarantees we’re going into harm’s way and
gives us no guarantee of coming out.
Barrett Dorner, Toledo (OH) Fire & Rescue Department
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