By Jim Hill
January 07, 2008
I have always been pro-active when it comes to fire prevention, public education, and emergency preparedness. I've done hundreds of fire education programs for children and adults alike and all the departments I have worked for have taken great pride in their fire prevention programs. I've been a clown, dressed up like "Sparky the Fire Dog," and I've even donned a "Smokey Bea" outfit on a few occasions. One of our favorite programs in West Valley was to take our fire safety programs to the kids during the holiday season with "Santa Claus".
Little did I know, after 29 years in the fire protection business, what an effect seeing one of my firefighters emerge from a house with the limp body of child would have on me. Seeing this firefighter's total look of helplessness and fatigue as he struggled to exit the burning house and get help for the 3 year-old little girl he just pulled from a bedroom one floor above the fire.
As firefighters we train regularly, pull hose, read books, and all view countless training videos. On a daily basis, we deal with injuries, sickness, and every kind of "bad thing" that can happen to people. As firefighters and EMTs, we often must appear almost disconnected from emotion as we deal with those "bad things" nearly every day.
In the early morning hours of December 15, 2007 the Ketchikan Fire Department responded to a report of a fire with "people trapped" inside. Our crews were there in minutes - just minutes! Hoses were pulled and crews went immediately into rescue mode. They quickly suppressed the fire that was confined to the kitchen and seconds later they were upstairs searching for the reported victims. They had all the right equipment: thermal imagers, breathing apparatus, and state-of-the-art personal protective gear. Within minutes that first firefighter emerged - then a second firefighter, this time with a 5 year-old little boy. Minutes later, another firefighter, this time with a 12 year-old little girl whose birthday was just the day before. Soon after, personnel removed a 17 year-old boy from the house. From the time of call to having all four children out of the house was just a few minutes. All four kids were all transported by our paramedics and EMTs to our local hospital where doctors, nurses, and our personnel worked feverishly to save them. To no avail! All four of these beautiful, young, and energetic children died and now we all grieve. We all grieve for the children and their families and I grieve for my firefighters. I grieve for them because they have children and all the training in the world can't prepare anyone for what they had to deal with that early morning. One of my firefighters has been here twenty-five years and he told me he was hoping to retire before he had to do what he did that night.
The walls and doorways of that upstairs bedroom today are stained with soot and you can see where firefighters crawled and searched, their gloved hands feeling the walls and smearing the toxic black soot into the paint. The fire never made it up the stairs but it didn't matter, the deadly smoke did. There is bedding tossed about with broken glass and other evidence of the chaos that took place in that upstairs bedroom. During the investigation we noticed some unopened birthday presents for the 12 year-old girl that was then clinging to life at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. She never had the chance to open all her presents because she died the following evening.
These kids thought they were safe! Every child should feel safe at home! Their smoke alarm failed to operate and they were trapped by smoke and super-heated air that traveled up the stairwell. The window to their room was 25 feet in the air with no way out but to jump. They never got the window open.
To My Brother and Sister Firefighters Across America: Keep doing what you are doing! Keep doing fire prevention activities. Keep training and keep each other safe. YOU are the most important person on the fire-ground. You were all Heroes the day you put the badge on! - and remember: The next fire you prevent just may be the one that let's you go home to your family.
To Local and National Members of the Media: You can help make a difference here! Contact your local fire departments and ask them if what I say isn't true! Sadly, it's true every single day!
To the Public We Proudly Serve:
As firefighters we will continue to respond. We will be there when the next bell rings. We will accept great risk for you and your property. We will continue to read headlines about °the fire that killed someone else or someone else's family.°± We will always be there when you need us. Please remember though, we can't protect everyone. You need to help us too.
It's no longer OK to say "Sorry", I had an accidental fire. Fire Kills, and no matter how quickly we respond, all the training, high-tech equipment, and technological advances we have at our disposal, sometimes it's just too late! So practice fire prevention with your family! Learn from what happened in Ketchikan on December 15, 2007.
Maybe the life you help us save in 2008 will be yours or a loved-one!
James W. Hill
Captain °Retired - West Valley City Fire Department
Received January 04, 2008 - Published January 07, 2008
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