On Wednesday, February 18, 2009, Elyria Fire Captain Joe Pronesti experienced a close call when he responded to a fire alarm activation call on a college campus. The first arriving engine reported heavy smoke coming from multiple buildings. In search of the source of the smoke, crews would learn the fire was in a tunnel that connected multiple buildings on the campus.
Length: 70 minutes
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Captain Pronesti was involved in advancing a hose line and fighting the underground fire. While approximately 300’ inside the tunnel on the attack, his low air alarm started ringing. He ran out of air before making it completely out, disconnected his regulator and breathed products of combustion. Upon exiting, he provided a briefing to his commander and without warning, or his knowledge, collapsed to the ground (from smoke exposure and exhaustion). This occurred just a few minutes after exiting the structure. Had he collapsed in the smoke filled tunnel, the results could have been catastrophic.
On a side note, at the time of the fire, the Elyria Fire Department was undergoing an evaluation of the fire department budget and staffing. There was an outside consultant on premise when the fire alarm activation came in and, to say the least, the crews were worried and distracted. Some might even speculate they were frustrated and perhaps feeling betrayed by the city.
When you are worried, it can weigh on your mind and on your situational awareness because part of what is on your mind is the concern of cutbacks. This can occupy some of the space that might otherwise be used to form situational awareness at an emergency scene. While Joe only makes a brief mention of this, during our extensive conversation off-line, it was evident that he was distracted by the concerns over fire department cutbacks.
Raw video taken as first companies were arriving:
Some takeaways from the interview include:
- The first arriving engine reported heavy smoke from multiple buildings. Captain Pronesti noted the size up “didn’t make sense in his mind.” This can happen when we receive visual or audible information that is outside our norm. They don’t see many large building fires in Elyria, let alone multiple large building fires all at the same time at the same location. This caused confusion among responders.
- Relaxed inspections and code enforcement led to the tunnels becoming a storage location for extra furniture and supplies, providing fuel for the fire.
The department was used to handling fires with their on-duty staff and were on the mindset they could handle this fire as well, though they would end up calling mutual aid from several other communities.
- Captain Pronesti went through four SCBA bottles and was fatigued. But he pressed on because his mindset was he needed to be on the attack line.
- When he ran out of air, he was, by his estimate, at least 10 minutes into the tunnel, with less than five minutes of air left.
- As happens so often when smaller departments experience an unusually large fire, the responders can get tricked into treating the big fire like it’s a routine house fire. A fire in a 300+ foot tunnel with no other way out is anything but routine and nothing like a house fire.
- As Captain Pronesti shared… Ego eats brain… and he was caught up on the perceived need to be in the middle of the action at all costs.
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