Much has been said for years about “go/no-go” as well as “survivability profile”, and with good reason. There are occasions when, in any event, we cannot enter a building to save a victim, and there are occasions when we can absolutely go inside, search, control the conditions and get the victims out.
Then there are those occasions where the decision is a draw. This is where experience and training come into play, when conditions, resources and related size factors come into play immediately. At that point, every fire you’ve been to, every training you’ve attended – “everything you’ve got” – applies to your immediate decision-making.
Such was the situation for Chief Jonathan Mackey of the Somers, NY, Volunteer Fire Department (SVFD) on February 16, 2022, during a fire in the neighborhood where he lives. It arrived within seconds, with reports of people being trapped and intense fire and smoke conditions.
Our sincere thanks to Mackey and all the members of the SVFD who operated on site. Additionally, firefighters responded from Bedford Hills, Buchanan, Carmel, Croton Falls, Katonah, Mohegan Lake, Mount Kisco, Putnam Valley, South Salem and Yorktown Heights. Special thanks to Westchester County “60-Control” Fire Dispatchers, Lewisboro, Mahopac Falls, North Salem and Westchester County Ambulance and EMS Crews, and the Department of Emergency Services of Westchester County.
On Wednesday, February 16, 2022, the SVFD operated a structure fire in the Heritage Hills section of Somers. As department head, I arrived about a minute after dispatch, with heavy smoke and fire pouring out of the windows on the D side and above the front door on the A side. I transmitted a working fire mission, bringing additional resources to the scene. Several passers-by were there.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by a private resort security guard (Justin Morelli, who is a member of the nearby Mahopac Fire Department), who received reports from passersby of two trapped people. I transmitted a second alarm and relayed to my Deputy Chief Respondent (Greg Lucia) that I was handing over command and beginning a search for casualties.
After my examination, I determined that the only possible tenable space for the victims was in the rooms to the left of the front door, and began an immediate search.
The building consisted of two residential units. I didn’t know which unit had the windows on side A that were giving off smoke.
With heavy fire at the C/D corner, Morelli and I went to the unit on the left. I forced the door open with a Halligan. There was no sign of fire. There was no furniture, so I considered it unlikely that any casualties were in that unit.
I passed to the unit on the right, where the bulk of the fire was. Heavy fire erupted from the C/D corner and from the soffit above the front door.
My first action was to force open and enter through the front door to access the rooms from the hallway on the left (corner A/B), furthest from the fire. The fire came from the top of the front door, but the visibility was clear downwards.
I walked in and moved about seven feet down the hallway, with fire rolling overhead. I was on my knees and I could see the entire living room and kitchen floor and that there were no casualties. I started to move around to walk down the hallway to the bedrooms.
Suddenly the neutral plane fell and I immediately felt extreme heat. I could still see the whole room; it was fire from ceiling to floor, a bright orange glow everywhere, and it seemed like everything was burning. I guess it was a flashover.
With the extreme heat building up, I instinctively turned my body for protection and covered my mask with my hands and began to retreat towards the front door. It was only a matter of seconds. I had no time to think, just to react, and this reaction, based on experience and training, probably saved my life.
According to witness reports, I stayed inside the building for about 30 seconds and appeared to be “on fire” with “charred” bunker material upon exiting.
I immediately headed for the windows on the A side of the building. I tried to enter through the windows of both bedrooms to do VES.
I smashed the window of the room closest to the front door with my Halligan and encountered intense heat and thick smoke. I entered through the window and searched as best I could. With nothing seen or felt near the window, I moved to the second window, which was furthest from the front door. I broke the window and faced the same conditions that I faced at the first window. I was unable to enter through this window due to conditions, but did a visual search from the window sill with half my body inside the window.
With VES not an option, I headed to the C side to find another entry point to continue trying to reach victims.
The fire had progressed rapidly. The back was a wall of fire, with no way in. I went back to the front.
My adrenaline was pumping and I started to feel the effects mentally, but physically it kept me going.
I started going back to side A of the building. I was very tired and losing my motor skills. I tripped, fell and sprawled on the floor. Out of the corner of my eye through my mask, I saw my charred, smoking right arm and coat. I was able to get up and continue to the front of the building.
At that moment, heavy fire came from the front door. I went to the furthest window on side A and tried to VES through the window again. Because of the height of the window and my exhaustion, I could not fit my body through the window.
SVFD ladder 48 arrived and a hand line was stretched to the front door in an attempt to darken the fire to allow re-entry. I was on the bus and was supported by SVFD Lt. Dylan Mechanic, Westchester County DES Battalion 13 Jason Blauvelt, and former Bedford Hills Fire Department Chief Jason Nickson.
The inside of the building was completely burnt out and the 2 inch hand line was not progressing.
I handed the nozzle over to the mechanic and walked down the street to Lucia to report back and get an update on command operations. With the arrival of aircraft and manpower, I knew that I had to switch to command mode again.
Through face-to-face communication, I took command of Lucia and assigned her to the operations role.
Soon after, additional SVFD units arrived, followed by mutual aid societies.
After stretching several handlines, the crews were unable to make progress to allow the search to continue, and the units switched to a defensive operation with 48 scale airflow to protect the connecting exposure.
A reality check
I have been in the fire department for 17 years as a firefighter, officer, chief officer and instructor on the career and volunteer side. I believe in the education that experience brings. Every fire can be a learning experience. I have had many excellent firefighter instructors and teachers pass on their knowledge and experience to me.
I was wearing my full PPE and it did its job. Everything from my helmet to my boots was destroyed, including my self-contained breathing apparatus. Without my balaclava, gloves, etc., the result would have been worse. This diligence comes from practice. When you’re under intense stress, muscle memory takes over.
We preach the recognition of the first signs of conflagration.
One thing I realized afterwards: Covering my mask with my gloved hands and turning around to protect my body and critical areas was key to protecting me from thermal damage. To tell you the truth, most of the first few minutes were blurry, and I wasn’t thinking, I was just doing. My training has started.
Unfortunately, the only resident did not survive, but I know that everything physically possible was done in an attempt to rescue the individual. The victim was found dead in the area of the second window, removed from the front door, approximately three feet from the windowsill. A dog was found during the rescue operations.
I replayed this incident in my head over and over again, and I am in no way saying that everything went perfectly. Under these conditions, perfection was impossible. Getting to a working fire first, operating alone and having to make the go/no go decision is one of the toughest choices an officer or firefighter has to make. To make it even harder, you have seconds to decide.
As a chief officer, this decision is even more complex, because your first instinct is to assume a command role, but sometimes, when the situation calls for it, you must remember your priorities and act. There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, but sometimes you have to push those boundaries to save a life.
In the real world, we are tasked with making life-or-death decisions on a regular basis, and those decisions have serious consequences.
At some point, everyone reading this column will have a “Super Bowl” fire, the a fire or an incident where everything you have done urgently comes into play – every course, training, conference, seminar, article, report. It was Mackey’s Super Bowl fire, and he gave it his all.
What if he wasn’t at work? What if he skipped class, skipped training, forfeited the “it’s too far away” conference, read another NIOSH article or report?
The fact is that our learning and training never stops. In service. In vacations. Paid or paid yourself. Anywhere and anything you can. Take charge of every opportunity, because one day you will come first.
Mackey had what by all accounts was a victim to save. The individual could be near a door, a window or in a closet. He didn’t know, but his training helped him identify where the person could survive. He understood modern fire behavior and applied it in his research. He brought years of active training, education and experience to this fire. Unfortunately, the victim could not be reached, but it was not because of his lack of training, experience and selfless attempts.