Some of the dangers of firefighting are obvious. But others are invisible until the very last, deadly moment. Training Officer Jerry Knapp of the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, N.Y., is taking the opportunity of a recent accident to call for the mitigation of two such dangers through interagency cooperation.
Knapp and West Haverstraw Fire Captain Ken Patterson were injured in January while responding to a natural gas emergency. Construction workers had hit a natural gas main, and evacuations were under way in the southeastern New York City. As the men approached the front door of one home in the evacuation area, an explosion leveled it.
Knapp suffered a concussion, severe bruising and other injuries in the blast. But the captain took the brunt force of the event, including several broken ribs and fractured vertebrae.
Since then, Knapp has turned up the volume on his call for coordinated fire department/utility company response to natural gas incidents.
Fire departments have standard operation procedures for responding to natural gas emergencies. But across the country, utilities’ response to natural gas emergencies varies widely, he said. Improving the coordination of response and cross training, from an overall
municipal point of view, can help prevent what happened to him, and he’s turning up the volume on his call for it. “Really, just a general interest by the public service commission or local utility to train with the fire department would do it. Although it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, natural gas is something we need to review and discuss, maybe over a cup of coffee when things are calm, and come up with a joint response,” he said.
Another widespread problem firefighting involves is something that’s obvious but often underaddressed in municipalities: converted houses. Dwellings that have been legally or illegally altered form a dark and smoke-filled maze that complicate an already life-and-death situation.
“When you cut up a house or put them back together again, it creates gaps where fire can be hidden in big, combustible spaces. Sometimes we’ll go into a house and not see any flames, but the fire is blazing right there above our heads,” said Saginaw Township, Mich., Fire Inspector Kevin O’Brien.
First, someone has to make municipal officials aware that a home is being remodeled or added onto, O’Brien said. Housing codes will take over from there to
prevent just such a potentially difficult fire incident.
Just as dangerous, and avoidable,
Knapp feels, are single-family dwellings that have been converted to single-room occupancy or multifamily living situations illegally.
“You go into a house and so often we find multiple locked doors and a high number of people inside. It’s overcrowded with people, stuff, beds and whatever. That makes it so much harder to figure out who’s still in there and get everybody out,” he said.
At issue, Knapp noted, is municipal enforcement. Another complication is
“If you’ve got a guy who gets caught renting out 10 rooms in one house for $500
each, and you fine him $5,000, he figures pfff… that’s just one month’s rent.”
Overcrowding issues spread out to other quality-of-life issues as well, he notes. Sanitation concerns, parking issues and crime tend to compound the issue of overcrowded residences.
By JODI MAGALLANES