As fire prevention week is upon us, it has been a year since a devastating fire razed 11 apartments and three businesses in the downtown Prince Rupert core on Oct. 5, 2020.
Members of the Prince Rupert Fire Rescue (PRFR) reflect on the life-saving efforts made by the crew on that day when a man was rescued, and working smoke detectors plus alarm systems aided in the safe escape of tenants.
Arriving on a fire scene can be extremely fast-paced, chaotic with pandemonium all around, Chad Cooper, deputy fire chief, said. A clear head and quick thought process are necessary to make life-saving decisions to rescue victims and keep the rescuers safe.
“When we have multiple reports coming in, we have people running up to us, yelling at us, saying ‘the fire is here or people are trapped there’. We have to decipher all of that information within a split second,” Cooper said.
James Daniele was one of the crew members at the 2020 blaze and has been a firefighter for more than 22 years.
“When you get to a scene, you feel everything. You feel scared. You feel excited. You feel apprehensive. You feel aggressive. You feel everything,” Daniele said. “On top of those feelings, you are hoping that no one is in there, hoping that no one gets hurt, you are hoping the wind doesn’t pick up or hoping there is no propane in there. There are a million things you are thinking about. And everything has to happen fast.”
“You have to formulate a plan and put that plan into action … So we block out the noise and focus on the incident to get the job done,” Cooper said.
“As firefighters, we train every day, so we don’t get it wrong when we are called into action. It almost becomes second nature and instinct for us.”
Cooper said his job, as the incident commander, is to look after everyone on the fire scene. It can be both rewarding and stressful.
He said it is not just a matter of everyone grabbing a hose and shooting water at flames to douse them. Each firefighter is assigned different duties at an emergency scene. Some search for victims, hook up hose lines or search for the ‘seat of the fire’, where the fire originated from — all of this while trying to keep property damage to a minimum.
“It is highly organized. We call it organized chaos as that’s what it may look like to someone on the street, but everything is highly calculated,” Cooper said.
“As firefighters, we assess the conditions, prioritize what tasks need to be accomplished and in what order. Obviously, life safety is first, ” Daniele said.
As with the Oct. 5 fire, the constant daily training that firefighters engage in is essential to keep skill levels at their height so rescues can be successful.
Once on the scene, it was ascertained that a victim was trapped in the building firefighters quickly went into rescue mode. They were able to hoist a ladder to a second-floor suite window. They broke the glass and entered the structure, Cooper said.
Firefighters face extreme heat and severe danger in unknown situations, where it is easy for the occupants who do know the area to become disorientated and confused. Trapped victims, especially children, may hide, causing a rescue to be even more difficult.
Daniele said firefighters have techniques that involve either a ‘left or right-hand’ search.
“So if we enter a room, we decide which way to go. One of us would stay against the wall winding our body along the floor. My partner holds on to me or has some grasp, so we are one unit moving together,” he said. “Furniture, beds, what have you, the classic hide in the closet or wondering where the doorknob is — our training allows for all these situations.”
“The firefighters experienced zero visibility while they were in there. They searched the room, found the missing occupant, and guided them back to the window. Firefighters were able to rescue the victim down the ladder,” Cooper said.
When firefighters are attending an incident, Daniele said there must be at least two communication points such as sight, voice, and touch.
“The rules say you have two of those things. We have to get it done. We don’t have ten minutes. If there are only two of us and not ten of us — it’s not good. The stress is huge,” he said because you may be rushing to find a victim.
“There is always the question of what if you miss someone. What if that one sweep with your hand misses a victim. What about children? You are looking for a much smaller package. It can be crazy.” Daniele said. “It is terrifying for trapped victims.”
“They become disorientated. In that situation, you can not see your hand in front of your face. There is dark heavy, extremely deadly, toxic stuff around them that they are breathing in,” the longtime emergency responder said. “Firefighters have all this fantastic gear that we are provided, breathing apparatus with fresh air – a victim doesn’t have that. What they do have is seconds – they take a couple of gulps, and then they are down, a couple more they are dead.”
“When you look around a room, everything has plastics in it to some degree, which burn into incredibly potent poisons,” Daniele said.“Breathing it in is the equivalent of drinking poison.”
Once rescued, the victims are transferred to BC Ambulance care and transported to the hospital.
After rescuing the tenants, Cooper said crews continued to ‘sweep’ the second floor where the residences were located. When no other victims were found, fire crews transitioned into ‘offensive fire tact’, Cooper said. Offensive tact is when the fire is aggressively fought from the inside of the burning structure.
“Our firefighters gave a good shot at trying to contain the fire, but due to the age of the structure, multiple additions and void spaces in the building, the fire got into the structural members of the building. Firefighters were transitioned to defensive strategy,” Cooper said.
Defensive strategy is where firefighters move to the exterior of a structure or building to operate handlines and nozzles on the outside. It can be just as dangerous as inside a building.
Jordan Vendittelli has been with PRFR for just over three years. At the building fire, he was cloaked in smoke above the burning building posted at the top of the 75 ft. ladder truck.
“I was originally sent up the ladder to see if the fire had broken through the roof. It hadn’t, so I got called back down to put water through the windows,” Vendittelli said.
His time on the ground was short-lived when fire was spotted at the back of the building. His job was to watch for the fire breaking through the roof and to watch for structural integrity being compromised.
“I had control of the nozzle that puts out the most water. I was probably flowing upwards of 1,250 gallons, and the handlines are like 200,” Vendittelli said.
Visibility at times was great, and at others, it was non-existent due to the way the wind direction and if the floodlights were on. In a smoke engulfed situation, the beaming lights on the ladder in a smoke engulfed situation, create the same blinding experience as car high-beams in fog, Vendittelli said.
“The reaction from handling such output of water can heighten senses when the ladder jerks,” Venditell said.
“All senses are on, all the time,” Daniele added.
Cooper said often the fire department receives feedback that isn’t all too positive, blaming them for creating excessive damage or not doing enough to extinguish a fire. He said the crews work together as a team, and it can be disheartening to hear or read on social media such things.
“With main-street type of fires, where there is a strip of businesses – they are very, very challenging in which to fight a fire. This is due to close proximity of the buildings and with the fire transferring from one business to the next,” Cooper said. “That is how you can see a whole city block burned down. For everyone’s safety, we do get to a point where we say a building has to come down so we can save the rest of the block.”
“On behalf of senior management, I want to express gratitude to our firefighters. They work very hard keeping up their skills and maintaining knowledge and triaging — all so that when we are called to action so they can perform rescues. They go above and beyond to rescue our residents here,” Cooper said.
Despite some nay-sayers, Vendittelli and Daniele said being a firefighter is the best job in the world, and neither one could say what the best aspect of the job is.
“Jordan and I are both born and raised in Prince Rupert,” Daniele said. “A lot of the people that we serve, we know. So that is wonderful and horrible at the same time.”
“They never phone you when they are having a great day. They phone you when they are having a horrible day,” Daniele said. “As a bystander, when you are witnessing something bad, you want to help. We have the ability to do that, so that is wonderful, but we are doing it under terrible conditions. We are trying to augment the best possible outcome of a bad situation.”
Being part of the fire rescue squad is not always like in the movies where firefighters are hanging out at backyard barbeques, they both said.
“There are personalities everywhere. Sometimes they mashup and sometimes not so much,” Vendittelli said. “But when dispatch tells us we are headed somewhere, that stuff gets pushed aside. You won’t find anyone working closer together than us.”
“The type of guys that choose a career like this are focussed and motivated, Daniele said. “I think that when the times are quiet, which is wonderful for the community, we get an itchy trigger finger. [In fire situations] you will never find more motivated people working in unison anywhere in town. At that moment, we are as good as we can be.”
K-J Millar | Journalist
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