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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Lessons Learned: “That could have been us”



On Sunday morning, October 9, 2011, many of the Green Isle firefighters were at the station preparing for their annual pork chop dinner that was to be held later in the day. During the set-up, the fire department was paged for a mutual aid response to a neighboring city on a reported “house explosion.” Green Isle responded with five firefighters in engine #631—a 1991 Ford Forstner pumper—and headed toward the call. (This would be the last time this truck responded to a fire.)

The crew suited up and got into their air packs during the response. No one was wearing a seat belt. When they came to the intersection of Co. Rd. 27 and 72, they planned to turn left at the T intersection. The driver applied the air brakes, but nothing happened as the pedal went to the floor. The driver managed a downshift, but it was too little too late to stop the set of events that was in motion. The truck swerved to the right—tires screeching as they left scuffmarks on the pavement—the truck left the road, went into the ditch, and rolled over.

The truck was totaled...note the booster tank.
The State Patrol report indicates that the brakes failed and the truck rolled over one time. A witness to the crash said the truck rolled two times. Either way, as the truck rolled, the 1,000-gallon booster tore loose from the truck and broke apart. Equipment and dirt went flying everywhere as the truck came to rest on its wheels, pointed back in the direction it came from. The pre-connected hoses in the cross lays had flown out and were wrapped around the truck like a ribbon on package.

One of the witnesses to the accident was a firefighter from another department who was also responding the call. He notified the Sibley County dispatcher who immediately started emergency responders to the crash site. As the scene began to stabilize, responders were dealing with the emotions of handling a serious emergency involving their friends and fellow firefighters. (We handle other people’s emergencies with great proficiency, but we often do not handle our emergencies as easily.) Neighboring departments came to assist, and after tending to the injured they spent time walking the fields at the crash site and picking up the equipment that had been thrown as the truck flipped.

Equipment was thrown from the truck.

Fire Chief Scott Vos was on his way home from a hunting trip when he realized he had a message on his phone. When Vos retrieved the voicemail it said, “Scott, we rolled the pumper. Everyone is alive, but I am not sure how bad they’re hurt.” The call was from one of the assistant Green Isle fire chiefs. Subsequent calls were chaotic, and the poor cell coverage only added to the anxiety as the news slowly got better. Though each of the firerfighters was hurt and transported to the hospital, there were no serious injuries for any of them. All were discharged and home later that afternoon. Chief Vos reflected, “I have no idea how they lived through it.”

Fire Chief Vos is determined to pass on the lessons learned from the Green Isle crash.

So what can we learn from this?

Seat Belts - Seat belt usage needs to be mandatory, it needs to be in your policy, and it needs to be enforced—it’s the law. No exceptions.

Truck Maintenance - In Minnesota, fire apparatus are exempt from the annual DOT inspection. However, if the truck is involved in an accident, a DOT inspection will occur and the results will be part of the accident investigation—and potential criminal investigation. The truck and your department will be held to the DOT standards. Good truck maintenance and detailed records are critical. In the eyes of the court, if it was not documented, it never happened. An annual DOT inspection and detailed maintenance records are good risk management. 

Talk About What Happened - The use of the regional Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) team “helped everybody” as the “raw emotions” of caring for other responders and friends was talked through and the incident was reviewed. Chief Vos said a separate meeting with only the firefighters involved was critical to getting the department functioning again and restoring relationships.

Risk vs. Benefit - The responders are of no use if they don’t get to the scene. The reported house explosion turned out to be a stove fire.

Talk about what happened in Green Isle with your department. Hold to the standards on safety, and don’t let a deviation from that standard become the new normal. We thank Chief Vos and the Green Isle Fire Department for sharing their story and their “lessons learned.”

Many of the state’s fire chiefs have said under their breath: “That could have been us.”

Remember:

Responder Safety = Public Safety


Up next time: “The Standing Ovation”

In the meantime, stay safe and be careful.
 
Rob

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