Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

By David Greene

Many of you may not catch the reference, but the title of this quarter’s article refers to an old Kenny Rogers song. In it, Kenny stresses the importance of knowing how to play the card game poker. That is, you have to know when to “hold your cards” and “call” the other player when you suspect you have a better hand. Alternatively, and perhaps more importantly, you have to know when to fold and turn your cards in without betting anymore, if you suspect the other player has a better hand than you. When you fold, you accept that you will lose all of the money that you have bet up until that point. It is “folding” that I would like to discuss in this article.

Many years ago, I was the Incident Commander at a two-story, 3,500 square foot house fire. The fire was on the second floor and heavy smoke was visible from both eaves. The family had self-extricated prior to our arrival. A crew of four entered the home and reported that on the second division there was high heat and zero visibility. I’ve often written in this column about how much easier it is to run into burning buildings than it is to command them from outside. Such was the case at this fire. There was little to no steam production and the smoke increased in both volume and turbulence. The crews reported on the radio that the layout was hindering their location of the fire. The frustration in their voices matched the frustration I was feeling outside. After a few minutes of continued lack of progress (and increased frustration), one of the crew came outside and met me in the front yard. The firefighter tried to talk to me but was hindered by his mask and the many foreground sounds. I put my ungloved hand on his helmet to pull his face next to my ear and it was like I had touched a hot stove. I instantly took my hand off his helmet, looked back at the house with its continued signs of fire progression, and thought, this is bad. I immediately ordered the firefighter to go get the rest of the crew off of the second floor, I had the engine on scene sound the air horns to evacuate the building and switched to defensive operations. Only a minute or two after everyone evacuated and was accounted for, a flashover occurred on the second floor. Fire vented from both eaves and I began planning on what I thought would be the proverbial parking lot that I would leave at the end of the night. Fortunately, the crews on the scene did an excellent job. They positioned several exterior hose lines and began to knock down the fire from the outside. They were even able to perform quite a bit of salvage that saved many of the contents on the first floor from the massive amount of water we were flowing on the second. Strangely, during one of my laps around the building during exterior suppression efforts, I found a firefighter had entered one of the bedrooms through a window. I ordered him out until we could knock the fire down enough to verify the structural integrity of the home. Once the fire was out, an investigation revealed a small second-floor layout was complemented by a tremendous amount of storage in the adjacent attic spaces accessible only by small panel doors. The storage areas contained couches, mattresses, and other combustibles with high heat release rates. There was simply no way that the interior crew could have reached these combustibles with an interior stream despite them trying until their helmets were nearly melting off their heads. At the end of the fire, the majority of the roof had been burnt off and we broke a load-bearing wall inside with the weight of the water we applied. Some of the firefighters were not happy about the decision to switch to defensive operations, as is often the case anytime that happens. However, there were no injuries, which is a win, all day, every day.

Every incident we respond to brings with it a different set of circumstances. In many building fires, such as a stove fire, confining the fire to the room of origin is possible. In some cases, confining the fire to the building of origin is the only viable option. In urban areas with structures that are placed very near each other, confining the fire to the building of origin may not even be possible and of course, any life hazards present will further complicate or change our strategy. In the case of my fire, there were no immediate exposures and evacuating the firefighters from the building removed all of the life hazards. Considering all factors, my fire was easy. Let’s examine a fire that was not easy.

On December 3, 1999, a fire occurred at the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse building in Massachusetts. The building was a six-story, 15,000 square foot maze of connecting meat lockers with the walls and ceiling insulated by layers of cork, tar, and polystyrene or polyurethane foam. The building was 93 years old and had only one staircase at the center of the building. The fire started from an overturned candlelit by two homeless persons who were squatting in the building. After recognizing the fire, the two homeless persons left the building and did not call 9-1-1. The fire burned for 30 to 90 minutes prior to a passerby notifying the Worchester Fire Department. The first arriving engine found heavy smoke showing. Eleven minutes into the fire, a nearby business owner reported to a police officer that “there may be two people living in that building.” Thirty-three minutes after the alarm, two firefighters from Rescue 1 reported that they were lost on the fourth floor and were running out of air.  Four firefighters from Engine 3 and Ladder 2 attempted to find the crew from Rescue 1 but became lost themselves. One hour and forty-five minutes into the fire, the Incident Commander made a decision that I hope and pray I will never have to make. Over the radio, the Incident Commander transmitted, “Command to all Companies, evacuate the building, sound the evacuation signal, evacuate the building.” Make no mistake, his decision to evacuate was nothing like mine, it was extremely difficult and painful. His decision to evacuate was made knowing that there were six firefighters still in the building that could not escape on their own. However, faced with a progressing fire, impossible interior conditions, and the potential for structural collapse from reports of cracked exterior walls, the Incident Commander decided to fold. He did so, knowing that he would lose everything that he had invested so far. What cannot be quantified is the number of firefighters’ lives that he saved by evacuating when he did. I am certain there was more than one firefighter at the scene that night that wanted to go into the building to try to locate their brothers. It took eight days to locate all of the firefighters in the Worcester Warehouse fire due to an interior collapse and fire damage. While this is one of our fire service’s greatest tragedies, it very well could have been worse if the Incident Commander had not evacuated the building and switched to defensive operations when he did. Tragically, Lieutenants Timothy Jackson, James Lyons, and Thomas Spencer as well as Firefighters Paul Brotherton, Jeremiah Lucey, and Joseph McGuirk gave the ultimate sacrifice that cold December night. The two homeless persons who unintentionally started the fire were later located uninjured.

I am not trying to draw a parallel or make a comparison between my fire and the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire. There is no comparison. In Worchester, a very old, very large abandoned/vacant building with limited access and egress, containing extremely combustible insulation with penetrations both vertically and horizontally allowing for rapid-fire spread and no sprinkler system was the hand that the Worcester Fire Department was dealt.  

Whether you are in the Southeast, Northeast, Midwest, Southwest, or West Coast, firefighters are built about the same. They do not like to lose and many views any kind of evacuation or transition from interior to exterior attack as a loss. I am certain that this view is exponentially worse when firefighters are still in the building when an evacuation occurs. However, our service is sometimes dealt a bad hand. When that happens, we have to know when to “hold ‘em” and know when to “fold ‘em.” Although we all hope that a decision to “fold” will occur early enough in the incident to leave with all of our firefighters, we have to be prepared to quickly evaluate our current investment, consider what our current conditions and resources are, and make a rapid decision to “hold” or “fold.” In the case of Worcester, the Incident Commander likely saved countless firefighters. Anyone taking command should be prepared to make a similar gut-wrenching decision given similar circumstances.

God bless the families of Lieutenants Timothy Jackson, James Lyons, Thomas Spencer, and Firefighters Paul Brotherton, Jeremiah Lucey, and Joseph McGuirk.

Be safe and do good.

David Greene has over 31 years of experience in the fire service and is currently the deputy chief with Colleton County (S.C.) Fire-Rescue. He holds a PhD in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University and an MBA degree from the University of South Carolina. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, holds Member Grade in the Institution of Fire Engineers, is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy and is a Nationally Registered Paramedic. He can be reached at dagreene@lowcountry.com.

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