Physical and Mental Close Call

May 5th, 2014 was a day that changed my life and the lives of my family forever. I didn’t realize that this would be such a significant day in my life until months later, however, I am very thankful to be alive. That B-shift morning started like most others on Engine 8, a nice, sunny, spring morning, riding a couple routine calls before lunch. My engineer and I were the only two normally assigned that day as the two firefighters on the back of my engine were just filling in for the day. Those two strong firefighters played a vital role in my survival that day. We had just finished lunch, still sitting at the table when the call came in. A structure fire was dispatched on the far end of our assigned territory. Three engines, two ladders and one battalion chief were initially dispatched, which is common protocol for a single-family dwelling. Our heavy rescue and an additional battalion chief were added to the call. A neighbor reported a fire in the basement with smoke showing.


We knew the arrival of our company (Engine 8) and adjoining Station 10 would be within seconds of each other, with them possibly arriving first. Engine 10 arrived on scene first, laid a supply line, gave a size up, assumed command, and deployed a 1¾” attack line for fire attack. Ladder 10 arrived simultaneously with Engine 10, and assumed the role of ventilation. Our company arrived within seconds of Station 10 equipment and was assigned search and rescue. My personal size up was moderate smoke showing from the attic and eaves on a single-story residential structure with a basement. Engine 8 personnel departed the truck with hand tools and a thermal imaging camera (TIC) while our engineer assisted the engineer of Engine 10 with establishing a water supply. While we were approaching the structure, I had decided our search plan was to enter division one to search above the fire for any viable life. I observed a company forcing the division ‘A’ door, which I assumed was Ladder 10 taking the role of a split assignment — ventilation and forcible entry. At this point I was under the assumption that fire attack was advancing on the fire via a division ‘C’ basement door.

We made entry through the front door with me leading the way, by scanning with the TIC and sounding the floor as we went. Smoke was banked to about two feet off the floor. In a matter of seconds we had completed a search of hallway and living room. I observed a crew with an attack line behind us and after communicating with them they advised the fire was on division 1 and they were attempting to locate. Now thinking the fire was on division one, I requested vertical ventilation to improve conditions. We continued our search for life and fire, and completed the same quickly, with no fire conditions found. I then advised command we had an all clear with a personal accountability report (PAR). While heading out of the structure I located the door to the basement. Around this time frame it was communicated by ventilation that the fire was in the basement on the division ‘C/D’ side. Upon finding the basement door and with the attack line being on division one, their quickest option was to descend the stairs to the basement. I advised fire attack in a face-to-face to manage the door for me while I sounded the stairs for them prior to their descent. It was never my intention to descend into the basement, just to sound the stairs for fire attack since they were without hand tools.

I took approximately three to four steps down finding the stairs were intact at which point I turned around to exit finding the door to my egress closed. I later learned that command had ordered an evacuation, from the structure, that I didn’t hear transmitted. When the search and fire attack crews exited the structure, they thought everyone was together. With the two crews evacuating together it should have been six personnel; however, I was missing. Once I found the door closed, I could hear Engine 10 on the other side of the door. With only needing the door opened I immediately transmitted on the radio, telling them “they had closed the door on me and I needed it opened.” This was after several failed attempts with my radio receiving a busy tone when trying to transmit. The door was inward swinging to the steps and had no doorknob or way for me to open the door. I purposely didn’t call a Mayday at first because personnel were on the other side of the door and I needed to immediately relay my message. If I realized they were outside the structure, I would have most definitely called a Mayday, even though command was already aware of all my Mayday information hearing my transmission — location, unit #, name, assignment, and what I needed. 21

Command immediately contacted Engine 10 confirming they received my request and they acknowledged advising they had cleared the structure, but three personnel — E10 Captain and two firefighters from E8 — were re-entering to locate me. At the same time Ladder 52 and Rescue 5 were making entry through the division ‘C’ basement door to locate the stairs. E52 was then assigned as a secondary RIC team. I know of twice during this time I came back on the radio “you have to hurry; I am burning up.” I contemplated breaching the wall; however, I knew from our search that I was between a bathroom and kitchen, which would make it extremely difficult if not impossible to breach. Also my hook was four feet long, also making it difficult to breach in a three-foot wide stairway. I began beating with all my might with my hook against the door to make noise for the search crew. It never even crossed my mind to activate my PASS; however, my beating on the door is what led the search crew to me. I knew that the door would not open in the conventional way; however, I also never attempted to put my hand under the door to open in which I found wasn’t an option of the fire. At this point visibility was zero with my TIC “whiting out” due to the high heat conditions, the air in my cylinder had become heat saturated making it hot to breath and I felt as if I was being stung by a million yellow jackets. The ceiling overhead stayed intact the entire duration, making my position like a chimney with a cap over it. I knew my only other option was to go down stairs into the basement, which I didn’t want to do; however, I couldn’t take more of the beating where I was.

At this moment, I could hear the rescue crew coming down the hallway; the door swung open and two hands grabbed hold of me. We immediately began heading out under extreme heat conditions. I advised command that they had reached me and that we were exiting the structure. Command immediately called for an evacuation and PAR of all crews prior to defensive operations. While the four of us exited the structure I noticed one crewmember off to the right as if disoriented. I was able to grab hold of him and pull him back with us. While discussing the fire with him some time later he explained to me that he had become turned around and separated from us. All he could see was a big plate glass window that he wanted to breach due to the extreme heat; however, he was afraid the fire would flash on the rest of us if he did so. This encounter only lasting only a few seconds felt like a lifetime to him.

I cannot explain the feeling of relief and pure adrenalin I was experiencing when I was safe outside and able to breathe in fresh air. Fellow firefighters brought me water and helped me to dress down from my ensemble. I was taken to EMS, which evaluated me finding my vital signs extremely elevated. I didn’t have any pain or blisters at this time, just extremely red skin, like sun burn. I sat out in rehab until my vitals fell in normal limits and declined any treatment or transport. I returned to my crew to conduct overhaul operations and looked at the interior layout. After completing overhaul, we dressed down again and I found blisters on my wrists with more forming. I didn’t want to report it to command, but knew the policy and was required to do so. Command requested EMS to respond non-emergency for a checkup. EMS arrived and re-evaluated my vitals, which were still elevated somewhat and my entire upper body was blood red. I declined transport but had to report to urgent care for treatment. Once evaluated at urgent care I was determined to have second-degree burns on both wrists and forearms, with first degree burns on my upper torso. I was given care instructions, medications and sent home until further notice. After a week, I was able to report to light duty until I could return to full duty.

After returning to work everything returned to normal, so I thought until my mental close call that hit me out of nowhere. You see, prior to this event I had no knowledge or education dealing with mental health personal care, signs/symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in my prior 16 years as a firefighter. I began having trouble sleeping, re-experiencing the fire, nightmares; feeling detached from everyone but my children, depressed, and I had become very emotional. I would later understand these all to be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. May 27, 2014, while trying to suppress my feelings, I self-medicated with alcohol. I was tired of being alone and missed my children, as I was divorced from their mother. I headed to a friend’s house. Due to this poor emotional, alcohol-influenced decision I was pulled over and charged with driving under the influence. The police officer and police department were very nice, compassionate and respectful. I was released with a written promise to appear in court.

I didn’t recognize or realize the gradually onset of feelings and emotions. Through the education I have received since that time, I realize my emotional distress during that period. I wasn’t thinking clearly, self-medicating to cope. I realized I needed some help and made an employee assistance program (EAP) appointment for PTSD assistance. The downfall to many EAP resources are that they are not experienced dealing with emergency responders. The makeup and reaction we have is different than that of the general public. This was the case with my encounter, with no fault to this doctor; the experience was just not there. Subsequently following this assistance I made an appointment with a local outpatient treatment center for counseling. I was placed in a 40 hour intensive outpatient program, receiving treatment and coping skills, which has assisted me in living a normal life. Following this counseling I began taking classes on critical incident training, suicide prevention, substance abuse prevention to better assist emergency services and myself. While attending these courses, I found that I needed more assistance with my PTSD to ensure I had all the needed tools to keep my alcoholism under control.

I searched for months looking for a treatment facility geared towards emergency responders and finally decided on one in Westminster, Massachusetts. I attended an in-patient treatment facility for nine days at the On-Site Academy, which is solely for emergency responders and military personnel suffering from various forms of critical incident stress and/or substance abuse. A participant can stay as long as they feel unable to thrive at home. While in the program various activities are provided including but not limited to: anger management, group discussions, Alcoholics Anonymous, group cooking, massages, debriefings, one-on-one counseling and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). While in the academy, a participant has down time to do as they wish or even leave the house for outside activities.

The stigma surrounding our mental well being in the fire service must change as well as the common acceptance of alcohol among first responders as a coping tool. We train to prepare for when an emergency occurs in order to have the necessary skills and be physically prepared; however, we must do the same mentally. This is why I am standing up to share my story, to at least make a dent in this stigma and to show that it is OK to say you’re not OK! We must be able to recognize the warning signs of substance abuse, critical incident stress and risks for suicide in our coworkers and ourselves.

Perry Hall grew up in the fire service with his father in North Carolina. He went on to become a career firefighter — large municipal department 500+ members — with over 20 years in the fire service, both as a volunteer and paid firefighter, holding various positions. Throughout his career, Hall obtained a number of certifications, B.A.S. in Fire Administration and is currently very involved as a Fire/Rescue Instructor. Currently, he is an advocate for first responders and works to educate others about the effects of trauma among first responders and how important mental wellness is for emergency responders.

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