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Do Not Fight a Home Fire–It’s Too Dangerous. Evacuate Quickly to Avoid Severe Burns

Here is a story that shows clearly why, if a fire breaks out in your home, you should get out immediately and call 911 to report the fire, rather than stay inside and try to extinguish the fire yourself. In short: Unforeseen dangers can arise, and they can kill you.

In mid-February in San Francisco, investigators who reviewed last year’s house fire in the Diamond Heights district that killed two city firefighters issued a set of safety recommendations aimed at preventing a similar tragedy in the future.

A sudden flare-up in the burning house, fueled by oxygen coming in from a broken window, caused the deaths of the two firefighters. The men died even though they did not commit any procedural errors, San Francisco fire officials said.

An internal safety investigation on the June 2, 2011 fire indicates that Lt. Vincent A. Perez and Firefighter Paramedic Anthony M. Valerio were killed by temperatures of up to 700 degrees caused by a sudden-moving burst of fire, known as a flashover.

The intense flashover, which lasted for several minutes, was caused when a window shattered in a ground-floor room, fueling the fire with a rush of oxygen, according to the report. The heat was drawn up a stairwell from the basement, where the fire started, towards the open window on the ground floor. Valerio and Perez were standing on the ground floor, and were killed by third degree burns from the wave of heat that came over them. “They were caught in a chimney-type situation,” said Assistant Chief David Franklin, who worked on the team that prepared the report.

Investigators said the flashover was not something that could have easily been prevented or predicted. “What Vincent and Tony did is exactly what all of us firefighters would have done,” said Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, noting that it is standard practice in the department to make an aggressive attack and try to get water on a fire as quickly as possible. “It was something that we really had no control over.”

Valerio and Perez, whose Engine 26 was the first to arrive on scene after the fire was reported at 10:45 a.m., were trying to reach the seemingly small, routine fire through the front door of the four-story wood-framed home, which was built into a hillside with floors both above and below ground level. They conferred with other firefighters arriving on the scene on the ground floor at 10:53 a.m., and agreed that the fire was below them, the report said.

A short time later, around 10:58 a.m., the flashover occurred and pushed back other firefighters who were attempting to enter the building through the garage. Firefighters were ultimately able to put out the fire through a lower-level entrance on the side of the building.

Perez and Valerio were discovered on the ground floor at the top of the stairwell around 11:05 a.m., after failing to respond to several radio calls, officials said. At no time did the two firefighters send out any distress calls or trigger their emergency alarms. The last radio transmission came at 10:52 a.m., when they said, “we’re still looking for it, zero visibility, more to follow,” the report said.

The two men suffered internal and external burns to 40 percent of their bodies, and died of “thermal injuries,” according to the San Francisco Medical Examiner. Perez died at the hospital later the same day, and Valerio died two days later.

While fire protection gear worn by the firefighters appears to have functioned as designed during the flashover, their radios were severely damaged by the intense heat.
“We’re very concerned about it and believe this will become a national issue” about how to prevent radio damage from happening in the future, Hayes-White said.

The report also found that the response to the fire, caused by an electrical short, was delayed by an attempt by the residents to put it out themselves. Hayes-White urged residents to call 911 right away so that professionals can respond promptly. Even if you are not burned, it is possible that inhaling just one or two breaths of smoky air can make you unconscious from smoke inhalation, and thus unable to escape.

If you or someone you know suffers an injury such as third degree burns or smoke inhalation, you should call Kramer & Pollack LLP in Mineola, New York so that the personal injury attorneys in that firm can determine whether another party has legal liability for injuries suffered, and if the injured party has a strong legal case.