The harrowing story of four Sacramento, California, firefighters who were trapped by flashover in a two-story residential structure is one in which a number of seemingly trivial events added up and almost cost the lives of a captain and three firefighters. The accounts of this fire and the circumstances surrounding it have been well documented. To the credit of all involved, the story of Stilt Court was an open book as soon as all the facts were assembled. The Sacramento City (CA) Fire Department (SFD) has approached the incident from the standpoint of sharing the lessons learned so that others may live. Moreover, this incident shows that the present fire survival training of our firefighters needs to be supplemented with training in how to overcome and manage emotions when in circumstances that pose serious injury or death. In this article, the behavior and actions of Captain Jeff Helvin, who was caught in a flashover, are analyzed from the perspective of how he overcame his emotions and saved his life, using a process that is similar to that of working through grief. [For a personal account, see “Sacramento Near Miss of Four Firefighters” by Jeff Helvin (What We Learned, April 2010, 199-202).]
THE OFFICIAL INVESTIGATION
The following information is taken from the official investigation of the Stilt Court residential fire. Some language has been added for clarity.
On October 7, 2008, Sacramento Regional Fire Emergency Communications Center (SRFECC) received multiple 911 calls for a building fire at 17 Stilt Court. The callers stated smoke was coming from the second floor of the house.
At 0929 hours, SRFECC dispatched a residential structure fire assignment. The SFD dispatched three engines, two ladder trucks, two battalion chiefs, and one paramedic unit (Engines 15, 18, and 30; Trucks 2 and 5; Battalion Chiefs 3 and 4; and Medic 30).
Engine 15 (E15) arrived first on scene, within 6 minutes and 7 seconds of the initial dispatch, and reported heavy dark smoke from the second floor. E15 was to initiate fire attack and requested the second-due engine (E18) take command, establish a water supply, and pull a backup hoseline to assist E15 with fire attack. The E15 crew—consisting of the captain, the nozzle firefighter, and a backup firefighter—stretched a 1¾-inch hoseline through the front door and proceeded to the second floor to search for fire.
E18 arrived 35 seconds after E15 with only three crew members—a firefighter who was working for a few hours as an acting captain while his captain was at a meeting, the nozzle firefighter, and the engineer. E18’s acting captain established “Stilt Command” and directed his nozzle firefighter to pull a backup hoseline. It should be noted that SFD typically staffs equipment with four firefighters and at the time of this incident did not have standard operating procedures (SOPs) for emergency responses when companies are at decreased strength.
Command (E18’s acting captain) was able to perform a 360° lap of the building to get a look at all four sides of the house. During the walk-around, he opened a sliding glass door on the Bravo side [Alpha (A) = address side, Bravo (B) = left side, Charlie (C) = back side, Delta (D) = right side] and noticed two windows opened on the B side on the second floor. Command went back to the A side of the building and noticed the E18 nozzle firefighter assisting with the advance of the initial hoseline from E15 through the front door. Command ordered E18’s nozzle firefighter to assist E15 with advancing the hoseline upstairs. Command did not advise E15’s captain that an additional firefighter had been assigned to E15. Command then advised the third-arriving engine (E30) to staff the hoseline that had been pulled to the front door to back up fire attack. A water supply was established; E18 was connected to the hydrant feeding water to E15.
E15’s captain advised Command that they were not able to locate the fire on the second floor and that they needed positive-pressure ventilation (PPV). (PPV is performed by placing a gas-powered fan at the front door to remove smoke and fire gases through an exhaust opening in a building. The exhaust point is created by breaking windows or by cutting a hole in the roof. PPV is typically assigned to truck companies.) Command advised the E15 captain that there was no truck company at the scene to perform PPV. Command advised E15’s captain that a sliding door had been opened on the first floor to try to clear out some of the smoke. At about the same time, E15 captain had opened three windows on the second floor—one window at the top of the stairs and two windows in the master bedroom.
E30 and Medic 30 (M30) arrived on scene 3 minutes and 42 seconds after E15. E30’s nozzle and backup firefighters began donning their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on the front lawn, preparing to staff the backup hoseline. E30’s engineer placed a 24-foot extension ladder to the B/A corner of the building, and M30’s firefighter placed a 14-foot roof ladder to the A side of the building.
The M30 firefighter went to the D side of the building and noticed fire coming out of a window. He used a 2 × 4 to clear the window of glass in an effort to remove smoke from the building. Prior to breaking the window glass, he noted that the window was cracked; he then broke out the sliding glass door and removed the screen on the C side. He did not announce his intent to break out windows on the first floor prior to taking action.
After the M30 firefighter evaluated the B side of the building, he went back to the A side and advised the E30 captain that the fire was on the first floor in the C/D corner. The discovery of fire on the first floor was not communicated to the E15 captain, who was searching for fire with his crew on the second floor. The E30 engineer had opened up the main door on the D side and the roll-up garage door on the A side. When the E30 engineer opened the interior door to the kitchen and discovered heavy fire conditions, the E30 engineer closed the door. The E30 engineer immediately advised the E30 captain that the first floor was fully involved with fire. The detection of fire in the kitchen by E30’s engineer was not communicated to Command or E15’s captain. It is at this point that flashover occurred on the first floor.
Conditions quickly deteriorated on the second floor, followed by the hoseline’s going flat. All crew members immediately realized that they needed to exit the building. The E18 nozzle firefighter and E15 backup firefighter escaped down the stairway, exiting through the A side by the front door. The E15 nozzle firefighter descended the stairs halfway and then exited a window at the top of the stairs and onto the roof of the garage. E15’s captain retreated to the master bedroom, searching for the windows he had opened earlier. Unable to locate the windows, the captain decided to follow the hoseline down the staircase.
As firefighters from E15 and E18 were exiting the building, Stilt Command discovered that the E15 captain was unaccounted for and initiated a Mayday. Shortly after the Mayday, the E15 captain was in the backyard on the C side of the building. By his own account, he came down the stairs, dived over the railing, and crawled out a sliding glass door on the B side.
Truck 2 (T2), with four firefighters, and Truck 5 (T5), with four firefighters, arrived simultaneously approximately 4 minutes and 23 seconds after E15. T2 began exterior operations by setting up the truck-mounted 100-foot aerial ladder and ground ladders on the A side as T5 prepared to enter the building for a search of the house’s interior.
Battalion Chief (BC) 4 arrived 9 minutes and 18 seconds after E15. He requested a transfer of Command and asked for a report on conditions, including the status of the Mayday. BC4 assumed Command and acknowledged the priority radio traffic. Command ordered all personnel to vacate the building and attempted to account for all members from E15. Command assigned medic units to prepare to treat and transport injured firefighters from the scene. He then conducted a personnel accountability report (PAR) to gain control of the resources at the scene. T2’s captain, advising Command that a medic unit was also needed at the C side of the building for an injured firefighter, broadcast “Emergency traffic.”
BC3 proceeded to the C side of the building and was assigned as the safety officer. Safety assisted Command with a PAR of crews operating on scene. All members from E15 and E18 were accounted for and were placed into paramedic units. M30 transported the captain from E15, who was the most severely burned, to University of California—Davis (UCD) Medical Center. The three firefighters were moved into M17 and also were transported to UCD.
E15’s captain suffered serious second-degree burns on the hands, neck, and left ear. E15’s nozzle firefighter and backup firefighter suffered moderate second-degree burns to the ears and hands. E18’s nozzle firefighter suffered second-degree burns to the ears, neck, hands, and leg.
The following safety issues were reviewed in connection with this incident:
There is a need for secondary hoselines to protect the stairwell and floors in multiple-story buildings.
Incoming companies must have appropriate staffing levels to perform the necessary fire operations. Prioritize needs for the fire scene.
Ventilation techniques must be performed in coordination with fire attack.
Specific actions or conditions (the location of the fire, ventilation activities performed, and so on) must be radioed to crews.
All members operating on the fire scene must wear proper personal protective equipment.
All members must comply with the SFD firefighter accountability tracking system.
SKILL TRAINING NOT ENOUGH
There is much more to the story of Stilt Court than can be explained in an official investigative document. The stark account of what transpired contained within the SFD report does not reveal the personal struggle of a man who nearly died while attempting to protect life and property. Official reports are not intended to convey emotion but to simply report the facts. The report is accurate and detailed; more than 300 hours went into researching the sequence of events.
Many attempts have been made over the years to engrain procedure into the consciousness of firefighters in an effort to improve performance in survival situations. The National Fire Academy (NFA) program “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” is based on military fighter jet training and is heavily reliant on recognition prime decision making (RPD). Much research went into creating the NFA Mayday program; it is the underpinning of many firefighter survival programs nationwide. Mayday training gives firefighters a process for calling for help when they encounter immediately life-threatening situations. So, why do our training practices in the fire service sometimes fall short? The answer lies in our subconscious. Frequently overlooked in the fire service is the power of emotion and how it can influence our actions when our lives are in jeopardy.
THE POWER OF EMOTIONS
The flashover at Stilt Court is a harbinger of what can happen if our culture and training practices do not evolve with the changing fires we face in this modern era. E15’s captain is not a nameless, faceless character in a close-call report. He has had more than two decades of experience in the fire service and 18 months of experience as a captain. He has seen his share of fire over the years. His name is Jeff Helvin, and he has a wife and two children. His story is not just one of an officer trapped inside a fire structure, facing what he was sure would be his own death and the deaths of three others in his charge. His is a tale of survival when faced with truly overwhelming circumstances.
Helvin’s experience while trapped above a fire and the torment he endured, physically and emotionally, produced a range of emotional responses that almost all who survive extraordinary circumstances say they experienced. Emotions can produce overwhelming physical reactions. Those who survive make the correct decisions by overcoming their emotional response to their environment.
SURVIVOR RESPONSES SIMILAR TO STAGES OF GRIEF
The range of emotional responses Helvin and other survivors experienced can be likened to the stages of grief described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. The stages of grief are as follows:
1. Denial: This is not happening to me.
2. Anger: How can this happen to me?
3. Bargaining: Just let me live to see my children again.
4. Depression: I’m going to die. What’s the point?
5. Acceptance: It’s going to happen; I might as well not fight it.
In his book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales describes a survivor’s journey as he works through the survival process. Survivors, he explains, undergo the following stages:
1. Look, see, believe.
2. Stay calm; use fear to focus.
3. Think, analyze, and plan.
4. Take correct, decisive action.
5. Celebrate successes.
6. Count my blessings (survivors often think of families when finding strength).
7. Play (keep your mind active).
8. See the beauty; survival is a vision quest.
9. Believe. Convince yourself that you will survive.
10. Surrender. Give up the fear of dying. Put away the pain.
11. Do whatever is necessary.
12. Never give up.
The stages of grief or survival do not always occur in a specific order, and some may not occur at all. When Helvin presents his account of what transpired on that day, he talks about denying his situation, fear, accepting that he was about to meet his fate, thoughts of his family, and finally anger. All of these emotional responses were happening within just a few minutes. Anger compelled him to take action, ultimately leading him to safety outside the burning structure. Although burned, he survived, as did the other two members of his crew and a third firefighter who had been assigned to Helvin’s crew without Helvin’s knowledge. Gonzales notes that survivors are not immune to fear: “Survivors know exactly what is going on around them, and it scares the (hell) out of them,” he explains. “It is all a question of what they do next.”
During the search for fire on the second floor, things simply were not adding up. E15’s crew was searching calmly for the seat of the fire in zero visibility, without success. The second floor was being searched systematically, room by room, but the fire was nowhere to be found. There was no discernable increase in heat as E15 moved between rooms, and the thermal imaging camera (TIC) was of little assistance in locating a source of heat. The first floor had appeared clear; Helvin had perfect visibility from the front door, through the house, to the backyard. He recalls being able to see patio furniture in the backyard; there was nothing to indicate there was any threat to the crew’s safety on the first floor. He had seen heavy smoke from three windows on the second floor and reported it in his size-up. E15’s response route gave Helvin a view of the three sides of the house. He developed a plan and decided on a course of action based on his prior experiences and his observations.
The fire had to be upstairs—22 years of firefighting experience made Helvin sure of it. In his mind, he had been to this fire before. His RPD experience had led him to the quick decision that the fire was in a bedroom on the second floor. “I’ve got this,” Helvin thought confidently. His experience of successful fire operations throughout his career that had presented in a manner similar to this fire all but set him up. A major problem with RPD training is that it is prone to serious and often devastating failure in unusual or misidentified circumstances. Gonzales writes, “Successful training practices can work against us, giving us an emotional certainty that it will work. We’ve felt it work before, the body knows. Unconsciously, we ask ourselves, ‘How have I done this before?’ The model under which we operate, unlike the real environment, is stable.”
Helvin had established an emotional bookmark based on successful actions under similar circumstances. For a bedroom fire on the second floor of a single-family residence, the plan was straightforward. One hoseline would be sufficient—a simple hose stretch up the stairway to the fire room, a quick and easy knockdown, no problem. He had taken comparable action at fires just like this one, and everything had gone according to plan. The fire was extinguished, no one got hurt, and they were back in quarters by lunchtime. “The annoying thing about plans is how rare it is for everything to go just right,” Gonzales says. Problems arise when reality does not match the plan. The picture of this fire was incomplete; Helvin had seen only three sides of the house as he approached, a misstep that almost cost him dearly. The fire was actually beneath them, in the kitchen, and was smoldering angrily, waiting for a breath of air.
In an attempt to create better visibility upstairs, Helvin opened windows on the second floor. As E15 made it to the master bedroom, at the rear of the house (C side), the search for fire and life continued with no indication that there was anything out of the routine. Soon after, a firefighter walking the perimeter of the house opened an unlocked sliding door on the first floor, B side. Another firefighter began breaking windows and a sliding door with a 2 × 4 as he walked around the outside of the house on the D and C sides. The smoldering kitchen fire on the first floor exploded back to life as it received the oxygen it needed. Flashover occurred, sending a violent flame front throughout the entire first floor, causing the firefighters’ hoseline to burn through.
The first indication that something was wrong was the hoseline’s going flat. Helvin was met with a tidal wave of heat at the entrance to the master bedroom, then chaos. The fire crew upstairs was caught in a chimney without the protection of water or an immediately available safe exit. Helvin heard shouting, as the other firefighters were scrambling down the hallway toward him in an attempt to escape the instantaneous onslaught of heat. Helvin did as he was trained to do when he perceived that he and his crew were in a situation that was rapidly turning lethal: He immediately gathered and pointed them toward the direction of the staircase, their only known means of escape.
All four firefighters were stacked one on top of the other at the crest of the stairs as they attempted to make their way out. E15’s backup firefighter and E18’s nozzle firefighter fumbled blindly down the stairs and into the teeth of the fire, eventually escaping through the front door. E15’s nozzle firefighter was driven back up the stairs by extreme heat and was forced to dive out of a window at the top of the stairs. When it came time for Helvin, who was last in line, to descend the staircase, the heat was so intense, the insult to his senses so severe, that he was forced to retreat deeper into the structure. Confusion and fear began to overwhelm him. He was unsure of what had become of his crew, and the shape of his environment had become intolerable.
Helvin thought he had failed his crew by placing them in danger and then sending them down the stairs into the fiery tempest beneath them, possibly to their deaths. Early in his entrapment, Helvin tells of being incredulous that he was unable to find his way out of a bedroom in a single-family residence. He also recalls being angry at his own arrogance. He was confident as he read articles about firefighters being trapped and killed in residential fires that it could never happen to him. Yet, there he was, staring death in the face in a seemingly nonthreatening structure.
Firefighters have trouble perceiving that a fire in a single-family home is a threat to their safety. As firefighters, we have experienced environments that seem much more intimidating than a fire contained to a suburban dwelling. Homes are associated with family, shelter, and security. To the firefighter’s subconscious, the residential fire is a benign event. House fires are supposedly bread-and-butter operations—easy fires. “This is it. I am going to die in a residential fire. This can’t be happening.” The fact of the matter is that more firefighters are killed in residential structure fires than any other type of fire. It makes sense; residential fires are the most common type of fire firefighters encounter in the United States.
His mind began to sort through the possibilities: Escape by the hallway to the stairs? It’s too hot, not an option. Find a window and jump out. He had, after all, opened windows in that very room. Can’t find the windows. Now what? The fear and painful stimulus began to eat into Helvin’s ability to think clearly. Fear can lead us to do things we know are wrong. Helvin’s nozzle firefighter dived head first out of a second-story window. Helvin was prepared to do the same. “I was prepared to be a quadriplegic. I didn’t care what happened at that point. I was getting out. It was that bad in there,” he said of his experience. Helvin’s thoughts went from articles he had read the previous morning on firefighters dying under these same circumstances and then to his family—his wife, their young son and daughter. Helvin knew what he was supposed to do: call a Mayday, turn on his personal alert safety system (PASS) device and flashlight, seek safe egress, or seek refuge and await rescue. He was intelligent and was well-trained. He had received training on Mayday procedures. Why had the training not provided the correct response immediately?
The problem is that our training practices cannot simulate the high energy levels that exist on the fireground when the environment is extremely hostile and dynamic. Training scenarios are safe and predictable, not chaotic. Our experiences in training are at low-energy levels, and there are no consequences for making the wrong move. “Fire destroys that which feeds it.” (Simone Weil). The environment in which we must operate, and survive, is a high-energy environment that is unyielding and indifferent to our plight. When you add to the equation emotion, which has priority over rational thought, it is almost impossible to sort through it all. Our emotional response will overrule our ability to think in a rational manner. Cognition, the ability to think things through, is at once cast aside in favor of an emotional response. Knowing what we are supposed to do is no match for the power of our emotions.
Count Your Blessings
Survivors often report finding the resolve to carry on by making their survival about someone else. Thoughts of loved ones give the mind a place to go that is separate from the pain being encountered at the time. In Helvin’s case, many thoughts flashed through his mind during his fight for survival, but he ultimately settled on thoughts of his family. Even as he felt as though the skin on his neck, ears, and hands was melting from his body, his mind for the moment had taken him somewhere else. His thoughts were of his growing old together with his wife, his son’s playing baseball, and walking his daughter down the aisle some day. The thought of not being present for these events began to stir another powerful emotional response. Helvin’s fear turned to anger, anger at his predicament and how it was going to affect his ability to be with those most important to him. Helvin took this anger and used it to bring the correct action into focus.
Acceptance is one of the pivotal stages of the survival process. At one point, Helvin was in so much pain, and his situation was so dire, that he considered what his options would be if his air ran out. Acceptance is the point at which survivors begin to turn the corner. No longer victims, they accept their environment and their circumstances and begin to formulate a plan. He made up his mind that when his air ran out, he would remove his mask and take a deep breath of superheated gases. Doing so would surely kill him instantly, as the superheated air would sear his lungs, causing sudden pulmonary edema; at that hopeless moment, this seemed a better alternative to him than being burned alive. “If I was still trapped and my air ran out, I was going to take my mask off and take a deep breath. I wasn’t going to hang around and burn to death. Taking my mask off would be the last option,” Helvin said. Norman Maclean, author of Young Men in Fire, describes dying in a fire as dying multiple deaths: “First the failure of your legs as you run, then the searing of your lungs, and finally the burning of your body.”
Helvin had accepted his situation, given up his fear of dying, and faced the reality that his fate might be to die in a structure fire. This illustrates the power of emotion. He knew that the only things keeping him alive were his SCBA and his bunker gear (structural firefighting clothing), yet he had to struggle with the unreasonable impulse to remove the one thing that was protecting his airway. He was beginning to take control by choosing to go out on his own terms; he was going to choose how to die that day. The environment would not dictate the conditions of his demise.
Others, when placed in similar situations, were later found dead with their masks removed. SCUBA divers have removed their regulators while underwater because of claustrophobia. Even though the SCUBA divers knew it was the wrong thing to do, their emotional response sealed their fate. Helvin was able to seize control of his emotions and use his ability to reason and get him past his illogical urge. The worst-case scenario had been addressed. Next, he made the decision to make another attempt at escaping by the hallway, the only true way he knew to get out. Helvin said, “I knew I was going to take a hit.” At best, he would get burned; at worst, he would die. Regardless of the outcome, Helvin was determined to take action.
“Survivors aren’t fearless. They use fear. They turn it into anger and focus,” Gonzales points out. He explains: “Only 10 percent to 20 percent of people can stay calm and think in the midst of a survival emergency. They are the ones who can perceive their situation clearly. They can plan and take correct action, which are key elements of survival. Confronted with a changing environment, they rapidly adapt.” Helvin was scared to death; he will freely admit to that, but he channeled that fear into anger. As Helvin sorted through his emotions—fear; denial; bargaining; acceptance; and, finally, anger—he, like other survivors, was able to take his fear and harness it.
He used anger to find the strength within himself to take action and formulate a plan. Helvin summoned the fortitude to pick himself up and fight his way down the hallway—now an uncontrolled inferno—to the stairs, tumbling down the stairs and over the banister and finally landing in a heap on the first floor. A flash of daylight through the vortex of flame helped filter his disorientation. The plan was immediately clear: Move quickly toward daylight and safety.
Helvin experienced many of the critical steps in the survival process. He was conscious of his environment, accepting of it, and turned fear into anger and focus. He formulated a plan and acted on it, taking correct action. He did what was necessary and never gave up. Helvin crawled through the flames and out the B side of the structure, turned, and ran along the B side to the C side, not stopping until he crashed through the neighbor’s fence, where crews operating in the backyard discovered him. Jeff Helvin is a survivor in the truest sense. He was able to rein in his emotions, remain calm, think clearly, and act decisively.
We can learn many things from Helvin’s and other survivors’ experiences. First, we must always gather as much information as possible about the situation into which we are stepping. The importance of the 360° lap cannot be overemphasized. “Every time you step into the river, it is a different river,” Gonzales notes. There is no such thing as a routine structure fire; every incident to which we respond has its own exclusive and vexing set of circumstances. Complacency is the foundation of disaster. Time is certainly of the essence on the fireground, but not at the expense of safety. Critical elements of size-up were not carried out at Stilt Court, and the results were nearly catastrophic. Prior positive experiences, and even our own eyes, can deceive us, giving us a false sense of confidence that our actions will be correct, that everything will work out according to plan. Fire departments must begin the process of slowing down the culture in an effort to achieve safer operations by forcing crews to perform better fire reconnaissance prior to committing to a course of action.
We should understand that we will respond emotionally, powerfully so, when our lives are threatened. Emotions will drive us toward action, sometimes seemingly irrational action. Knowing this, we must be able to sort though our emotional responses and find the ability to think clearly and stay calm. “Sometimes (bad things) just happen,” cautions Gonzales. “There are things that happen that are simply out of your control; so you had better know how you are going to react to them. If we have had the right experiences, it will instantly direct correct action.” Taking pause, if it is possible, to collect yourself before lurching into action may aid you in making the correct choice. The approach Gonzales recommends is as follows: “Recognize that an emotional response is taking place. Read reality and perceive circumstances correctly. Override or modulate the automatic reaction if it is an inappropriate one. Select the correct course of action.”
The fire service should commit to continuing realistic scenario-based training. The military has known for years that survival has its roots in sound policy and training procedures. That is the reason the military trains in basic skills to the point of exhaustion. In military aviation, when presented with an in-flight emergency, pilots are instructed to maintain control, analyze the situation, take proper action, and land as soon as conditions permit. When trainees are pushed to the limits of their abilities, they can sort through the stresses to which they are exposed and act in a manner that helps them to complete their assignment safely and to survive the perils of the system in which they are expected to function. Intense training practices are intended to develop emotional attachments to the situations encountered. These are known as secondary emotions. Primary emotions are those with which we are born, such as the drive for food. Secondary emotions are emotional responses attached to an event or developed through experience. Secondary emotional attachments, once they are established, can be just as powerful in influencing behavior as primary emotions.
We must be able to adapt. Procedure, training, and planning are certainly important, but a rigid adherence to a plan that is not befitting the changing conditions can be suicidal. Those who survive in high-octane environments are those who can anticipate changes in the environment and adapt accordingly. Controlling our emotions, staying calm, and being able to plan and adapt are extremely important in the survival process. Equally important is believing that you are going to get out alive and have the courage to never give up. Fire Order 6 of the Standard Fire Orders states: “Be alert, stay calm, think clearly, act decisively.” That sums up the survival process succinctly.
Finally, we ought to recognize the need for a shift in our approach to safety and the haste and audacity with which the fire service often launches its members into action. Many positive parallels can be drawn between military and fire service traditions, but there is a dark side to some of our training practices and traditional values, an attitude that has infected the cultures of the military and the fire service. These sentiments are those that convey that somehow it is acceptable, even glorious, to die in the service of others and that a call for help is a sign of weakness. “Emotional bookmarks that have been established label rescue as bad and self-sufficiency, and even pain, as good,” Gonzales observes. “No matter how threatening the environment, soldiers are taught that it is better to die than to fail, death before dishonor. The training works.”
Like the military, the culture that has been created in the fire service works also. Every year, we lay to rest an average of 100 firefighters. “I will call for help with my last dying breath.” Such a statement is hubris. This reckless abandon toward our well-being must end. Once again, refer to the Standard Fire Orders, Fire Order 10: “Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.” A better way to make that statement would be, “Provide for safety first, then fight fire aggressively.” Safety should never be an afterthought; call for help as soon as it is necessary.
Today, Jeff Helvin makes the rounds to some of the major and not so major fire conventions across the country, telling his story in the hope that sharing his terrible experience might make a difference in someone’s life. Since that day in the Natomas neighborhood of north Sacramento, a few things have changed for Helvin. He has recovered from his physical injuries and is back answering the call at one of the busier houses in the SFD. Though the injuries he sustained to his body have healed, the emotional scars that he bears persist, although they are not readily apparent.
At the time I met Jeff Helvin, it had been 18 months since Stilt Court. The power of the emotional experience lingered. He was still visibly moved as he recounted the incident. “It only takes one fire to change your life forever,” Helvin said. The audience was apprehensive, wondering collectively, “Do I have what it takes to survive?”
Helvin choked back emotion as he spoke about his arrival at UC Davis Medical Center, his first conversation with his wife, the sea of blue uniforms at the emergency room as his brother firefighters flocked to the hospital to hold vigil, and seeing his crew members as they were treated for their injuries. He still carries the burden of their suffering with him, even now. He feels that he let his crew down by placing them in the precarious position from which they so narrowly escaped. Helvin accepts full responsibility for what happened that day and thinks about how different things might have been if he had just slowed down a little. Helvin noted: “When I was in my interview with the chief before I was promoted to captain, the chief told me, ‘Your most important job is to keep your crew safe.’ I didn’t do that.”
Helvin says he views his SCBA and radio differently today. He practices calling a Mayday every time he does a daily safety check on his SCBA. He stresses the importance of a 360° lap to incident safety. Historically, safety advances in the fire service have been paid for with firefighters’ lives. Theodore Lee Jarboe, a former chief and author, notes: “There is no greater influence for change in the Fire Service than the line-of-duty death of a firefighter. Yet, there is no greater tragedy than that of a fallen firefighter whose death prompted the passage of a safety policy that may have prevented his or her death.”
In 2009, another survivor, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the now-celebrated pilot who landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, saving the lives of more than 150 passengers and crew, survived by keeping his cool. A catastrophic bird strike that destroyed both engines of his aircraft 90 seconds after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport necessitated an emergency water landing. Sullenberger is a product of military fighter jet training and a fastidious planner. He had implemented his own emergency landing procedures for that airspace many times in his mind while flying over the New York metropolitan area. He is a true student of his profession and found value in the experiences of those who preceded him.
Meditation, preparation, and teamwork were the catalysts of the positive outcome on the Hudson River. There may have been a bit of luck involved, too. Sullenberger had a plan well before “The Miracle on the Hudson,” but “Miracle on the Hudson” makes for better headlines than “Planned Event on the Hudson.” Sullenberger tells of learning the magnitude of the commander’s responsibility to his duty at an early age:
When I was a boy, my father (who served in the Navy) would talk about the great obligations of a commander to look after every aspect of everyone’s welfare who served under him. My dad made it clear to me how hard it would be for a commander to live with himself if, through a lack of foresight or an error in judgment, he got someone hurt or killed. When I was a boy, he impressed upon me that a commander’s job is full of challenges, and his responsibilities are almost a sacred duty.
He later writes: “With the lives of hundreds of passengers in our care, the stakes are high. That is why, long before Flight 1549, I read about and learned from the experience of others. It matters.”
Gonzales, Laurence. Deep Survival: Who lives, who dies, and why? Miraculous stories of survival and sudden death.W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
Personal interview, 2010, Jeff Helvin. “His Own Words,” Sacramento City (CA) Fire Department. Jeff Helvin provided information for this article to ensure its accuracy.
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On death and dying. Scribner, 1969.
Sullenberger, Chesley. Highest Duty: My search for what really matters.Harper Paperbacks, 2009.
MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the Training Division and is a firefighter on the ladder company. He is a committee member for California State Fire Training and has contributed to the development of Firefighter Survival and Rapid Intervention curriculums. He is an instructor for the Santa Clara County Joint Fire Academy, a recruit Instructor for Palo Alto Fire, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group. He has been involved in training and public speaking since 2003 and is lead instructor for “Read and React: Calling the Mayday,” featured in the California State Training Officers Symposium Fresno in 2009/2010 and at the TAK Response Conference in September 2010.