Resident runs back into burning home, but firefighters make timely moves to rescue her
Seconds count in fire rescue, and there's no more perfect example than the night of Memorial Day 2019, when a Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Engine crew saved a woman who had run back into her burning home to retrieve her medicine.
This story is part of Hillsborough County’s 50-for-50 Series, a historic review of some of the memorable events, dates, and people in the history of Hillsborough Fire Rescue, which was born on Aug. 27, 1973. About the Series: Hillsborough’s 50 for 50 Project Celebrates Fire Rescue Heroism, Heritage, History that show the growth, bravery, and specialized operations of Hillsborough County’s largest department.
On May 27, 2019, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Engine 11 received a call after 8 p.m. about an active fire. Out of the station quickly, the Engine crew learned on the radio that the family had escaped the burning building. Once on the ground at the home, however, Capt. Paul George got a different story.
A man standing anxiously in the front yard of the home told him his wife had returned inside the burning building to get her medication.
"My adrenaline was pumping as hard as it goes," George said.
The Engine 11 crew turned to the house and saw the door was open and smoke had filled the home from floor to ceiling. There was no visible fire yet.
Air packs already on their backs from the prep work they did in the Engine on the way to the scene, Capt. George and Firefighter Orlando Nieves entered the smoky darkness. Engine Driver, Engineer Brandon Gadberry, stayed at the door to keep the exit clear and hold water on the scene to ensure the crew could escape safely.
In the first room of the home, George used a Thermal Imaging Camera called a "TIC" to scan the area for a heat signature. The smoke was heavy and darker than usual.
Seeing no one, he called out, "Hillsborough Fire Rescue! Is anyone in here?"
"Back here," came a choked response from the distant left corner of the house.
George and Nieves maneuvered left - saving valuable time by locating the resident quickly. The pair stepped carefully because they were blinded by the smoke. Helmet lights did no good.
George says part of the reason the home was easier to navigate blind was because of years and years of medical calls he had worked.
"I always tell the younger firefighters to really pay attention when you are in someone's home to how the home is laid out," he said. "Every home is different, but you start to pick up on patterns."
He did not expect to benefit from his own advice. "It's just something you pick up over your career," George said.
Engine 11's team made its way down a hallway toward the sound of the voice he heard, and he called out again, using the Thermal Imaging Camera to scan another room. The room was empty, but he heard the person call out one more time - even farther down the hallway.
The smoke was as thick at the back of the home as it had been in the front, ceiling to floor and dark grey-black. George wondered how the woman was able to get enough breath to cry out.
In a back corner bedroom of the home, the Thermal Imaging Camera revealed the heat signature of an adult. The woman was on her knees leaning over a short table. George approached her, put his hand on her shoulder, and she immediately collapsed on the floor.
George quickly ran his hand along the wall to see if there was a window that he could use to get the victim out of the house quickly. There wasn't.
The crew recognized the bedroom doorway was going to be their most significant obstacle. Time was their enemy, and there's no fast way to drag a victim through a doorway in zero visibility.
George leaned on a time-honored extraction method, often taught as a way to get a downed firefighter out of a building: the push-pull-drag method.
With a firefighter at the victim's head dragging by the armpits and another at the victim's knees pushing, they can stay in a straight line and smoothly get down the hallway.
All of the challenges the crew faced mirrored their training. The techniques they used to get the victim to safety are techniques George has been training on his whole career. His teammates, who were newer to the fire service, had recently trained on the techniques in fire school.
The victim was awake by the time she got to the ambulance parked in front of the house.
George turned around to look at the home again. It was fully ablaze. He and Nieves had made the rescue in only 90 seconds.
Getting in and out of the home in only 90 seconds is an impressive feat, but it is 90 seconds longer than the firefighters should have been in the building.
The home went from smoky to fully engulfed in flame in the 90 seconds it took Engine 11 to rescue the resident. Only a few more seconds and the firefighters might have needed a different and more dangerous escape plan.
Each careful move inside, based on training and sharp instincts, led to a safe rescue. Decisions made quickly because of the training and years of experience - such as listening for the victim, using the Thermal Imaging Camera, the push-pull-drag technique, and exiting the route - all contributed to a quick rescue.
Hear more detail on the importance of Get Out, Stay Out from HCFR Chief Dennis Jones.
Listen to Capt. Paul George recount the save on the GRABS Podcast.