To appreciate how long 84 seconds can be, count it off while imagining yourself surrounded by flames.
That’s how long it took rescuers to reach Fresno, Calif., firefighter Capt. Pete Dern after he disappeared into a ball of fire when the roof of a burning residential garage opened below his feet. It took more than another minute for rescuers to pull him out onto the driveway and begin cooling measures.
In that time the chatter from onlookers — one of whom videotaped it all — became screams of horror and panic.
Dern survived, but he still is recovering from second- and third-degree burns over more than 65 percent of his body.
That 2015 incident in Fresno could have been averted. Almost the exact same scenario played out five years earlier in Modesto, Calif., where two firefighters were critically burned when the roof of a residential garage collapsed beneath them. In both cases, the firefighters were trying to punch holes in the roof to ventilate smoke and gases.
But in both cases the roof supports, unprotected by sheet rock, had been exposed to flames too long. Trusses in such roofs are often connected by lightweight metal gusset plates that fail when exposed to high heat. The result is that the roof will no longer support overhead weight, such as a heavily laden firefighter.
A report after the Modesto incident found that the fire department had followed its policies. But its recommendation to the department: change your policies.
Specifically, the report recommended keeping firefighters off unprotected residential garage roofs. It was written by a panel of officials representing various California fire departments. One of them was the Fresno Fire Department.
Modesto changed its roof operations policy, said Alan Ernst, division chief for operations at the Modesto Fire Department.
But Fresno did not heed its own advice and almost lost Capt. Dern, a 25-year veteran.
“We were fortunate that it was a near miss,” Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis told The Kansas City Star. “It was very close to being a line-of-duty death.”
Now, Fresno is changing its roof operations policy.
“We’re not going to ventilate over unprotected structures,” Donis said. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s not worth the risk.”
The panel that conducted the Fresno after-incident report included Ernst from the Modesto Fire Department. The authors used the report to vent their frustration that fire departments time and again fail to heed lessons that should have been learned from experience.
“Yes, fighting fires will always be a dangerous occupation,” said the report. “However, we must change the common practice of simply accepting the causes of the injuries we suffer as just being part of the job, or the cost of doing business.
“How many times do we have to read these reports and not change our behavior?”
Ernst said the Modesto department’s new policy calls for verifying whether a roof is protected before sending anyone on top to ventilate. Previously, department policy did not address the subject at all.
“We were just naive,” Ernst said. “There was literature and information out there, but the risk and results we kind of took for granted.”
Shortly after the report on the Fresno fire was released, the San Jose Fire Department asked Modesto for a copy of its roof operations policy. Ernst sees that as a positive sign for the fire service.
Donis said some in the fire service will always resist change, but she thinks Fresno firefighters are embracing some new practices.
“I believe it is a tipping point,” she said. “It will take years to change culture.”