‘I could hear trusses failing’: The incident that truly humbled me
Every fire officer has an incident that teaches the powerful lesson of humility
By Chad Costa
Every call a fire officer responds to creates their “slideshow” of experience – a mental picture of incidents and lessons learned. However, every fire officer has a call in their career that changes their life forever. One fire, one rescue, one event that changes their overall mentality of this job and shapes their focus on training, education and tactics/strategy.
Described (and pictured) here is my moment of humility. A fire that changed me forever.
No matter how much training, education or experience we have, this job will eventually humble you. No matter how “good” we are or how many “good” decisions we have made, eventually we make a poor one – and it changes everything.
But it’s not about the poor decision; it’s about how we recover and learn. It’s about how we take that decision back to the firehouse and teach others so they don’t make the same mistake. These moments are what write the script of our future.
This was not my best day, but this day was the best thing that could happen to me in my career – and I want to share it with you.
Building skills, but lacking humility
As I reflect on my career so far in the fire service, I realize how lucky I am to have this job. There have been so many amazing memories throughout my career. I’ve been blessed with endless opportunities to succeed and give back to my community.
Over these 20 years, I’ve been assigned to multiple companies and responded to many calls, where I’ve been able to use my knowledge, skills and abilities to help make someone’s emergency better. As with all firefighters, there are so many calls that were difficult to witness and stick with us forever. No matter the nature of the emergency, we do our job and carry out the needed tasks.
As a firefighter, I listened, learned and carried out the tasks that were given to me by my company officer. Although most of my career was not in the firefighter rank, these were some of my fondest memories. Responsibilities were low, but I had such an intense physical responsibility and was a sponge for knowledge.
As an engineer, the responsibilities increased. While driving, I was directly responsible for members’ lives. The responsibility was on me to ensure that we made it to and from our assignments. I took pride in being a good engineer and knowing my engine inside and out. I wanted to ensure that I was ready when the alarm went off and was skilled enough to ensure that my crews had water and were supported to the best of my abilities.
Due to retirements and a growing community, I was qualified at a younger age to take the captain’s exam. I was eager and educated, had completed the necessary classes, and possessed the needed certificates to take the assessment center.
I can remember the day the announcement for the test hit my email. It was something I’d been waiting for, as being a captain was my dream. My ignorance for the responsibility of the position did not distract me from aggressively reaching that goal. I continued to prep and learn as much as possible to prepare for the assessment.
The assessment came. I had prepared myself and did well enough on the test to come out number one. It was one of the best days of my career, and I’ll never forget how proud I was to get that badge pinned.
At 26 years old and a limited time in the fire service, I found myself responsible for a company. I was as motivated as can be to do well in the position and prove that I had deserved the promotion. I worked hard and tried to take advantage of every opportunity I could to earn the respect and be successful.
Working hard, listening and learning was what got me to this position. But there was one thing that I was lacking: humility. This career has a way to humble you and it usually presents itself the hard way. Sure, I made mistakes and learned, but as a fire officer, I realized that my mistakes had more ramifications. My decisions could get people hurt, as I was now directly responsible for the individuals on my crew. As a young captain, I thought my slideshow was enough to make good decisions. That was up until the day that humbled me.
The day that changed my mindset
For a few years, my ignorance worked, as I had successful fires and incidents where my aggressiveness and “get after it” mentality presented successful outcomes. However, my luck ran out on Aug. 14, 2010. On that day my aggressive ignorance almost cost seven members injury – or worse.
That afternoon I was working as an engine captain and was dispatched to a second-alarm structure fire in a city adjacent to mine.
The fire was reported as an attic fire at the post office building. This was an older building that had been renovated multiple times.
My engine arrived early in the incident, and I was assigned roof operations. We parked a block out to leave room for additional apparatus.
As ladders and saws were being gathered, I was able to do a quick 360 to gather intel on the fire building and fire progression. At that point, the truck company was ascending to the roof, and the fire attack company was just making entry into the front door. My size-up revealed that the fire appeared to be in the front mansard area of the attic. From the ground, I didn’t see any signs of major fire progression throughout the attic and no fire was showing inside the building. I remember telling myself, “we got this.”
That’s precisely when things started to change.
As I ascended the ladder, I remember peeking over the parapet and noticing a few things. The truck company was finishing a heat hole towards the front A side of the building. I saw thick black smoke already pouring from the hole. This told me that we had a larger fire than what I expected and that was relayed to the incident commander.
The next sign was the one that I’ll never forget: As we climbed onto the roof, I noticed that black smoke was coming from almost all the pipes and vents on the roof. Not pressurized black smoke, but lazy black smoke.
This is where my ignorance went into full effect. My years of successful aggressiveness was starting to come back to get me. Although I was seeing signs, I wasn’t acting on what they were telling me. Additionally, I failed to gather a major detail from the interior crews.
As we continued to cut holes and even put in a trench, I failed to ascertain fire attack’s progression. I could tell that the fire was growing, but I failed to communicate and was not aware that fire attack was having issues getting water on the fire. Building construction features and locked doors had slowed their progression. However, we kept the saws running and stayed the course.
Once the saw work was completed, we recognized that conditions were worsening, and we all cleared the roof.
At that point, I was assigned as Division Delta and took over the operations on that side of the building. Most of the fire attack operations had moved to the Delta side. Although the fire had progressed to about a half of the building, my ignorance and “aggressive interior” attitude failed me again.
A plan was derived for members to take a 2½-inch line into the building and try to hold the fire at a wall that spanned the width of the building. I remember thinking to myself, “We can save the rest of this building.” I had saved buildings or portions of buildings before – but this fire was different.
The mental slide I pulled from was a commercial fire I had responded to a few months prior. This fire was a smaller mansard-type building. That fire presented the same way and an aggressive offensive attack saved most of the building. Although this fire was in a building that had similar construction features, it was a completely different animal. In truth, I didn’t have any accurate slides to pull from. This fire had progressed farther than I was willing to recognize and accept, and we weren’t going to save it.
All the signs were there for us to back out and go defensive, but my ignorance kept prevailing. As I was standing at the entry way, I heard a terrible sound, a sound you don’t want to hear inside a building. The roof was collapsing, and I could hear trusses failing. I’ve heard people describe it as a train coming down the tracks, and I would say that is accurate.
Instantly pressurized smoke was coming from the building, and my moment of humility instantly presented itself. Fortunately, all members were able to quickly exit the building, and my heart started to beat again. My non-humble days were instantly over.
I remember a respected chief speaking to me a little later in the incident. I was explaining my thought process and my desire to save a portion of the building. He said, “Chad, what are you saving and what’s your risk in trying to do so?” I remember the embarrassment that flowed through my veins. I had put people in harm to save something that was not savable, and I risked their lives in doing so.
Understand the complexity of the role
I believe what happened that day is something that happens to every fire officer. Every fire officer has that humbling incident where you realized how ignorant you were. Every officer has that call that sticks with them for life.
Aug. 14, 2010, is carried with me every day. I constantly think about this incident, as it shaped the officer and chief officer that I have become. Although no one got hurt by my decisions, the decisions I made and the sheer terror of those moments after the roof collapsed have never left my mind. I still hear those beams failing and counting the heads of the members leaving the building. I was so thankful that all seven members walked out.
Other officers have and will continue to have similar experiences. The fire service has so much turnover, and there are so many young and motivated firefighters that move up in rank quickly.
Now, I’ve heard the argument that I shouldn’t have had been promoted so young, but that’s just not reality to every organization and every situation. Firefighters who meet the qualifications and are given the opportunity deserve that chance of being a fire officer.
The bottom line: We need to recognize our ignorance and realize the complexity and responsibility of this job. We need to acknowledge our mistakes and talk about them in our organizations, so that everyone can learn and grow. We need to ensure that every call to which we respond is a learning experience, and we need to educate ourselves and push ourselves to learn from anyone or anything that is being presented. We need to stay humble, as we owe that responsibility to the members on our crews and the constituents we serve.
About the Author
Chad Costa is a battalion chief with the City of Petaluma (California) Fire Department. With 20 years of fire service experience, Costa has worked in a variety of organizations, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), rural districts, semi-rural districts and a city. He is the technology and communications battalion chief and a division group supervisor on California Interagency Team 5. Costa has a bachelor’s degree in emergency services management and a certificate in homeland security.