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Hidden Dangers: Firefighters Facing Increasing Obstacles in Homes

'Smart911' Can Alert Officials of Possible Hidden Dangers


Rick Boston

Freedom Township Volunteer Fire Company Chief Ron Henry shows the oxygen cylinder that exploded in a house fire, propelling it out of the house and narrowly missing a responding police officer. Firefighters everywhere are facing the growing threat of hidden dangers while fighting fires.

At approximately 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 23, the Freedom Township Volunteer Fire Company received an alarm for a fire at a home along Donnertown Road in Freedom Township.

Freedom Township Police Officer Adam Ingram was the first to arrive on scene and approached the now "fully involved" structure to check on any occupants.

The homeowner, an elderly man who had just had back surgery, had escaped the blaze and was waiting near the burning house when Ingram arrived.

As Ingram led the elderly homeowner away from the burning structure, he said he could hear explosions coming from the house, and then something came shooting out of the flames at a high rate of speed, flying between Ingram and the man as they made their way up the driveway to safety.

That object was a home oxygen tank used to aid the breathing of the home's elderly owner. A device designed to help save lives turned into a potentially deadly missile in the extreme heat of the fire.

"This cylinder came flying out of the house," said Freedom Township Fire Chief Ron Henry. "It turned into a missile and just barely missed striking the officer in the head."

Into the Unknown

When a call comes into the station, every responding firefighter throws on their gear with little or no information about the structure they are going to.

If the building is on fire, the flames could be the least dangerous thing they have to deal with because they can see it. It's the things they can't see that can turn a routine call into tragedy.

Henry said that it is the unknown that fire crews need to fear, and that a lot of times they don't know something dangerous is there until they hear the explosion.

"Oxygen, propane, ammunition," he said. "You don't know if that person has them unless either someone tells you, you find it yourself, or you hear the explosion."

Williamsburg Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ted Hyle said oxygen tanks in homes are becoming more common.

"I think a lot of people are staying in their homes instead of going into nursing homes," he said. "That could mean a lot more people having oxygen tanks in their homes."

Jerry Detwiler of the Southern Cove Volunteer Fire Company said because visibility inside a burning building can be low to non-existent, the threat of an unseen explosive is always on the minds of firefighters.

"You have to be proactive and keep your eyes on your surroundings," he said. "When you go in, you can't always see. Sometimes you just hope for the best."

Propane and Gasoline

Besides the increase in homes with oxygen tanks, another alarming trend fire officials are seeing is people storing propane and gasoline in their homes.

"If you drive around the county, take notice to front porches and back porches and you will see extra gas cans," Hyle said. "People taking advantage of grocery store fuel points will fill up cans with their discount and store them on their porch or in their basement. Guess what happens if that house catches on fire?"

Henry said that storing gasoline in your house is one of the most dangerous things a homeowner can do. He said some people thinks it's Ok to store it in the basement away from the living area, but it's an explosion waiting to happen.

"Gasoline gives off vapors," he said. "It is sitting there in the can giving off vapors and anything that can spark will ignite it."

Henry said he has seen houses where people store propane tanks in their basement, not realizing how dangerous it is.

"You should never have propane in your house, ever," he said. "It should be stored outside. There is no reason to have propane in your house."

Hyle agreed, saying "propane tanks are a worry."

Missiles in Cars

As the threat of oxygen tanks in the home increases, another trend fire officials are seeing is the use of portable cylinders that people carry around with them throughout the day. While these devices are helping the person breath easier, in the event of a car accident they can become an explosive device.

"Car fires are unpredictable to begin with, there is always a threat of an explosion," Hyle said. "Add to that a portable oxygen tank the driver has, and maybe some extra stored in the trunk and something bad can happen."

Henry said the chaos that can surround a car fire makes it difficult to assess if there is anything in the vehicle that could be an explosive, which makes for a dangerous situation for firefighters and bystanders.

"If someone stops to help the victim of a car accident before the fire department gets there, and there is oxygen tanks in the vehicle, that could turn tragic very quickly," he said.

Detwiler said that firefighters approach a car fire cautiously due to the threat of explosion, but if there is a portable oxygen tank in the burning vehicle they are not aware of, they can't prepare for it.

"When you are dealing with car fires there is always a chance for explosion," he said. "The fuel, the cylinders that activate the airbag. Anytime you approach a car fire you do it as if it can blow up at any second. But if you have an oxygen tank in there plus the gasoline, that could be catastrophic."

Proper Warning

People with oxygen tanks in their homes are supposed to display a sign that states there is oxygen in use on the premises.

Unfortunately, Henry said, not everyone complies.

"A lot of people don't have those signs on their door that says 'Oxygen in Use,'" he said. "If you are using oxygen in your house you should have that sign on your door."

Henry said having that sign on the door would not only help firefighters in their approach to fighting a fire, it can also save their lives.

"These things have a mind of their own," he said. "When they blow they will go anywhere, through a door, through a window, you just don't know. If we don't know they are there, they could come straight out at us."

Both Henry and Hyle said it should be mandatory for those carrying oxygen in their vehicles to display a sticker to let people know.

"I think stickers on car windows informing that portable oxygen may be in the vehicle should be a requirement," Henry said. "It is a danger to everyone."

Hyle agreed, saying he would like to see stickers on cars not only for the safety of firefighters, but the vehicle occupants and anyone who might be near a car fire.

"I have never seen any vehicle with it posted that there is oxygen in it, and there should be," he said. "If we get to a car fire and we don't know it's in there and it blows up, somebody is going to get hurt or killed. A sticker should be a requirement."

Hoarding Danger

Hoarding, or excessive storing is another concern for firefighters. It not only gives the fire more things to burn, it can hinder, and in some cases injure firefighters who enter the burning building.

"People keep extra things in their houses," Hyle said. "Hoarding is beginning to become a terrible problem. I've been to homes that look neat and clean on the outside but when you try to get inside you can hardly get the door open because of the stuff they have piled in there."

Hyle said a couple of years ago he responded to a fire where his men had to crawl over piles of things just to get to the fire.

"It not only serves as extra food for the fire, but it is putting the firefighters in great danger of getting hurt."

Henry said that people who tend to store a lot of things in their homes don't look at it as a danger because they know where everything is and how to navigate it, but a firefighter entering during a fire is caught off guard.

"We don't know their houses," he said. "Hoarding is a danger. Going into a place and there is just a path because of all of the stuff they have, they know how to go through that path but we don't."

Staying Safe While Saving Lives

More often than not, firefighters are forced to feel their way through a burning building, and if someone is trapped and in need of rescue, their first thought is getting to that person.

"Saving lives and minimizing property damage are the two main things," Henry said.

However, with low visibility comes the chance that a hidden danger is right in front of them, and they may not know it until it's too late.

"There are times when we are just feeling our way through," Detwiler said. "The thought of something being there is always in the back of your mind."

Hyle said there are circumstance in which he will call his men back from inside a building.

"As long as there is no life in jeopardy, I have no problem calling my men back if I feel there are too many dangerous obstacles," he said. "It weighs on me a lot. I don't want to see any of my people get hurt."

'Smart911' Can Alert Officials of Possible Hidden Dangers

When there is an emergency at your house, it is important to keep in mind that the people who are responding do not know you, or what you may have in your house.

When firefighters are dispatched to a house fire, they are walking into an unknown situation.

They don't know the layout of your house, and more importantly they don't know what obstacles that could present a danger to them.

Williamsburg Volunteer Fire Company Chief Ted Hyle said he encourages every Blair County resident to sign up for Smart911.

Smart911 is an app you download and put in any information you feel will be helpful to first responders.

Through Smart911, Blair County residents can create a safety profile that will get displayed any time they call 911.

Residents can enter any information about their household that can be useful to first responders

In case of fire, being registered on Smart911 can not only save your life, but the lives of the firefighters responding to your home.

With the many hidden dangers firefighters can face in a burning building, oxygen tanks, gasoline, ammunition and excessive hoarding, knowing about them ahead of time can prevent a potential tragedy.

"People in Blair County really should sign up for Smart911," Hyle said. "That will go a long way toward letting us know before we get there if there is any potentially hidden dangers."


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