- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

D.C. firefighters resorted to using a garden hose to battle a house fire in Northwest last week when a valve on the first-arriving pumper truck did not work, fire department sources said.
Alan Etter, spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, confirmed that there were delays in fighting the fire because of a problem with the valve.
Firefighters said Engine 31's tank valve, which controls the pumper's water flow, was "closed" when they tried to fight a fire on the front porch of a house in the 4300 block of Brandywine Street NW on June 6. They used a nearby garden hose to douse the fire until another pumper truck arrived.
Department sources say firefighters did not readjust the valve to the open position after the engine had undergone an annual pump test at the D.C. Fire Training Academy the day before. When they tried to open the valve on the scene, it jammed from the water pressure.
"It's an operational error," one firefighter said. "They should have checked the piece before they put it back in service. You don't just pack up and go home."
The valve is supposed to be checked to ensure that it is in the open position each day at 7 a.m., when a new shift starts, but firefighters got the call about 45 minutes before the shift began.
Unlike what happened during an electrical fire in April at U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh's home in Northwest, when a reserve engine's water pump failed, there was nothing wrong with the year-2000 model front-line engine.
Phyllis Groves, who has lived in the house for 32 years, said a neighbor walking her dog pounded on the front door to alert her that the porch was on fire.
She said she got out of the house and saw the fire quickly spread from the front porch up a wooden column to the second floor and the roof.
"It was pretty close to getting into the house," she said.
Mrs. Groves said firefighters responded promptly, breaking holes in the roofing over the front porch for ventilation and checking whether the fire had spread into the walls of the wood-framed house.
The outside of the house was charred, and the roof of the front porch was splintered from where firefighters poked ventilation holes. Electricity was out for two days, and the gas line still hasn't been reconnected.
Mrs. Groves said she wasn't aware there was anything unusual about the operation.
"I really thought they were good," she said. "They came quickly, and they were all over the place."
But department sources said that after firefighters stretched their hoses from the engine, they realized they didn't have any water. They picked up a neighbor's garden hose and sprayed the fire but were unable to get to the flames that had spread to the upper part of the house.
Mr. Etter commended the firefighters who responded to the incident for their resourcefulness.
On a box alarm such as the one at Mrs. Groves' house, four engines, a rescue squad and two ladder trucks are dispatched to the scene. The engine that arrives second goes to the back of the house, and its primary function is to shut off utilities, clear the basement and let the incident commander know how far the fire has spread.
It wasn't until the third engine, Engine 11, showed up at the front of the house that firefighters got hoses on the fire.
One firefighter said that not adjusting the valve was "negligent" and that seconds matter in a wood-framed house such as Mrs. Groves'.
The pumper's 500-gallon holding tank is supposed to provide four minutes of water for firefighters to battle a blaze while they are establishing a permanent flow from a hydrant. The 125-gallon-per-minute flow should be enough to douse a "fully involved" fire in 30 seconds.
"Without that tank water, a fire burning unabated for four minutes will double in size every 15 seconds to 45 seconds," the firefighter said. "Four minutes is a long time in the life of a fire."
The firefighter said the incident was a "prime example of guys not knowing their jobs."


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