A Tale of Two Fires

Recently, firefighters and officers from my old department, Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS responded to an Fast food restaurant fires 1early morning fire in a McDonald’s restaurant. Not only that, but my former colleagues were responding to the McDonalds restaurant that served the part of the county where me and Mrs. Avsec had lived during the majority of my 26-year career with the department.

I learned of the fire via a post on our Facebook Group, CFD Members Past & Present, and I have to be honest in that my first thought was “Oh, no!” Why such a reaction—which happened before I opened the link to the news story about the fire—to this fire? Because I’d seen it before.

Fast food restaurant fires 3

Scene of the February 14, 2000 fire in a McDonald’s restaurant that claimed the lives of two career firefighters.

In February 2000, firefighters from the Houston (TX) Fire Department responded to a reported fire in a McDonald’ restaurant at 4:30 a.m. In that fire, the crews working on the interior of the structure were not aware that the fire was above them in the void space above the restaurant. That lack of knowledge would prove fatal to a 44-year-old male and a 30-year-old female, both career fire fighters, who lost their lives that morning when the roof fell in.

Fast food restaurant fires 2

Fast food restaurants present many challenges for responding fire firefighters. How many can you identify from this photo?

I wrote that last paragraph pretty much from memory (with a little help from the Internet on some of the finer points). How was that possible after all this time? It was easy because over the ensuing years after 2000, I frequently used the lessons learned from that fire and the post-fire analyses and reports during my instruction of formal strategy and tactics classes and more for informal S&T sessions with my company officers and firefighters their battalion chief.

I’m pleased to announce that when I opened the link and read the news account, and the story included comments from one of the on-scene battalion chiefs, my “Oh, no!” was replaced by a very loud “Yes!” and a fist pump worthy of vintage Tiger Woods. See the firefighters and officers on this night “got it right” and everybody went home.

I first met the battalion chief who gave the on-scene interview, Battalion Chief Matt Coffin, when he was a volunteer firefighter in our combination department; I later hired him as an Emergency Communications Officer in our county’s 911 Emergency Communications Center where he did outstanding work before joining the career firefighter ranks.  He, and many others on that fire, sat through those strategy and tactics classes as part of our Officer Development Program and Applied Leadership for Company Officers. Obviously, they learned their lessons well.

Incident commander training

As the number of significant fires continue to decrease, the use of command simulator training must become an important part of officer develop for any department.

“Write of your failures in sand, and carve your successes in stone.” Not sure who spoke those words or wrote them down, but I firmly believe in them. We see many, many stories and articles and reports about fires that went wrong, particularly when those events led to the deaths and injuries of firefighters, and rightly so. And I think that more than a few of them become “carved in stone” for equally good reason: so that the lessons learned and the sacrifices made were not in vain.

But what about the success stories? How many of them are getting passed from one generation of firefighters? How many books are being written about them? Where is the “place of honor” for those firefighters and officers who “get it right” so that everyone goes home.

For Matt Coffin and those other firefighters and officers on that McDonald’s job in Chesterfield County, Virginia on January 5, 2015 that place is here. Well done!

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].