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Dispatcher credited with saving lives

A look into the 911 call about a house fire on Governor’s Island Christmas day reveals the John and Pat Siegel family didn’t know their house was on fire.
The tape – which includes all fire traffic from the more than 30 firefighters on the scene – reveals that the dispatchers on duty at the time of the afternoon fire were instrumental in getting the residents and firefighters out of the residence safely.
“I think my house is on fire,” said Pat Siegel to 911 operator Janine Henderson.
When she told Henderson the family was looking for the fire’s source, Henderson calmly told Siegel to get out of the residence.
“Here was the family unwrapping Christmas presents and they didn’t even realize their home was on fire,” said Henderson.
Not only did Henderson rely on her five years of training as a communicator with Lincoln County in getting the family safely out of the house, she leaned on her training as a volunteer firefighter with the Crouse Volunteer Fire Department.
“I wanted to make sure the family was safe,” said Henderson. “All of my thoughts were focused on the call.”
When a major call like the Governor’s Island fire happens, Henderson said it’s important to rely on the team of fellow communicators and supervisors. Working with Henderson that day was communications supervisor Cory Saunders.
“It takes all of us multitasking when serious situations arise,” says Henderson. “Sometimes, it’s like you have to have eight arms. Up to the time of the fire on Christmas morning, things were quiet here.”
The fire department’s main goal is safety; it was Henderson’s as well in dispatching traffic to the call.
But it wasn’t the only time an evacuation order would be needed during the blaze that destroyed the home and damaged several vehicles at the residence.
According to DFD firefighter Jeff VonCannon, the roof trusses in the residence failed after more than eight minutes of fire.
With information about the roof getting ready to collapse, Henderson knew she had to get any firefighters inside the residence out.
“All I heard was a firefighter saying ‘interior get out’ and I knew that some of the other firefighters didn’t hear the transmission,” said Henderson, adding she sounded evacuation tones and told firefighters to get out of the house.
“Having some firefighting experience, I feel I have a kindred spirit with fellow firefighters,” said Henderson.
Henderson also relayed information between firefighters when transmissions weren’t clear during the blaze.
During a critique last week at the Denver Fire Department on the Governor’s Island fire, moderator VonCannon credited – and firefighters and residents alike agreed – Henderson played a pivotal and crucial role.
VonCannon praised Henderson several times for her work during a difficult situation.
“Telecommunications relayed information that wasn’t picked-up during the initial communications,” said VonCannon. “Henderson also handled evacuation tones and got people out of the house. She needs to be praised for her efforts.”
Henderson said she shouldn’t be called a hero.
“I was simply doing my job,” she said.
Henderson called the whole situation incredible.
“One minute, the family’s having Christmas,” said Henderson. “The next, the house is gone.”

The fire
According to firefighters at the scene of the Dec. 25 fire, a neighbor knocked on the Siegel’s door and alerted them to the fact their residence was ablaze.
When firefighters from both the Denver and East Lincoln Fire Departments responded to the scene, they discovered the chimney had become a blow torch, with flames shooting 30 feet out of the chimney. Firefighters also observed a 500-square-foot hole had burned in the attic.
In a report on the fire that was issued during the critique, it was a four-alarm fire involving more than five different departments, emergency management from Lincoln County and fire marshals from both Catawba and Lincoln counties.

Course of action
VonCannon told residents who attended the critique that several factors played a role in putting first-arriving fire crews in a difficult position; save the burning house or protect property and life around it.
“With the fire being so big and it being a holiday, those two factors alone really overwhelmed the first guys arriving on the scene,” said VonCannon. “I want everyone to understand that firefighters were really busy those first few moments until help arrived.”
During the initial assessment of the fire, it was determined to keep the progression of the fire down from nearby residences, which is exactly what firefighters did during the blaze.
Both houses next to the Siegel residence were spared any major damage; however, the radiant heat from the fire didn’t leave the homes unscathed.
by Jon Mayhew

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