This story, as well as many other terrific ones can be found in Brad Fregger's book, Get Things Done - Ten Secrets of Creating and Leading Exceptional Teams.

Defining Moment
Dennis Fregger

I worked for the Santa Clara, California Fire Department for twenty-eight years. This story took place on January 29, 1996, when I was the "C" Shift Captain at Station Three on Homestead Road. This is a single engine station in a mostly residential area. Each engine has a Firefighter, a Driver/Engineer and a Captain. On duty were Sherman, Dan, and myself.

This particular night Sherm and Dan were already in bed when Dispatch phoned.

"Dennis, I don’t think this is much so I didn’t sound the alarm … thought I’d let you decide whether or not you want to investigate it," she said.

"What’s up?" I replied.

"A citizen smelled natural gas in an area on Homestead about half a block from your station."

"Thanks for the information," I said and then hung up.

Although "Gas Investigations" rarely turn out to be anything, we're in the business of safety so there was really no decision to make. I woke up Sherm and Dan and said, "Hey guys, we have a Gas Investigation to check out." They shook out the cobwebs and ambled to the rig.

I figured it would be the normal "nothing call" and we drove to the area, noses alert for the smell of natural gas.

As we passed a three-building apartment house complex in which all the buildings had been "tented"28 for fumigation, I caught the slightest scent of natural gas. I told Dan to make a u-turn at the next intersection, return to the complex and see if the smell was stronger there.

We parked in front and I exited the engine to investigate. The smell seemed stronger, but what really began to concern me was the distant sound of rushing air. I followed the sound and when I was right on top of it, it sounded like a little jet engine; and it was coming from inside one of the tented buildings in a location where I knew there to be a bank of natural gas meters. I was sure that this was a very large leak of natural gas into the tented structure. I immediately contacted Dispatch and told them, "Give me a Structure Response (five more rigs) to this location and have police close the street (a major thoroughfare) at the two intersections on either side of our location."

Then the team quickly donned our turnout coats and fire helmets, afer having casually arrived with our turnout pants and boots on over our clothes. Dan wanted to investigate further; but I told him to get away from the building, get in the rig and back it away from the area. "I’m sure I hear gas escaping … this thing could blow at any moment! We’ve got to get moving on this before we’ve got a real disaster on our hands."

I knew if the building blew it would cause a tremendous amount of damage to the entire area. There would probably be some loss of life. The potential of this happening called for an immediate evacuation of all the surrounding buildings, plus we would need the police to cordon off the neighborhood, wake people up and get them out. It would be a major undertaking.

On the other hand, if it didn’t blow … well, at the very least, I’d be the brunt of a lot of kidding. At the most, I’d be held responsible for the inconvenience caused, as well as the time and money that was wasted. It really wasn’t a tough decision.

When the Battalion Chief, who was responding with the Structure Response, radioed for a description of the incident; I explained what I had seen and heard and recommended evacuation of all buildings and homes within a certain distance of the complex. It would be a massive job, more than the three of us could do. I said to his firefighters, "Sherm, go find the fumigation guard and get him out here right now." And, "Dan, take the rig around the corner to the closest, safest hydrant and get ready to lay line into the fire. If this thing blows, I want to be ready to pour water on it as fast as possible."

While responding to the scene, the Battalion Chief assigned various evacuation tasks to the responding apparatus; and a Second Alarm (three more rigs) was called to insure as fast an evacuation as possible and to strategically place rigs for the potential, massive explosion and fire. The evacuation went as smoothly as could be expected. There were some people who needed help, including a mentally impaired woman in one of the apartments facing the building, and a quadriplegic in an apartment house across the street. It seemed like time was flying by, while the possibility of that building exploding into flames was constantly on every firefighter’s mind. It took about forty minutes to evacuate everyone to a safe location and get the rigs placed into position with lines laid and ready to go.

The Battalion Chief had set up "Command" within sight of the building a half-block away, and I had been assigned to assist him because I knew the area well. We were now in the mode of figuring out what to do next. It was an extremely difficult situation.

"Well … we can’t stand around waiting all night … if something doesn’t happen soon, we’re going to have to send a couple of men in there. We need more information," the Chief said, then added, "Sometimes we have to make tough decisions."

The Chief decided to keep me at the Command Post and send in firefighter, Sherm, with another Captain. I was uneasy about this decision because I  knew Sherm had four children, and Sherm was a member of MY crew; I felt that I and Sherm should remain a team, but ... the Chief had made his decision.

It was forty-five minutes after they had ambled out of the firehouse to this call when the Chief’s decision was implemented.

He touched me on me shoulder and said, "Get ’em ready … we’ve gotta send ’em in."

I looked over at Sherm and the other Captain and said, "Paul, Sherm … get ready. You’re going in."

They began donning their air-packs and facemasks. I looked at them uneasily, and thought, "I should be going with Sherm."

When Sherm received the order, he knew it was going to be a very dangerous mission so he stopped for a moment and prayed to himself, "God, I have four children and a wonderful wife; it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to leave them right now. If that building’s going to blow … why not blow it now before I get there?"

And the building blew--with an enormous fireball and a shockwave that was felt for miles.

Immediately following the explosion, "Command" added a Third Alarm (three more rigs). The hose was laid and charged, and they had water on it in record time. Many of the surrounding buildings suffered major damage from the explosive force, including some nearby homes that were moved off their foundations. The next day you could see debris hanging in the electrical wires, but they had contained the fire to two of the complex’s three buildings.

What I’m most proud of is that not only didn’t anyone die … but not a single person, including firefighters, was even injured. You wait your whole career for that one defining moment … well … that one night was my moment, it showed me why I’d become a firefighter.

Copyright 2002, Dennis Fregger. All rights reserved.

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