Alarming Silence: Equipment Problem Nearly Killed Firefighters

Two Massachusetts firefighters were nearly killed at the start of this year when faulty equipment left their calls for help unanswered.

The Auburn firefighters, Scott Davis and Lt. Justin Brigham, were called in to fight a fire at 604 Main St. in Oxford on Jan. 2. They made a mayday call, but no mayday was heard.

"We were in the last half of our 24 hour shift," Brigham recalled. "It hadn't been an overly busy day. Then the call came in just after 2 a.m."

Auburn firefighters Scott Davis and Lt. Justin Brigham talk in depth about the moments leading up to the fire and the dispatch.

Auburn Fire was assisting the Oxford Fire Department as mutual aid.

"[At] 2 in the morning, I immediately start thinking, 'Do we have people in the building?'" Brigham said. "And I didn't see anyone outside."

Brigham and Davis went inside to search.

"It was so hot and thick with smoke," Davis said. "The smoke was so thick, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. You could hear it in the walls. You could hear the fire roaring up through the walls as we are searching the room."

Auburn firefighters Scott Davis and Lt. Justin Brigham describe what they encountered as they first went inside to search for people — thick smoke, intense heat and life-threatening conditions.

"I knew time was tight and we were running on borrowed time," said Brigham. "If there was a victim in there, it was not survivable. They would not be alive in there."

It was a tight space and the heat was mounting.

"We need to get out of here," remembered Brigham. "We need to turn around and get out."

"I don't know where we are. We're lost and disoriented," Davis recalled.

Then it got worse.

"Things got very quiet. Pressures changed. You could feel the pressure in your ears and everything got muffled," said Brigham. "I broadcast the mayday and there was no answer."

Looking for a wall to guide them out, they were crawling on their stomachs.

"The heat had gotten hot enough you couldn't get up on your knees," said Brigham. "The heat had really taken over the floor and I knew we were in pre-flashover conditions."

Flashovers are not survivable, and one was imminent.

Auburn’s Lt. Justin Brigham and firefighter Scott Davis discuss, in depth, the harrowing conditions that led up to the flashover they escaped with just 30 seconds to spare.

"I put my hand on the linoleum in the kitchen we had just come out of, and the floor was melting," said Brigham. "My glove slipped and stuck to it. I knew we had seconds."

Their masks were melting, as designed, to warn of flashover. They made a second call for help — but still, there was no answer. Seconds later, they found a window and dove out to safety.

Just 30 seconds later, the flashover hit, the flames engulfing what they would later learn was an empty apartment. In the seconds afterward, Davis was getting his air bottle changed to continue fighting the fire and looked up to the second floor window to see the flashover.

"That's when it hit me — I almost didn't make it," he said.

Brigham teared up as he talked about that night for the first time.

"All these people, when they come to work, they've got kids, families, and I don't want to do something that's — sorry," he said, unable to finish his sentence.

The NBC Boston Investigators obtained a copy of the near-miss investigation. No one heard the mayday calls because Brigham's radio had been knocked to another frequency and couldn't talk to the radios owned by Oxford. An Oxford firefighter also could not communicate with dispatch.

"The use of 16-year-old radios for life safety purposes is unacceptable," the report read.

Oxford Fire Chief Sheri Bemis has repeatedly asked for money in the budget for new radios to replace the antiquated ones used that night.

"Since the mayday, that has been addressed," she confirmed.

Oxford Fire Chief Sheri Bemis recalls how she felt as she first heard the mayday call and her fight to add more resources to her department.

Twelve of 16 firefighter radios will be replaced in the next year.

The chief has also repeatedly asked for more firefighters. Right now, she has 13 full-time fighters, but for a growing town the size of Oxford, she says, should have "between 22 and 24."

For years, Bemis has also asked for more officers. The near miss investigation found the police officer's report of occupants out of the building was not passed on by Oxford crews or repeated to command by dispatch. The report stated there was "a lack of trained, experienced firefighters" that night from Oxford.

Bemis has now placed a fire prevention officer on that shift.

Brigham and Davis credit training for saving their lives, an example of why never to get complacent in training.

"Training put us there and training got us out of the situation," Brigham said.

"Thank God for training," sighed Davis.

Firefighters Scott Davis and Lt. Justin Brigham explain how training saved their lives, carrying a message to every firefighter in the country about never letting down on training or becoming complacent.

Both men cheated death that night and continued to fight that fire for hours. Brigham is using that night in training for any and all fire departments. The Oxford town planner confirms they are not only replacing the radios, but are adding two more officer positions. They are applying for grant money to hire more firefighters.

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