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August 16, 2013

IAFC Honors Arizona Fire Chief for Death-Defying Rescue Seconds Before a Flashover

Fairfax, Va., Aug. 16, 2013…On a chilly morning in December 2012, a Golden Valley District Fire District Chief arrives on scene to face an unthinkable situation: a raging fire in a mobile home with civilians trapped inside; an elderly woman nearly overcome by smoke; the imminent threat of a flashover; and the realization that while firefighters and apparatus are en route, if he does not act immediately, there will be casualties.

Drawing on years of leadership to size up the situation, Chief Thomas O’Donohue of the Golden Valley Fire District, Golden Valley, Ariz., makes a tactical decision and puts his own life at risk to save the lives of others. His heroic actions are being heralded at Fire-Rescue International (FRI) where he will receive the 2013 IAFC/Motorola Ben Franklin Award for Valor.

For 44 years, the Franklin Award for Valor has recognized first responders around the world for their expert training, leadership, heroic actions and safe practices. It is the highest honor bestowed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). Co-sponsored by the IAFC and Motorola Solutions, Inc., the medal will be presented to Chief Thomas O’Donohue at the 140th FRI, Aug. 13-17 at McCormick Place, Chicago.

It is just four days before Christmas in Golden Valley, Ariz., and a 92-year-old woman is trapped inside her mobile home, screaming for help, as black smoke billows and flames engulf the walls. Within two minutes of the dispatch call, Chief Thomas O’Donohue arrives first on scene to learn that “multiple people” are inside. Racing to the back of the structure, he discovers a neighbor has broken a bedroom window and climbed in to attempt a rescue. He’s pulled the elderly woman over to the window where she gasps for air, but he can’t lift her out.

Outside a second neighbor and an off-duty Golden Valley fire captain support her arms through the window; she is simply too weak to hold herself up. Thick smoke pours and flames are threatening the bedroom door as Chief O’Donohue quickly sizes up the situation and makes a critical decision. Then he overrides one of his own directives: do not go in unless you have the right equipment.

If Chief O’Donohue does not make a command decision to do this – with the threat of a flashover seconds away – there will be casualties. By breaking his own rule, he ensures others follow this rule and are safe.

First, he breaks a second bedroom window to provide more fresh air to the occupants. Then he returns to the first window and dives headfirst through it. “I knew we only had seconds to get both of them out," he says. "I could see the fire burning through the bedroom door. If we didn’t act then, we would watch a woman die in front of our eyes.”

Struggling repeatedly to hoist the woman up and out of the very high window, with the bedroom ready to ignite, Chief O’Donohue instructs the neighbor, “We’ve got to make this push count!” With a mighty heave, they lift the nearly-unconscious woman up and out of the window to the waiting arms of the captain and a second neighbor below.

Inside, Chief O’Donohue helps the trapped neighbor exit and barely clears the window himself when the room erupts into a raging inferno. “When we hit the ground and looked back, I saw heavy flames were coming out of the window, spelling certain death for any occupants,” he says.

Although it takes less than seven minutes from dispatch to rescue, by the time his crews arrive, 75 percent of the mobile home is involved in fire. Due to Chief O’Donohue’s extraordinary courage, leadership and quick thinking in the face of imminent danger, all can celebrate another Christmas.

Even as the community commends his remarkable leadership, Chief Thomas O’Donohue continues to put others ahead of himself. He praises the selfless actions of his teammates and reinforces the importance of safety. “We strongly discourage people from going inside a structure that oftentimes makes for more victims," he says, "but any hesitation on anybody’s part that day would have resulted in that woman’s death, and maybe more.”

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