‘We are fortunate’ A New Year’s Day basement fire at Hillsboro Community Medical Center is extinguis

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
If there’s such a thing as good fortunate in a fire emergency, Hillsboro Community Medical Center may have experienced it Sunday evening, thanks to the prompt and professional response of trained care staff, two fire departments and a newly acquired piece of firefighting equipment.

A small blaze that apparently started spontaneously in the basement of the facility prompted the evacuation of about 60 patients, long-term-care residents and staff just as they were gathering for their evening meal.

No one was injured in the incident and the patients and residents were able to return to their respective rooms later that evening.

Staff smelled smoke, pulled the alarm at around 5:27 p.m. and proceeded immediately to evacuate residents, according to Mike Ryan, HCMC chief executive officer.

“Nobody panicked,” he said. “They just got the residents outside and did a resident count. They did everything right-exactly by the book. I can’t give them enough credit.”

Within six minutes of receiving the alarm, trucks and firefighters from the Hillsboro Fire Department were on the scene.

Fire Chief Ben Steketee, who was the first to arrive, said it’s not unusual for a malfunctioning fire alarm to summons emergency assistance to HCMC unnecessarily.

“But when I saw they had the residents out in front, I figured there’s something else going on here,” Steketee said.

Seeing smoke coming from a roof chimney, Steketee entered the facility through the ground-level doorway off the parking lot.

“I went inside and saw smoke coming out of the radiator coil,” he said. “When I tried the boiler room door, it was locked. I got a key from one of the hospital staff, opened the door to the boiler room and all I could see was thick, black smoke.”

By then, additional HFD units were on the scene. Steketee said two firefighters, Kenny Ollenburger and Todd Helmer, entered the building armed with a fire hose and the thermal-imaging camera HFD acquired this past summer.

“Unable to see the fire through the smoke, they used the thermal- imaging camera to pinpoint exactly where the fire was,” Steketee said. “Kenny was on the nozzle and Todd held the camera in front of Kenny so that he could see what was going on.

“(Kenny) could see the fire and even the hose stream. With Todd helping to direct him, they were able to hit the hose stream right on the fire, even though they couldn’t see it with their eyes…. They put it out almost immediately.

“The people of Hillsboro need to know that the thermal-imaging camera was really, really helpful,” he added.

About that time, Steketee called in the Marion Fire Department, which responded with two trucks and six firefighters.

With the flames doused, Marion volunteers searched for fire spread and began ventilating the ground floor of the facility while Hillsboro volunteers did the same in the basement level.

“We just brought in a bunch of fans and opened doors,” Steketee said. “Todd was in charge of that operation also. He’d choose one area, open some doors and get the fans going in a certain way that would clear out that area. Then he’d close doors and open others and get the fans situated in such a way that it would clear out that way.

“Systematically, we eradicated the smoke out of (the facility).”

Meanwhile, residents and hospital patients, wrapped in blankets to keep warm on a moderately cool evening, were escorted within 30 minutes of their evacuation into the newly finished waiting area of the hospital while firefighters cleared the smoke.

Around 9 p.m., after Atmos Energy employees Dale Mayfield and Randy Dallke determined with carbon monoxide detectors that the facility was safe for habitation, staff escorted residents and patients back to their rooms.

Inspectors from the state fire marshall’s office, following a review of the basement on Monday morning, declared the fire to be accidental, but did not identified an official cause.

“Quite possibly it was some spontaneous combustion based on cleaning chemicals,” Steketee said. “We think it was some kind of spray they put on dust mops. The dust mops were put into a bucket and left there for about three months.

“It was completely accidental and one of those unfortunate things that happen every once in a while,” he added.

Ryan said Monday he believes the building suffered no structural damage.

“Our costs are going to be in terms of all the cleanup involved there, and then any food stuffs, etc., that we have to dispose of as the result of soot damage. I think that will be the extent of it.”

Because of the soot, Ryan said staff would not be able to use the kitchen for “a meal or two” until it is professionally cleaned.

In the meantime, nearby Parkside Homes would be preparing those meals.

“Early on, we got offers of help from a number of people,” Ryan said.

“Even last evening Parkside offered to help us, and I’ll think we’ll take them up on their offer to help us serve a couple of meals.”

Residents, who did not get a chance to eat supper because of the fire, enjoyed a meal later that night that was provided by McDonald’s of Hillsboro.

“If you can be fortunate in a situation like this, I think we were,” Ryan said.

“Nobody was hurt, the weather wasn’t terrible for Jan. 1. And everything can be cleaned up. It’s just going to take some time.”

“We were fortunate.”

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