2016-05-20 / Community

Kennebunk firefighter feted for county honor

KFD’s Enger named York County Firefighter of the Year
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Kennebunk Fire Chief Jeffrey Rowe (left) congratulates firefighter Shane Enger on being named York County Firefighter of the Year during an April 9 ceremony at the York Beach Fire Station. (Courtesy photo)

Kennebunk Fire Chief Jeffrey Rowe (left) congratulates firefighter Shane Enger on being named York County Firefighter of the Year during an April 9 ceremony at the York Beach Fire Station. (Courtesy photo)

KENNEBUNK — Sometimes, some good can come out of a tragedy.

And, if you ask Kennebunk Firefighter Shane Enger, the good that came of deadly fire on June 22, 2015, is not the award he won because of his effort that day, it’s the renewed zeal for placing smoke detectors in homes that has been the mission of Chief Jeffrey Rowe and the entire KFD force every day since.

Officials from the Maine Fire Marshal’s office have said the death of 25-year-old Kyle Szlosek might have been prevented if a working smoke detector had been present in his parents’ home at 305 Cat Mousam Road.

Maine Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland said investigators from the Fire Marshal’s Office determined the fire started in a first floor living room, “either from smoking [materials] or a malfunctioning computer.” Szlosek died in a second-story bedroom, and although he was reportedly still “in verbal contact” with a brother who made it out of the building as fire crews were en route, he was likely already dead, McCausland said at the time, before Enger burst through the window in a rescue attempt.

In the wake of Szlosek’s death – the first fire-related death in Kennebunk in more that 20 years – Rowe connected with the American Red Cross to launch a free smoke detector program. Firefighters canvassed the town, taking detectors anywhere they were requested, installing more than 150 in about 45 homes.

The push was so great that KFD eventually ran out of alarms, although Rowe said private donations and a gift of 40 more from First Alert replenished the stock. The program continues nearly a year later, with the goal of ensuring every home in Kennebunk is equipped with a working smoke detector.

“If people are in need of smoke detectors, for one- or two-family homes, and if they don’t have the means to provide their own, we’d love to hear from them,” Rowe said on Monday.

“That program has been phenomenal, absolutely,” Enger said Monday in a separate interview. “I had nothing but respect for the chief anyway, he only gained in my eyes by the way he was so aggressive about finding that grant with the Red Cross, and getting that equipment out to the townspeople. I was blown away.”

But Rowe says it’s Enger who deserves the praise and the York County Firefighter of the Year Award he won April 9 at the annual awards banquet of the York County Firefighters Association. Each year, the association solicits nominations in the realms of heroism and public service. Enger’s award for heroism is, Rowe says, “very well-deserved.”

“Fire conditions in that room at the time he entered were doubtful at best, as flashover conditions were eminent,” Rowe said. “His efforts that morning were unsuccessful. However, that does not diminish the great personal risk he took in his attempt to rescue another.”

For his part, Enger, 30, readily admits the scene that day was the most frightening call he’s had during 14 years in the fire service.

Born in the St. Johnsbury area of Vermont, Enger grew up around the fire service. His father was a volunteer and Enger spent a lot of time around the fire barn, eventually joining himself.

“I always wanted to be a part of the fire service in some way, although I never knew at first if it would be a career, or just a volunteer thing,” he said. “I just love the culture and camaraderie that existed in the fire house, and being able to go out and be a part of making a positive change in my community, being able to help when people are going through what may be the worst day of their lives.”

Enger enrolled in the fire science program at South Maine Community College in South Portland, and quickly “fell in love with the area,” choosing to stay in Maine, he said.

Today, Enger lives in Shapleigh with his wife Emily and two children, ages 6 and 8. He also is an EMT, trained to the advanced level, currently studying to become a paramedic. He works per diem at both the Kennebunk and Acton fire departments and hopes to land a full-time gig at either location.

But June 22, 2015, was, he says, “diffi- cult.”

“You’re going into a situation knowing what exists and what’s going on. You know the risks that are associated with the action you are about to do. It’s all very calculated. But it is, nonetheless, very scary,” he said.

With a partner on the ladder, Enger entered the engulfed home though the bedroom window where Szlosek, in town to visit his mother in the hospital, was staying.

Enger’s first goal was to close the bedroom door, to seal the space from the approaching fire. But the smoke was so thick, even at floor level, he could barely make out where the door was, even with a thermal camera. And the noise – the rush of air feeding the crackling flames, and the hot gases steaming out – was such that Enger was unable to hear his radio, or his partner at the window, leaving him doubly isolated and feeling all alone at what seemed like the gates of hell.

“I had to feel my way along, not able to see my hand in front of my face. And the heat was incredible, on my neck and ears, they were just steaming, even through all the protective gear I was wearing.”

Barely a handful of minutes passed, but they seemed like an eternity, Enger says, as he inched across the room, swinging his halligan bar in front of him. That’s when he saw the flames enter the room and slowing undulate across the ceiling – a scene Enger describes as “surreal.”

It was the sign of an imminent flashover – when everything in an enclosed space reaches its combustion point, and the entire room ignites simultaneously.

Enger had seconds to get out and was forced into a gut-wrenching decision.

“It’s a call no one wants to make,” he said. “But I was forced to conclude that, as bad as conditions were for me, even with all of my protective gear, then the person I had gone in for was most likely already beyond saving.”

As it happened, Kennebunk fire crews had trained on this exact situation not a week before the Cat Mousam Road fire. Enger was engaging in an aggressive rapid rescue technique known as VEIS, for ventilate, enter, isolate, search. And he knew he had to get out right then, once those flames started to creep past above his head, or else risk becoming a statistic himself – one of the 100 or so firefighters across American who die each year in the line of duty.

“We train. We have our tactics. But I don’t think anything truly prepares you for the rawness of it,” Enger explained. “There’s part of me that felt like that night I was just watching myself go though these actions. I kind of went on default. I didn’t have time to really think about what I was doing, going in or coming out. It wasn’t a conscious thing – I just fell back on my training.

“But leaving without the person I had gone in for, that was one of the hardest decision I’ve had to make in this profession,” Enger said. “We always want that favorable outcome, of course. It was just all-around a really tough call.

“Because we heard en route that he’d been in verbal contact with those outside, that got my hopes charged up that there was a real strong chance that we could get to him and it was going to be a good call,” Enger said. “But once I took the window out, it quickly became clear that would not be the case. I know that as soon as I felt the environment of the room and saw the condition it was in. But I still had to try. I felt I had to go in anyway and give it my best effort.”

Enger felt a little bit as if he had let everyone down, having only managed to make it about three-quarters of the way across the room when it gave signals of being ready to blow. But a critical incident debriefing arranged by Rowe after the fire helped Enger gain some perspective. Only cognizant of his own part of the operation, in which he was literally operating by feel alone, Enger came to see the entire scene through the eyes of his fellow firefighters. There really was, he knows, nothing he could have done to save Szlosek. Indeed, it was the trying anyway that went above and beyond.

“I was completely astonished, honored and humbled to have been considered at all for this award,” he said. “But I don’t really think I did anything above and beyond what I was supposed to do.”

And, in the end, Enger gives credit to his fellow firefighters.

“Owing to the people who were there, and the training we all have, any one of us would have stepped up and done the same thing,” he said. “This is a heck of a department and I can’t say how pleased I am to work for it. There’s no such thing as an individual in this business. We’re a team, from start to finish.”

Called to Care

The Kennebunk Fire and Rescue Departments will celebrate Emergency Medical Services Week on Saturday, May 21, with more than 20 department’s displaying vehicles, equipment, “and all things EMS,” from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Waterhouse Center on Main Street.

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