Rural firefighter given award for saving woman

A veteran Missoula Rural Fire Department firefighter who pulled an unconscious woman from a burning trailer in Milltown last summer has received a heroism award from a fire industry magazine.

John Fidler was the lone firefighter at the fire on June 19, 2000, when he decided to enter a trailer after neighbors at Harvey's Trailer Park said there was someone inside.

His actions largely went unrecognized until he was honored with a $100 heroism award by Firehouse Magazine and was featured in the magazine's April edition.

"I think it's absolutely wonderful that he was able to save a life," said Rural Assistant Fire Chief Paul Laisy. "That's what we're all in the business for."

Fidler was working alone at Rural Fire's Piltzville station on a Monday morning when he was notified about a fire at 1005 Haaglund Drive.

When he pulled the engine into the area, he said he could only see smoke and fire coming from a bedroom window, which had been broken out by neighbors trying to get Madeline Merseal's attention.

Because the fire wasn't raging at that point, and because there was a deputy at the scene who could tell others that Fidler was inside, the firefighter donned his self-breathing apparatus and went into the house.

"It was burning, but it wasn't fully involved. I just felt by looking at the situation that I could do something," he said. "I felt probably if I waited, the person would be running out of time. We would be getting down to where seconds were important."

Although there were no smoke detectors in the home, Fidler believed prospects for survival were good because the blaze was reported quickly.

"I felt that there was a chance that a victim could survive," he said. "If there had been flames ripping through every opening, there's probably a real low chance of success."

Once inside the vintage single-wide trailer, he moved through the kitchen - where the fire was determined to have started - along a hallway and into a back bedroom.

After checking it out and finding no one, Fidler moved to the front of the trailer into the living room, where increased smoke made it difficult to see.

Merseal was on a couch, covered by a blanket.

"I saw a blanket on the couch. I moved the blanket and I saw her feet," he said.

Merseal was lying on her back, so Fidler crossed her arms in front of her, cradled her head and shoulders on his arms and pulled her out the door and onto to the porch.

She was unresponsive but breathing. Fidler took off his gear and retrieved his medical equipment from the engine. As he started to assist Merseal, Missoula Emergency Services ambulance personnel arrived and began rendering aid.

After being treated at St. Patrick Hospital, Merseal was flown to Seattle's Harborview Medical Center for treatment. She has since been released and has returned to Missoula, but with no memory of the fire.

In entering the trailer alone, Fidler disregarded a departmental safety policy - two firefighters in and two firefighters out - that recommends against entering a burning building alone.

Because a possible rescue was involved, Fidler chose to move ahead.

"Yeah, I thought about (the policy)," he said. "I think in the back of my mind I thought, 'If there's a person in here I've got only a short period of time to do something,' so I made the decision. … You're assessing it while you go. If there's any point that things are deteriorating, then you would change your mind."

Laisy agrees that when saving a life is possible, there's exception to the policy. While it was Fidler's decision, Laisy said it's still a concern.

"As fire managers, we have policies and directives and training we use to teach and guide people to do the right things at emergencies," Laisy said. "But we can't prohibit them from using their education to decide what risks they are going to take in some cases when a life is involved."

"They're bred to perform and it's difficult for us to change that," he said. "They have that ability to make that decision."

Laisy said it's also difficult for firefighters to have to wait until help arrives.

"Even though the public is not out there with a club, they feel directed by the public to perform," he said. "You can't just stand there. You have to do something. It's just a natural feeling I think. That's why they're here. They want to do that."

Fidler is a soft-spoken, unassuming man who has worked for the Rural Fire Department for 16 years.

He often works alone at rural stations. While that can be frustrating at times, he believes the department's good training helps prepare him for any scenario.

"You can reach a point where you can get yourself in a lot of trouble," Fidler said. "You should always assess the personal danger because you don't want to create more victims."

And then there's dealing with the adrenaline rush.

"I think everyone feels it. You have to handle it though," he said. "Adrenaline can give you the burst of energy to get something done, but if it's uncontrolled it generally will get you into trouble."

But Fidler's proud he was able to save a life.

"I feel good about it. More often than not, you're too late, especially in instances like that where the person was probably not real aware of what was going on," he said. "I've been on other trailer calls where the people were probably dead before we were called."

Reporter Mick Holien can be reached at 523-5262 or at mholien@missoulian.com.

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