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A big night tonight on the fire department -- fortunately no serious injuries

By Andrew Pollack on 05/24/2005 at 01:16 AM EDT

Its 1:17 am and I'm just back from a long evening on Engine 1. I'm eating dinner and blogging to calm down a bit before going to sleep so forgive me if I ramble a bit.

At 17:06 my fire pager went off, striking a "desk box" (a significant incident) for a reported "fire in the residence" at <an address down the street>. That's actually pretty unusual. Most calls are of the "still box" variety -- an indication that an automatic alarm is sounding or there is an incident requiring only a baseline response like a car accident or power line down. A "desk box" makes a big deal because it means someone has actually seen a real problem of some kind. Even these are usually nothing once investigated. Someone smells an electrical outlet problem in a house for example, generates a deskbox and gets a response of two ladder trucks, three engine companies, and out of town RIT. Most of the time, all but the first arriving engine gets sent home. When a call comes in with a reported "fire in the building" we know its one of the rare 'real' calls. Your heart rate goes up 20% before you're out the door to the car.

With Barb due home any minute, I yell to my two older girls that I've got to go NOW, and hit the car. After buzzing down Main street with the red light on the dashboard flashing and me doing well over the posted limit, I got to the station and started pulling on gear. I could see that Ladder 7 had crew, and that Engine 3 crew was getting there, so I jump in the 'officer's seat' on Engine 1 with another member of that truck. We let the ladder get out first - as its better if it arrives on scene first for a clear shot at getting in the driveway, then looked over and saw that Engine 3 had a crew of four to our crew of two and motioned to that Captain to go ahead. We followed third and the Heavy Rescue (Squad 1) followed us.

Arriving on scene we took the hydrant nearest the house and set to work. I opened the hydrant, flushed it, then hooked up the four way valve and hydrant gates while Alan ran the 5 inch main feeder line up to Engine 3 at the scene. We hooked a short line from the four way valve into our engine and opened the hydrant, whereupon water gushed out all over the ground. Someone had left the Jaffery valve on the four way open. I closed it, reopened the hydrant and was just about to set to running the pump when the chief came over and asked for more manpower inside. Early in the scene at a fire in a place with an on-call department, manpower is critically short. I put a SCOTT air pack on, mask, pulled over my new carbon fiber hood, respirator, heavy gloves, and helmet then grabbed a pick headed axe and was sent in to help with the backup line. As the backup line was already in the building, I got on my hands and knees and crawled in following the hose line with a flashlight until I met up with a crew. I yelled that I was there to help backup, were they backup (yes) and how many did they have? After a few minutes another firefighter came in and asked me the same questions.

Much of the primary blaze was out at this point, though the smoke and steam conditions still had visibility to zero and it was pretty hot. We set about ripping drywall apart, pulling down ceilings and ripping out insulation -- chasing the fire as it found its way through the walls, the eaves, the carpets and everything else. At some point I ended up with the nozzle and ended up putting a lot of foam on spots that kept flaring back up. A third line came in was sent upstairs to handle the fire's "extension" which was still going up there and pretty soon we were in "overhaul". That means the fire is knocked down but there's still plenty of work shoveling out heaps of sodden ash that used to be someone's treasured belongings and tearing out walls, cabinets, bookcases, and anything else that could hide fire or trap heat and reignite later. Not too long into the overhaul process my low-air warning began and it was time for me to leave. I checked with the lead on the team, notified "command" that I was exiting the building (so that if I didn't make it they'd know to look for me) and headed out to 're-hab' where I drank 20 ounces of water, took off most of my gear and cooled down. After a few minutes, I put a fresh bottle in my pack, cleared with the EMT's who'd checked my pulse and blood pressure, and went back to 'command' for another assignment. After a while, I did go back in and used about half of another bottle tearing furniture away from walls and generally making a huge mess of anything not already broken. Unfortunately, its a necessary part of the job and leaves pretty much nothing in good shape. Its also incredibly tiring. Its a fifteen or twenty minute burst of extreme amounts of energy.

By the time we'd cleaned up, got back to the station put the trucks back in order (I'd made sure Engine 1 was back in service before the Captain got back) cleaned the masks and such it was about 21:00, and another call came in. We're in the middle of a big rainstorm and heavy winds had taken down a line nearby. It was Engine 3's call, but they weren't back in service yet so we took it. It turned out to be telephone only, not power so we cut it, cleared the road and left. By this point its 22:00 and pretty much everyone went home but me. I'd offered to drive up to Freeport where another member had taken the 20 or so empty air bottles to fill. At 23:00 or so we got back to the station and were unloading the bottles when another call came in. This time, Engine 1's territory -- a down tree in the road. Gordon -- a firefighter from the island (part of out town includes an island, where by necessity they run their own station but are part of our department) who was on the mainland when the initial fire call came in and was still here -- and I took the call. We found the tree, blocked the road and called Public Works to come cut it up and take it away.

Well, our 21 year old Engine 1 had enough for one day. The dilithium crystals had about run out, and they took all the lights (including scene lights and head lights) with them. We called for additional assistance with traffic and as we were now driving the worlds only stealth fire truck, an escort back to the station. Much later, the tree cut up, I drove back without lights following a cop car at 20 miles per hour. Gordon and I had our hands out the windows pointing bright flashlights at the road. Nice. We called Engine 1 in as "10-7" -- out of commission -- for the night with Engine 3 to cover our calls and packed it in.

With the storm, the "Islander" wasn't running, and Gordon's boat was not going to make it across so he'd planned to sleep at the station. He's downstairs here now, I've put him on the pull out futon which is much more comfortable.

I told you it was a long night. By the way, I think this makes our fire department 10 stops and 0 lost houses in a row. Its been years since we've failed to stop a fire before it took down the structure. That's an unbelievable record for a small rural, on-call department where half the town has no hydrant system.


There are  - loading -  comments....

My own thoughts on this are...By Jon Johnston on 05/24/2005 at 03:02 PM EDT
Cool, man! Congrats to you!
Fascinating, Andrew, what you guys go throughBy Scott Good on 05/25/2005 at 12:55 PM EDT
My Uncle was a volunteer fireman in Athens, Ohio, when I was a kid but I really
wasn't close enough to him to know what that actually entailed.

It's fascinating to get the story literally from the inside out. It must be an
interesting combination of frightening and exhilirating to do these kinds of
things.

Glad to know you're OK.


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