Called to Duty: First on the sceneWritten by Michael Nicely Tom Bartley | | Duty@toledofreepress.com
Responding to a fire with lights and sirens is not as glamorous as often portrayed. Inside the cab, everybody but the driver is scrambling to get their fire gear on and be ready to roll upon arrival. This includes bunker gear, hood, radio, self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), mask, gloves, helmet, flashlight and ax or similar tool.
Dispatchers constantly update responding crews on the radio with information from callers. When it is a reported “occupied” structure, even the most seasoned vet’s pulse starts to quicken, causing an even more hectic donning of gear. Results include incorporating the rig headphone wire with SCBA straps and having to redo it or even trying to reach the glove that dropped to the floor between the console and the seat. It can be frustrating and is rarely graceful.
As the first arriving engine, you hop out of the backseat and the officer sizes up the scene as the driver readies the pump. If it’s a vacant, boarded-up two-story house, with heavy smoke pouring out of a back second-story window and an occupied house next door just 3 feet away with fire lapping at its roofline. You attack. Along with your 30 to 40 pounds of fire gear and tool of choice, you pull and carry on your shoulder the 225-foot length of 1 ¾-inch fire line up to the door.
As you approach, you take a mental snapshot of the building. Once inside, that helps you orient yourself to possible floor plans, victims and fire locations and possible escape routes. At night, you look for civilians in upstairs bedrooms. In daytime, you aim for kitchens or living areas.
You set the nozzle down to force entry. Sledgehammers, axes and specialized fire tools like halligan bars typically make short work of boarded doors. You have to be quick here. The nozzle is a hotly contested commodity in the fire service. Being first into a fire with the hose is an experience; you don’t just leave it laying on the ground.
You’re in, yet you still have to find the fire. You know it’s upstairs. Smoke has settled throughout first floor. Imagine burning tires in a confined space; most modern furnishings are plastic/petroleum products and the smoke is dense black. While hauling the line, you have to feel your way around, crawling on hands and knees, up over and around furniture, for the stairs. Flashlights are minimally effective. After about 2 to 3 feet the light is reflected back at you by the smoke particles.
Up you go. The farther you go, the hotter it gets. The outer rims of your ears burn. The air in your mask gets warm, fogging the face piece. Under the gear, it’s thick and humid as you sweat. The disembodied voice on your radio states a crew is being sent into the occupied exposure house to prevent the fire from spreading, and the truck crew is heading to the roof to put a hole in it for ventilation.
The smoke is thicker here. It’s not like on TV where visibility is wonderful and nobody needs to wear a face piece. It’s an abyssal sea black. Everybody has masks and SCBA on or they would be suffocated in the burning carbon monoxide and plastics atmosphere. All communication is muffled through the masks. You have to recognize people by their helmet, size and/or walk.
Judicious use of water is necessary. You’ll know quickly if you’re on top of the matter. If you can’t darken the fire in the first 45 seconds, you are probably in over your head. The engine only has 500 gallons of water which only gives you three to five minutes depending on nozzle setting. If headway is not being made you have to have faith that command directs an arriving engine crew to secure a hydrant.
The “low air” bell on your SCBA rings. In this case, frugal use of water was able to darken the body of the fire. The truck has gotten access to the roof and put a hole in it. This allows the smoke and heat to escape much like through a chimney.
The next arriving crew heads in to mop up and overhaul. Overhaul is where we start tearing apart the house to put out hotspots and find the last vestige of fire, ensuring it has been contained. Why we continue what may appear to be needless destruction has a purpose — a story for another day.
Michael Nicely has been a firefighter for 18 years. He is a paramedic and certified in confined-space rescue. Tom Bartley has been a firefighter for 10 years. He is an EMT, registered nurse, rescue diver and is certified in confined space rescue.
Tags: Call to Duty