Often people ask me if I get scared in a house fire. I can honestly say no, most times. I mean I guess we get such extensive training, that I don’t see the danger other people do that haven’t been through similar training. It’s probably less to do with being brave and more to do with being stupid, or excited. There is such an adrenalin rush of getting a house fire; it’s hard to compare it to other things. While we don’t wish for house fires to occur, or for people to be put in harm’s way, it’s not uncommon to want to catch them when they happen. Ultimately we want to be tested, to put our training to good use. Well, this past week, our training was put to good use. There was a fire, a rescue and a Mayday call, here’s that call from my point of view.
It was about 8:30pm, dinner had been eaten, the dishes put away. I was on the phone with my wife when a call came in. I was driving the Aerial (ladder truck) that night. The call was for the Rescue truck, which is my regular truck, however I was filling in on the Aerial for this shift. The rescue was being dispatched to a report of a fire in a low rise apartment building. Once I realised the call was only for the Rescue, I continued my conversation with my wife. Not even 30 seconds later, the tones in the fire hall went off again. This time the Aerial was being dispatched to the same address but this time it was being called a “working fire”. A working fire is basically a confirmed fire. 911 dispatch was receiving so many calls reporting a fire that it was safe to assume this was a “working fire”. This is why we were now joining the call.
Along our ride to the fire, dispatch had updated us telling us that there was a trapped occupant in the apartment next to the fire. The fire crew on scene was going to assess the call, update the incoming trucks and attempt to rescue the trapped occupant. By the time I pulled the Aerial on the street of the fire, the occupant had been rescued by the first truck that arrived. That same crew should have changed their air cylinder at that point since they had used a lot of air searching and rescuing. Instead they went back in to look for more occupants (even though there were no reports of people missing, and the second in truck was fighting the fire in the bedroom). At this point I had parked the truck and donned all my safety gear and moved forward to the apartment. As I reached the front stairs I heard it. Everyone’s handheld radio crackled and announced “MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!” This was followed up by regular radio chatter until a nearby chief repeated the Mayday and asked for the crew for further info. It was then announced that the initial crew that made the rescue, was now running out of air and they have gotten disoriented on the fire floor.
One thing you need to know, when a house is on fire, it’s nothing like you see on television. On television you can see the fire, and it lights up the whole room and there is little to no smoke. In reality, the smoke is so thick and black; you literally could not see your hand 4 inches from your face, not even an outline. Also, one of the first things to go in a large fire is the electricity so it’s incredibly dark. Most times you find the fire by following the heat, until another crew has had a chance to open some windows or cut some holes in the roof to vent the smoke and heat allowing you to see everything.
This fire was so intense, the entire first floor was completely charged from floor to ceiling with acrid black smoke and soot. It wasn’t difficult for this crew to get disoriented. Luckily our training made things a bit easier. Early on in the call, the first arriving Aerial truck placed a ladder outside the window of the fire unit. We are trained to do this as an emergency route out of the fire should things go awry. The crew that was in distress was in the apartment next door to the fire unit. After announcing the Mayday, they were able to reach the window and smash out the glass to the alleyway below. A special crew set aside for Mayday calls was deployed to find the crew in trouble. At that point the Mayday crew radioed to the chief their location at the window and requested a ladder. I was still without an assignment as I was the driver and my crew was already tasked in the building somewhere else. I decided to run to the alleyway and with the help of two other firemen, we moved the ladder from the fire unit to the window of the firefighters hanging out the window from the waist up. They had removed their mask because they were completely out of air. Thick black smoke billowed out the window around them almost consuming them.
We laid the ladder to the window sill of one of the two windows with firemen. The window was on the second floor (roughly 20’ to the window sill). It was a small window and made it difficult for the firefighter to escape feet first. After a few attempts, he relied on his training and exited the window head first and onto the ladder. He then descended the ladder head first down. Once he was closer to the ground we were able to pluck him from the ladder and turn him right side up. During this exit, the window next to it had a firefighter getting anxious and scoping out a place on the ground to jump. I used my hand light to illuminate the ground to help him see, that’s when I spotted a 2’ shard of glass stuck in the grass like a spike from when they broke the window. I cleared the glass and told him not to jump and to use the ladder. One by one each of the three firefighters came down the ladder head first and we plucked each one off as they reached the bottom.
The fire was contained to one unit, and the only casualty was a cat in the fire unit. On the plus side, a trapped occupant was rescued, as well as numerous pets, and three brave firemen as well. Our training helped us that day, all of us. Those of us on the outside and those that needed help relied on all our previous experiences and training and avoided a potential tragic outcome.
Whenever someone asks me if I’m afraid to go into a burning building, I tell them no, I’m conscious of the dangers, but the training we are provided and practise on a daily basis help us to keep these fears at bay. I’m also a little crazy, which is a good thing in this line of work. You’d have to be crazy to do some of the things we do, and to also deal with some of the things we see, so I’m okay with that.
Until Next Time
Keep Your Head Up and Your Nuts Covered