Sunday, June 28, 2009

Job Security

The tones hit at 0235. “Attention Engine 223, respond to a box alarm at 232 Al Haynes parkway, 232 Haynes parkway, building #J for a box alarm. Respond on Blue #2 at 0235”

I toss back the covers, grab my hat and a stick of gum that are set on the nightstand and head down the hall. No need to check the map, we’ve been there dozens of times.

We arrive at the front of the complex, nothing appears amiss. “Dispatch Engine 223 on scene at a large apartment complex, nothing visible from the street. We will be investigating”.

We are at a large, modern apartment complex. There are probably 15, three story, wood frame buildings, each with about 12 units. This is a pretty high-end complex; most of these people are paying in rent what my house payment is. I have already the pre-plan in my hands, and use it to guide the engineer as he drives the engine into the depths of the complex.

A security gate, numerous turns and we arrive at the proper building. “Dispatch Engine 223, we are on scene at building #j. Nothing visible, the alarm is sounding. It appears that most of the building has evacuated. We will be investigating”.

For our department, a box alarm means that a fire alarm has activated within a building. The term is a holdover from “back in the day”, when we had alarm boxes on street corners. I know from experience and from the pre-plan, that this apartment complex has both monitored smoke detectors and a monitored fire sprinkler system.

The obnoxious clamor of the alarm has roused the residents of this building and some of those from the next building over. Most of those actually got up and left their apartments. I send my medic and my firefighter around the building one way, while I walk around the other. The residents that I speak with are unaware of what caused the alarm to activate.

My crew and I meet up at the back of the building. As we approach each other, we hear the sound of running water coming from the small porch area of a downstairs unit. We can see over a four foot high wall into the patio area. An off-road motorcycle is lying on its side next to an open door. Water is flowing out of the open door and onto the patio. The sliding glass door, which leads into the apartment, is closed and the vertical blinds are closed. The lights are on and I can hear a radio or TV. We can’t see any smoke or flame, but a faint odor of smoke lingers in the air.

We walk around to the front door of the apartment and knock. After a minute, the door opens slightly and a male, about 20 looks out at us. He is blocking the door and I can’t help but instantly notice the bloodshot eyes and the very strong odor of alcohol on his breath. “What’s going on” I ask him in a pleasant yet firm voice. He initially does not answer and continues to block the door. I tolerate this for only a few seconds before pushing the door open and moving him out of the way.

We walk into the apartment and see that there is another twenty-something man in the living room. He is standing next to a coffee table covered with beer bottles, fast food wrappers and x-box controllers. Trash and dirty clothes litter the living room as well. I don’t see a vacuum cleaner or evidence of one ever being used.

We go through the apartment and out onto the patio. We can see that the open door leads into a small storage closet. As I look into the closet, I see that a single fire sprinkler head has activated. I also see that the closet contains a water heater. The charred remains of a cardboard box are present on the floor.

There is no damage to the water heater or walls of the closet. We find another burned box on the patio and we see that the motorcycle has a little soot on it. Obviously, the fire sprinkler did its job, as did the alarm system.

We shut off the water supply to the sprinkler system and silence the alarm. The obviously annoyed residents return to their apartments. I assume most of them have to work the next day and are going to miss the sleep that they lost.

We return to the apartment to determine what happened, obtain information and restore the property to a serviceable condition.

As I speak with the two young men, I can’t help but notice the earlobe plugs, various facial piercings and overstated tattoos. I also note the charred pant leg and sock of young man number two. I try hard not to be judgmental, but their physical appearance combined with their state of intoxication has me questioning their intellect. This suspicion is confirmed when they finally tell us what occurred.

The motorcycle was brought over to the apartment earlier in the evening, was wheeled through the apartment and onto the patio. At some point just prior to our being called, the security of the dirt bike became a concern and a plan was developed to ensure its security.

The two budding rocket scientists decided to put the motorcycle into the small closet. The fact that the closet was smaller than the motorcycle did not seem insurmountable to them, nor did the presence of the water heater.

They had lifted the front wheel of the motorcycle as it came into the closet. The plan was to store the motorcycle with the front wheel up in the corner of the closet, against the ceiling. This would enable the rear wheel to them come through the door. This brilliant plan failed to take into account that the front wheel, hence the entire motorcycle, would be very difficult to control as there was insufficient room in the closet.

The resulting upset of the motorcycle had caused the spillage of a small amount of gasoline. Gasoline, as we all know is a pretty volatile liquid. The vapors from the spilled fuel quickly reached the water heater, where they were readily ignited by the pilot light. The resultant flash fire ignited the two cardboard boxes, some plastic on the dirt bike and the pants of rocket scientist number two. Fortunately for the scientific community and for the other residents of the building, the fire was quickly doused by the sprinkler system.

While speaking with these two individuals, I gave them a little flammable liquid safety lecture. I often try to educate our customers when needed, it’s good for business. I also advised them that they would have to make other arrangements for the motorcycle. The fire code does not provide for the storage of vehicles or flammable liquids on apartment patios. To their credit, they appeared to have learned their lesson and offered no resistance to this news.

“That’s cool” rocket scientist number one advised me “I’ll just put it in the living room for tonight”.

I’m sure the sound of my jaw hitting the top of my turn-out boot may have prepared him for what was next. “You’re kidding, right?” I asked him.

The vacant, bloodshot stare told me that this idiot had not learned anything and was basically untrainable. A second lecture was presented, this time in a little more forceful manner.

The maintenance supervisor for the complex arrived on scene and we assisted him in restoring the sprinkler system. There was no way I was going to leave that building unprotected, not with those two morons still there.

As we left the scene, we saw the motorcycle being loaded into the back of a truck. Hopefully, their next storage option did not endanger anyone.

Had that building not been sprinklered, we would have had a major fire. I can tell you from experience that the fire likely would have lapped up the outside of the building, igniting the material on the balcony above. The fire would have extended through the sliding glass doors on both floors and into the apartments. The same thing would have happened on the third floor. Extension into the attic from the third floor balcony would have been likely.

Due to the lateness of the hour, it is also likely that we would have had injures, maybe fatalities. The idiots that started the fire would have gotten away with a minor burn to the leg, while other people died.

I spoke with the apartment manager a few days later. She was trying to get the rocket scientists evicted. I hope they move to another county, one where they can’t hurt any of my loved ones.

We clear the call and returned to the station. Even though it was a very minor fire, it includes an injury, thus an extensive report. The crew goes back to bed, I stay up and do the paperwork. I know my boss will read it, as will the fire marshal and the insurance company. By the time my report is finished it is after 0400 and I decide to stay up. I normally start waking up at about that time anyway.

I guess that people like this keep me employed, but I can’t help thinking of how they endangered their neighbors. It was just dumb luck that they had moved into a sprinklered building.

Sorry for the length of this post, I need to learn to write shorter accounts. Bear with me, I am new at this. Also, it looks like my youngest son and I are going to be taking a road trip next week. I will likely post once again before we leave and hopefully from the road.

I notice that some folks are actually reading this blog, I am truly grateful for your readership. I hope that I can hold your interest.

Thanks again for reading,


  1. Hi Joe,

    Thought I would drop you a note so that you know who your readers are, or at least one of them :-) I came across your blog through a link on Cockpit Conversations, and I read it from Sydney, Australia. I imagine the job of a fireman is not very different from country to country.

    Keep the posts coming, I enjoy reading the stories and developing an appreciation for what your job really entails. It's like having a fireman buddy and listening to him telling stories over a beer.


  2. Julien,
    Thanks for your kind comment. I have had the pleasure of meeting a Station Officer from Hobart. Tasmania. We met over a few beers and compared notes about our professions. You are quite right about the similarities between firefighting in our two countries.

    Aside from some minor equipment, terminology and procedural differences, the job is really about dealing with people and putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.

    Thanks again for the comment,

  3. I'm another reader brought here by Aviatrix. I hope you don't shorten the posts just to make them shorter. I enjoyed every word of this one. It's good that a writer condenses as much as necessary, but no more. There's nothing you've written here that's extraneous.

  4. Hi Joe,

    I was also brought here by Aviatrix and Julien, both of whose blogs I read religiously. I'm in Sydney, Australia and I agree that you shouldn't shorten the posts just for the sake of being shorter. The level of detail is great. Keep up the great work - your job as with many public servants often goes overlooked, and bringing these interesting stories to the forefront is an excellent service.