Sunday, June 21, 2009

What's behind door #1?

The doorbell rings. I think about ignoring it and letting the "floor watch" firefighter get it, as I really hate answering the door. Especially here, because you never know what you're going to find on the other side of it.

"I got it" I announce over the P.A. I get up and walk out of my office and into the foyer. I look through the glass door and see all of the signs of a person with a problem that I am not going to be able to resolve.

My visitor is a white male about 30. His dirty (though not filthy) hair and clothes, several day growth of facial hair and his plain black backpack tell me that this individual is likely newly homeless or a recently released parolee.

I unlock the door, open it while maintaining control over it and ask my visitor if I can help him. I know I sound paranoid, but we had several incidents around that time, where the person on the other side of the door wasn't very nice.

"Ya gotta help me" the guy informs me "I think that someone is poisoning me with radioactive gas!"

I ponder this for a nanosecond before coming to the conclusion that this poor guy is mentally ill.

"What makes you think that?" I ask him.

"My arms and legs are burning like they're on fire" he tells me. " It's been going on for weeks and the doctors can't help me."

I ask him who would want to poison him. He tells me that he thinks the government is doing it because they don't want to pay him social security. He tells me that he's been seen at the local E.R. a few times and that they can't figure out what is wrong. I can tell that this really has him bugged.

I have him pull up his pant legs and show me his lower legs. No obvious burns, rashes or trauma. His arms look O.K. too.

I hate crap like this. Obviously, this guy has an issue. It's just an issue which I really can't do anything about. I offer up an ambulance ride back to the ER, but he isn't interested in that. Finally, the light clicks on.

"I believe you when you tell me that your legs and arms are burning, I just don't think radiation is going to be the cause" I tell him. "How about I test you for radiation and if it's negative, you have to agree that it's a doctor problem and not a fireman problem".

Surprisingly, he agrees. I invite him into the station and I seat him in one of the foyer chairs. He waits while I go onto the apparatus floor and retrieve a yellow case from the engine.
I bring the case back into the foyer, place it next to his feet and open it up.

The case contains a survey meter, a Geiger counter and eight dosimeters. This equipment was part of the civil defence gear that we used to carry on the rigs when we were afraid that the Russians were going to nuke us into the stone age. It was all made in the early 1960s. The feds gave it to local agencies to use after the nuclear attack. As boots (rookies), we had to present a 15 minute spiel on the equipment and on radiation hazards. We checked the stuff every Saturday to make sure it worked. Other than training and Saturday checks, this is the first time I have ever taken it off of the engine and used it.

I explain the equipment to him as I remove it from the case. I actually used part of my boot training spiel to spell it out for him. "This is the CDV 720 survey meter" I tell him, "It is designed to detect larger amounts of gamma and beta radiation." I insert the batteries and run the meter over him. Nothing.

About this time, the Battalion Chief walks by on his way to his buggy. He looks at me, looks at the radiological equipment and at the disheveled man in the chair. I can tell by the look in the chief's eyes that he really doesn't want to know.

I then set up the CDV-700 survey Geiger counter. I tell him that its for detecting smaller amounts of radiation and that we will check it to make sure it's working. I put the batteries in and turn it on. I hold the probe against the "Operational Test Source" which was a small radioactive dot place on the outside of the Geiger counter. As normal, the Geiger counter starts clicking and the needle on the meter jumps to the proper reading.

I use the probe and spend a good couple of minutes running it over him. Thankfully, the machine remains quiet and the meter stays at zero.

"Well partner" I tell him, "You aren't radioactive".

His look initially is one of disbelief, but quickly changes into acceptance. I again offer him a ride to the hospital, again he refuses. He thanks me for my time as he walks out of the door.

Oddly enough, I never saw this guy again. I don't know if he moved on or just maintained a low enough profile where we didn't run into him.

In all of the years that we carried the radiological equipment, that is the only time I used it We now carry a device affixed to the engine which detects radiation, like that from a "dirty bomb". I hope I never have to use that either.

Thanks for reading,


  1. I didn't even know those meters were ever issued to any FD here in the states. Guess I learned something new today.

  2. We carried them forever. All of the old timers said that the equipment was here before they were. I think we stopped about 1995 or so. Thanks for the comment,

  3. I've got one on my ambulance... not sure which of those though. I also think we've only got one person on the staff who could probably use an interpret it.

  4. I salute you for your immediate recognition that this guy has a mental illness. You are clearly better than the doctors. It seems these days the doctors (MDs) receive almost no training on mental illness, and one must be a psych doctor to receive that type of training.

    Thanks for your creative solution.