Monday, September 28, 2009

The Longest Ride

Years ago, our Firefighter's Association (back then it was called the Firemen's Association) published a yearbook. We sold advertising for the book as well as the books themselves. The Association never made a ton of money on them, but it did provide us a large portion of our association's budget.

If you were to find one, from about 1986 or so and turned to page 35 or so, you would find a full page photograph. The background of the photograph shows a fenced in yard area, strewn with debris. In the foreground of the photo, you might see a male adult wrapped in what appears to be a sheet. The focal point of the picture is a hand and wrist, clad in a turnout coat, pouring a bottle of saline onto the sheet wrapped man. The hand and turn-out clad wrist belong to me.

That was the next to last yearbook that we ever produced. It was the only time that any part of me made it into an action shot, fortunately for all of us my face can't be seen. A photographer from the local paper was on scene and snapped the picture.

I was riding a two-person BLS squad that day, a Saturday I believe. The call had come in as a structure fire with explosion. Two engines had arrived before we did. It was one of the engine crews who had found the two victims wandering around in the back yard. They handed the pair off to us and continued the job of extinguishing the small fire.

The man shown in the picture was in his late twenties or early thirties. He was horribly burned, the first seriously burned person that I had ever seen, let alone treated. The smell of burned hair was oppressive, even in the open air of the back yard. I am embarrassed to admit that I thought that he might have been a black man, as his hair was tightly coiled against his scalp, his skin - at least what I could see, was an ashen gray hue. I soon learned that he was a white man, likely as fair skinned as I.

The patient was shivering and in enough pain that he was groaning. This one was assigned to me.

My partner took the second patient. This one was a little boy, two or three years old. He was crying uncontrollably. Some first and second degree burns were visible on his face, near the corner of his small mouth. Some of his clothing was burned, I don't remember the rest of his injuries.

As we treated them in the back yard, the press photographer appeared, snapping the image. After a short while, our patients were loaded into the ambulance and off to the hospital we went. As we had two critical patients, the medic on the ambulance asked me to ride with the patients to the hospital.

My patient shivered and groaned all of the way to the hospital, despite the pain medication that the medic had administered to him. Between groans and the occasional shriek of agony, he was able to tell us that he was in pain, that there had been an explosion. He asked about his son and expressed concern about his condition.

His son screamed and cried most of the way, his pain compounded by his inability to understand what had happened to him. Had he known what had happened,  perhaps he would have screamed louder.

Our destination was a burn center located twenty miles way. Protocol stated that burn patients were to be transported to the closest facility, stabilized, then transferred to the burn center. The reality was that the closest facility usually wanted little do with seriously burned patients and often had them transported directly to the burn center, once base station contact was made.

Although twenty miles may not seem like far away, the sounds and smells made the ride seem much longer. Probably the longest ambulance ride I ever made. Long enough that I still remember it to this day. What I remember more however is what I discovered when I returned to the scene, an hour or so later.

My partner followed me to the hospital in the squad, allowing me to arrive back at the house shortly after the investigators. At that time, we had several full time investigators who responsible for determining fire cause and origin. They also performed follow-up investigations and arrested arson suspects.

I enjoyed working with them, assisting them with digging out burned out rooms or cellars and assisting them with sketches and taking notes.

We arrived back at the scene just as they were starting to take photographs. They were meticulous, starting their photography at the outside of the structure, moving toward the inside and finally to the area of origin.

Although I never saw the photographs, I can tell you what they documented. They documented the window coverings, glass and wood blown into the yard and the debris of our treating the two burn victims. The next couple of photos likely imaged the the rear wall of the structure, blown outward several feet from the house by the force of the blast.

I am sure the pictures then documented the contents of the house blown about by the blast and the ashes of the resulting small fires. The sheets of drywall pushed down from the ceiling in several of the rooms were probably captured in the images as was heating unit in the attic space. The burned bedding in the master bedroom was photographed and the areas that appeared to be shielded from the blast and the flash fire.

The investigators were lucky on this one, the flash fire and small fires mostly self extinguished or just smoldered until our arrival. The home didn't sustain much fire damage at all, despite the severe blast damage.

That made the next series of photos much easier to take. I am quite sure they showed the stove moved out from the wall in the kitchen, the gas line disconnected from the stove and poked through the wall into the bedroom. They also showed a crescent wrench laying on the floor between the stove and the wall, right beneath the open gas cock.

The investigators were able to determine that the father disconnected the gas line and pushed it through the wall. The plan was to turn on the gas, lay down for a nap with his son and never wake up. Apparently, there was a divorce and a nasty custody dispute, one that the father no longer wanted to fight.

What the father failed to account for is that the gas was lighter than air and it migrated to the attic where it found the pilot light in the heating unit. Once a combustible fuel - air mixture was attained, it ignited with explosive force causing the flash fire which burned our patients and caused the damage to the home.

What was planned to be a painless murder suicide turned out to be a painful attempted murder. Charges were never filed however, as the suspect spent several days in the hospital before finally succumbing to his self induced injuries.I was told the child would make a complete recovery, although some scarring was likely.

The child is in his late twenties now. I sincerely hope he has no recollection of the event. I don't know what his relatives tell him when he asks about his father, I don't know what would be worse, the truth or a lie.

Thus began my very real hatred of people who injure kids.

Thanks for reading.


Friday, September 25, 2009

The wait

At the time, we were running three person engine companies in a lot of our houses, the result of expansion without increases in staffing and an economic downturn. I didn't miss the fourth person then as much as I would now.

We were working out of old station 15, a compact house built in the 50's. Not a bad place to work if everyone was getting along, pure hell if there was a lot of fussing between crew members. A wood frame stucco structure with an apparatus floor built for a round-fendered General, not a modern crew cab Seagrave, old fifteens had neither charm or spaciousness.

The kitchen, day room and office were all kind of one room, with a partition separating the kitchen from the day room / office. Getting serious work done at the desk was tough if someone was cooking or watching TV. Watching TV was tough if the cook was noisy or someone was on the company phone. It was just cramped.

The peace of the evening was broken first by the printer, then the tones then the voice telling us that our services were needed. A stabbing had occurred, not too far from the station. Dispatch didn't have a lot of information for us, just that someone was being stabbed and that the Sheriff was en-route.

Our Fire District has no written policy regarding waiting for the Sheriff to secure the scene on violence related calls. Dispatch provides us with as much information as possible, then the company officer makes the decision whether we respond directly to the call, or we stage outside the area until the scene is secured. Some company officers are resolute in staging, others are more aggressive and respond in before the cops arrive more often than not. I take it on a case by case basis, leaning toward safety. I do not have the tools or training to deal with violent people, I must either use my fists, or improvise a weapon to protect myself with. Fortunately, I have been able to diffuse most of the situations that I have been in.

On this call, two pieces of information stand out. The first is the word "stabbing," the second is the term "being stabbed". As a result, I decide to have Fredo stop a few blocks away and wait for the Sheriff.

We got on the rig and headed toward the call. I had Fredo stop about two blocks short and around the corner from the reported location.To me, it seemed like a good spot because not only was it around the corner from the call, but it was down under an abandoned railroad bridge and was a discreet location.

We told dispatch that we were on scene, staged and gave our location. Dispatch, in turn would relay this information to the ambulance company and to the sheriff. Dispatch acknowledged that we were staging and advised us that S.O. would be delayed, as they were "code 9" (no units available).

We shut off our lights and prepared to wait a few minutes until S.O. could free a unit up and respond to our call. Imagine our surprise when a few minutes later, a man appears out of the dark and bangs on my side window. It startled me, I hadn't see him coming. He had cut across a parking lot and a vacant  field and then slid down the embankment from the old railroad  tracks, popping out on the street behind us.

"She's over there" he yelled, panting from exertion, "She's stabbed really bad!" He pointed in the direction where the incident had been originally reported. I rolled down the window and asked him if the assailant was still there. He couldn't tell me, he didn't know.

I asked dispatch for a revised ETA from the Sheriff. While this is going on, the witness was still shouting at us that the victim is "over there". When dispatch finally got back to me,  she advised us that the S.O. was en-route from the sub-station, a 10 minute drive away.

The knot of  tension grew in my stomach. I felt a need to explain to the witness why we were staging instead of going directly to the scene. I tried to explain the situation to this man through the rolled down window. Understandably, he is insistent that the victim is over there and that is where we should be. My explanation has fallen on deaf ears. This exchange occurred several times, each with the same result. But, each time, he couldn't tell me if the assailant was still there, or whether he had left.

Fredo asks me if I think we should head over there. This annoys me a little, as I know it is his way of saying that he thinks we should respond in. I encourage input from my crew, additional ideas and perspectives can help me with the decision making process. However, I feel the protection of my crew is vital in this situation and I really don't want the pressure of another person wanting to head over to the scene. The knot in my stomach grows and the sweep hand on my watch slows.

After an eternity, the sound of a patrol car siren was heard approaching the area. A minute later, we are cleared to roll in. The print-out of the call later revealed that we were staged for about six minutes. It seemed like an hour to me.

I wish I could tell you that this tale had a happy ending, that we successfully treated the young female victim and that she made a complete recovery. Sadly, that is not what occured.

When we arrived on the scene, we found a woman in her early 20s, laying in the gutter with her head nearly severed from her body. A stream of blood flowed from her lifeless body and down the gutter. The paramedic on the ambulance quickly ensured that the protocols for determining death were met and we stepped away from our victim.

The assailant, the victim's live-in boyfriend, had fled prior to the arrival of the Sheriff and was arrested nearby a few days later.

Did our staging provide the murderer a few more minutes to complete his task? Would our responding directly to the scene changed the outcome of the call? I will never know for sure the answers to those questions.

I still think that staging outside the area was the right thing to do, difficult as that descision was. Now, however, I usually stage a little farther away. The call still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but there is not much I can do about that.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shut the @#$% up and load your patient,

Rescue 224 and Mayview ambulance 24 were dispatched to a reported medical aid at a residence. R224 arrived on scene to find several young adult males standing on the front porch of a single family house. They directed us inside the house, where we found an additional 5 to 7 adult males who asked us to stand by while they brought our patient out from the rear of the home.

After a short delay, a male subject, age 19, appeared from a hallway and identified himself as our patient. Pt. was fully ambulatory, fully oriented and alert. He was complaining of minor nausea, general illness and appeared to be in minimal distress.

R224 seated patient. in a chair and began patient. assessment. Pt. denied medical history, allergies to medications or medications. Pt. denied recreational drug or alcohol use within the past 48 hrs.  For complete medical assessment and treatment details, see Pre-Hospital Care Report # 980978.

Mayview ambulance #24 arrived on scene and we advised them of our assessment, findings and actions. After some discussion, Pt. opted to be transported to Kinda Big County Hospital by ambulance. Mayview #24 transported Pt. to K.B.C.H, R224 then returned to service.

If some of you wondered my writing style tends to be a little narrative in nature, now you know why. The vast majority of the writing in my adult life has been incident narratives, much like the one above. Below, is  a little more descriptive account of this event.

The evening was warm, allowing people to come outside and spend time on the street. The neighborhood was what we call a "wobbler" neighborhood - it could go either way. Street gangs from Los Angeles had been migrating north and east, changing the cultural climate in many of the neighborhoods in the community where I worked.

Older neighborhoods in one downtown area had been inhabited by a cross section of people, including young families who had bought houses built in the 1930s and 1940s and had restored them, large victorians that had been divided into apartments for lower income renters and a few estate size homes that were owned by long time residents.

A real estate slump had lowered prices a few years earlier, allowing investors to purchase numerous houses in the downtown area. These houses were largely turned into rentals, often owned by landlords who lived somewhere else, with no commitment to anything other than the collection of rent.

This proliferation of rentals was accompanied by the proliferation of crack cocaine and it's associated crime. The gangs that existed in this city before then were primarily hispanic gangs who were more concerned with turf and pride than with dope and cash. The introduction of L.A. style gangs was a shock to everyone - us, the P.D. and the old school gangs.

My partner and I were toned out to an unknown type medical aid. As we pulled up on the corner house, it was obvious that this was one of "those" houses. The presence of several young males, all wearing either baseball caps, jerseys or bandannas of the same color, the loud rap music coming from the porch and the silent hostility all worked to put me in a state of unease. One of the guys pointed to the door and told us "in there".

My unease escalated into mild anxiety as we stepped into the house and entered the living room. Through the dim light, I could tell there are five or six other young men, all with the same fashion sense as the guys in the front yard, all with the same hostile silence. The lack of older adults or females further added to my anxiety as there were no calming factors there.

They were mainly seated in the living room, with a few in the adjoinijng dining area. The furniture was early yard sale motif, but the T.V. was color, at least 27 inches across. MTV was on, most of the guys stared blankly at the screen. Over the noise of the TV, I could hear other people in the back of the house. One of the occupants stood and told us to "wait here".before disappearing down the hall.

We stood in the living room for a minute or so before a 19 yr. old male walked down the hallway and stood in front of us. We were informed that this was our patient and that he wasn't feeling well. I don't remember who told us this, but I am sure it wasn't our patient.. We asked the patient a few questions, which he answered in an appropriate manner. We grabbed a chair from the table and had him sit down.

The ambulance showed up at about this time. I was glad, because I just wanted out of there. If we can just get  this guy loaded up, we can do the assessment and any treatment in the ambulance. My happiness turns to disappointment as I see who entered the living room.

DeeDee was fairly new to the Mayview ambulance company. In the short time she had been there, I hade caught her lying to me at least twice, I had noted her awful personality, both to our customers, to us and to her co-workers. I had also noted her propensity to "dry-run" patients, a few of whom might have actually needed to go. She was the next to last medic that I wanted to see walk through that door and was one of the main reasons I supported our agency becoming an ALS provider.

As DeeDee was the only EMT-P on the scene, technically she was in charge of patient care. She immediately started her assessment, doing so in a rude, accusatory manner. The patient was cooperative but a little evasive as to what he was doing when he started to feel ill.. He just said that he was a little sick. His skins were normal and other than the "little sick" thing, he appeared to be in pretty good shape. What he wanted to do was go to the hospital. In an ambulance.

I was all for it. Load him up, lets get the hell out of there. DeeDee asked if he had access to a car. We all knew the answer to this, as we had to walk around a couple of lowered Buick Regals parked on the lawn. Our patient told us again that he wanted to go by ambulance.

DeeDee shrilly told him that he doesn't need an ambulance, but he appeared to be undeterred. Personally I agreed with her, but sometimes it's just easier to load and go. Dee Dee started in on him, telling him he could go by car, bus or taxi.

By now, this conversation had become more interesting than MTV and a few of the people in the room were starting to pay attention to our interaction with the patient. I could hear rumblings from the audience. Still, DeeDee wouldn't let it go, except now her conversation was directed more at us than the patient. "He don't need to go by ambulance, he can go by car. This is bullshit" she told us, loud enough so that the patient and his friends could hear.

This disturbs the individual who had retrieved the patient for us in the first place, to the point where he said "look, he wants to go in the ambulance,  take him". DeeDee was still too busy spewing her mantra, that she failed to notice the increased tension in the room and the increased grumblings from the crowd.

By now, I had enough. I looked DeeDee in the eye and told her "Why don't you shut the %$# up and load your patient."  I know the patient heard it, my partner heard it as did DeeDee's partner. I don't know how many people in the immediate area heard it. The main thing was that although she didn't really shut up, she did load the patient and we all safely left the scene.

I was so angry I thought about diming her off to the District Commander. I then realized that she would probably file a counter-complaint against me for inappropriate language and communication. As I was a firefighter at the time, I was trying to get promoted. Oh, did I mention that she was physically involved with a Captain in the next district? This type of event was a loser for everyone involved.

What bothered me the most was DeeDee's failure to recognize that she was in a house full of gangsters that were not the usual people she was used to dealing with. Fortunately, nothing ever came of my statement. She continued to be a bitch, I continued acknowledge the same. She left the district a few months later and began screwing things up down south. The last I heard, she hooked up with a state trooper and moved to the mountains. I don't miss her. Sometimes, it's just easier to load and go.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Since I bought the new Canon back in July, I have been taking a lot of photos. I carry the camera nearly everywhere I go, including work. My wife calls it my man purse, as I can't leave it in the jeep (no top on the jeep) so I just carry it.

As I am forced to use the shotgun approach to photography, I capture a lot of images, most of which are just fair or worse. This practice fills up the memory card fairly quickly, requiring me to sort through the images, select a few to print and a few to publish. Far more get saved than printed or published.

As the internet was down at work for the last few days, I spent my spare time doing housework on my hard drive. Below are a few images that I thought some of you might find interesting.

Make sure you look at the last three.

When the shift starts, the engineer goes out to the apparatus floor to check out the unit, while I start the A.M. paperwork.The boot makes coffee. A few minutes later, my engineer enters the office. "Joe, we got a problem". The result? A drive to the shop and an hour waiting around until they can break loose a mechanic to remove the bolt in our tire and make the repair. It was over one hundred degrees when this photo was taken.

Who says medics aren't good with their hands? One of my medics fabricated this cup holder out of an old no- parking sign. He did it while we were at the shop, waiting for a repair to be made on our engine.

The cup holder painted and installed. Strong work.

My firefighter teaching our medic basic pump operation. Operating the pump is a learned skill that takes considerable training before becoming proficient. Our agency prefers pump panels located in the center of the engine rather than on the side. It offers a better view of the fire ground and is safer to operate the pump while on the highway. I like the way this photo turned out.

Whoops. A worker at one of our local factories backed into a fire hydrant, knocking it over. The resulting geyser was sixty feet tall. Although we couldn't get a pitot gauge on the stream, we figured a 110 psi residual on an 8" open butt (more or less) that works out to around 4200 gallons per minute. We had to wait for the truckies to come down the hill and bring us the water key before we could shut it off. As this was a private hydrant, the flow was metered and the factory will be billed. Several cars were flooded as well.

This is a picture of an oil well servicing rig, taken from below. It was taken in the late afternoon, just after the crew had quit for the day. The rig is servicing a hydraulic rod-lift pump. You can see the neighboring well unit on the right side of the picture. The wells on this site are typically 4000 to 5000 feet deep.

This is a shot of an oil well cellar. It contains about 20 wells. The apparatus for the well servicing rig can be seen on the right hand side of the cellar, about halfway down. I took these while performing oil well inspections a few months ago.

A shot taken in a neighboring city, right after the main body of fire was knocked down. They took the hoselines through the rear patio door and hit it pretty good. Right after this was taken, the truckies went to the roof and opened it up while the engine crews pulled ceilings. Had I arrived a few minutes earlier, I would have had some great shots. As it was, I was lucky to get this one. It was a lot darker than this shot indicates, most of the shots after this were either grainy, blurry or dark.

My station has a large hummingbird population. I bought a feeder two years ago after one built a nest on a fire sprinkler head inside the apparatus floor. That nest hatched two eggs which reached maturity. After the babies left, we moved the feeder outside. It is not unusual to have three or four birds feeding at one time.

When down south, we like to hit the beach. One of our favorite eateries is in Newport Beach and is called the Crab Cooker. It has been there forever, rumor has it that they used to buy fish from St. John. We like the Blue Plate Special, which includes clam chowder, fish salad and coffee, all  for a little over five bucks. You see all kinds of people there, from Schmoes like us to old money Newport millionares. 
"Not Even a Plaque"
 This is a photo of the burned out house where five U.S. Forest Service firefighters died during the Esperanza fire of October 2006. It is a remote area, sparsely populated. I drove there looking for this house, hoping to find a cross or  memorial of some kind,  honoring  those fallen. I made it to the gate shown in the picture and found nothing. Maybe there is one nearby, but I was UTL. As the area is so remote I didn't want to intrude, it seemed like most people wanted privacy. The state highway leading into the area is named "The Esperanza Firefighters Memorial Highway", maybe that will have to do. I was hoping for more.
This shot gives an idea of the terrain surrounding the house where the tragedy occured. The structure where the living trees are is the burned out remains of the house. The fire started at the edge of the community pictured in the background. 
The sign commemorating the five fallen firefighters. It's hard to believe that it's been almost three years since the Esperanza fire occured.
Thanks for reading,

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Teaching Neo-Newbies

I look out over the classroom and count twenty three young, attentive faces. As an ice breaker, I ask how many of this captive audience is over twenty five. Two raise their hands. I then ask how many are over twenty one. The overwhelming majority of hands are raised. How many still live at home? All but six are raised. The last question - How many of you have had any other fire service experience? Two hands are raised. To these people, I am not Captain Schmoe, I am Chief Schmoe.

The Pretty Small Fire Department is a mostly volunteer department located within a few hours of my home. It is in a very upscale community with a very low-scale tax base. Everybody below the rank of Captain is volunteer, Everybody at or above the rank of captain is at least part-time paid.. The Chief of the department is full time, as is the secretary and the fire marshal.

I have worked there part-time for about ten years. My role is primarily a prevention role. I also serve as the duty officer when I am there and teach a few classes in the academy twice a year. I enjoy seeing the young people come into the Pretty Small Fire Dept, receive the training and then get hired full time in the various departments within our region. The Kinda Big Fire Protection District has hired three people from the Pretty Small Fire Dept..over the last ten years, I have written letters of recommendation for two of the three. I would have written one for the third had I been All three have worked out well with the K.B.F.P.D.  Two of the three are considered "Studs" within the organization and I feel proud that we have hired all three.

The Pretty Small Fire Dept. has produced firefighters for almost every fire department within a hundred miles, some even farther. The chiefs of the Very Big County Fire Department and the Big City Fire Department have sent their sons to go through our program. It is a win-win situation as the community gets a low cost fire protection system and the firefighters get to build their resume and gain valuable experience.

The youthful nature of this class is typical, as it requires a significant time commitment. Academy attendees are required to spend entire weekends in the academy for about five months, then commit to donating one twenty-for hour shift a week. The recruits and their families pay a price, hoping for a full time fire department job later. Most, if they stick it out, will succeed in one form or another. Some will end up working for large departments, others with smaller departments. Some may end up working for Indian Reservation Fire Departments or for Industrial Fire Brigades. Some have ended up working for contractors, providing fire protection to U.S. interests overseas.

The payoff was evident yesterday as a knock on thr classroom door occurred while I was teaching the academy. One of the volunteers was turning in his gear, as he starts his new gig as a paid firefighter on Monday. I introduced him to the class and I congratulated him on his success in this difficult economic time.

Oddly enough, he is getting hired by a department next to the Kinda Big Fire Protection District. It is likely that I will run into him on major calls. It will be bittersweet,  knowing he is a product of the Pretty Small Fire Department, yet knowing how young he is and how old I am.

As I look out over the young attentive audience, I see myself almost thirty years ago, How fast it has gone by.
Good luck to the Pretty Small Fire Dept. class number forty three.

Thanks for reading,.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11, 2001

The above badge is one that is usually displayed in my curio cabinet. One of eleven on the second shelf, this badge is the only one that was not issued to me. It was bought shortly after that horrific day in 2001. Although it is not regulation, I pin it on my uniform shirt every September 11, should I be on duty that day.

I do it to honor all of the people who lost their lives on that crystal clear morning. All of the Schmoes. The cop Schmoes, the janitor Schmoes, the stockbroker Schmoes. I do it to honor the cubicle Schmoes, the military Schmoes, the mommy Schmoes and the flight attendant Schmoes. All of them. The Schmoes on flight 93 who fought and won the Battle of Shanksville and of course, my brother Schmoes, the Schmoes from the F.D.N.Y.

All Schmoes, just trying to keep the wolves from their doors. Remember them.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Katrina - What I learned

Scrolling through over 1500 jpg files over the last week brought back a lot of memories and picked a few scabs. I could have come up with a few dozen more pics and supported them with even more comments, but I think we all would have grown a little tired of the subject matter.

I would, however, like to share with you a few things that this tragedy  taught me.

1. I don't belong in the deep south. I thought that I might want to relocate there, but my trip to New Orleans taught me otherwise. The heat and humidity would lead me to an early death, I don't know how y'all deal with it. There are a few cultural issues as well, ones that I am sure I could adapt to, but it would likely take a while. I had read about cultural differences between various parts of the country, but had never experienced it until I went south. I am sure I wouldn't deal with New York or Philadelphia that well either, maybe I should just stay here.

2. Human beings are capable of tolerating an enormous amount of suffering if they have to. They won't like it, but deep down, they can be pretty damn tough.

3. I like grits. With butter and pepper.

4. We have to do a better job in evacuating pets with their people.

5. Politics suck far worse than I ever imagined. This applies to local and state politics as well as the feds.
Being told that the Governor of the State of Louisiana directed that search team members would be arrested if they entered and searched formerly flooded homes did nothing to inspire my confidence in politicians.

6. I like Blackhawks better than Chinooks (helicopters)

7. The disaster affected the entire socio-economic spectrum, from the homeless up through the country club set. In my last post, I mentioned that I had spoken with a certain veterinarian whose dog food we had procured to feed some abandoned dogs. While tracking him down, I met a woman on the phone. She was the wife of another vet, one who had a large practice in the area. Before the disaster, she was a stay at home wife, keeping busy with that lifestyle. After the disaster, she was learning how to run an office, as they were desperately trying to get their business running again. She mentioned that even if they could afford to hire their staff back, they couldn't as they were scattered all over the country. As a result, she was making it happen..

8. We need to plan better for regional disasters. Before Katrina, most agencies trained for regional disasters by simulating a mall collapsed here, a hospital on fire in the next town, a school collapse there. Katrina wasn't anything like that. Everything was out of service, for as far as you could see. Everything.

9. Do not rely on anyone but yourself when a large scale disaster strikes. You will likely be on your own for at least 4 to 5 days. Listen to the dorky public service announcements and be ready, you don't want to get stuck in the Superdome.

10. Disasters can and will happen anywhere. A large quake in the mid-west or in California, a volcano in the Cascades, another hurricane in the Gulf States or a terrorist attack anywhere. It could happen to you.. Your local and state government will be overwhelmed and the feds will take a long time to get moving. Heroic individual efforts will be made, but the magnitude of the event will overshadow them and make them seem insignificant.

My fellow blogge,r The Happy Medic, has started a series of posts covering household disaster pre-planning. His first post, one with a few simple yet important steps is here:
Take a look and again, be ready baby.

Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rembering Katrina Part 2

As mentioned in Remembering Katrina Part 1, there were two basic ways we operated while in New Orleans. The boats were used in areas that were flooded, rescue team members walked on "islands" of dry areas or in areas where the water had receded.

Here a group of boats is getting ready to depart. The Coast Guard is operating the boats, U.S. Army is providing team security. I believe that they are waiting on us. They are launching from a highway on/off ramp. The highways were largely elevated in New Orleans, making them available for getting around. The off/on ramps were flooded as were most of the surface streets so boats were needed to search most neighborhoods. The ramps were ideal launch points, just like a boat launch at the lake, only not as crowded.

The "Boat People" as we liked to call them, ran into a few air boats while out conducting search missions. The shallow draft and no propeller in the water made air boats well suited for these conditions, but our team members hated working around them.

This air boat appears to be hauling a cameraman and perhaps a evacuee. Notice the guys in the boat to the rear of the air boat, they are getting prop wash from the air boat and are holding on to their hats. They are also getting water spray from the prop wash. We are not talking about nice, fresh bathing water either. Words may have been exchanged.

One of several flooded fire stations that were spotted by our team. From what I was told, NOFD had been given orders to head to high ground before Katrina hit. As a result, apparatus and personnel survived the disaster more or less O.K. The stations however were heavily damaged.

I was in a station not too far from this one, a few days after the water had receded. The crew's cars had been parked inside the station during the storm and subsequent flooding. You could see where the cars had been floating around the apparatus floor for a little while. The damage to the station was severe.

Humanity street. The signs on this street were pretty widely photographed by a number of our people. I think it struck a chord with some of us, knowing the a large piece of humanity was affected by this disaster.

The absurdity of this disaster was evident not too far from this location. Early on in our assignment to New Orleans, basic functions such as body recovery were not in place. Teams were advised that if they found a body, they were to secure it to a pole or a tree, document it's location and pass it up the food chain.

One of the teams had done that, only there was no method to recover the body, investigate the circumstances surrounding the death or to store a recovered body. After several days, this victim was still there. I saw him as the water had receded to just a foot or so, he was recovered the next day. I hope he was the meanest SOB in New Orleans, maybe then he deserved what he got. If not, it just adds to the tragedy. Regardless, it was absurd.

This is a simple de-con that was set up at each of the launch and jump-off points. Each member had their boots sprayed with a solution and was rinsed to remove as much contamination as possible. The water was awful, it smelled and often had a visible sheen on it.

A few people fell in while we were there. One of our members slipped while disembarking from a boat and fell in to chest deep water. He was quickly de-conned and suffered no ill effect from the event. A couple of law enforcement officers fell in while working with or around us. They got the same treatment, although not as quickly as it didn't happen at the launch point.

Some of our team worked out of LARCs for a few days. I believe that these were operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. They transported our people through the water to an "island" that had not been flooded. These are truly amphibious and were something to see. LARC stands for Land Amphibious Rescue Craft.
By the time we arrived in New Orleans, most of the rescues had already occurred. A few people were still being pulled out of attics, but most of the people that my team ran into had decided to stick it out during and after the hurricane. Several had been contacted previously by other organizations, but still did not want to leave their homes.

I have heard various reasons for this, distrust of the government, distrust of their neighbors, not wanting to leave pets behind to name a few. The people who had prepared by having a lot of water, food and other supplies had a much easier time of it.

Several people we brought out had toughed it out for ten days or more, then ran out of food, water or patience. One gentleman told us that the mosquitoes were starting to come back and were driving him crazy to the point where he couldn't take it anymore.

People were brought to the highway by boat and were then airlifted by helicopter to an evacuation center. This group is getting ready to load into the Blackhawk. People that the "ground pounders" found were taken to a LZ that was established in the area where they were working.

For my entire career, I have avoided driving over downed power lines, they present a real hazard for us. In New Orleans, you just drove over them, they were everywhere. You knew that they probably were not energized, but it was still a weird feeling.

A lot of streets were impassable due to the downed trees. I remember one neighborhood, every oak tree was down. It was tough walking down the block, working around the trees. I remember thinking that the street must have been beautiful, with all of the massive oaks providing shade and beauty. Not any more.

All vegetation that had been flooded had this grey cast to it. Grass, bushes tree limbs, it was all the same grey color. I think it was just the silt from the floodwater that had coated the vegetation.

There were a few cemeteries in one of the areas where we searched. A few caskets were washed away from mausoleums and later came to rest a good distance away.

God bless these folks. Two of our members are shown here speaking with an animal rescue group. We saw so many abandoned animals, usually dogs. Typically, there was absolutely nothing that we could do for them. They were usually starving, sick and bewildered. It took a while, but after the water receded animal rescue groups from across the country came into the neighborhoods and rescued many pets.

We did enter a vet's office and removed some bags of damaged dog food, opened the bags and left them on the sidewalk for the abandoned dogs. A year later, I spoke with the vet by phone. He seemed like a good doc, he told me they were just hoping to pay the bills for a few years until business got built back up. I hope he is doing well.

An event which is etched into my mind occurred as I was walking past a doorway in a large educational building. As I walked past, a large Sheppard mix jumped to his feet and started to lunge toward me. He ran out of gas after only a couple of feet and collapsed to the ground. I am sure those were the last steps he ever took. I didn't have the guts to look.

A shot of the damage to the interior of a once flooded house. Not much worth salvaging.

This house was located next to a levee, very close to a breach. Our cadaver dog got a "hit"very close to here. The hit was under a destroyed carport, in or under a car mostly buried under six feet of mud. We documented the hit, then moved on. If I had to guess, I would say someone made an attempt to flee, but waited to long. I'll never know.

A soldier from the 82nd and one of our guys take a break. The heat and humidity were taxing. The heat beat you up all day and kept you from sleeping at night. I gained a lot of respect for the men and women in the military during my stay in New Orleans, particularly the 82nd Airborne Division. Those soldiers were squared away. Most had recently returned from Iraq.

We spoke with them about their experiences in Iraq versus the Katrina disaster. Some felt Iraq was worse because people were shooting at them. Others were more disturbed by Katrina because it was over here. This kind of devastation is not supposed to happen here.

Typical sleeping arrangements for a team like ours. It was stifling in those tents.

I tried to get my work done by ten, hit the showers, be ready for bed by eleven. I had cell service (Verizon Rocks!!) so I would then call home and try to hit the rack by midnight. I had to get up at five, so I could eat and get to the morning briefing by six.

Even though I was uncomfortable every second I was there and hated being there, I still had it better than any resident left in the city. Many still have not recovered four years later.

Next up, a few more thoughts and what I personally learned from the experience.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Remembering Katrina Part 1

Four years ago tomorrow, I arrived in New Orleans, in support of the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort. I thought I was mentally prepared for the devastation that occurred, but was not. It was a profound experience for me and many of my fellow team members. I learned many things on that deployment, some good, mostly bad. The debate on the federal government's response to the hurricane and the subsequent failure of the levee system is one that cannot be resolved on this blog.

The fact is, it was a freaking disaster, one that any community in the country would have difficulty responding to with any large degree of success. I have heard more than a few Chief Officers say that the events that occurred in New Orleans could not have happened in their communities. They are kidding themselves. They might have handled it better, but the magnitude of the disaster was such that people would have suffered, their response would be questioned and fingers would be pointed.

Many of the problems that presented themselves in New Orleans that summer were present long before the hurricane struck. They still exist and will likely do so for a long time.

The images that are posted on this blog were all taken by people I know, people who responded with me to the disaster. Like an idiot, I forgot my camera. I sorted through 1500 images before coming up with these. They are not the typical photos that were taken and shown by the media. I selected these because they had meaning to me, or they presented a unique perspective of the disaster. I wish I could credit each photo to the person who took it, but I can't remember who took what. I can tell you these were taken by dedicated professional emergency responders who worked tirelessly through uncomfortable conditions in an attempt to make a positive impact on the disaster.

We arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 7, after an arduous journey that included driving halfway across the country, staging in another city 14 hours away and driving all night to arrive at 0700 local time. We were assigned to base ourselves at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility / New Orleans Zephyrs baseball stadium. We eked out our space among a multitude of FEMA, state and local rescue teams as well as law enforcement, fish and game D-MORT and other agencies.
The Saints Administrative offices. This is where we ate, attended briefings and, upon occasion slept. The large building in the rear is an enclosed practice field. Smaller teams slept in there as well as certain National Guard and military assets. The RVs in the foreground were largely occupied by various law enforcement agencies and fish and game personnel. The auto carrier in the photo was there to pick up the cars belonging to the Saints players and staff, who were on a road trip when Katrina struck. This photo was taken while we were on short final approach to the east landing zone. The shadow from our Blackhawk is visible in the lower left of the photo.

This photo shows a typical FEMA USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) team's base of operations (BOO). The various tent like structures include a command tent, a logistics tent, a medical tent, a communications tent and, depending on team configuration, sleeping tents. This pic was taken from Zephyr stadium, then, the AAA affiliate for the Washington Nationals

Facilities such as laundry, chow, showers and vehicle fueling were provided by FEMA after a while. We were fortunate to have these facilities the entire time we were there, the teams that arrived before us did not have them. The food was O.K. for what it was. As my primary function involves a lot of paperwork, I didn't always have time to stand in line, so I often ate MREs. There were pallets of fresh MREs stacked everywhere. I learned quickly, the fresher the better.

Dogs, we got dogs! We responded with five dogs on this trip. Four live victim dogs and one cadaver dog. The photo on the left was taken in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter while en-route to a search mission in the northern part of the city. The one on the right was taken while staged, waiting to respond into New Orleans. The dogs performed very well. The cadaver dog proved useful, it made several hits in homes next to a levee break. There is a joke among the rescue teams, that the dogs are ok, its the dog handlers that are a pain in the neck. While it is a joke, there is an element of truth to it. It is only because handlers spend a tremendous amount of time, effort and money in getting these dogs trained and mission ready. They will stop at nothing to ensure that their dog's needs are met. They usually put the dog's needs before their own. Some of us are not as sensitive to that culture as we should be. They do an awesome job.

Our team is designed to operate 24 hours a day. Due to security and logistical issues, we were unable to operate at night. What we did was to take the night shift and put them in boats, while the day shift was either airlifted or trucked to dry areas of the city, to search for victims. Here, a boat crew determines whether anyone is inside the house. The boats were staffed with an operator (coast guard in this case), security personnel (usually soldiers from 82nd Airborne Division or law enforcement) and two rescue team members. I never worked from a boat, I either flew or rode a truck to our operational area.

Half of the team disembarks at an LZ in New Orleans. I didn't know I would be going on this mission until 90 minutes before we left. I was handed a photo-copied street map section with an area outlined on it, along with our tactical action plan. When we loaded onto the helicopter, the crew chief asked me for the GPS coordinates for our destination. I did not have them, I could only show him my very small map. He conferred with the pilot and they figured out where we were going. Another issue was that no one could tell me for sure when we were going to get picked up or by who. The flight coordinator hadn't got around to that yet! The pilot assured me that he would come and get us himself if he had to, that he would not leave us out there. My first task when we arrived at this LZ was to find a place to hole up overnight if we had to. I found a gymnasium occupied by a National Guard unit who was providing security for a local college. I contacted their commander who agreed to let us stay with them if we had to. Fortunately, the Chinook showed up just like the pilot said it would and we made it back to camp.

Stay tuned, there is just too much to put in one post. Part two will be out in a few days.

Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Images of the Monster

As I sit down to start writing this, the Station fire has been burning for exactly one week. Seven days after we first started hearing about the Station fire, it has grown to over 141,000 acres and has killed two firefighters. This is the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County ever measured. One in 1897 may have been larger, but it was not accurately measured. Folks, this one is a monster.

I started to collect images of this fire and of others in California. As usual, (The Boston Globe) beat me to it and has put together a slide show of the very best images available of the past week's activities. Here is the link:

A few comments some of the images:

1. The towering column of smoke has attained enough altitude that the moisture in the column has reached where it is cold enough to freeze. These have been called pyronimbus columns by the media, we call the phenomenon Ice Capping. They indicate tremendous amounts of fuel being burned at a rapid rate, producing enough heat to push the inversion layer. . These were present at least part of the day for 5 of the last seven days.

2. This Satellite image shows the massive smoke plume from space and that it reached out of the image. Also note the three (possibly four) distinct "ice capped" convective columns.

6. The fear in those horses eyes. 'Nuff said.

7. MARS really attacks! For more on this aerial tanker see my post of July 12, 2009 here:

Here is another link to a video that was shot by Coulson Air Tankers, the operators of the MARS. It shows the tanker scooping up a load of water on a lake, then dumping on a ridge just below some broadcasting facilities. I think that the lake is Diamond Valley Reservoir located in Riverside County Ca. and the broadcasting facility is Mt. Wilson, located just north of L.A. The video can be found here:

Here is a link to an interesting time lapse series that shows the build up of the Station fire on August 30th. The video can be found here:

Finally, I took this image on the fly from over 70 miles away. It is not very good, but it shows how tall the smoke column was and how it dominated the sky in the L.A. Basin.

The media has called this fire "The Perfect Fire Storm" . High temperatures, extremely low humidity, steep terrain and heavy dry fuels all led to the rapid and sustained growth of this fire.

It is not over yet, although lowering temperatures and rising humidity, especially at night, have allowed crews to make significant progress on containing this fire.

As massive as this fire is, the thing that worries me most is that this growth occurred with little or no wind. The seasonal Santa Ana winds are due in the next month or so. Whats going to happen then?

Thanks for reading,

Just another Schmoe, keeping the wolves from the door.