Tuesday, June 30, 2009
We have a family reunion in the mid-west on the 4th and are going to take a three or four days days to come back. Maybe stop in Denver and catch a Rockies game, come through Bryce Canyon NP and the four corners area.
Sadly, the saint I'm married to and my oldest son have work / school and can't go along.
Ive got two other posts almost ready, they just need to be edited again. I just bought a new camera and can't wait to use it. You just might start to see a few pictures in my blog!!
Next post will be from the road. I know this is off topic, but I really get the urge to drive every year about this time.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
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,
Thursday, June 25, 2009
It's a perfect day for it, blue skies, a little upper atmosphere moisture giving us some high clouds. I comment to another senior member how it could stay like this all summer and I wouldn't mind. He agrees, we are both beginning to like summer less and less.
I notice one of the younger guys checking his phone. In fact, I had noticed a few people checking messages at various pauses in the program. I 'm sure I frowned while thinking about this, I think it's rude to check messages during class, even during a "lull" in the action. Just then, I hear the buzz and feel the tingle of my phone in my pocket.
Of course, I pull it out. It could be the emergency management folks, letting me know that my services are needed somewhere far away. I check the screen, it is from the saint that I am married to. Her text informs me that Michael Jackson has passed away.
I later learn that most of the folks in that class were getting the same texts as I was. A good use of technology I guess.
Later, we return to the station and I turn on the news as the crew prepares dinner. Of course, all of the coverage is of Mr. Jackson's passing and of the reaction of his fans. I watched for over twenty minutes as it became obvious that there would be no other news today, nothing more important than the passing of the king of pop had occurred.
They did note in a small segment, the passing of Farrah Fawcett. I am sure that I am not the only male in my age group who fondly remembers the famous poster from my junior high years. I had heard she was gravely ill and was suffering from cancer. I hope her suffering is over now.
The nostalgia passes and the airwaves are again filled with images of fans standing around a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star bears the name of Michael Jackson. It turns out that this star belongs to another Michael Jackson, a early film star or a radio talk show host.
We talk about Mr. Jackson during dinner. We agree that regardless of what you think about him, he was an immensely talented entertainer.
We also talk about Ms. Fawcett.
It was also at about that time, that phones started buzzing again. This time with messages sharing jokes referring to Mr. Jackson and to some legal issues that he had in the past.
I am amazed how quickly these jokes started making the rounds. Within a few hours, they begin to appear. Who writes that stuff anyway?
I am reminded of when Diana, Princess of Wales was killed. At about the same time, Mother Teresa passed away in India. Mother Theresa's passing was not given much more than a passing utterance compared to the media coverage of the princess. I guess we, as a species, care about princesses more than we do saints.
I know that Mr. Jackson's many fans are distraught over his passing and that he was loved by many folks. I truly don't know if he was guilty of the things of which he was accused. I actually hope that he wasn't. I do know that the media will saturate our eyes and ears with coverage of this event over the coming days and that more Michael Jackson jokes will be written and texted out.
I am just glad that no jokes have been sent out about Ms. Fawcett.
It's late. Fortunately, we have had a quiet evening here at the healing place. My paperwork is done, my log up to date and the training records are in. Time to turn this off and pack it in.
Thanks for reading,
Just another Schmoe, keeping the wolves from the door.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
The captain from E19 and the ambulance guys are discussing something as I enter the hallway. Through a partially opened door, I can see the lifeless form of a huge man laying on the floor of a small bathroom.
As I look at this small home and the ever increasing assembly of family members, I get the feeling that the cost of reconstructing the wall, at least of reconstructing it properly, is probably beyond their reach. I imagined that every time they went into the bathroom, they would see a partially repaired wall and they would think of their loved one and the destruction required to remove him.
Even if we remove the wall, we are still going to have to find a way to move him down the hall and out into the living room. There just isn't enough room in the hallway for us to get six people on this guy to move him properly.
Rocky, my crew and I have a conference in the hallway. I present my position to Rocky, as it his incident. I tell him that our victim fit through that door before he collapsed and that he will likely fit through it now. I explain that we will have to use webbing to raise up the victim then open the door and remove it from the hinges. That will by us a few more inches. Then, we will use the webbing to drag our victim through the doorway and down the hall. A 90 degree turn, another doorway and we will be done. The length of the webbing allows us to get four people pulling at once, two per side. Another will be used to help guide and force the victim through the doors. We reach a consnsus, the plan is born.
The image of a deceased person being dragged down a hall and stuffed through two doors is not a pleasant one. I would not want to treat one of my pets this way, let alone one of my relatives. However, I felt that this was our best option.
Rock and I take a look at the people in the living room and pick out the person who looked the most composed and maybe the one with some influence in the family.
We approach him. "Listen, we are going to move Raffe into the living room. We are going to try and be as gentle and dignified as possible, but Raffe is a big man and it's going to be a big job. You and your family don't need to see this. Do us a favor, try and get everybody into the front yard. Give us 10 maybe 15 minutes and we will move him. As soon as we get him into the living room, we'll cover him up and then we will let you back in".
This family member agrees and is able to get everyone outside without too much trouble. We begin the operation and after twelnty minutes and a lot of work, our victim arrives at his destination.
We have to replace his underwear, it had partially come off during the operation. We get a pillow from somewhere and place it under his head. We try to position him in one of comfort and finally cover him with a blanket pulled off of a bed.
We go outside and I find the family member. I tell him that we are done and I explain to him that we tried to be respectful. He thanks us as he and a couple of other people enter the house. One of the deputies agrees to wait for the coroner and we return to service.
I have conflicting feelings as I recall this incident. I regret that we could not treat our victim with a little more dignity, but am somewhat happy that we were able to move him without tearing up the house. I also feel that we spared the family a lot of grief and that somehow, we lessened the impact of losing a loved one. I guess that is the best we can hope for.
Thanks for reading,
Sunday, June 21, 2009
"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,
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
"E24, E18 - when you get on scene, spot behind our engine and stand-by, you are probably going to be released in a minute or two."
My engineer spots the engine behind the van at a 45 degree angle. The medic and the firefighter pull an attack line and go to work. The other tire blows as they begin to put water on the fire. I tell them to watch for the front bumper and for lift struts. I do this on every car fire after having one of my guys clobbered by a bumper cylinder. They knock the fire down in short order. I cut the other engine loose and begin getting information from the driver.
The driver speaks little english but we use her daughter as an interpreter. She tells us that she was driving down the highway and noticed the van was running hot. A few minutes later she smells smoke and pulls over. As she and her 15 yr old daughter leave the van, she notices flames coming from under the hood.
I am curious as to why the van was so well involved. It is the middle of the day, a busy highway with great cell phone coverage and within 3 miles of my station.
I can't tell exactly what caused the fire, the damage to the engine compartment is severe. I can tell you that the fire started near the front of the engine on the right hand side and that it spread into the passenger compartment through the firewall right at the heater box.
We begin overhaul in the passenger compartment. Is is filled with bundles of used clothing all damaged by fire on the surface. They are all sooted up and are wet with a water and class A foam mixture. We remove the bundles, soaking them as we break them open on the shoulder of the highway. We also find some steel pipes and some blue plastic tarps that were under the clothes.
I look up and see that the driver of the van is sobbing as we remove the bundles and break them open. Something about our driver's response caused my sensitivity light to come on and I realized that this woman and her daughter kept the wolves from their door by selling used clothing at a local swap-meet.
She is still weeping when I speak to her about the van. She tells me that she paid $1500 dollars for it a month ago. She has all of her merchandise in the van and was only able to grab her purse when she got out.
She asks me if there is anything that can be saved from the van. I tell her that I don't think so, the clothes are either burned, covered in smoke or soot or are soaked in class a foam. The van is a total loss.
It is during this conversation that I realize that this woman not only lost her van, she lost her job as well. She told me that she had about $3500 worth of clothing in the van, all of it now ruined.
The State trooper arrives and requests a tow. By now the hose line is picked up and we leave the woman and her daughter with the trooper.
By our standards, it was an insignificant fire. To the van driver, it was a catastrophe. I just hope she can recover.
Thanks for reading,
Saturday, June 13, 2009
The view from the cab of the truck as we arrived was surreal. We pulled up and found an imported car that had slid sideways into a tree. As it was a few hours after , only a few bystanders were there. The scene was eerily lit in a pale yellow-orange hue from a street light conveniently located by the twisted car.
A young man was seated in the open driver’s seat door, with his head in his hands, his feet on the ground. He looks up as the truck rolls to a stop – it is obvious he isn’t completely there. I don’t yet know where he is, but he isn’t all there. A couple of the bystanders are tending to the young man.
“Dispatch, truck 221 is on scene. We have one car into a tree. T221 will be investigating.”
As I get off the truck, I note that the car had hit the tree pretty hard. The tree is imbedded a couple of feet into the passenger’s side door. It is obvious that speed was an issue here. There are numerous trees within a hundred feet of this scene, most, if not all, have battle scars from other accidents. I have been here a few times before on fatal accidents and I don’t even work in this district.
As I near the young man, I ask him how he is doing. He mumbles something about being shook up. One of the bystanders says that the young man had been seated in the driver’s seat and had been semi-conscious. I make up my mind that this guy is going, even if he doesn’t really want to. I ask him if he has any pain, he tells me no. The other bystander says something like this guy is lucky to be alive. Inside, I agree.
By now, the firefighter has climbed down off of the tiller-box, retrieved the equipment and has arrived at the car. The engineer (driver) has placed his cones and flares and is approaching us as well.
I look into the car and note that there is extreme intrusion into the passenger compartment, the debris that is all of the stuff that people always carry in their car is strewn about in a random manner. There is a splash of blond hair visible from what was once the area between the front seats of the car. Hoping it is a wig, I pull my flashlight out of my turn-out pants pocket to get a better look.
The blond hair belongs to a female, who I later learn is 17 or 18 years old. She is wearing dark clothing and is wedged between the door and the center console. She and the seat are stuffed into a very small space. She is motionless and does not appear to be breathing. Shit.
“Truck 221, engine 221, we just cleared our call, can we assist you?” Talk about good timing.
“E221 that’s affirmative. We have two patients and an extrication problem.” I also ask dispatch for an additional ambulance.
As the only way to access the female at this point is through the driver’s side door, we move the young man to the curb and ask one of the bystanders to stay with him. I get into the car and determine that the female has no pulse and is not breathing. I don’t see any injuries of the type which would enable us as EMTs to determine death. There is no way she is coming out of the car without the use of power tools to remove some of the wreckage from around her.
I tell my crew to set up for an extrication operation while I start to put an extrication plan together. They are going to pull the “jaws” (I know, I am supposed to call ‘em spreaders, but I am old school), the hydraulic rams, some cribbing and as we don’t have an engine company on scene yet, a fire extinguisher.
Severe side impact crashes, especially ones like this, can be very challenging. They are probably my least favorite. Trees and high speed lead to a tremendous amount of energy focused in a small area. Often, as in this case, access is impaired by the tree. The impact energy folds the floor, often trapping the patient’s feet within the folds of the misshapen floor. The use of tools is difficult as there are few if any purchase points to push or pull from. The patient occupies the space where you need to work. These can really suck.
Engine 221 and the first ambulance arrive as my crew is getting the equipment together. I assign the ambulance to the young man and have the engine assist us with the female. The medic approaches me. I tell him what we have and ask him to re-assess our patient. He disappears into the car along with the monitor. He reappears moments later. He shakes his head, letting me know that he can, and has, determined death.
The sense of urgency disappears as now it will be several hours before we remove this young woman from this mangled car.
“Dispatch truck 221”
“Go ahead truck 221”
“Dispatch truck 221, this is a confirmed code Charlie, advise S.O. Also be advised engine 221 will be released in about 5 minutes.”
The young man leaves the scene in the ambulance. He is conscious and has become more oriented. I think about his future, about how he is in for a very rough time. I also think about how a family is going to get a knock on the door in the middle of the night, one that nobody ever wants to get.
I think about how no one mentioned the young lady when we arrived. I guess the driver could have been altered enough where he couldn’t mention her. Maybe the bystanders didn’t know she was there. The pale light did not light up the interior very well and she was wearing dark clothing. I sure didn’t expect to see a splash of blond hair when I looked into the vehicle. That’s why we look I guess.
As this is a fatal accident, a Major Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) will be called out and conduct the investigation. The coroner will be called near the end of the procedure and will take their own set of pictures and document a few things as well. The patient is not coming out of the car without our help, but it is going to be several hours before we are needed. We advise the S.O. sergeant that we will clear the scene and to call us back out when it is time to extricate the body.
We go back to the station. The guys go back to bed while I start on the report. As I know a lot of people will be reading it, I spend a little more time on it. I make sure the incident is well documented and that I don’t come across as the uneducated hick that I am.
Sure enough, two hours later the phone rings, they are ready to remove the body. As much as I hate to see people killed in car crashes, I enjoy the technical aspect of cutting bodies out of cars. It is a great training tool, a chance to try different techniques without sacrificing patient care. There is no urgency and it is as realistic as any training can be. I treat the victims with dignity and view it like organ donation. Something good out of something bad.
This call came back to me last night as I sat in a church sanctuary, watching my son and his friends receiving their high school diplomas. This is the same venue where I met my wife, 29 years ago. I know that my recollection of this incident is kind of a dampener on a joyous occasion. But every year, about this time, the local rag has a headline about some kids balling up a car and not living to tell about it.
This weekend will be filled with parties and other social events for my son and his friends. My son probably thinks I am a worry-wart for telling him to be safe and be careful when he goes out. I can’t help it, even though I know the influence of his friends is growing, while mine is waning.
Good job little buddy, I am proud of you.
Thanks for reading,
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
As a young firefighter, I always assumed that we could attempt to save any structure and that, if things turned really bad, we would be able to protect ourselves in any situation. My career started with an agency that did a lot of wild land interface fire protection. The company that I was assigned to often responded to major fires and did a lot of structure protection. We were an all Paid-Call (PCF) company that did a lot of training, went to a lot of calls, but for the most part, did not have the wisdom that only time, age and experience can provide. PCF means basically that we were a volunteer company that got paid only when we were assigned to a fire. We didn’t get paid to train, staff the engine or respond to other calls such as medical aids, traffic accidents and the like. We were all young, motivated and in my case, invincible.
For me, the first hint that structure protection was not an assignment to be taken lightly occurred before I ever went on a fire call as a firefighter. My engine had responded to a wildfire with three or four members on it. The fire was located at the base of a mountain range about 30 miles from our station. At the time of the event, the fire had been burning for two days, under the influence of a dry, east wind. The high pressure that created the east wind and low humidity had started to weaken and a south-west wind was beginning to develop. The fire was about 90% contained by the morning of the event. The PCF engine was assigned to a task-force, consisting of 4 structural firefighting engines.
They had been assigned to support a firing operation, which is basically using fire to expand an already existing fuel break such as a road or a fire line cut by either a bulldozer or by a hand crew. When the winds shifted, the fire behavior changed and what was a relatively calm section of the fire blew up and became extremely violent.
The firing operation became impossible and the task force had to retreat or be overrun. Their escape route was blocked by flame and they headed for a large open area. As they arrived at the new safety zone, they saw a mobile home with a family standing outside of it. The crew from my station and another engine were told to protect the mobile home, while the other two engines went to the clearing.
What was described in the official investigation as a “ball of fire”, along with hurricane force winds overtook the family, the two engines and the firefighters.
All four members of the family were critically burned. One of the civilians, a six year old boy, was literally ripped from his mother’s arms and carried over 200 feet by the firestorm and accompanying winds. Sadly, he passed away later that night as a result of his injuries.
Four firefighters on the other engine, received minor burns. Their personal protective equipment prevented them from being seriously burned. Fortunately the firefighters from my station were uninjured.
At a training meeting a few weeks later, one of the people that was there, told us about how the “fireball” came down the canyon at them and that there had not been time to get to the family before the firestorm hit. He also told us that he had been in the jump seat flowing water out of a 1 ½” diameter hose line in a fog pattern to protect himself from the intense heat.
Being new, I thought that the above actions were normal, that hunkering down in a jump seat with a charged protection line was a typical act. Fortunately, I have never had to take that action, nor have any of my friends. We now know that this type of extreme fire behavior consists of tornado like vortices of superheated gasses. They are referred to as fire whirls. I have seen them from afar, but not in a place where they could injure anyone.
About two years ago, a friend of mine was dispatched to assist a neighboring department on a large brush fire. My friend is an engineer (driver) on a structural fire engine (TypeI). Their department goes out of town all of the time on these large campaign fires. This time, the fire was growing very rapidly and the requesting agency did not want to wait for strike teams to be formed, so they were requesting individual resources. My friend’s engine met up with an engine from a neighboring city and arrived in the dark, before dawn.
The fire had started in the early morning, around 0200 I think. They were in one of their infamous Santa Ana wind events with 60 mile an hour winds. The fire had started at the bottom of the mountain and had been pushed up a drainage like a jet. Numerous houses and ranches were located at the top of the mountain.
They were assigned to a structure protection group supervisor when they arrived. It is hard to describe the level of chaos that can occur at some of these wildfires, especially during the initial operational period.
The growth rate on this fire was phenomenal. Influenced by wind, topography and fuel, it had the potential to be a real problem. A severe, immediate structure loss potential, including a conference center /resort and very limited access were another set of problems to deal with. Jurisdictional issues, communications and a ton of resources arriving before the command structure can be built were other conditions that presented challenges for the initial command team. The people that manage these huge wildfires are masters of their profession, but these opening hours present challenges that are extremely difficult to overcome.
The structure group supervisor led the two engines into a rural neighborhood and assigned them each a structure. The two engines were kind of close to each other, but could not see each other. As usual, radio communications were difficult at best.
My friend told me that they spotted the engine, came up with a plan, prepped the structure and deployed a couple of hose lines. My friend’s captain told him that he thought the fire was about 20 minutes away when they arrived at the house and started to go to work. They fire was on them in less than 10. My friend also shared with me that he was shocked at the intensity and speed of the fire. The fact that they had underestimated the speed of the fire triggered warning bells in the minds of the entire crew. The captain issued an order to remove the nozzles from the hose lines, leave the hose and get the hell out of dodge.
My engineer friend said that as they left the house, trees and nearby brush was burning from spot fires and a large branch broke off of a tree, nearly hitting the engine as they escaped. Visibility was awful, and they narrowly avoided hitting obstacles as they made their way to safety. They were unable to raise anyone on the radio. It was a scary time for the crew.
They made their way to a planned safe area and found the other engine company already there. They had been assigned a house and had started to set up for the defense. After a few minutes, they decided that they didn’t like what they were seeing and sought refuge in the safety zone. My engineer friend swears that the captain and the engineer on the other engine were actually praying for my friend’s crew, when they got to the safety zone. The other engine had been in the safety zone for a little while before my friend got there and couldn’t believe that my friend’s crew had waited so long to bail. They also were amazed that they made it out without injury or damage.
Within an hour of this event, another group of engines was trying to save some structures within a couple of miles from where my friend was. One of them was overrun by the fire; some fatalities occurred. I am not going to discuss the course of events that occurred with these folks. Know that I am tearing up as I write this; they were just another crew of Joes, trying to keep the wolves from the door.
In this one incident, three engine companies were assigned dangerous missions. Each of the captains made separate decisions as to when they would leave. One went early, one waited until the last minute. Sadly, one waited too long.
It can be argued that the engine companies should have never been assigned to protect these structures in the first place. The life threat was minimal - most of the residents had already fled. Some of the houses were second homes. The fire behavior was extreme. Meteorologic, topographic and climatic influences combined to create the perfect firestorm. A lot was risked, no; a lot was lost to save relatively little.
A municipal fire department in northern California lost a firefighter while fighting a fire in San Diego County a few years back. As a result of this tragedy, they developed an SOP on refusing risk. You can see a draft of it to the rear of this accident report: http://www.wildlandfire2.com/pdf/novatofd_report.pdf
The point of this diatribe is that, ultimately, especially in the chaotic initial operational period, you are on your own. You have to ensure your safety as well as that of your crew. The people above you will likely take some of the blame if things go bad, but that is not going to help you feel better when sitting in the debridement tank, getting your dead skin scrubbed off.
Look at your NWCG pocket guide, especially your 10s and 18s. Set trigger points that will cause you to bail if necessary. Prep your structure, have a plan and know when to say “no thanks”. A guideline on refusing risk from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group can be found here: http://www.cffjac.org/go/jac/training/wildland-firefighter-safety/properly-refusing-risk/
Stay safe and thanks for reading,
Joe, just another Schmoe trying to keep the wolves from the door
ADDENDUM - I found this narrative while researching another story. It is a first hand account of a burnover that occurred in 1977. Chilling reading. It can be found here: http://www.wildfirelessons.net/documents/The_Fatal_1977_Vandenberg_AFB_Fire.pdf
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
We get to a treatment room, where we see a little girl, about three years old lying on the treatment table. Her color is awful. She is receiving a breathing treatment from a machine and a man we assume is her father is standing next to her. The doctor is in another room looking at her chart.
The little girl was totally passive, barely opening her eyes as we take her pulse, get a blood pressure, obtain her 02 saturation levels and listen to her lung sounds. We flick the bottom of her feet to determine her level of motor response. This is not typical kid behavior. We have a really sick little kid.
I start to obtain her medical history from the person we believe to be her father. He tells us that the child had been in the emergency room the night prior while suffering from difficulty breathing. They had taken a chest X-ray and had cut her loose, telling him that she was suffering from asthma. The doctor comes into the room and tells us that she had suffered from chronic pneumonia and appeared surprised that the previous night’s diagnosis did not include pneumonia or antibiotics.
About this time, the person we assume is the father informs us that that our sick little girl was diagnosed with systemic MRSA about six months ago and almost died. MRSA is Multidrug Resistant Staph Infection. There are several types and it can really be a nasty experience. It can kill people with septic shock or accompanying pneumonia. It would seem that the MRSA diagnosis, the chronic pneumonia and the symptoms that we are seeing now could be interrelated. He also adds that her almost dying is the reason “we have her” and that she was taken from her mom.
It turns out that this poor kid was a drug baby, the person we assumed was her father was actually a foster parent and it appears that the kids suffers from several chronic health issues that may or may not be related to the environmental factors in her life. The part that saddens me is that when this kid is sick, she cannot be comforted by her mother, because her mom loves the drugs more than her. I hate to see any kid in the system, even when it’s necessary.
A casual observation that I have made throughout the years is that when we adults screw up, it’s our kids and our dogs that often pay the price. Kids and dogs are the two life forms that really depend on us for their health and well being.
Hopefully, this little girl’s mom will get her act together, be able to care for her child and all will be well. I am not holding my breath.
Thanks for reading,
Monday, June 1, 2009
When I woke up this morning, I intended to get up and write the second installment of “Should I stay or should I go?” As I sat down at the keyboard, I looked up and saw the blog that I read last night just before going to bed.
It was written by an airline pilot and author named Alan Cockrell, who publishes a blog titled Decision Height. His latest post is about a flight he made before Sept. 11, 2001, when it appears that his flight was used as an intel gathering mission by potential terrorists. http://alancockrell.blogspot.com/
As I read his post again this morning, it picked a few scabs and got the juices flowing toward another subject. In the fire service, we would call this a change in assignment. The pilot world might call it a go-around.
I was on duty the morning September 11, 2001. I was asleep at in the senior captain’s dorm when Jimmy, the engine company captain, knocked on my door and told me that a plane had hit the world trade center.
I tried to clear my head and assess the information that was just given me.
“Was it a big jet or a small plane?”
“I don’t know, but it looks like it was pretty big”
“Is it clear or is it foggy?”
“It’s clear.” “Turn on the T.V. it’s on all the channels”
I staggered out of bed and turned on the T.V. Instantly, the screen was filled the image of the burning tower. What immediately struck me was, how clear the sky was and how much smoke was coming from the tower.
“Wow, FDNY is going to have their hands full with this one”, I thought. I also began thinking about how this could have happened. Was there a software glitch in an air traffic control system that vectored the aircraft off course or altitude? Was it pilot error? What the hell?
The picture got a little clearer a minute or two later when Jimmy and I watched the second plane strike the tower. It took a few seconds to realize that we weren’t just watching video of a plane hitting a tower, but one of a plane hitting a tower standing next to an already burning tower. The last piece of the puzzle was in place, the picture was complete. We now knew how the event occurred. Why it occurred was not relevant at that point. The course of our lives and that of our nation was changed in an instant.
We continued to monitor the news as we prepared to go off duty. As I watched the burning towers, I felt that if there was one fire department in the U.S. that could put those towers out, it was FDNY.
I stuck around the station for a little while after shift change and watched both towers fall. News of events at the pentagon began to appear on the screen and eventually the events in the sky over Pennsylvania became known. Rumors, fear and theories filled airwaves as well as images of the unfolding disaster.
The images of that morning filled my head with all sorts of thoughts and trepidations. I could probably fill a small flash drive with the thoughts and emotions that occurred in the following months and years. I am not going to bore you with most of them, but will share one or two of the big ones.
September 11, 2001 changed the way I view my job. For the first time ever, I felt vulnerable and threatened by the nature of my work. I have had close calls before, had felt scared before, but I never felt vulnerable. I had to examine my mortality from a professional standpoint and apply it to the way I do business.
The commonality of the human condition also became apparent. Everyone who perished in those events woke up, peed, ate, and went about their day, just as they always did. Whether they were a flight attendant, a building engineer, a stockbroker, soldier, sales rep, cop or firefighter, it didn’t matter. They started their day with the intent of doing their thing to keep the wolves from their door. A whole bunch of them didn’t make it home that night.
The rules of hijacking changed. Before September 11, 2001 if your flight was hijacked, the odds were that you would fly to some awful location, spend an undetermined amount of time in a sweltering aluminum tube with a bunch of anxious strangers and horrible hygienic conditions. The heroes of UA flight 93 were the first to realize this new hijacking rule, that you likely would be killed, and forced a second change in the hijacking rules. The second change of rules within a few hours. The second rule change states that you fight and to the death if necessary. If you don't the outcome will be far far worse for far more people. I don’t think that passengers will stand by and allow their aircraft to be hijacked without a fight anymore. I worry about freight carriers though. Boxes can’t fight back.
The course of this nation was changed as a result of the events of that day. We will never know what the world would have been like had the attacks not occurred, but we know what has happened since. When you look at all of the reactions to the events of that day, the economic and emotional cost is staggering. The war, increased security programs and procedures, response preparedness, economic fallout, it goes on and on. How much of the economic turmoil that we have today can be linked to that day?
To the conspiracy theorists who say that the events of that day were deliberate acts by the government, that the towers were brought down by bombs, that the plane never flew into the pentagon – Bullshit. Incompetence, poor intel, coordination and communication maybe. A conspiracy of thousands with a planned implosion no way. ‘Nuff said about that.
You will notice that I did not use the term 9/11 in this post. I hate that term, it demeans the significance of the date. Much like the term x-mas demeans Christmas, 9/11 reduces that tragic date to the same number that people use to call an ambulance for a cold or a tummy ache. I avoid using it.
Thanks for reading
Joe, just another schmoe, keeping the wolves from the door.