Thursday, February 21, 2008

House Fire


Bergen Street House Fire / 19Feb08

The bell hit at 2104 hours, alerting us of a reported building fire at 23 Bergen Street. The three of us on Engine 15 that night knew that we had better be quick in getting out the door on this one or the 14’s (Engine 14) would beat us in to our fire. Bergen Street is right on the border of our respective first-in districts. We stepped into the boots and bunker pants that were neatly placed on the apparatus floor beside the truck just waiting to be put to use. As we pulled the suspenders over our shoulders we stepped into the truck and began donning our fire coats.Brian pushed the ignition button, which brought the diesel engine to life, switched on the emergency lights, and headed out into the cold dark night.

Nothing had to be spoken between us. We all knew just what to do, and we each began our own mental preparations for the job ahead. Brian whipped the truck to a hard left onto Mt. Pleasant Ave. as I jotted down the address on the small notepad mounted on the dash in front of me and then turned on the siren.Kenny was in the back jump seat. As the ‘rear-step man’ it would be his job to immediately grab the hoseline from the rear of the truck and stretch it into position to enter the fire building. With absolutely no time to waste upon arrival at a working fire, he needed to make sure he ‘dressed’ completely on the way – fire coat buttoned, gloves and helmet on, and air pack strapped to his shoulders so that it would release from the frame in the jump seat as he dismounted the truck.

When Brian guided the truck down the hill on Chalkstone Ave. I could see a column of heavy dark smoke in the direction of Bergen Street even against the winedark sky. I picked up the microphone, “Engine 15 to fire Alarm, heavy smoke in the area”. I now knew that we had a working fire and had successfully related this information to the other companies responding to the call. The adrenaline level instantly rose in all of us.

Firefighters have different levels of excitement than the general public. Extreme excitement, and the adrenaline rush that accompanies it, can be put to good use on the fireground. It allows us to enter places and do things that we might not ordinarily be capable of doing in a more relaxed state. The long term physical effects, however, of a constant high level of excitement would take a tremendous toll on a person’s nervous system. Therefore, we quickly learn not to allow ourselves to reach that high level of excitement for the mere ‘report’ of an emergency. Too many times what appeared to be a true emergency to the caller screaming through the phone lines at our dispatchers turns out to be a false alarm or a minor emergency when we arrive at the scene. A report of heavy smoke from a responding company confirms that we are indeed going to face a real job. Now we can allow the adrenaline to flow freely.

We were all preparing ourselves to spring into action immediately upon arrival. People’s lives and property depend on us to do just that. Things can change in an instant, however, and we need to be able to adjust to an ever changing set of dynamics without missing a beat. On a call to an area where two different companies are capable of arriving first, you prepare for the most likely situation but keep a different set of tasks in the back of your mind – just in case.

When we turned onto Bergen Street there was large amount of heavy smoke hanging ominously close to the ground, but no visible flame. There were a number of neighborhood residents gathered in the middle of the street frantically waving at us as we approached, but no one was pointing to the fire. It was very difficult to determine which house was on fire. As we began to slow down near the heaviest smoke, a Providence Police Officer waved to us and pointed toward the back of the house on our right. Before I stepped out of the truck I transmitted a message over the truck radio, “Engine 15 on the scene, heavy smoke from the rear of the building, apparent Code Red, keep you advised.” (When the first-in officer reports “Code Red” he sets in motion a number of events that are not necessary for an auto fire or a non-structure fire, therefore you “don’t call it, ‘til you see it”)

I stepped from the cab, grabbed my air-pac and swung it over my shoulder as I walked to the narrow driveway on the side of the house toward the police officer. He told me that the building that was on fire was actually a house directly behind the one that abutted the street and that everyone was out of the building. When I reached the end of the driveway another building ever-so-slowly came into view through the puffing smoke. It was a two-story building set back about twenty feet from the front dwelling and there was heavy fire showing from the front doorway. As I approached the doorway to determine our best options for knocking this down as quickly as possible I transmitted a message via my portable radio, “Code Red, 2-story, wood-frame, occupied, heavy fire showing first floor, all occupants reported out of the building. Be advised, the fire building is located in the rear of the street building.” As I continued my size-up and awaited Kenny’s arrival with our hoseline, I could see that fire was venting from the windows on the left side and beginning to melt the vinyl siding of a three-story dwelling located about fifteen feet to the left of the fire building. “Engine 15 to Fire Alarm, heavy fire venting and threatening an exposure on Side 2, give me 2 more engines and a ladder”.

By this time (in actuality it had probably been about 30 seconds since I stepped out of the cab of Engine 15) Kenny had arrived with the hoseline and began to flake it out on the ground (to prevent kinks in the line from blocking the flow of the water), position himself, and don his mask. Again there was no need for us to talk, we both just did what we knew had to be done. I checked the hose again for kinks or knots, checked that Kenny was in position and ready, and radioed, “15 – charge our line!” I donned my mask as we waited for the arrival of the water through the 200 feet of hose.

This is always one of the most surreal moments. The quiet of the night seems strange in the midst of such apparent chaos. The sounds are all muted - but distinct. The arriving sirens seem far off, as if they’re running away from you as opposed to getting closer. There’s a slight presence of radio chatter from the fireground radio that seems barely audible over the sucking sounds emanating from the ebb and flow of air through the regulators of our face masks. The hiss of air flowing through the nozzle of the hoseline as it’s being forced out by the flowing water begins to get a little louder as the water nears. Muffled words that can only be likened to that of Darth Vader are exchanged between Kenny and I through our masks as we position ourselves and get ready to attack the fire. Through it all, however, the loudest sound of all – which seems to grow louder and more ominous as the seconds go by – is that of the fire itself. The crackling and popping of the fire as it burns through the wood and releases the pockets of air and moisture long trapped in the timbers seems to take on a life of its own. Glass shattering from the heat and falling to the ground cuts through the trance-like sound of a campfire to add another layer of sound that reminds me of the danger we are facing.

Finally the water rushes through the nozzle with a heavy jerk and begins to cool the fire and darken it down. The effect is almost immediate – where it had just been like daylight in the area we were working, it is now dark and foggy. Visibility reduces to about six inches in about six seconds as the flames begin to die and the smoke gets thicker. I pat Kenny on the shoulder and we enter the front hallway toward the kitchen. He has knocked down the bulk of the fire in the doorway, but I can still make out a bright glow through the haze indicating heavy fire in front of us. As we near the top of the three stairs to the kitchen doorway I catch a glimpse of heavy flames still venting from the left side of the building through a small window just to my left. “Go slow, stay low,” I say to Kenny as he inches forward fighting the heat. I keep right on his tail as we crawl together toward the glow, keeping contact at all times to assure him that I’m right behind him. As he makes his way just over the threshold of the kitchen and begins to attack the flames with his hoseline, the ceiling collapses and forces a rush of super-heated air and fire right into his face. He falls backward, right into my chest. I immediately grab him and try to push our way back a couple of feet. By this time a couple of ladder men are behind me and when they see what’s going on they pull me toward them.

We’ve only been pushed back about a foot or two, but the immediate danger has passed – we regroup. I ask Kenny if he’s okay and we begin to push forward once again. In what seems like only a minute or two (but in actuality closer to 7 or 8) after we fight our way into the kitchen once again, we both run out of air and are forced to retreat. The men from Ladder 3, who have not used as much air to this point, take over our handline as we quickly return to the truck to change air bottles so that we can reclaim our line. An engine man hates to relinquish his line to anyone! When we return and take the line back we continue to fight our way deeper into the building and believe we’re making good progress in knocking the fire down. What we were not aware of, however, was that the fire had taken hold of the second floor and was burning its way through the roof.

Conditions began to worsen very quickly, just as the Chief was transmitting an order to evacuate the building. The airhorns of the trucks on the scene began to blare in unison to signal an evacuation. It always seems to be easier to enter the building than to make a hasty exit. Tonight was no exception. As companies reluctantly began to pull out of the building the smoke seemed to grow hotter and more dense, the debris on the floor seemed to get thicker, and the exits seemed to disappear. As things deteriorated some men were forced to exit via windows to avoid thermal burns. When at last we were all out of the building a roll call of all the companies on the scene was initiated by Fire Alarm. This is standard procedure after an evacuation of an emergency area. After an initial scare that one of our members was still in the building which proved false, the roll call was successfully completed and we began a defensive attack on the remainder of the fire – attacking the fire with large amounts of water applied from the outside of the building.

We eventually returned to an interior attack to fully extinguish the remainder of the fire, but by that time we were drenched and tired, and anxious to get back to a warm fire station. Unfortunately for us, even after the last hoseline is shut down and the fire is declared out, there is still the back-breaking, tedious work of breaking down the hoses and repacking them in the trucks. This is made tougher in the winter by the cold. After being drenched from sweat from the inside and water from the hoses on the outside, it’s impossible to dry off and this just leaves you more susceptible to the cold.

I’m happy to report that there were no injuries to the family of six who were living there at the time, or to any firefighters. The fire was confined to the fire building and not allowed to spread to either of the other two building that were threatened – a couple of sheets of vinyl siding were the only victims outside of the original building. To me, this was a success.

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