Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Quiet Moment in the Cab of an Ambulance

It's a Saturday, and I'm working an ambulance shift in a local city. I needed to catch up on some hours for the quarter, and I saw this open shift on the schedule and said, "What the hell..." Joan is in Ann Arbor, running a volunteer project, so I don't feel guilty about not being home on the weekend.

We were dispatched this morning to a PI (personal injury = car crash) at an intersection in town, a pretty typical, medium-speed crash. A middle-aged lady with her 85 year-old mother riding shotgun turned in front of an SUV. Broken glass and bits of car all over the road. Green anti-freeze running into the gutter. Fire trucks and police cars blocking the road. Only the mother, with rib/chest pain, was transported. Everybody else was OK.

The daughter was still in the driver's seat, her door pinned shut by the SUV, her mother still in the passenger seat. We helped her stand from the car and pivot to the cot. After covering her with the white sheet, we clicked the seat belt straps across the shins, waist, and chest/shoulders. With a "Ready? 1-2-3," we lifted the cot, letting the undercarriage drop down.

Once in the ambulance, I began hooking her up to the monitor: blood pressure cuff, fingertip oxygen sensor, and heart monitor leads. My partner successfully set up an IV as a precaution. Any complaint of chest pain is treated seriously.

The lady was upset about the crash, but more so about her daughter. "She's never had a crash before. I feel so bad for her..." We made comforting sounds as we worked.

Once ready, a fire fighter escorted the daughter to the ambuance passenger seat, and I climbed in to the cab and pushed the 'TRANSPORT' button on the computer screen. Up till now, she had been putting on a brave face for both herself and her mother, but as we drove silently down the road, her composure broke. She put her face in her hands and started to cry, her shoulders heaving. I know from being in this situation many times that there is nothing I can or should say, so I reached down between seats to find the Kleenex box. After a few moments, I simply said, "Here," and a handed her some tissues. "Thank you," she replied, then wiped her eyes and blew her nose. With a deep breath, she visibly pulled herself together and sat up straight in the seat. We didn't say anything else on the way to the hospital.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Close to the real thing

"9-0 Engine 13. Report of a structure fire at Wisner and Carson. Smoke showing," came the report over the radio.

A few moments later, Mike responded, "Dispatch from 9-0 Engine 13. We're enroute to Wisner and Carson for a structure fire." Rick put the truck in gear and hit the gas, while the rest of us shrugged into our self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), masked up, pulled Nomex hoods into place, and secured our helments.

The engine pulled up, and we bailed out, each to our tasks. Rick put the engine in pump mode and moved to the pump compartment to start throwing levers to bring water to the nozzle. Dave and I grabbed the loops of hose in the cross lay compartment and pulled hundreds of feet out on to the ground. Mike quickly walked to the left and the right, checking out the structure, then giving a radio 'sit rep' (situation report) to dispatch. Dave and I pulled the hose toward the front door, flaking out the loops of hose so water would flow easily. When we got to the closed door, we took a knee, nozzle in hand and waited for Mike. He came up behind us, thermal camera in hand and told us to get ready.

Over the radio, Mike told Rick to charge the line, and we waited a few long seconds. Suddenly the hose closest to the engine started jerking and shaking as water pushed through the kinks and turns. We watched it progress down the hose, like a cartoon fuse, until it reached us, rocking us with its force.

Mike opened the door, and smoke started pouring out. On our hands and knees, we entered the building, looking for the fire. I was in the lead with the nozzle, Dave at my back, and Mike was third, guiding us with the camera. I couldn't see a thing and had to work by feel, bumping into furniture and keeping in contact with the wall to keep my bearings. Coming to a doorway, I turned right into an open space. I could feel the heat but could not see the fire through the thick smoke.

"Rich, stop!" yelled Mike. He said something further, but my breathing, amplified by the microphone/speaker in my SCBA mask, drowned it out. I yelled, "What?" and held my breath.

"The fire's behind us and to the left. I can see it with the camera," Mike repeated. We shuffled backwards and turned. Suddenly, the smoke shifted, and I could see the flames, red and reaching for the ceiling. The heat was intense.

"Hit it!" Mike yelled. I braced myself and opened up the lever on the nozzle, spraying water in a tight, circular pattern for a few seconds. Smoke and steam billowed everywhere. I stopped and yelled to Mike, "What do we got?" He replied, "It's almost out. Hit it again and then the walls and ceiling." Still unable to see, I sprayed more water, wider and higher than before.

"Hold up," Mike said, "I think you got it." I shut down the water, and Mike pushed past me to a charred sofa. He flipped it over, got out of the way, and told me to hit it again. Then he found a window and opened it, letting light in and smoke out. Now that I could begin to see, I sprayed more water on the sofa, walls and ceiling for good measure.

Mike radioed to the incident commander and reported that the fire was out and we were coming out. Backing out, we dragged the hose with us and exited the door into the sunlight. A safe distance away, we removed our helmets and masks, gasping at the cool, fresh air, sweat running down our faces.

"How was that?" the training office asked. "That was f*cking cool!" Dave answered. "That was the best training I've had in five years!" I added.

We were at a local fire department's training facility, a three-story building built from steel shipping containers welded together. With doors and windows and donated furniture, it was the closest thing to real deal we had ever seen. We spent most of a day running through scenarios, practicing just like it was real. We made a lot of mistakes, but we learned a lot more and, hopefully, gained confidence for the next true structure fire.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Family Meeting Bonfire

It's hard work looking this good!

A Wild Ride

In my several years of burning, we’ve only had a handful of fires get away from us – nothing serious, nothing that needed the fire department – but they are always scary, exhilarating, and memorable. This one was no different.

I was filling my waterpack at the truck when Dave’s voice came over the radio, “I’ve got a jumper on the north line. I need help quick!” Quickly shrugging on the pack, I started moving in his direction, listening to Matt and Lee on the radio, asking for instructions of where to go and what to do.

As I came up to Jen, the fifth on the crew, in the middle of the wooded, hilly unit, she said, “What should I do?” Jen is the newest on the crew and has not had much experience with things getting out of control. “Just a minute - let me ask Dave what he wants,” I replied. Pushing the transmit button on the radio in my chest harness, I said, “Dave, I’m in the middle of the unit with Jen. Where do you want us?”

“Rich, I think we can handle this with just the three of us. Why don’t you two hold the line down there ‘till we get this under control,” Dave answered back. “Copy that,” I replied. I told Jen to keep back burning, keeping the downed trees from catching fire and that I was going to drift back down to the southwest corner and make sure the fire didn’t cross any lines.

I got about ten steps away when Dave came back on the radio again, “Rich! It’s getting away from us. Get up here now!” I turned around and started hustling up through the middle, four gallons of water sloshing on my back. “Jen! Drop back down to the south, and hold the line there. If you aren’t comfortable with what it’s doing there, don’t mess around. Put it out,” I shouted as I went by her.

Coming over a low ridge that had blocked my view to the north, I saw the fire front racing up the steep slope from the pond to the ridge top. I couldn’t see Dave, Matt or Lee. “Dave, I’m at the pond, coming from the south. Which way do you want me to go?” I radioed. “Rich, take the west side, and try to stop the front there,” he answered.

I pulled my Nomex neck protector into place and ran down to where the fire tied in to the pond. The wind was pushing the flames above and to my left, running up the hill. I had to start at the bottom, or it would just run away below and past me. You can’t find a head fire from the front. You have to fight it from the flank and try to catch the head.

I slapped down the Plexiglas shield on my helmet and started pumping the brass wand, spraying water on the flames as I climbed the hill. I had to hope that fire would not re-ignite behind me; I needed to get to the top of the hill and the head of the fire. There was nothing over the hill that was going to stop it. The smoke and heat were pretty intense, and the sound of my panting breaths was amplified by my helmet as I reached the ridge.

The fire had gone beneath and past two logs that had formed a kind of wind break, slowing it down. However, the logs and an inconveniently place pile of firewood had caught fire, pouring heat and smoke into the area I needed to be to put out the head of the fire. I took a deep breath and jumped into the smoke, frantically spraying water at the flames, before I had to scramble back to fresh air. My lungs were burning, and I was not making any headway.

Matt appeared out of the smoke from the other side of the logs. “Matt, help me put this out. The smoke’s too thick. I can’t stay in there long enough to put it out,” I called out to him. We fought it together for awhile until I looked over my shoulder and glanced down the hill I had come up. Oh shit!

I started running back down the hill, gasping into my radio, “My line’s re-ignited! I’ve got to get to the bottom of the hill. Matt, try to hold it there, but watch your back!” The flames were racing up the hill again, building momentum. I reached the pond and started spraying my way back up the hill, still panting in my helmet. At the top, Matt and I finally managed to stop new flames springing away down the hill, but the logs and firewood still merrily burned away, threatening to throw sparks and embers downwind.

I finally ran out of water and had to trot back down the hill and past the pond to the hose spigot on a building on the property. A thoughtful civilian had brought out a large pitcher of water and a plastic cup. As my pack filled from the spigot, I gulped down two cups of water before heading back to the ridge top.

Finally, with a couple hundred feet of flat hose connected to that spigot, we got enough water on the logs and firewood to calm things down. As Dave poured water on to the logs and woodpile, I ranged around downwind, looking for spot fires and smoldering areas. Turning around to look at Dave… Oh shit, not again!

“Dave, Turn around!” I shouted into the radio. The line had flared up again, and the wind was pushing the flames into fresh leaf litter. Dave turned and started spraying from his side. I quickly ran through the fire to the other side and started spraying away. We knocked it down and stood there breathing heavily. Dave grabbed his radio and said, “OK, people. Let’s shut this puppy down. I don’t like the conditions. I want to put it completely out.” So after a couple hours of mop up, we finally put it all out. Needless to say, we were a little tired. Then it was on to the second burn of the day…

The post-game analysis revealed what caused the three-quarter acres of “bonus acreage,” as we call it. Just before we arrived, a landscaping crew had come through with at least eight guys wearing gas-powered backpack leaf blowers, like a swarm of angry killer bees. They had been clearing out flowerbeds and trail edges and in the process, had fluffed up all the leaves along the west edge of the burn unit. The jump occurred in the northeast corner, where our firebreak had big fluffy leaf piles on either side. Dave reported that he had driven the ATV (our new toy outfitted with tank and pump sprayer) right into the fire, driving along the fire front, trying to spray it out. When the smoke and heat became too much, he jumped off to fight it on foot, abandoning the ATV. Lee came up at about this point and apparently shouted, “The tires are on fire! The tires are on fire,” and promptly put them out…