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.

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