Here’s a glimpse into my life as a volunteer firefighter.
This past Tuesday. It’s 2:03 am and the tones go out. Structure fire. Specifically, house on fire. Fully involved. I roll out of bed and toss on a pair of shorts and my fire department t-shirt. Kiss my wife, pet Clover, and grab my keys and radio on the way out the door. I am a volunteer firefighter. In Tennessee there’s a law that personal vehicles cannot run lights so the emergency flashers will do this morning, just like every call. I reach the end of my development at the main road and see a sheriff’s deputy fly by. Perfect, I’ll just follow.
I reach the station and personnel are gathering. Chief is there assigning trucks to people as I don my gear. I’m first-out riding passenger in the Engine. The pump operators always drive and us firefighters ride shotgun to man the radio and to tighten up any gear we need to. My head swirls with what could be. I go through my mental checklist and begin to play out various scenarios. Oh, and as I was getting into the truck I hear that this house contains a lot of ammunition and, yep, it’s going off.
We pull up and yep, it’s fully involved.
Fully involved means a fire that has spread and engulfed a structure or building. It means that the fire has progressed to the point where it is no longer contained to a small area, and has spread to multiple rooms or floors.
Arrival on scene
It’s a one-story home, wood construction with a tin roof. Various trash barrels and piles of stuff off the BC corner of the building (back left). Fence along the left side of the structure. Separate garage about 30 feet from the structure that is safe at the moment. Power line sparking on the AB (front left) corner of the building. Lovely… better get the power company out here and keep things out of the way in case that power line breaks as it’ll still be live. Gotta watch the water spray on that corner.
I’m now out of the truck and going to do my 360° evaluation and radio the incoming trucks. Other than the power line, no other danger such as propane tanks or chemicals are there as far as I can see. Mutual aid is called for from two of our neighboring departments as with volunteer departments we always have limited personnel. I ask the sheriff’s deputy about the ammunition and he said negative, nothing is going off. That makes things a little easier.
Fun fact! Did you know that 76% of fire departments in the United States are volunteer? Yep, it’s true.
I quickly don my SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus), grab a hoseline (is hoseline one word or two?) and start going up the B-side, or left side, of the house to the back left corner (BC corner). I set myself while a sheriff’s deputy helps with the hose between me and the engine.
The line is charged (water coming through it) and I open the nozzle and start the attack. As the other trucks arrive I see them set up our Blitz Fire which is a high-powered nozzle that is stationary and can be aimed at the fire with no personnel manning it – a volunteer department necessity! I hit the hard of the fire in several areas for about 20 minutes and then shut my nozzle down.
I need to get closer and remember that fence I mentioned earlier? Chain-link to be exact. Damn. I need to get my 220 lb. body over it with my 70+ ish lbs. of equipment and a charged hoseline. Not graceful but I’m over with a sizable bend in the fence. Haha. I position myself behind a couple of barrels containing scraps of wood it looks like and hit the fire again with all the water this hose and nozzle will give. I adjust and get comfortable and maneuver so it’s not taking so much muscle to hold the hose and rotate to the various “spots”.
I’m comfortable and controlling my breathing. Watching the flames and colors. Pieces falling down as I hit them with water. I think about the man over beyond our trucks holding leashes of his two dogs. He is safe and alive. His dogs are too. What a thing to wake up to. We had lots of storms so more than likely it was a lightening strike. Our personnel is tending to him also with water and comfort. This man has lost everything. But thankfully, not his life. He is blessed in that way.
Time for another bottle of air
My SCBA alarm goes off… Damn.. need a new air tank and back over that damn fence. I have approximately 7 minutes of air so I spray water a bit more then off I go. One of our support personnel who has had an eye on me is immediately there with some water and a new air tank. As he changes the pack on my back I remind him that he can take his time as I need a breather.
A bottle of water gone and more air on my back. I mask up, connect the SCBA and back over the fence. This time, something on my gear has caught on a loose part of the fence. I’m stuck and need to untangle myself. It’s not working but just as I’m about to grab my wire cutters in my pants pocket I come loose and over I go. By now, the fence has much more than a sizable bend.
More wet stuff on the red stuff. I start hitting the power line area with “spurts” of water as to not provide a direct conductivity path. That seems to be working. Back to the spots in the house. A lot more smoke and ash going through the air and blowing where I’m positioned. If I didn’t have my SCBA on there would be no air for me to breathe. There are moments also where I can’t see the nozzle that I’m holding. I shift my nozzle to more of a fog pattern to clear some of the smoke so I can see. The slight wind shifts too which helps.
Mutual aid, essential for volunteer fire departments
I see our two department friends on the mountain are here and spraying water as I see water over the house coming my way now. Phew… good to have some relief as I am starting to get a little shaky. Dehydrated and I need some Gatorade and more water. SCBA alarm goes off so that’s definitely a sign I need a bit of a break. Just one hurdle. The damn fence. My nemesis. Once more over and we now have a sizable “V” in the fence. Much easier to get over now. I pass one of our parters as I head to the truck and he heads to grab my hoseline. I disconnect the respirator from the mask. Helmet off. Hood off. Mask off. SCBA off. Gloves off. Jacket off. I sit down against a tree while our support personnel brings me some Gatorade and a couple bottles of waters.
Recovery and overhaul
As I recover and watch our neighboring crews extinguish the primary fire areas and then begin overhaul.
Overhaul is a firefighting term that refers to the process of searching for hidden fires and other indicators of fire at a fire scene. Overhaul is one of the last steps in the firefighting process. It involves opening walls, ceilings, voids, and partitions to check for fire extension.
Ok, I’m ready to get going again. Helmet and gloves. No need for jacket and I’m not going to get in the smoke areas. I join one of our mutual aid partners on his hoseline as he hits spots here and there while crews inside remove tin and remains to get to any hot spots.
Once that’s done and we’re good, now comes the time to start clean up. We need to breakdown all the hoselines, drain them of water and wash most of them as they’re covered with soot and dirt. And also the big water supply lines. Maybe 1/2 mile of them. Ughh… Drain, clean and then back on the trucks.
Then back to the hall to refill one of the trucks, put dry hoseline back on, hang the wet ones to dry and to debrief. Perfect timing… it’s just before 8 and I can get home, shower, grab something to eat and jump on my 9 am work call.
It was a long day……..
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