This is not the kind of weather you want to be fighting fires in. Here in Philly we are starting a heat wave the promises to be plenty brutal. Temperatures in excess of 90 degrees are predicted for the rest of the week. With three shifts left to go I am in no mood. So this morning when the alarm bells went off I was kind of caught by surprise. After all these years I still have days where I think I am going to work and nothing will happen. Imagine that.
Once again we were first in to a reported dwelling fire. I work in a station with a Chief and by procedure he always goes first. (It’s much easier for him and his aide to jump in the car and go than wait for us in the trucks). This time he was gone in a flash and before I knew what was happening he was already giving the report: “Two story dwelling…heavey smoke throughout…two and two in service”. Just then we turned the corner and I couldn’t believe my eyes: heavy brown / grey smoke pouring out of the front of this row house. I couldn’t believe it because it was such a beautiful day. Clear blue skies, but hot.
We went to work immediately putting up ladders, the driver had the main ladder up quickly. Next come the windows as the engine stretched the hoseline in the front door. I could feel the heat through my gear. It was intense.
In this weather, under these conditions the human body takes a tremendous pounding. Your heart struggles to pump blood as you move in 70 lbs of gear fueled by pure Adrenaline. Your lungs struggle to breathe the regular air until you put on your mask. The air is cooler but you breathe rapidly due to the exertion. As we climbed onto the front porch roof we had to deal with window awnings. In Philadelphia many houses have aluminum or heavy plastic window awnings permanently attached to shield the rooms from direct sunlight. They usually come three-quarters of the way down over the window. They are really good at blocking the sun’s rays. They are also really good at trapping smoke inside burning rooms.
As we crawled onto the porch to get the windows, the heavy, hot smoke poured right into our faces. You had to get fairly close to the window because of the angle and the stupid awning. Sometimes it is easier to just break them off of the wall. But that can require a lot of manpower and exertion. In this heat you have to conserve your energy. Just climbing the ladders to get to the roof is enough to make you dizzy.
I decided pretty quick that we needed to ventilate the roof due to the heavy involvement of fire and the tremendous amount of smoke and heat. The engine guys were inside and needed as much relief as we could give them. After we punched and cleared all the windows we went to work cutting a hole in the roof with our power saw. The hole placed over the interior steps acts like a pressure relief valve, allowing an enormous amount of trapped smoke and gas to vent out of the house. If done correctly it’s a game changer for the guys inside.
As the fire was brought under control we found out that there were no injuries to the residents. One of our brother firefighters in another company however broke his hand during the job. He will be out of work for a couple of weeks and should make a full recovery, but still that sucks bad. We work hard to avoid injuries but the fireground is an out of control situation where anything can happen.
After we gathered up our equipment we headed over to one of our neighboring stations to refill our air bottles and get fuel. (We also tell lies and break the chops of the other firemen who didn’t make the job). As we were heading back to our station one of the guys from another shift saw us and pulled up next to us. He told us that today was the day the three-year old boy who was killed in a fire last week was being laid to rest. He was related to the boy and the church was around the corner. Some of the guys working today made that fire as well. We decided to stop by and pay our respects to the family.
Odd thing about a funeral for a three-year old from a poor neighborhood. Their funerals aren’t that large. Just the family, some friends and neighbors. They haven’t had the chance to make their way in the world so their circle of acquaintances is pretty small. The heartbroken family met us on the steps of the church. Five stinking, sweating firemen who just got done fighting a house fire. They were dressed in their best funeral clothes and as we approached they hugged every one of us. They thanked us for coming and I have to admit it was tough to be there. Kids funerals are tough under any circumstances. But this was really hard. We don’t usually go to funerals of people who we fail to save.
A single, small white casket sat closed in the middle aisle of St. Anne’s church today. None of us could go near it as we chose to stay in the vestibule with the family. It was a sad day and a powerful reminder of what our chosen profession is really all about.
As if any of us needed reminding.