Well it didn’t take long. Last night was my last night shift for the tour. Summertime, Saturday night in Kensington is a bizarre journey through the underbelly of some of the worst things an American big city has to offer. A ride down Kensington Avenue is like a slide show of images from Taxi Driver only worse. Drugs, crime, prostitution, it’s all there. We were called out TWICE last night to cover Ladder 02 at 4th & Arch in Center City, my old stomping ground. On the way there we encountered this:
A fatal motorcycle accident had Kensington Avenue closed and forced us to take a weird detour off the beaten path. The woman on the motorcycle was decapitated and declared dead at the scene. Our medics transported the man who had less severe injuries. I didn’t see the medics the rest of the shift.
Fires in other parts of the city now force us to cover stations far away. That’s due to all the companies that have been closed under the Nutter administration. The world I inhabit when I am at work is a far cry from the normal existence I try to maintain when I’m home. At home everything usually makes sense (except the girl).
But I digress. There was a fatal fire in West Philadelphia last night. A twelve-year-old autistic boy died when his house went up in flames. The fire was so intense it extended to four properties total. Two firefighters were hurt in the process of trying to save this child. The stairs collapsed from under them while other firefighters rescued a woman from the roof. Real big city heroics. Yet this job was much more intense than it had to be because the closest fire engine to this house, ENGINE 57 (Yes, the very same engine that was the first to be “Browned Out” by the Nutter administration) wasn’t available for service. They were at the shop picking up their front line truck. Since they were browned out on the day shift, the firefighters reported for duty at 6PM and they had to go and pick up their truck then. That’s a process that can take two to three hours. Two to three hours without fire protection.
Almost as a rule, we try to do the routine thing like vehicle maintenance on the day shifts since fighting fires at night is extremely intense. You are tired and the shifts can be long. It’s easy to get hurt in the dark. The fact that people are often asleep and most vulnerable at night means house fires overnight are the most dangerous fires we face in terms of loss of life. People often never wake up because the carbon monoxide gets them in their sleep before the fire. We find them in their beds. Other times they do awake but are disoriented and blinded by the smoke. They know they are in trouble and fight desperately for their lives. We find them in the hallway, or under a window. The kids we usually find in a closet where they take their last refuge. Two minutes. That’s all we have.
So this autistic boy had a strike against him the second Engine 57 left the local to go to the shop. Yeah, we have to do it all the time. But that’s because the department refuses to institute a better plan where firefighters who are on light duty or other administrative duties jockey equipment and apparatus around. Russian roulette. Front-line companies have to go out of service to pick up their trucks. Yet even with one fire engine away from its local we’re good at what we do. There are times where we can do superhuman things as firefighters that regular mortals can’t comprehend. Like cover two locals at one time. But even firefighters have a limit to their powers. We can’t cover THREE locals. While Engine 57 was at the shop, the next closest engine, Engine 41 got a call. From that point on that kid’s fate was sealed.
Engine 68 is located at 52nd & Willows Streets deep in the heart of West Philadelphia. The firefighters who work there lovingly refer to their station as the Cuckoo’s Nest. They have gained a reputation over generations as some of our best firefighters. The station is what we call a “full house.” Engine 68, Ladder 13, Battalion Chief 7 and Medic 3 are all stationed there. They’re a long way from 55th and Chestnut Street where this fire broke out. FOUR minutes away to be exact. Engine 57 is maybe one.
When a full house like Engine 68’s gets an alarm that all their units respond to simultaneously, there is an order of response, a protocol for our movement. The Chief, being the smallest and fastest out the door, goes first. He and his Communications Aide can be blocks ahead of the next closest unit, the engine. The engine goes second and the ladder goes third. On the off-chance the Medics are in the station and sent as well they bring up the rear and set up for first aid as soon as they arrive on scene. That’s how it works. Always.
The Chief will come up on radio and alert the alarm room that all his units are out the door and responding. The first arriving unit gives the on scene report. Essentially what he finds upon arrival. In stations without a chief, the first arriving firefighting company (almost always the engine) gives the report and orders for the incoming companies: either slow down for nothing showing or prepare for service with fire in evidence. Each one of these communications is recorded by the alarm room with a corresponding timeline.
Why am I giving you all this detail? Because there is no way, despite media reports, reports they KNOW TO BE UNTRUE, that Engine 68 made it to this scene in anything close to three minutes as claimed. I have seen the proof with my own eyes. Battalion Chief 07 arrived first and it was almost FOUR minutes on the dot. That means Engine 68, blocks behind the Chief couldn’t possibly had water on this fire in under FIVE minutes. No wonder it spread to FOUR other properties and that kid died. He didn’t have a chance.
Now what makes me angry is that our local media: ABC 6, NBC 10, CBS 3 and FOX 29 REFUSE to not only print the truth about what happened here, they refuse to examine the facts, ask probing questions or inquire further into what happened. In essence they are COVERING UP THE FACTS about the death of this boy and the impact Mayor Nutter’s public safety cuts, rolling brownouts and company closings are having on the firefighting and emergency services in the City of Philadelphia. It’s scandalous!
It took less than a week for two of my brother firefighters to be seriously injured and a child to be killed – and our local media treats it like it never happened. If you live in the Philadelphia area, the firefighters of this city would appreciate it if you called your local media outlets and demand them to tell the truth about the fire department brownouts. Also call your member of City Council. Tell them enough is enough. Before someone else dies.