If you are fortunate enough to catch a multi alarm fire, then you hear it as soon as you open the door of the truck, and it doesn’t sound like a camp fire.
There really is a roar; a guttural noise is produced as the monster inhales deeply. It needs the air and it fights for it. It claws and chews through combustibles like a, well like a hungry fireman. And if it’s starving be careful when you open the cage door because it’s gonna take a big bite.
If the thing has been waiting to be feed for awhile, hang on. When you hit that door or window and give it a chance to eat, you don’t guess if it’s ready. A flaming tongue can lick you right in the face getting its first taste of you. And oh does its breath smell. Based on what the beasts has been eating prior to your arrival at the dance you may want to avoid the snack table.
Fortunately you have brought a big breath mint with you and it comes out of a hose at around a hundred and fifty gallons a minute. So start rinsing out that stinking pie hole as fast as you can. But not with your eyes closed, you have to find the source of the odor, the seat of the fire we call it.
The beast has rules too. He will grow and double in size every minute. He will always try for the kill. This may sound unfair, but it isn’t, it is the nature of all beasts to do what they know. The beast has no feeling about us, like we do for him.
The beast has been waiting, is always waiting, that’s what it does. But he must play by the rules. First if we put enough water on him, he has to go away, pretty simple. Put the wet stuff on the red stuff and you win. Sometimes it is that simple, that’s not fun, but it does happen.
Next the beast is allowed to play hide and seek. He can stay quiet and give the appearance of victory. Oh I hate that, that is not fun firefighting. Salvage and overhaul is what hide and seek is known to us in the business.
And the bad news for us is that there is no Olli-Olli-ox-in-free. We have to hunt for the bastard, and man does he know how to hide.
Do you remember that kid in your neighborhood that could just vanish? Ghost kid like a spirit. You could look for hours, days and never find that kid. Well fire has that kid beat by somewhere around 100%.
If we give up, there will be hell to pay. So out come the axes, pike poles and now days the thermal cameras. People always want to know why we tear the walls and ceilings apart. Well it’s because we couldn’t find the beast. But our addiction won’t let it go that easily. We search all the hiding places, but eventually your body first and then your mind will tell you the dance is over. Time to go home.
The natural instinct after the high of the fire has worn off is to crash for awhile. You tell yourself you got it. But you don’t trust yourself, so a fire watch is put on. A fire watch is the lowest man on the pole, sitting in a pick-up truck all night long by himself watching to see if the beast tries to sneak out.
Because as I remember, every time a fire watch wasn’t needed and we didn’t do it; it was needed. It was like the beast knew, like somewhere deep in the structure there was one small red eye glowing, keeping its own watch.
All that was needed was a little breeze coming at the right speed from the right direction. Like those trick birthday candles that seem to go out, they smolder and spark and then erupt back in to flame. That’s what happens at big fires too.
All fire abides by the rules, big or small, that’s the good news. The bad news, firefighting isn’t football, many times if you get behind, you stay behind. There is no catching up, we do have Hail Mary plays, and their success rate is dubious at best.
Surround and drowned it’s called. Firefighting, like all professions has its own language and own unique sayings. Like for a big fire where we are losing the battle, we need big water. So when the “sticks go up the building comes down.” In other words we are losing the structure, so the sticks, the big ladder trucks, get extended and rain water down on the fire.
This tactic always amazed me, because in most cases the beast just hid under the roof and the roof did its job. It keep the water out.
Once again unlike a sport, firefighting had other consequences, like killing people. So as much as my mind and body were screaming get in there and go hand to hand with the beast I couldn’t. Another trick of the fire troll. Put people in danger and the fireman has to try and save them and leave it alone.
Our motto is save lives first, the fire can wait. The motto, I’m guessing here, of fire is more. Just more, more fuel and everything other than dirt is fuel for the monster. We call it saving the mineral rights. Nothing to be proud of.
Saving lives is the number one goal here. Property can be rebuilt and recovered. Now this is where confusion comes in for the non-addicted. The normal folks who watch us and man do you guys watch us; don’t understand what we are doing. But that doesn’t stop you from kibitzing.
“Hey what about that?” you say.
Always with an extended hand and a pointy little finger you give direction.
“Over there man! What are you doing can’t you see that?”
I just want to say “Thanks for your help and now shut up!” I won’t say that, but I want to and more.
Would you follow a heroin junkie into a bathroom and give step by step directions on how to shoot up?
“No man you’re holding the needle wrong, and the way you have your arm tied off is all wrong.” I don’t think so. So when we’re doing what we do. Stay in the bleachers and let us work. We never give up okay.
This is how our strange addiction works, we hate fire, but we need fire. For us to go weeks without a fire is awful, you can’t always feel the tension as it builds around the station. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t building.
It creeps through us that desire for a fix. That craving. The evidence comes when the fix is at hand.
Envision a casual day around the firehouse. You’ve had a few calls, a medical here a car crash there. The station has been cleaned, the smell of lunch seeps out of the kitchen. All the gear has been gone over, some training on a random piece of equipment filled the morning.
A good officer keeps you busy, they know. They know the cravings are running high in their crew. So to help release some tension and burn some energy they’ll run simulations, drills, practice.
It keeps the skills sharp, but it’s dancing in a studio with other guys, it’s not a ballroom and there are defiantly no dates to be had. We practice the steps; we do the mambo, the salsa, the tango, but no waltz.
It seems a good practice, to practice. But for me it only made me more desirous of the real thing, it created frustration. Like being a bartender and not being allowed to drink. It sucks.
And then the horn would go off, and that is when you knew how bad the cravings were in your coworkers. The rush for just a moment was expressed by a complete absence of sanity.
Giddy is what comes to mind. Christmas morning maybe. It was like a huge bomb had gone off and was followed by controlled chaos.
Think about it, we can’t go as we are; we have to get dressed for the ball. All our stuff is laid out and waiting. Every fireman stores his gear almost in the same way. But we all have our own little improvements, twists in the way we do it.
Me, my bunkers (that’s the big boots, pants and coat) were always beside my door on the truck. My boots, with the pants pulled down over them waited. The suspenders I had arranged laid out behind the pants.
There was nothing worse than pulling up your pants and finding a suspender trapped in between your legs. That one is learned only in the hard way.
The hard way is when everyone else is Jonesing to get going and there you are undressing while the driver honks the air horn. There you are holding up the whole damn thing because you got it wrong.
As if there wasn’t enough pressure on you to get to the fire, now, as you scramble to get that damn suspender out of your crotch, all the other junkies are yelling at you to get your shit together.
See other companies are going with you to that fire. And being second in on a fire can suck. If another sister company beats you to a fire in your own district, hang on because later there will be grief given and shame spread think as peanut butter by a four year old.
As well as second in companies, for the most part, get assigned tasks like securing a water supply, hooking up hoses, stretching lines. When you come right down to it, it’s doing really unglamorous work.
No firefighting, no saving lives, and most awful, you tend to be that much closer to the wavers and pointers. It’s like being too close to the fans at a Raiders game in the fourth quarter. Not a happy place.
So get your shit straight when the horn goes off.
My coat was always hung on the left rear door of the BRT. This may sound simple, but it is possible in the excitement to get the pants pulled up and the coat on and have the suspenders still hanging out from under the coat. Back to square one.
So you got the pants and suspenders right, cool, now the coat, cool again. The gloves go last, they are huge cumbersome and don’t lend themselves to anything that requires dexterity like hooking up your air pack.
What else is left? The hood, the hood is like an over sized ski mask, it’s made of a fire resistance material and basically keeps your ears and exposed face skin from cooking.
If you ever run into some old retired fireman someday look closely at the sides of their face where the side burns are. You most likely will see little white patches of skin that look like he shaved off his sideburns after days in the sun.
He didn’t, that is what happened before hoods. The gap between your air mask and the helmet allowed exposed skin to burn. It was also the way you knew you were in too deep. When your ears began to burn you got out. Now those little clues are gone, ultimately it’s easier to get into trouble faster today.