It was a big hole. At least 8 feet across at its longest point and four or five at the widest. I won’t exaggerate and say we nearly fell in, because we didn’t come close. But that pit got my attention! This was a run-away wood stove fire and it was burning the floor out underneath the living room as well as the Bravo side wall. However the garage below had not shown any sign of fire present in the windows as I went past on my way up to the front door.
I went forward from the entry door beatin’ the band, soundin’ the floor with my hook. The heat was oppressive, and the TIC was useless for the time being as my mask was heavily fogged and full of soot. It would re-fog literally as quick as I wiped it clean with my gloved hand. I don’t like to hit myself in the head with my TIC or my hook, (most folks don’t) so wiping the mask means you either put down one tool or the other. Since wiping the mask produced unsatisfactory results, I had to hunt around on the floor to find the tool I put down. You’d think it would be right where you put it, but it never seems to be. “Damn, someone left the heat on in here”.
Under a little pressure to pick up the pace, (Command let me know the fire was movin’ fast in my direction) we moved in through the arctic entry, hung a left at the first opening and moved forward toward the Bravo side, which I had seen from the exterior was burning with a wicked enthusiasm, ground to peak. I didn’t know if we had fire on the top floor or not, couldn’t see it from outside and was not able to get a 360 deg. view before entry. That 360 is critical in my book. I don’t need to be the one to make it, but someone must and the information thus gathered must be given to the officer making entry. Too many things may be riding on it. In those few moments moving across the floor as fast as we could drag two hundred feet of 1 3/4″ line, the picture I had in my mind of the house we were in became slightly skewed. Not completely understanding the floor layout from the one-sided view I started with, my grey matter slid a little sideways in relation to the truth once I was running blind inside. But I didn’t realize it at first. We reached the fire room, which seemed to be the living room. By now, my mask cleared enough so I could see the red glow through the smoke and the first thing that bothered me about this was noticing that the majority of the fire was coming from my front and below me. Now, being on the floor myself, I figured that meant things in that room were a bit off the normal scale.
I felt the nozzleman come up alongside me and grabbing him by the side of the head, I pointed to the large area pumping out flame and shouted “Big HOLE!!!”, (I might add that pointing with your arm and hand in pitch black smoke and darkness doesn’t achieve much, but it makes you feel as though you are communicating exceptionally well). The nozzleman’s mask was still heavily fogged and he was not only blind to my pointing but couldn’t see the hole either, but the glow of fire was lighting his mask and I was sure he could see that. We pulled on the hose and I called to the probie to move the line forward. He all but slammed into me as he came forward to find me. Good lad, still totin’ his irons. Heat seems constant, not gettin’ any worse. “Need more line!!” More line wasn’t comin’..
I turned back to the nozzleman and wondered why he didn’t have water on the fire yet, only to find that he was holding a limp hose. That’s never good.. “Lost pressure!”, he yelled. I either asked him or thought “Are you kiddin’ me?” (He swears now that I used a few other choice words). In response the nozzle went “SSpppuutttt!”, as if to emphasize the point. I pressed my mic key, “Command, Interior 1, ..need water NOW!” Literally only a few minutes had passed since we entered and I didn’t feel we were in a bad way, but I also didn’t want to find out what was behind Curtain #2! The line leaped a few times in the nozzleman’s hands and he let her fly at the fire, knocking it down in the room we had entered. I couldn’t see for a minute, but the TIC showed me we had no remaining flame around us. Just a persistent looking blaze coming from the floor below and heavy heat that meant ventilation wasn’t happening. Here’s where the 360 comes in handy.
While the nozzleman maneuvered to make his line into a modified cellar nozzle, I went after a horizontal-like vent job. Command directed me to vent on the Alpha side, the same side I came in on, but as I maneuvered to the windows on that wall I found I was all kinds o’ turned around. What I wasn’t clued in on was that the entry point burped you out into the hall, up against th rear of the top floor instead of in the middle or towards the front of the room. The left turn I made had taken us along the back wall towards the Bravo/Charlie corner, but here I am thinking I’m somewhere near the Alpha/Bravo. So my trip to the windows on the Alpha side took a lot longer than it should have. I vented the windows up top, but I figured out pretty quick that the strobe lights off the engine were shining in the window to my right. That meant I was venting in the wrong direction. Too close to the door, air would recirculate. I moved to my right further and found the Alpha side windows, a set of Awning Style frames in sets of two, one on top of another.
As I made my way back to the nozzle, the fire cleared and I realized how turned around I had become. The first floor we were on was nowhere near as deep as my mind had told me it was, maybe 25′ at best. Had I been able to make a loop around the structure I would have seen several other things, besides the depth of the floor we were entering. There was a back door available right where we were operating, old style panel frame door, easy to get through. Fire conditions on the Bravo and Charlie corner would have been good info, and whether we had any indication of fire in the roof area. A typical home in our area, the main living area and kitchen had a vaulted ceiling with tongue and groove boards. This holds the heat back very well, but the finish coat causes significant fire spread, not to mention forty year old cedar boards. Those boards above us were pitch black now. Above the tongue and groove is about a foot thick area of insulation then roofing materials. The rest of the house has a standard cold roof, with sheet rock ceiling.
Standing orders in our department are to complete a four sided view of the structure. At least one officer, preferably the one that is going in. This is nothing new, however… the fact that it is a requirement is. Really aggressive firefighters of the past are having to slow down a bit to complete these tasks that have long been a part of the standard operation, but have also been a rarity to actually accomplish. I’m no exception. It has been far too easy to storm the gates without thinking about what we’re doing. Just get in there, crawl to the glow and snuff it!
At the same time, we’re all sayin’ things like “Do the Right Thing!”, “Everybody Goes Home” and “Remember Fallen Brothers”. Those can ring a little hollow when you begin to list the fifteen points of size up you’re supposed to keep track of, the minimum 3 sides of viewpoint, accountability, coordinated attack and ventilation, checkin’ yourself at the door, good hose placement, etc. We can become so good at makin’ the dark hallway, we forget to do the rest of our job that will result in better decisions and ensuring that more of us go home. Am I wrong to say this? Ask the folks who have lost members due to these very issues.
As I said, I have been no better. And I can’t say that I have a better acronym or set of steps to help each and every one of us improve at this. But these days, I’m trying to do things a with a different mindset. Time taken prior to entry devoted to a little information input is likely time that I can save getting ahead of the fire. I want my company to don their masks at the entry point, not in the cab (at least for structure fires). This, among other things, is an attempt to encourage them to visualize and size up the structure they are going into. As a probie I remember my job was to have that mask on prior to arrival, I rarely saw the scene from anything but a fogged up lens until we were takin’ up. So, I try to get that three sided view if not all four and I want the company to have a decent gander at the structure as well. The example I have related is exactly why I want to do that. I’m a very visual person and I can remember what I saw from outside while I’m making decisions inside and without it I feel less sure of spacial distance, not to mention if you can get an idea of where the fire is you have a better chance of making the seat with less hassle. How about basement fires? Anyone else notice how many of our brothers and sisters have died in or been badly burned in below grade fires of late? How many did a 360 loop and noticed fire in the basement? Did anyone state on the radio that fire was below grade? Too often that information doesn’t make it to the members that need it most.
We are sometimes, our own worst enemy. It is admirable to be the old fashioned, hell-bent for leather fireman that leaps from the jumpseat and dives into the front door, snuffing the fire before it has a chance to answer the door and say “Who’s there?” But this kind of extreme efficiency can and often has gotten us into a lot of trouble in the past. I don’t know about you, but I’m for going home when the tour is over. I want to behold my children on the doorstep. I want my company to come back to the firehouse with me. So once again, I’m all about gettin’ that 360 done. Any info gap you can fill in before you GO in is to yours and your company’s advantage. So many mistakes are made due to the speed at which we move. When I say slow down, I’m talking about seconds, not minutes. I’m not sheddin’ new light on anything, but maybe a little light from a different angle that will catch your attention. WE CAN’T AFFORD TO IGNORE THESE THINGS ANYMORE.
We had that fire licked. My counterpart in crime was on the opposite side of the Bravo wall and his rapid application of water on the exterior fire probably kept things from getting out of hand while we stumbled toward that hole in the interior. Big hole, but the rest of the house was a save! But as I took a gander at things while the boys set to on overhaul, I was really wishing I had gotten a better understanding about the structure prior to entry. Would it have made a difference? Well, maybe not much this time, but I remember Billy G sayin’ if you do a thing wrong long enough without payin’ for it, you begin to think its right…guess he’s onto a little truth there.
Its -20 outside. The coffee we consumed in the early hours that night back at the firehouse was truly exceptional. That hole in the floor could have meant fewer of us back at the house havin’ warm Joe. As my mustache begins to thaw I take a sip and thank the good Lord for bringing them all back safe and sound. I can always count on Him doin’ his part, I just gotta get better at doin’ mine.