By Michael Morse
I had already lost my partner, battled a raging lunatic, took a few old ladies to the hospital, and treated a diabetic. Lunch waited at the station, but I just couldn’t seem to get there. At 2:30 the clouds parted, and a little sun shone through. A turkey and goat cheddar wrap with fresh salsa and an avocado sat in front of me, waiting to be devoured. I lifted the masterpiece ….
“Rescue 1: Respond to Ohio Avenue for a 31-year-old male complaining of flu-like symptoms.”
Chris from Engine 13 offered to take the run. I handed the radio over and returned to my feast. I would take his spot on the engine should a call come in, but what were the chances of that happening?
“Attention, Engines 13, 10, 11; Ladders 5 and 2; Special Hazards and Division 1: a still box.”
I was up from the table and down the pole in seconds, scrambling for gear. I ended up with Chris’s helmet, bunkers, and boots; Mike’s coat; and Ryan’s mask and gloves. It would have to do. We rolled out of the station, and a minute or so later Captain Healey reported a smoke condition. A few seconds after that came the battle cry of the Providence Fire Department:
“Engine 13 to Fire Alarm: Code Red!”
Ryan drove 50 feet past the fire building. I left the jump seat with my SCBA ready and joined Fernando at the rear of the truck. We stretched a 200-foot 1¾-inch attack line into a side door and into complete darkness. I turned on my SCBA, put on the mask, and went further in. Fernando had the pipe, Ryan pumped, and the captain stretched some more line into the building. Fire rolled overhead. Fernando hit it with a strait stream and then stopped. His SCBA malfunctioned; he was without air. He handed the pipe to me and backed out.
I felt the heat and had to crouch down, then kneel, then crawl forward, dragging the charged line with me. I knew there was heavy fire in the rear room but had no idea what was hanging me up. Dining room chairs, when tipped on their side in a smoke-filled room, are not the comfortable seats they were designed to be. They become obstacles, unknown things that just might be your undoing. There was about three feet of bearable space between the floor and the obstacles and heat above me. The sound of fire freely burning in the distance consumed me, and I got past the chairs somehow and kept moving forward. Captain Healey joined me, then Fernando, freeing up more line and making it easier to get closer to the source of the heat, Hotter now, almost unbearable, total darkness, but strangely peaceful once I got moving.
More fire was above us, beside us, and underneath us for all I knew. I opened the nozzle and hit the fire just as Ladder 5 opened the roof. A square of light showed up, at first seeming miles away, but as the smoke and heat cleared and we got ahead of the fire it seemed to get closer.
The vibra-alert went off. I was nearly out of air but had some more fire in the ceiling. I thought the light I saw was another door and figured I could make it out, so I finished the job. Turns out I was in a bedroom and tangled up in the springs from a destroyed mattress, and the light was a window. I got free again, crawled over the mattress, and opened the nozzle, this time in a fog pattern, and directed the stream out the window, taking a lot of smoke with it.
The fire in the house was out.
“You can take the fighter out of the fire, but you cannot take the fire out of the fighter.”
It had been nearly ten years since I was first in and on the pipe. I guess some things you never forget.
Later, while packing hose, probably the last time I will ever be on top of a fire engine, tired and dirty, cold and satisfied, the enormity of a 20-year career and the latter part of it hit me. Not many people have the opportunity to do a job they love and know it will be for the last time and are able to go out on top (and there is nothing better than being on top of a fire engine in Providence), packing hose and enjoying the camaraderie that only those in the fire service could understand. It was a private moment and kind of overwhelming, but it ended quickly when Ryan asked if I planned on packing hose or taking up space on top of the truck. Captain, Schmaptain, we’re all equals, and that is what I love most about all of this.
The homeowners arrived on scene. An elderly lady, her daughter, and an eight-year-old slowly walked up the icy driveway, holding on to each other. I couldn’t look away. The Red Cross had arrived and helped them look into their home. The elderly lady was overcome with grief and collapsed. The little girl broke down, and the mom tried to hold it all together while dealing with her own loss. I heard the radio call for a rescue for an emotional female.
I needed to get off the truck and do my job, but somebody else was in my seat. I packed some more hose and looked away.
Later, back at the station, while washing the soot from my hands and face, another call came in, this one for a female on Prairie Avenue with flu-like symptoms. I found my radio.
“Rescue 1 is in service; we’ll handle.”
And handle it we did, soot and all. The patient didn’t notice and will never know that the medic taking care of her got a taste of his old life, and it was sweet while it lasted, but he was now exactly where he needed to be.
Back in the captain’s seat in back of Rescue 1.
Michael Morse, a Providence (RI) Fire Department member for 22 years, writes about his experiences as a firefighter on Engine Co. 2, 7, and 9 and Ladder Co. 7 and 4, as well as his time on Rescue Co. 1 as a lieutenant and Rescue Co. 5, where he is currently captain. He lives with his wife Cheryl seven minutes from his station, which, fortunately for him, is “worlds away.”