Old and in the Way


Sitting at a traffic light while coming home from the office, I spotted some smoke off in the distance, about two blocks away. Thinking it could be a job, I pulled into the other lane and drove toward the smoke. Turning onto the block, I saw flames coming from a second-floor balcony and realized that no units were on scene. I dialed 911. A very nice operator answered quickly: “911. What is the nature of your emergency?”

I responded there was a working structure fire in a two-story multifamily dwelling with heavy flames visible from an apartment in the B/C corner one block east of 900 block Sheridan Drive. I said I was unsure if all the residents were out yet, and there was a plug on the entrance to the apartment complex.

The dispatcher said, “Thank you. Are you a fireman?”

I was startled for a second and then proudly said, “Yes, I am.” She responded that units were on their way, and she hung up.

As I made my way around front, I passed some teenagers who were commenting that the fire department wasn’t there yet and that if this were a better neighborhood they would be there already. I wanted to ask those social scientists if they had bothered to call the fire department, but I recognized that my time would be better spent getting any additional gouge I could for the first-due unit when it arrived.

I began pounding on doors and telling residents to get out. Another gentleman was already engaged in clearing out residents. He asked if I had cleared the fire apartment. He said he did not get a response when he banged on the door. With sirens wailing in the near distance and heavy fire coming out the back porch, I decided discretion was the better part of valor and that I would leave the heavy-duty search and rescue to the troops.

As I turned around, I faced a rather large crowd milling about and approaching the fire apartment. Without thinking, I yelled to the crowd, “Over there! I want everybody over there out of the way now.” The crowd quickly complied and moved out of the way just as the first engine rolled up to the scene.

Spotting just past the apartment complex, leaving room for the ladder, the engine crew dismounted and began pulling hose. I noticed the lieutenant was having a little trouble getting out of his seat. All of the firefighters exited the apparatus with their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on, far different from the days when we used to get our SCBAs out of the side compartment. With seat-mounted SCBAs today, everyone gets out with theirs on. The lieutenant was still having a little bit of difficulty getting out of the rig; the seat belt had caught on his cylinder gauge on the back of his SCBA, hanging him up in his seat belt. I slipped the seat belt off the cylinder and stepped out of his way. He nodded thanks and went right to work directing his crew as a symphony conductor. I mentioned that the lower apartments had all been cleared but that I was unsure about the fire apartment and I did not enter it.

As the first engine company pulled its handlines to the second-floor apartment, the second-due engine arrived on scene. Interestingly, the same thing happened to the second lieutenant while exiting his rig: He also got entangled in his seat belt, but he was able to extract himself without assistance. The backup line was staffed, and the fire attack was on. The consummate professional crews on scene mounted a very well-designed, proactive attack. The fire was held to the apartment of origin. As I stood outside with a commanding officer, I commented on their professionalism. He asked my opinion on a few tactical issues; I told him I thought their progress and methodology were spot on.

An investigating officer approached us and asked if I had any idea of what family had been in the lower apartment. I did; I went with him over to the crowd and identified those residents. He asked me a few other questions about clearing the apartments, thanked me, and continued asking questions of the other residents.

A few days later while visiting with one of the captains, I mentioned the seat belt incidents and asked if he had experienced the same kind of problem. He immediately said, “You bet. That happens to me all the time; that darned thing, you have to reach around and lift it off before you exit every time.” I thought that was interesting. I asked if he had a safety bulletin or if they covered that in a drill. He said no, but he would take it to a safety officer and get that ball rolling. I mentioned the seat belt issue a few days later at the training academy and got a similar response from the department’s training officer.

I discussed a few other things about the fire with my friends and began to realize how valuable some of us “old guys” could be on the fireground and how having the ability to observe without the responsibility to control gives us a unique perspective. I also thought that it was interesting how the crowd reacted to my directions without question although I had no uniform or any official markings on me whatsoever. People just respond to people who take command and give simple and direct instructions.

It makes me wonder if some of us old bulls could be put to good use in the pasture as observers, fire police, and assistants to command on both the career and volunteer sides. At the fire above, I thought as crews began arriving at that fire that I was old and in the way. Now, I realize I might be old but those years have given me the ability to see things younger eyes might just take for granted.

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