Air Traffic Control

ON FIRE by MICHAEL N. CIAMPO
 

Recently on social media, a photo appeared of a member of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) at a window putting a breathing apparatus face piece onto a victim. The victim looked in distress and incapable of removing himself. The firefighters decided it was best to shelter him in place rather than perform a time-consuming and difficult removal. The comments under the photo that gained such Internet attention were quite astounding, ranging from “Great job!” to “The RIT air pack is only for us.” The “how comes” can be for a lot of reasons, but we weren’t in that smoke-filled apartment with the conditions those members faced, yet many of us have the keyboard expertise to critique it with the press of some buttons.

Arriving second due to a fire in an irregular tenement with only two apartments per floor, our job was to get to the floor above to search for victims and fire extension. Passing the first-due truck masking up on the small landing, we let truck members know we were going to the floor above as we heard screams from below. A frantic mother was screaming that her children were alone in the apartment on the floor above.

Operating in zero visibility, we quickly proceeded to the floor above and used the hydraulic forcible entry tool to blow the door open instead of using the irons and conventional forcible entry methods. When we entered the apartment, there were still “lights-out” conditions. We were reminded not to ventilate any windows so the fire wouldn’t autoexpose directly into our location from the floor below. We also split the team up: Two firefighters worked toward the front of the apartment as the other worked toward the rear. Luckily, the fire wasn’t venting out of the rear, enabling the outside vent firefighter access up the rear fire escape and entry into the rear section of the apartment, allowing him to team up with the other searching member.

As the members moved toward the front of the apartment, they encountered a locked door. They drove the halligan tool’s pike into the wooden door frame with a baseball swing and then pushed the tool toward the door, forcing it open. As they forced it, we heard the sounds of cracking wood and the high-pitched screams of frightened children. 

Entering the room, one firefighter got up on the bed and located two small children buried under the covers. While the other firefighter swept under the bed and found nothing, the high-pitched screams turned into crying sounds nearby. Continuing to search, we located a closet and two other children huddled together in sheer panic. We radioed that we located the victims but couldn’t remove them through the interior because of the severe smoke conditions; we had to shelter them in place until the arrival of the tower ladder’s bucket. 

Since the smoke conditions hadn’t eased up much, we surveyed the best place to get these kids some better air. We brought the two oldest from the closet to a window and knelt on the floor with their faces partially out the windows and periodically gave them our air. We held up face pieces (with the bypass/purge valve open) to the faces of the other two, an infant and two-year-old, while we cradled them in our arms awaiting rescue by the tower ladder. For those of us breathing in the smoke, gases, and toxic fumes, nothing mattered more than giving these kids our air. We had to steal some “hits” of air for ourselves a few times to maintain our senses and be in control. Nothing can prepare you for that moment of taking your clean air off a kid and getting a breath for yourself. The burning sensation of the smoke in your eyes and throat, with mucus running from your nostrils and your choking, will be the reason it’s okay to share, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. 

When the bucket reached our location, we transferred the two oldest kids first because of their mobility. Then another firefighter entered the bucket and was handed the small child and infant, and all were removed to the ground and to an awaiting ambulance. 

Although most would think our job was over, we immediately began our secondary searches for victims and fire extension. The search proved negative, and there was limited extension in one room. Unbeknownst to us, this was an arson fire and most likely the reason for the thick, acrid smoke conditions and heavy fire the companies encountered below. 

The second hoseline stretched went to assist the first hoseline. One made a push to the front of the apartment while the other went toward the rear to extinguish the fire. A third line was in the process of being stretched but was not put into operation.

Back at quarters, we all looked like we went 12 rounds in a heavyweight fight. Our faces were battered with soot and dust, and our eyes were bloodshot. As we cleaned and disinfected our face pieces and talked about the kids’ locations, panic, and breathing difficulties, we all agreed we would do it all the same way if faced with those conditions again.

Despite being schooled on the proper etiquette of mask usage and that giving your air to a panicking victim is something you might not want to do, we know that every situation is different. From experience, we’ve seen a victim trying to rip off a firefighter’s face piece and, once we shared air with the victim, we were able to control him better once he calmed down a bit.

Nobody can tell you how you’re going to react and what the situation is going to be, but one thing is certain: You’re going to do what you feel is right, and sharing the air on your back is a split-second decision you’re going to have to make sometime in your firefighting career to save a life.

 

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC International Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.

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