BY TOM BRENNAN
Editor’s note: Tom Brennan, our revered technical editor and former editor, passed away in April 2006. Tom shared monthly here his wisdom and knowledge of the tactical aspects of our industry, but he also wrote about the social side of the fire service as only Tom could. We are very pleased that Tom wrote down some of these interesting, funny, insightful, and colorful stories. We are very proud to have the chance to continue to provide for you the random thoughts of our dear friend and brother. Please note Tom did not change any of the names, as he felt none of his friends mentioned in these pieces are “innocent.”
111 Truck. One-Eleven in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) was another truly unique place in which I was fortunate to have worked and skippered during my too-short career. It had as unique a class of individual characters who happened to also be the best at what they did. It was a busy place that had been successful and effective as one of the city’s busiest trucks for more than 100 years.
It must have been in my blood, because I jumped at the chance to become the captain there when I was asked and to leave another happy place for me in the Harlem section of New York.
There was always a list in someone’s hand somewhere of people waiting to have the opportunity to receive an assignment to work in One-Eleven. Every day I was on duty, at least one or more young men showed their faces at the house watch desk, asking to have a chance to speak with me. All they wanted to do was respectfully request that I would consider them (in some cases asked permission) if they put 111 as their first or only choice on a transfer from the company to which they were presently assigned.
Many captains in “attractive” assignments let out the “word” that they kept a list from which their personal approval got the transfer approved downtown. I hated that custom. First, who was I to do that? Second, how could I put a young man through the ritual of having to try to tell me how good a firefighter he was or have to try to say the things he thought would impress me, the interviewer?
My act was to speak with them after a handshake on the apparatus floor and to quickly interject that I had no list-that the courtesy, enthusiasm, spirit, and professionalism they displayed just coming to this difficult-to-find station on their own time was good enough for me. “You only come this way one time, kid,” I would say. “If you have any way to get here, use any influence you want, it’s OK with me. Good luck.”
The members who had gotten assigned during those years (like most of the hysterically busy units in the city) had truly been individuals-individuals who ascended to heights of professionalism second to none (I used to say “not many”). But in the quiet times, all were funny and supported the sense of humor that kept your psyche on a more or less even keel.
Like all the places that shared that type of reputation, there were hundreds of memorable stories that kept us level and smiling. None were better than one event that happened on a warm summer afternoon.
Typically, the borough of Brooklyn was busy. But on this day, there was so much activity that practically no unit was available except for us. If we received a call for an alarm, we knew that any help we would get would be coming a long distance to get to our location.
“Brooklyn to 111,” the radio speaker on the truck said.
“Go ahead, Brooklyn,” I answered.
“Respond to Sumner and Park Avenues; there is a reported elevator stuck in the high-rise residence building.”
“111, we’re on the way,” was my nonregulation (but expected) answer.
High-rise residences were red brick project type constructs that varied in height around the magic number of 17 stories. They were erected block after block on the rubble we had helped to create a year or two before. We actually considered ourselves “urban renewal specialists”-you had to have some positive feelings out of all the negative surroundings. One of our expert tactics was working with elevators that had become nonoperational (stuck) with people reported trapped within. We all carried our own homemade set of elevator keys. They were individual shapes and constructs that opened elevator doors on various landings-the shape of and need for a collection was because each manufacturer had its own release lock and shape and method of getting to it from the hallway side of the shaft.
Arriving at the Park Avenue side of the building, we could see various residents milling about in clusters, mostly oblivious to the distress of their neighbors who may be caught by or trapped within the elevator car.
“Hey man, guy stuck in the elevator on the third floor,” said a few, but to no one in particular, as I continued on my 300-foot path to the lobby door. I heard this statement repeated every 20 or 30 feet to the elevator center.
I never trusted anything except what I saw to call the shot on the radio as to what we had and what we needed, but this time the units assigned were from locales so far away I wanted it to be a “truck only”-meaning I could tell the dispatcher that we would handle it ourselves and all others could calmly turn around and be in service to receive another alarm. More importantly, we could stop the rapid emergency response and turn it into a slow ride that paid attention to traffic and regulatory equipment.
“111 to chauffeur,” I called over my portable radio, which hung on my shoulder with the press-to-talk microphone hanging naked on my turnout coat lapel.
“Go ahead, Cap,” said Dennis.
“Tell Brooklyn that we have an elevator emergency here and we can handle it ourselves.”
“OK, Cap,” came Dennis’s answer that I knew would trigger the transmission over the main radio and a signal from the dispatcher to the responding units to return to their quarters-including the battalion chief, who would then await my report of the event.
I took my two inseparable firefighters (because of their assignment for the tour of duty, they stuck to me like glue assigned as a team to force entry anywhere and to participate in a search of the structure from the entrance we chose). Others on the shift had different functions, and for elevator emergencies two had to ascend to the machinery room above the elevator shaft and force entry to await any questions from us below and to prepare to electrically disable the operating machinery by pulling the fuses within the power boxes found there.
I ascended to the 8th floor, still directed by numerous shouts that contained some sinister giggles. At the middle of the run of hallway, an adult male stood with his head apparently thrust within the shaft through a smashed wire-glass observation panel in a single sliding door. All events were typical: It was typical to have shouting in various languages, it was typical to have someone smash the wire glass window to look in to see what to do, and it was typical for us to have to gain quiet and control-all the time.
Approaching the trench-coated figure, I half patted and half grasped his collar as I began to say, “OK pal, we got it!” I never finished the statement, for the slight pat caused the man to collapse in a bundle on the floor at my feet. It was then I noticed that he had no head!
During his “survey of conditions,” the elevator must have moved in the shaft and either lopped off his head and dropped it to the base of the shaft or rose from below, in which case his head was riding on top of the elevator car.
The top of the car access was the most difficult, so I ordered the shaft forced in the cellar for a search.
I had two things to do. First was to get to Dennis and communications to the chief. Chiefs in our job don’t like to be returning from an alarm not knowing we have a dead guy at the location!
“111 to chauffeur,” I called over the tactical radio on my chest.
“Yeah, Cap,” answered the always-ready Dennis.
“Dennis, where are you now?” I asked.
“In the lobby,” he shot back in return.
During the long walk back to the radio and the short descent to the base of the elevator shaft, I pondered. I would rather solve the head location mystery and have my answers ready before I let the chief in on things not to mention the whole borough and all the buffs who had purchased a crystal that let them listen to the circus that was Brooklyn Fire Radio 24 hours a day.
“Dennis, get to the cellar and force your way into the elevator shaft base (pause, pause) and look for a guy’s head,” I said, surprisingly calm.
Now comes the scariest part of the whole story.
Dennis’s answer was immediate, too calm, and too short.
“OK, Cap, will do.”
Stunned but proud of his answer, the three of us in the hallway tried to look as professional as possible while we awaited the results of the search below. Shortly came our answer. “OK, I’m in the shaft, Cap, and I don’t see …. Oh, wait, I got it, Cap. It’s in the corner behind the springs,” Dennis said as calmly as ordering a sandwich for lunch.
“Go out to the truck, Dennis, and tell Brooklyn that we have a 10-45 code 3 at this location (FDNY lingo for an apparent DOA), but assure them that it is not fire response related,” I ordered.
The now familiar, “OK, Cap,” was the reply.
Dennis, meandering on the long walk back to the truck and its radio system, knew he had a transmission that would become legendary. Just how and what he would say wasn’t scripted yet, but it would be for sure before he keyed the microphone. He knew the listeners would be awestruck and attentive, all would be listening, and all transmissions would be recorded and would be available for copy. He didn’t know what he would say, but he would when he got to the truck.
“111 Truck to Brooklyn, K,” Dennis began into the transmitter, and waited. It was strict radio discipline. The K was used to indicate to the receiving party that the transmission was finished but not over and the transmission requires a reply from those receiving it. Brooklyn Alarm dispatchers must have been confused, for we never waited but transmitted the whole message to save time and awaited the acknowledgment of “10-4.”
“Er, go ahead, 111,” said Brooklyn.
“We have a DOA at this location, Brooklyn. Please inform the 37 Battalion.”
The radio system had a repeater on the channel, which enabled the field units to monitor transmissions from any unit and to hear the answers from the dispatcher. The chief of the battalion was still in his vehicle and monitored the call and jumped into the conversation without waiting: “37 Battalion to Brooklyn, I have 111’s message and am returning to that location. Ascertain from 111 if there is anything they need.”
I can still envision Dennis’s smile as he waited for Brooklyn to call him in the strict regulation form.
“Brooklyn to 111, K,” the game continued.
“111 to Brooklyn, K.”
“The 37 is returning, 111; he asks if there is anything you need at the scene,” Brooklyn finished.
Dennis replied: “Inform the 37th Battalion that we need a body bag here as well as a bowling bag!”