Throughout the country, many truck companies respond to public service or assistance calls every day. They can involve a wide array of responses, everything from the cat-in-the-tree call to the call to assist a tenant with a water leak. At times, they can seem to be a nuisance, especially when a tenant calls the fire department at four o’clock in the morning to report water coming through her ceiling that has been leaking for three days. Recently, a tenant did confess to our company that she thought by calling during the early morning hours when her family would normally be asleep she would receive priority treatment.

Many times, in situations like this, it’s very difficult to curb your emotions and work as the professional you vowed to be and to assist the public, but that is all part of what the fire department is. You know, the guys who show up on those big red trucks wearing those Superman costumes and able to accomplish unbelievable feats. For years now, fire departments have been responding to these public assistance calls. There isn’t any likelihood that departments are going to cease doing so in the near future, especially since more and more departments have retitled this as part of their new and improved customer service plan.


Recently, our truck company responded to a water condition in a first-floor apartment. On arrival, the members automatically went into their water condition response mode. The officer and the inside team went to the apartment to investigate the reported water condition. The roof man proceeded upstairs to the apartment directly above the report apartment. He follows this procedure because numerous times in multiple-family dwellings, the water comes from the floor above. Last, the outside vent man went in search of the building’s superintendent, who would have access to and knowledge of which water valves to shut off if necessary.

On arrival, our noses knew immediately what type of water condition we had from the foul odor coming from the bathroom. It was a sewage backup, and for the unlucky tenants of the first floor, it was morning and most of the other tenants were beginning to shower and add to the accumulation of water runoff. Luckily, the superintendent had just shut down the main water valve to the building and called for a plumbing contractor with an industrial snake.

In the affected apartment, we assisted the tenants in moving their furniture and rolling up a carpet to keep it away from the approaching sewage. There was no need to shut down any electrical service to the apartment because the waste water level was only about a half inch at that time. We did have to unplug some floor lamps and appliances so that their electrical cords would be out of harm’s way.

As we were assisting the tenants, a few more surges came out and over the tub and toilet, adding to the accumulation of water and sewage on the floor. Unfortunately, the water level on the floor was just about rising over the room’s sill plate/threshold and beginning to run into the other rooms. One firefighter reacted quickly, rolling up a towel and placing it on the floor just to the inside of the sill plate to act like a dike. This prevented the sewage from exiting the room, running out into the hallway, and heading for the other rooms.

At that moment, we asked the tenant if she had any large garbage bags, towels, rags, or blankets we could use. She looked confused; we then explained that we were going to roll up the material and place it in the plastic bags. Quickly, she ran into the kitchen and came back with a wide assortment of bags, towels, rags, and some old curtains.

We rolled up the towels and curtains lengthwise and placed them in the bags. Next, we expelled the air out of the bags and tied the ends up to make the bags watertight. In just a few minutes, we easily created some homemade dikes to assist in keeping the water from running all over the apartment. We were fortunate that in the hallway there were two more sill plates/thresholds leading into the other rooms; we placed two of the homemade dikes at these plates to prevent sewage runoff in the rooms. At this particular public service call, the homemade dikes were useful and served their purpose.


As we critiqued this incident, we discussed what other options and tactics we could have employed.

• Use the absorbent carried on the apparatus to form a dike. If a tenant has a cat, kitty litter is also useful for forming a barrier. One member even suggested that, if there is a child’s sandbox in the yard, the sand could be used as a dike.

• Sometimes, one plastic bag wasn’t strong enough to survive being stuffed with towels or rags and having the air expelled from it. It became torn, so we had to quickly come up with another plan of action. In these instances, we placed the initial bag in another bag and tied it up, creating the homemade dike. Duct tape could also have been used to seal the bags.

• When applying these homemade dikes to the area, water may still seep under the device. Placing a towel in front of the dike may stop the seepage. Also, using duct tape to tape the bag down to the floor and doorframe may work. In some circumstances, the bag may have to be taped down farther back from the pooling water, where the floor is dry, so the tape adhesive will adhere to the floor.

• Place books in plastic bags, and secure them. Then place these waterproof “stilts” under the furniture legs or bases to help keep the furniture off the floor and out of the water. Many homeowners who are accustomed to water problems may have extra pallets around, which can assist in salvage operations.

• In the case of sewage leaks, members are encouraged to wear medical rubber gloves under their regular firefighting gloves. After coming in contact with this hazardous material, all personal protective equipment should be decontaminated, sent out for decontamination, or replaced, depending on your department’s policy.

• Keeping precut salvage plastic on an apparatus will assist in overall salvage operations. It can be used to cover furniture and make plastic troughs to direct the water runoff. In addition, this salvage plastic can be left on the emergency scene instead of your having to leave an expensive salvage tarp or runner.

In this situation, the quick actions of the truck company protected one tenant’s home furnishings and personal belongings. The tenant thanked the company; at the same time, some of the members quickly learned how to overcome and adapt to a tricky situation. This incident proves that you often have to use some of your ingenuity and street smarts on public service/assistance calls.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 20-year fire service veteran 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 FDIC H.O.T. Ground Ladders and an editorial advisor to Fire Engineering.


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