Salvage or Savage?
Public relations is a tool of the fire service that is, in my opinion, seldom used. It’s not because we don’t care about our neighbors or about their feelings toward us, but mostly because we are too busy training for the real fight to worry about the press that follows it. But what about the press that follows?
“They wrecked my house!”
“The axe squad was here!”
“God, have they no compassion?”
Many times, I have given a salvage class to the newer members of fire departments throughout Suffolk County, NY, and 1 always start it the same way: “Salvage is the most visible public relations tool of the fire service. Salvage operations let the people know that we are really here to help.”
Exactly what is salvage, and how important is it? When I speak about firefighting, I always try to make people put themselves in the place of the owner who has discovered that the “red devil” has invaded his home. What must he be feeling?
First, I believe, we think of our family. Is everyone out? Thank God! They are doing everything they were told. Close the doors, meet in a central location. Don’t go back for pets or personal belongings. Everything is okay. The next phase the owner goes through, after safety, is the horror of watching his home burn. The most expensive item most of us will ever own, up in smoke. Just then the fire trucks round the corner and that nightmare is relieved by the stretching of hose and the barking of orders. The fire is out. Now it’s time to go in and find out how much damage has been done.
Damage and fire extinguishment go hand in hand. If we are going to make an aggressive attack on the fire and an aggressive search of the fire building, we must expect some type of damage. But what must be stressed is that issuing a Maltese cross doesn’t give the bearer the right to damage or break other people’s possessions without reason or through ignorance.
I have often made the comparison of fire to cancer. My father, after almost 40 years in the fire service, died of lung cancer. The first thing the doctors had to do was operate. They cut skin, tissue, muscle, and bone—all of which had nothing to do with the problem, but it got them to the seat of the disease.
After the cancer was removed, their job was long from over. They had to put everything back together. The one thing that really impressed me was when it was all over and we went in to see him. He was as clean as a button. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I saw. He didn’t look good, but he looked as if he was cared for.
We are not operating room doctors, but our job is much the same. Instead of cutting skin and tissue, we break windows and force doors, and our operating room is far from sterile. But our goal is the same—to get to the seat of the problem and to search for extension.
We in the fire service have one big advantage over the medical profession. We don’t have to wait until the fire is out to start repair work. In multistoried buildings, salvage operations can start on the floor(s) below the fire before the fire is out. We group furniture, pictures, lamps, televisions, etc., and cover them with tarps.
Next we look for water that is making its way down from above, usually from stairs or ceiling lights. This water can be diverted outside by making chutes. One way is to staple a plastic sheet on the ceiling just past the light and then run the sheet out a window and staple it to the window sill. Simple, but effective. A small hole near the fixture will facilitate the runoff. The windows on this floor are opened— which brings me to a very sour point. Not long ago, I saw a firefighter in the process of opening a window that there was no need to break. He was on the fire floor but remote from the fire. Everything looked good, and then he did it. With one swoop of his hand, he knocked every plant off the window sill; with his other hand, he ripped the curtains and curtain rod off the wall. I walked away and shook my head. All I could think was, “Man, I’m glad I don’t have to explain this one.”
“Sir, your windows were carefully opened, but we broke everything in our way to get to them.”
Damage and aggressive firefighting do go hand in hand. To properly vent for occupants and the advancing hose line, we normally use a combination of vertical and horizontal ventilation. To search for extension, we will pull ceilings and walls, open baseboards and check hot spots. But when the battle is over, a good fire department will reach for its next set of tools: plastic sheets and staples to cover the window openings, tarps to cover roof cuts and furniture, shovels and pitchforks to remove debris (if there isn’t much, consider using the owner’s garbage cans rather than throwing it out the window), electric or gasoline powered fans, and, of course, the water vacuum to suck up excessive water.
The list of salvage tools can go on and on. It was not my intent to discuss exactly how salvage should be performed, but rather to bring back to light some of the reasons for it.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the unfortuante who had the fire is going to talk about you. Just what he says is a column that you will write. So remember, the next time you accidentally knock over a lamp, pick it up. It ain’t….