A few trucks signed on. Dispatch put out a general alert "all responding personnel, PD reporting downed power lines arcing. Repeat: live powerlines down."
My wife said, "Will you have to go"?
I said, "Maybe. Sounds bad. Let's listen." I brought her a cup of coffee. I put on my boots & grabbed my car keys.
Within a minute of the first Oak Bluffs truck arriving at the scene, before the complete OB complement of trucks had arrived, a call went out for mutual aid from my town (Tisbury). They requested Engine 3. Oak Bluffs has, I think 3 engines and a ladder. Maybe 4 engines. All that equipment & they were already asking for help after 1 minute on scene? Holy crap.
I'm on Ladder 1 & had not been paged out, so I was just standing by. Dispatch said, "PD reporting nobody in building; propane tank on back porch."
Evidently the homeowner had arrived on the scene and confirmed that nobody was in the house. That was the good news. Bad news was that there was a propane tank that might blow up at any moment. Jesus fuck. More trucks arrived, and the voice traffic over my pager died down. (Once you arrive on scene, you communicate with local command over your radio; you stop sending messages to dispatch.) So johnny & Dear Wife listening at home were getting less information.
Then OB put out a second call for mutal aid, this time to Edgartown, requesting a pumper to cover their station.
There's a good story about the fire in the Martha's Vineyard Times. Synopsis: OB had put out a public health warning a few days ago after detecting germs in the water supply. People were instructed to boil tap water before using. A young mother, following health advice, boiled tap water for bathing her young children. Forgetting that she had put the water on the stove, she took kids to beach. Water evaporated, counters ignited, house went up in flames during the half-hour she was away.
Below, a video taken by a local (remind me to tell you more about him at some other time. A local eccentric, husband of a teacher at Tisbury School who taught my children.)
Some things to note about it:
- it takes a well-trained firefighter about one minute to put on boots, pants, coat, gloves, and helmet.
- it takes another minute to put on air pack & secure it and make sure it's working right.
3) Note the electrical wires coming down at about the third minute. You can hear the policeman calling out to the fireman to watch out for live wires. First names are used. In a small town, that's how it is. You can hear the police saying "Somebody better call Comm Electric". That's Commonwealth Electric, the old name for the electric company. In fire situations, they send somebody over to turn off the juice to the street.
Truckies Ventilate. Truckies Rule.
By far the most awesome part of this video comes at about the 5:39 mark, when two members of 551, the OB Ladder, ventilate the roof.
A few months ago, my friend Cortez the Killer had a drill in which he practiced ventilating a roof with a chain saw, as I described here.
Among the responsibilities of ladder companies is ensuring the ventilation of burning houses. This means climbing atop the roof of a house on fire with a running chainsaw and cutting a great big hole in it to let out the hot gasses (along with flame and smoke--unwanted but inevitable).
[. . .] And so Cortez (who is, as we all know, nearly or more than five hundred years old, (and truth be told, a little creaky) donned his heavy firefighter's gear including boots of gigantic proportion, quilted pants, turnout coat, gloves, helmet and air pack, --which together weighed nearly as much as the coat of armor that Cortez was already wearing--and climbed up onto the roof, chainsaw in hand. Along the way his boots turned into blocks of cement.
Although it was only 45 degrees fahrenheit outside, by the end of his turn on the roof cutting holes down through the roof & cathedral ceiling underneath it, Cortez was suddenly nearly overcome by a bit of heat exhaustion, and took off his coat once safely away from the ladders. Such is the exertion required to ventilate a building--which was not even on fire, as noted.
People not trained in firefighting sometimes have a hard time understanding what this operation is all about. What we see here is that two guys have just used a chain saw to create a chimney, and sure enough, almost immediately after they've made their hole in the roof, flames shoot out of it and the fire appears to accelerate. Why would they do that?
Here's the answer. That attic was filled with what firefighters call "MEBS" -- "methyl-ethyl-bad-shit" -- superheated poisonous gasses such as hydrogen cyanide and phosgene, all kinds of by-products of burning plastics and air conditioners and counter tops and every other damn thing. As long as superheated MEBS is in the house, there's a risk, or even a high likelihood, of flashover, when the whole house bascially becomes a bomb. The gasses might be at temperatures in the vicinity of 2,000F, hot enough to melt firefighter's protective gear. Not only are they a risk of blowing you up or burning you up, if you somehow breathe them they're gonna kill you. You want that shit gone, yesterday. Until that MEBS is let out of the house, firefighters aren't going to go in (other than to attempt to save the lives of anybody trapped inside who might be alive).
After the house is vented, the attack teams can enter from below. Why would they do that, when the house is already clearly a total loss? Basically, out of compassion. The hope is that you can save something of value, maybe only sentimental value, to the people who just lost their house.
As the newspaper article says, however, things got too dangerous when the roof started to collapse and the interior crews were ordered out. What they were left with then was a "surround and drown" situation: stand back and pour on water, pour on water, pour on water.
A second video shows the cool water cannon from the arial platform attacking the fire from above. Sure, it can supply a lot of h20 under high pressure; that's cool. But notice how it blows everything appart. So this is a sad situation. When possible, you want to put out fires by having guys go inside; that way you minimize destrurction. But here, there's nothing left to save. It's like putting out a campfire.
Of the whole story and of all the video, the part that most sticks with me is when the chain-saw guy on the roof, after he's vented the attic, kneels down to watch the flames start to shoot up. Why would he do that, you ask? With all those superheated gasses shooting up, astonishing heat, great danger? Why doesn't he get the fuck out of there now that his job is done?
I don't know the answer, but I have a guess. I think he was just exhausted. That firefighter is wearing about 90 pounds of gear, and the saw weighs about thirty pounds, and you have to manoever it with one hand. As I wrote about my friend Cortez, when he did basically this same exercise, while wearing an air pack to simulate real conditions but not breathing through a mask, and in 45F weather (not the 70F of the fire-day), and in a house not on fire, even the mighty Cortez was exhausted nearly to the point of puking afer cutting a vent hole. I'm guessing that the heat on top of that OB roof was about 250F. That's some pretty damn impressive chain-saw work that OB guy did, I gotta tell ya.
It's my goal as a firefighter to someday vent a roof like that. I don't think it will ever happen. True, I only have a few more classes to take & practical exams to pass before I'll technically be qualified to do it. But (a), I'm the understudy on the pumps. My captain has asked me to be ready to run the truck during a fire if Jesse isn't there, and there is a whole lot more for me to learn before I'll be able to do that. So in a real fire, I'll be hanging out at the truck, helping to run the machinery. And (b) if you were the captain of my truck, who would you send to ventilate the roof? The 56 year old technical writer, or the 23 year old guys who are hard-core jocks and ride their overpowered mortocycles to fire scenes? It wouldn't be a hard choice for me. Send the smart old guy to the pumps and the strong young guys overbrimming with testosterone onto the roof.
But you never know what might happen, and I hope I get my chance some day. That would be the coolest thing in the world.
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