No Such Thing As A False Alarm

helmet (2)

My Cairns New Yorker. Leatha Foreva! 

Dear Readers,

Last week I told you the strange tale of what happened to me in a fire. Today, I thought I’d give you one more fire department story; one which taught me a valuable lesson.

It was my first shift as a Lieutenant in charge of an engine company. We’d had some company training in the morning, and by 2pm, we’d run four calls. A car accident. Two medical calls. And one fire alarm at an office. I was upstairs in the office trying to knock out some paperwork. Our call load picked up considerably during the overnight hours and so I didn’t want to get behind. I heard a bit of static over the intercom followed by the warbled high low tone that indicated an incoming still alarm.

“Engine 1, respond to a still. 531 {Address Omitted}. Fire alarm in the building. Respond on Tac 3. Time out 1412.”

Cursing audibly, I got up from behind the desk and stomped over to the pole. This particular address was a known problem location. Engine 1 made three or four fire alarm calls out there every week. Though the city had a nuisance alarm ordinance that fined places after the third false alarm in a month, this was an apartment complex and the fire alarm was usually activated by cooking, so it wasn’t technically a false alarm. For some reason, the alarm system hated fish as it seemed to us that a person cooking fish is what usually set it off.

I slid down the pole and met my crew (two firefighters and my E/O) on the ground floor. I kicked off my shoes and stepped into my boots. With one tug, I pulled my bunker pants up and shrugged my suspenders on. I kept my coat in my riding position (the officer’s seat is in the front right, like a passenger seat in a car) with the sleeves threaded through the straps of the air pack. My helmet stayed on the dashboard. The motor turned over and I waited for the firefighters in the back to yell that they were ready, then I nodded to my E/O.

“Engine 1 en route to the still,” I said over the radio as I mashed the air pedal with my foot and flipped the switch to activate the lights and then the siren. My E/O pulled out of the station and made a left followed by a quick right. He drove like a maniac. As we approached each intersection, I scanned my right for oncoming traffic so that he could focus on the left. It seemed like I must have said, “Clear right” a million times. To get to this address, we had to turn right off a main drag and then drive about a half mile down a side street that dead ended into a body of water. After the first few hundred yards, the urban sprawl cleared out until all of a sudden, you reached the three building apartment complex which seemingly rose out of the ground.

As we neared the building, I cut off the siren and picked up the radio mic. I held it next to my mouth and pressed the PTT button as I craned my neck to look up at the buildings. I keyed the mic and said, “Engine 1 to Fire Alarm. Show Engine 1 on scene investigating.” And then it happened. I heard a loud pop and saw a jet of flame shoot out of a third floor window. “Holy shit!,” I exclaimed….without realizing that I still had the microphone keyed. I recovered in time to try and play it off.

“Engine 1 to Fire Alarm! Gimme a heavy box. Transmit a 10-75. Go ahead and gimme a third alarm assignment. We got visible flames from the third floor of an occupied apartment building. We are laying in and making a fast attack.”

I had to make a split second decision. Under our normal operating procedure, the first due engine at a fire went straight to the scene and conducted the primary search and initial attack while the first due truck handled ventilation. The second due engine dropped a LDH (large diameter hose) at the hydrant and then drove into the scene. They then connected their LDH to the first due engine, or, they could stretch additional attack lines if needed. However, here I had heavy fire conditions and the additional resources would be slow getting there because they weren’t sent on the initial alarm. I knew we’d drain the internal tank on the engine too quickly, so I wanted to establish water supply since we’d have to “John Wayne” it until more units got to the scene.

We stopped at the hydrant and dropped off one firefighter as I got my coat and hood on. Once he’d gotten the hose secured on the ground, we pulled up to the scene as I looped my mask around my neck (I didn’t put it on my face yet) and placed my helmet at what I hoped was a jaunty angle on my head. (I was a bit cocky back then).

“What line do you want, Loo?”

“Grab the deuce, Mick,” I said to my firefighter as we got off the engine. There is an old saying in the fire service. Big fire. Big hose. Small fire. Small hose. This was a big fire, so I wanted to go with the 2 1/2 inch. There was a small group of people gathered around in front of the building as Mick humped the the hose towards the stairwell. An elderly woman with two young children approached me. She said the fire was in their apartment at the end of the hallway. This apartment complex was like a hotel with the doors opening into an interior hallway as opposed to external balconies. She said everyone was out of the apartment, but she didn’t know any of the other residents on the third floor as she was babysitting her grandchildren and didn’t live in the apartment.

I mentally cursed my bad luck as I headed up the stairwell to meet Mick. My second due engine was coming from our sister station. They were slow…in every sense of the word. We had a joke about them that they were minutes behind when seconds count. Around this time, the Battalion Chief and Ladder One arrived. We shared a station with them and so they weren’t far away.

“Engine One Alpha to Ladder One”

(Once I was on my handheld, I became Engine One “Alpha” and the E/O who stayed with the engine was Engine One)

“Go ahead, Hutch.”

“We got a line stretched to the third floor, but I need you get into these other apartments for a primary search.”

“Ladder One received.”

“Battalion One to Engine One Alpha.”

Go for Engine One Alpha.”

“Be careful, Hutch. You got smoke coming from the eves on the corner of the building. It may be in the ceiling space.”

“We got it, Chief.”

As we exited the stairwell, I saw a thin haze of smoke gathered along the ceiling in the hallway. As we made our way down to the last apartment on the left, I checked the doorknobs on the other apartments. Some opened and I yelled, “Fire department! Everybody out! Now!” but no one emerged.

As we reached the open door to the burning apartment, flames were starting to roll out at the top of the door frame. Without a word, Mick and I dropped or our knees, took our helmets off, pulled our masks down, our hoods up, and then put our helmet and gloves on. I heard movement behind me as I plugged into my mask and saw Lefty, the firefighter we’d dropped at the hydrant, take his spot on the hose.

“Engine One Alpha to Engine One. Charge the line! Charge the line!”

Mick cracked the nozzle just a bit as water slammed its way along the hose line. The whole apartment was rocking. Flames flashed and danced across everything. And there I was thinking we’d find a simple room and contents fire. To run the risk of sounding crazy(er), fire can be a beautiful thing to behold in its untamed form. There’s nothing I loved more than crawling into the belly of the beast.

I leaned down close to Mick’s ear and yelled, “Let’s hit this bitch from here!”

I wrapped my right arm around the hose and allowed Mick to lean back into me, with my left hand on the top of his air pack as he opened the nozzle. It was slow going. We’d hit the fire, move a few inches forward, hit it again, move a few more inches, but soon we’d made it all the way into the apartment. We had fire pushing towards us from two directions. We’d hit one and it would retreat as the other advanced, and then we’d hit the other as the first one advanced.

I heard some garbled messages back and forth on the radio, but couldn’t make out what they were. We were a bit too busy dealing with the situation in front of us. Steam banked down and cooked us a bit inside our gear.

“Havin’ fun yet?” I yelled into Mick’s ear.

“Fuck you…sir,” he replied.

He worked the nozzle around at the ceiling level and then down to the body of a fire in a “T” pattern called a combo attack. Normally the deuce and a half will do some serious damage to a fire, but this one was stubborn.

Finally, I heard a message come over the radio.

“Command to Engine One Alpha, back out now. You got fire behind you. Bail out now!”

Huh? I didn’t know what to make of the message. You know, we used to say that to put out a fire, you take away the fuel, you take away the oxygen, or you take away the Battalion Chief, but mine was a good one that knew his stuff. I didn’t want to shut the line down, leave it, and crawl out because we might need the line again, and to shut it down meant the fire would push right back at us, so we made a fighting withdrawal. Hitting the fire for a second, shutting it down and backing up, and hitting it again.

When we got to the hallway, I immediately saw the problem. We had visible flames showing from a couple of the apartments behind us, closer to the stairwell we’d used to come in.

“Uh…Engine One Alpha to Command.”

“Go ahead.”

“The fire is in the cockloft.”

“We’re venting the roof now, but you need to get off the third floor.”

This was an older apartment complex with a common attic space that ran the length of the building with no fire stops between the apartment units. That said, even at the time it was built, this was a code violation. However, we didn’t know this for sure until after the fire was out. I also doubted the fire rating on the walls and ceiling was up to part either. Oh, and the best part was that there was only one stairwell (though there was an elevator that we couldn’t take). Yes…we were in code violation city.

Flames started rolling along the hallway ceiling ahead of us as the flames from the original apartment regained a foothold and started to push out into the hallway. I admit, the lyrics to Stuck in the Middle With You flashed through my head as I had fire to the right of me and fire to the left. With the fire getting worse in front of the stairwell, it was a matter of time before it compromised our hose. Time for another quick decision.

“That’s the only way out,” I yelled to my crew. “We have to go through it!”

Now, the hallway dead ended into a large window. Sure, we could have had them put a ladder up to the third window, but we’d have to break it to get out. That wouldn’t have posed a problem, as we like breaking windows, but the sudden rush of fresh oxygen might pull the fire right over the top of us before we could get out and I didn’t fancy getting burned.

So we made a U-turn and inched back down the hallway, with the nozzle set to straight stream (Right for Fight), we made a push to the stairwell door. It got a bit toasty, but we made it. We left the hose in the hallway and headed down the stairs. When we got outside, we saw the extent of the fire. Damn. It looked pretty bad. More sirens echoed in the distance as addition units headed to the scene.

By the time we’d put the fire out and took care of all the hot spots, the fire had taken 22 hours to extinguish and required the equivalent of six alarms. As it turned out, it was an intentionally set fire and it’s spread and behavior were influenced by the shady construction features in the building. The whole third floor was a smoking ruin, and there was extensive water damage on the second and first floors. They ended up bulldozing the whole damn thing later once the investigations and lawsuits were over.

Since I’d been the initial officer on scene, the Assistant Chief let me clear the scene over the radio 22 hours later.

“Engine One Alpha to Fire Alarm.”

“Go Ahead.”

“Tap out Box 1639. Holding units 401, 404, 406, and 407. All other companies in service.”

(The four hundred radio numbers were our arson guys).

I learned some valuable lessons from this fire. First of all, I assumed that it was just another bullshit false alarm. Until I found out it wasn’t. That was the last time I ever made such an assumption. Now, do you need to have your crew pack out every time you make an alarm call? No, that’s overkill. But I never waited until I made the scene to put my coat on again. Any report of smoke, and the packs go on with masks at the ready. Though I knew the layout of the building, I didn’t really take that into account. I went straight for the fire. An aggressive move on my part, but had I taken the time to properly consider the conditions, I might have waited for additional companies to get there and focused instead on doing a sweep of the other apartments on the floor. Keep in mind, this was “back in the day”. Doing things like waiting to mask up until you get to the door is frowned on in a lot of places. Then again, I’ve seen guys breathing air from their tanks when as they get off the truck which is stupid. It’s okay to mask up on the truck, but don’t plug in until right before you make entry. It only takes a second. But the safety nazis frown on interior attacks, leather helmets, poles in stations, and doing anything but hitting it hard from the yard these days. Still, my first fire as an officer wasn’t a complete disaster, but it could have been. Thankfully, I’ve always been able to learn from my mistakes. I emerged from this call a better officer, which made my crew better.

So remember, Dear Readers, there is no such thing as a false alarm.


2 thoughts on “No Such Thing As A False Alarm

  1. Thank you so much for your service, courage/bravery, and great writing! This account left me breathless. Were the ones that set the fire caught and incarcerated? God bless all those affected!

    Liked by 1 person

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