Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Back Fire and Save the Souffle

Thanksgiving, 2014, was turning out like so many others.  Fabulous food, delicious drink, classy company, good gab, and plenty of hilarious, jovial mirth.  What can I say, laughter is in this family's DNA.

It was just after 9:00 PM.  The festivities were winding down.  A crew of us were watching something memorable on TV, you know, like an old Huckleberry Hound cartoon, when we heard a little crash and a bang and a few muffled words towards the back of the house.  A sound like no other I have ever heard in this house, I went to check it out and quickly heard my wonderful mother-in-law lamenting in pain.  When I turned the corner I found her partially sitting on the guest bathroom floor.  Her brand new hip had just come out of the socket for the SECOND TIME in three weeks.

I immediately got down on the floor with her to support her back.  Then I called for Dad as well as my lovely wife, who had both just turned in for the evening.  It only took about 30 seconds to discern we were hip deep in a bucket of uh oh and NOT going to move her at all.  She was stable at the moment and not in a tremendous amount of pain.  One wrong move could change that real fast.

My lovely wife made the call to 911 and then both her and my father-in-law got dressed to go to the hospital.  I stayed on the floor with Mom.  If she was going to party down on the bathroom floor I sure as hell wasn't gonna let her do it alone.

Within ten minutes the boys from the fire department were on scene.  I had asked our son-in-law to wait in front of the house to direct them to the appropriate door, a real wide, easy in/out with no stairs.  Another guest had hopped down our Lombard Street drive and waited at the road.  We're well marked, but he went down just in case.

As the fire dudes were assessing the scene, the ambulance arrived with the paramedics.  They took over, I got out of the way and within a couple minutes she had some morphine coursing through her veins.  Within a few more minutes they had her up, out, on the gurney and on her way to the hospital without a whimper or a sigh.

That came later at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento the next day when it took six or eight medical professionals, including three or four doctors, to hold her down and jostle the dang thing back in the socket.  Yikes!!!!!  That's when they give you wicked pain medication that can be somewhat psychoactive.  And it still ain't enough.   I'll tell you what, that lovely lady can take some pain.  I'd a been asking for a swimming pool full of Jim Beam and heroin.  And I don't even drink anymore.

Many young boys develop a desire to become a firefighter.  I was no exception.  I mean, red lights and sirens combined with flames are almost irresistible.  When we moved up here to the country, I actually thought there might be a chance to emulate Gage and DeSoto from Rescue 51.  For all you youngsters out there, that was a popular TV show just finishing up its seven year run in 1979, the year we moved to the hills. .
All the fire departments here at that time were volunteer and most of them were constantly looking for patsies, I mean volunteers, most all the time.   As it so happened, when I opened my new company's doors there was a real estate office next door.  One of the agents was a volunteer firefighter who also happened to live in the same district as we did.

When he discovered we were neighbors, he looked me up and down and said, "Ever think about becoming a volunteer firefighter?"

I went to the next meeting later that same week and became a new recruit.  At that time there was a relatively new chief that was implementing a much more thorough training program than had existed before.  He brought our backwoods country fire department into the 21st Century.  Now don't get me wrong, backwoods country got it done.  But he made us better.

There was also a relatively new member who happened to be a retired firefighting Captain and engineer from Southern California.  He became our primary source for engineer training.  I learned a lot from both those men.

Our training sessions were not to be taken lightly.  I mean, you know, there were lives at stake, yours and mine.  The sessions were generally three hours a pop, where we'd study fire science, walk the trucks to learn where everything was and of course play with all the equipment.  Over and over again.  There was a lot to learn.  I'd say my new hobby took ten to twenty hours each week of my life.  Sometimes more depending on any calls we might have gone on.  I mean, some structure fires kept us out all night.  No wonder volunteer departments were constantly looking for volunteers, this was a commitment.

I immersed myself and was soon hip deep within the organization.  It didn't take long to learn the shuck of every one's jive.  There were serious players and there were not so serious ones.  The ones that just wanted the volunteer firefighter sticker on their bumper so they could wrangle themselves out of a DUI.  Fortunately they didn't stay long.  It was a commitment.  Within the department which boasted maybe twenty to twenty-five at any given time, there was a good fifteen to eighteen man core.  Still, there was only a handful I'd want watching my back in a burning building.  Some folks tend to wanna bolt when their helmet starts to melt.  Hell, that's why you wear a nomex hood.  I'll tell you what, those turnouts can make one feel dangerously invincible sometimes.

And then, of course, there were the idiots.  And the degenerates.  The red light and siren junkies.

We had this newer recruit that somehow got behind the wheel on a call one night.  He almost got us all killed when he merged on to the highway right in front of a flying CDF engine that was also on the way to the same blaze.  They made a 55 MPH swerve and our idiot driver also made a mini swerve.  The trucks missed that high speed almost collision by about two feet.  There would have been some dead firefighters that night, especially me.  I'd a been a pancake.  I saw the whites of the eyes of the other driver.  They were wide.  Like I'm sure mine were.  Holy Shit.

That idiot was not on the department much longer.  One of the PRIMARY primaries is DO NOT CREATE ANOTHER EMERGENCY ON THE WAY TO THE EMERGENCY.  

We had another young idiot who I also think was a moron.  He would take the mini pumper out of the station and go joy riding once in a while.  Then he did something stupid and somehow got the engine smoking.  But it wasn't really on fire.  Some fluid, like oil, had leaked onto something hot, like the engine.  Just a little smoke.  But he panicked and radioed county dispatch to tone out our department to come put out the blaze.  Which really wasn't a blaze.  In the firetruck, you know, that carried water and multiple fire extinguishers.  The kind of vehicle that could put itself out if it was on fire.  Which it wasn't.  It was embarrassing having the entire county hearing us have to respond to one of our own moron's self-inflicted non emergencies that he could have easily handled without notifying the world he was an idiot.

I think chief sent him packing that day.  I mean, it takes a lot to get booted from a volunteer organization, know what I mean?    

Then we had another red light and siren adrenaline junkie.  We'd been having a rash of small brush fires one early summer and one day he happened upon another volunteer's house all jacked up.  There was a fire down the road he exclaimed, they had to get rolling to the station.  Only the fire hadn't been toned out by the county yet.  So how did he know?

Fortunately that one caught him.  That degenerate had started about five or six fires.  Fortunately and lucky for him there was no property damage (other than brush and trees) and no injuries.  Fire sure jacks up degenerates.  Excites the hell out of firefighters too, but for different reasons.  We don't want to have sex with it, we want to battle it.  It's an adversary, not a lover.

We also had a couple county sheriffs that lived in the district who joined the department when I was there.  Two sheriffs and a cop.  It was nice to get on the good side of law enforcement for a change.

Did I just say that?

There was another guy who exemplified why there was about a handful I'd want with me in a burning building.  We were out on a call one night when I was still pretty green.  Some fire around a wood stove had somehow gotten into the floor.  This guy and I were instructed to don our SCBA's (self contained breathing apparatus), go under the house with a charged line and squirt some water.  I was following this guy, the more experienced of we two, in through the dark and smokey crawl space.  Buddy system, you know.

All of a sudden my buddy bolted, did an immediate about face, left the hose and trampled me, knocking me to the ground on his way to "Get me the hell out of here NOW land!" 

I think he saw a mouse.  There was no doubt he decided he didn't want to be where he was, that's for sure.  I had to go outside and regroup, and fortunately the guys working inside the house had extinguished the flames from their topside attack.  Anyone can talk tough.  Show me. 

Our fire district was pretty big.  Not as big as, say, Wyoming, but it was pretty big.  There were three stations to cover the area, and each station held a minimum of two trucks.  One was a mini pumper, originally designed as a quick attack vehicle for wild land fires.  They had become our rescue vehicles.  They were a little larger than a big pick up, and did contain hose and water, just in case.  The other was a large "regular" size fire engine.  All three engines from the three stations were different, so we had to train and become thoroughly adept at working every truck.

I typically responded to Station 2, which was in the middle of a rather large subdivision that included a golf course, club house and some pretty nice homes.  It was about six miles south of town, still pretty rural, with lot sizes ranging from a third to a half to a full acre or more.  It was the most populous area in our district, then containing close to a thousand houses, more or less.  It was also where my lovely wife and I then resided.

One summer Saturday morning I was awakened from slumber about 6 AM with a structure fire call.  Our "tone out" then was a two tone almost french horn sounding blast followed by about a half dozen quick, loud, high pitched beeps.  Then county dispatch would start, "Bullion Fire (or Rescue) respond..."

Then they'd give the pertinence; like structure fire, car fire, brush fire, auto accident, man down etc.  That was followed by the location.  Then they'd repeat the sequence starting with the french horn.  When we'd get to the station and get the appropriate vehicle running we'd then respond via radio to the county (and chief) which vehicle number and how many individuals were responding.  Radio traffic between Chief and responding vehicles would then ensue, with him usually arriving on scene first, assessing the scene and issuing directives from there.

I met Big G at the station, one of my handful and still a very close friend, as well as one of our female volunteers.  I hopped behind the wheel and G hopped in at shotgun.  We waited about a minute for any other volunteers as the engine warmed up, then headed out, Code 2, lingo for red lights/no siren.  I mean, it was 6 AM and there were no other vehicles on the road.  Why wake the neighborhood?  

"We've got a worker here, fully involved.  Five gallon propane tank located..." came the voice of Chief over the radio.

After about a four minute silent screaming drive we approached our turn and we were able to get a visual of the fully involved house.  The female with us looked horrified, and exclaimed, "We're supposed to do something with THAT?" referring to the thirty foot high flames engulfing the building.

Big G and I looked at each other and excitedly said, "Yes!  Yes!  Yes!"  We were amped to the max!  A couple of kids on their way to the BEST.  THING.  EVER.

We rounded the corner, stopped, and our girl hopped out and wrapped a 2 1/2 inch supply line around a fire hydrant.  Always always always lay a supply line on your forward attack!  (Another primary.)  She gave me the go ahead and I proceeded forward about one hundred yards to the front of the house.  I thought we would stage from there, on the street, but since it was another seventy feet or so uphill to the party Chief ordered me up the drive.  Apparently he wanted the initial attack vehicle with all it's thunder up close and personal.

As soon as I got up the drive, about twenty feet away from the flames, I immediately felt the heat.  The house was popping!  Flaming embers were flying everywhere.  The roar from the thirty foot flames was LOUD.  Like a freight train loud.  With adrenaline coursing through my veins, I was about as hopped up and rabid as any white rabbit would be if it just snorted a bathtub full of cocaine.

A gazillion thoughts were racing through my brain.  And then I literally smacked myself across the face and said, "Do what you have been trained to do."

Rote took over.  I'd rehearsed this scene a hundred times.  I didn't even have to think.  I placed the engine in its proper position and engaged the water pump, both initial and critical operations to be completed prior to leaving the cab.  I hopped out, opened the engineer's panel on the side of the truck and chalked the front wheel.  (The wheel "chalk" is a metal device that you put behind the truck's wheel so it doesn't accidentally roll.)

Pop!  Pop!  Pop!  Flaming shit was flying!  By this time Big G had donned a SCBA, pulled one of the pre-connected 1-1/2 inch attack lines and was moving towards the fire.  As soon as all the hose was out of the bed I charged the line.  Our initial attack was underway!

Once I had Big G charged, he had about four to five minutes of water on the five hundred gallon tank.  That was based on the amount of water he was currently squirting.  At least that's what the gauges were telling me.  Pop!  Pop!  Pop!   I had to secure our supply line.  We needed more water!

By this time a couple more firefighters had arrived and one helped me muscle the 2-1/2 inch line up to the engineer's panel and get it connected.  He ran to the back of the truck, signaled to the firefighter at the hydrant to charge the supply line, donned an SCBA and caught Big G's back.

More firefighters were arriving all the time, some in their own vehicles as well as the two other main engines from each of the other stations.  One staged at the hydrant to increase the water pressure up to me, the other stayed on the street but sent everyone up to the party.  We were having a fire fiesta!

We soon had four attack lines working off my truck.  Three 1-1/2 inch lines and one 2-1/2 inch line.  It really takes two humans to handle a fully charged 1-1/2, it takes a minimum of three for a fully charged 2-1/2.  Squirting water out of a 2-1/2 inch hose line with three people is like trying to move the entire front line of the Oakland Raiders.

Squirting water out of a fully charged 1-1/2 by yourself is kinda like dancing with a gorilla.  But only if he had one knee. 

You can't squirt water out of a fully charged 2-1/2 by yourself.  I dare you.

The structure was pretty much a total loss.  It had to have been smouldering and then burning for some time before the call came in.  No one was home, so that also helped add to the smouldering time.  It was going to be quite a surprise when they returned.  Oh boy. 

After an incident, all the vehicles went to Station 1, where we'd clean the hose and equipment.  All the used hose gets washed and then sets out to dry.  Once it's dry it gets rolled up and sets on a rack.  That's the stuff we used to reload on the engine for the next time.  600-1200 feet of supply line, all connected and racked and stacked in the bed of the truck so it comes out easily and quickly when needed.  2-150 foot pre-connected attack lines, and then another 200-400 feet, depending on the truck.

It was about that time in the morning when I discovered sheer firefighting bliss can be dampened by truly horrible circumstances.  We had just about wrapped when we were toned out to a small plane crash near where our morning fire fiesta had been.

Besides the golf course, the subdivision in our district also boasted a small type airport for small type planes.  Apparently this guy missed the runway.  By a half mile or so.  Fresh off our wild morning fire, off we went for round two.  When we arrived on scene we discovered a small fire had been put out by neighbors.  It was still smouldering, so we had to make sure that didn't spread.  And then there were the three bodies jammed in the nose of the craft we had to contend with.  You've heard of FUBAR?  Well, they were BUBAR.  Burnt Up Beyond All Recognition.  They were at the point where teeth were really gonna matter for a positive ID.

"Is this burnt black blob your relative?  Please, take your time."

Seared human flesh. by the way, does not have an appealing odor.  It's rather disgusting as a matter of fact.  Unless, of course, you're a cannibal.

It smells like sweet meat, like your steak had been grazing on Fruity Pebbles and cheese cake for most of it's life.  Big G and I went to extricate one of the bodies and the burnt flesh just peeled away on our gloves.  It was like oozing jello underneath.

"I prefer skinless meat.  Fewer calories you know."

Said one Donner to another.

That's when I excused myself to go puke.  I think G did too.  It was sick.  I'd just left known human reality behind.  Some weird threshold had been crossed, life's possibilities all changed. 

I went and rolled some hose.  We let the ambulance guys toss the jello into the body bags.  They were getting paid, we weren't.  We returned to the station, got the vehicles ready for their next romp and hammered down a couple beers.  Then we went to a local park and enjoyed a BBQ and softball game that afternoon for my lovely wife's birthday. And a few more beers.

One weekday afternoon our department was toned out for a school bus on fire.  I flew to station 2 and charged out with engine 81.  Another close compadre, another one of my handful, Big D, was off from Station 1 in their slower and not quite as efficient engine.  Nevertheless, Big D was first on the scene and with the chief at the engineer's panel he went in to the flaming bus with charged line to extinguish the fire and make sure all the kids were out.

I was 2nd engine on scene and since there were no hydrants around the chief made me become the water supply for the first engine.  We made those connections and then, since it happened right on the main highway into town, I was assigned traffic control.

It was a hot summer afternoon, and since the threat had been neutralized I didn't need to have my coat on anymore.  And that's when I realized in my haste to respond I had put my T shirt on backwards.  If I was going to be facing the public I had to right this wrong.  I quickly went behind the truck, took off my turn out coat and then flipped my shirt.  In the process several of the high school girls off the bus gave me a couple cat calls, much to the chagrin of my buddy Big D.  He had initiated a full attack of the fire, solo, inhaled some smoke and had made sure no kids were on the bus.  He was a dirty, grimy, filthy mess and a full blown hero.  I hadn't broke a sweat.

Somewhere along the line in my tenure we got a Soloflex machine for the station.  Soloflex back then was one of those fad of the moment exercise machines.  It used extreme rubber type bands instead of regular weights to supply the tension.  Big D and I started using it, and many times I would take a lunch at the station and work out with him.

Big D had become the first fully paid full time firefighter in our district.  All the districts were slowly moving in that direction as their tax base increased, but I think we sported the first one in the county.  One weekday afternoon, while working out, we were toned out for a brush fire.  While the dispatcher was relaying relevant information, we bounded down the stairs and got 81's engine running.

As soon as the dispatcher finished, we immediately chimed in, "Engine 81 responding.  Two personnel."

Boy did we ever think we were hot shit.  It usually took about five minutes to get to the "Engine 81" responding part.  You know, travel time from home to the station.  That sort of thing.  We responded within seconds.

Once again I was driving, and the location was only a couple miles from the station.  Within a minute we saw some smoke, and then as we hit a straightaway heading straight towards the fire we saw it.  It was about a 1/2  acre of dry grass in flames, hootin and scootin and heading for trees.  And a house.

Big D and I looked at each other and exclaimed, "Holy shit!"  This was a lot bigger than either one of us had been thinking.

It was a week day afternoon.  Most of our firefighters were out of the district at work.  Even Chief was at lunch in town.  CDF was en route, as was Chief, but that thing could very easily have gotten out of hand in a heart beat.

The two lane road we were on T'd another two lane road right in front of the fire.  As luck would have it, there was a hydrant right at that corner.  D and I made a quick plan.  He would attack with an 1-1/2, I would get us hooked up to water and then get on up and give him a hand.  It was just the two of us.

We stopped, placed 81 in pump, Big D bounced and I charged the line.  My buddy D was a big strong boy, he had to be.  He charged right up that flaming hill like he was charging into battle in the days of yore, slaying flames everywhere he turned.

Typically it takes two guys to move and handle a fully charged 1-1/2 inch line.  D was moving like a man possessed.  Besides the standard bright yellow nomex jumpsuit we usually donned for brush fires, I think D put on a cape as well that day.  Or the fur of some dead animal, channeling the spirit of William Wallace.

The homeowner, out with his garden hose, was ecstatic.  The one horse cavalry had arrived!  A garden hose sometimes may seem like a lot of water, that is until you play with a fire hose.  You know, your regular garden hose will wash off your regular driveway in several minutes.  A fully charged 1-1/2 will do it in several seconds.

As Big D was charging into fire glory, I yanked a fifty foot section of supply line off the back of the truck and hooked it to the hydrant.  Then I hooked the other end to the panel.  Then I ran back to the hydrant to charge the supply line, making sure there were no kinks.  This little ballet is usually performed by two firefighters, with one at the hydrant and one at the panel.  But there was only me.  I felt like a Marx Brother, dancing with myself.

When I ran back to the panel, I found it occupied by one of our firefighters, one of our Sheriffs.  He was on Sheriff duty and heard the call.  Dang, if this wasn't an emergency I don't know what was.  He was a more than welcome sight.  Affirming he was on the panel, I skedaddled across the road to give Big D a hand.  About a minute and a half had gone by since we first landed.

With me working the hose behind him, Big D and I had that 1/2 acre doused within a couple more minutes.   There was nothing left but mop up to do when the two CDF crews arrived. Yeah, we were hot, er, stuff. 
We also went on quite a few traffic collisions.  Quite a few heart attacks.  Our district included about ten miles of the main state highway into town.  Cars go fast, cars crash.  Big cars versus little cars.  The big car always wins.  Always.  Our district also included a lot of older retirees.  We only had a few field saves with CPR.  Travel time to the station, then travel time to the scene.  If CPR had been started earlier than our arrival, many of those victims might have lived.  So take the time, learn CPR.  You may save someone you love.

Everyone in the department was required to take Advanced first aid.  Then we had a guy with us for a while that was a Paramedic who convinced me to get my EMT.  Besides helping the public, I had a new family. That was another reason why I should advance my first aid skills, he said.  I must admit, it was comforting to know that I could take care of any immediate medical emergency with the family.  Fortunately, I never really had to use the knowledge intimately with them.

Five of us took an EMT class together.  Paid for by the department.  Big G, Big D, the Sequoia and EW.   Coincidentally, there's three of my handful.  EW, while a great guy and really funny, was not really a firefighting kind of guy.  He was a little more like a boy's club social butterfly.

The Sequoia, so named because he was like 6' 8", actually rose in rank to Assistant Chief.  Later on he moved a little further up in the mountains and became chief of the Sierra City Fire Department.  He, unfortunately, died of a heart attack in the line of duty a few years back.  He was a good man and devoted much of his life in these here hills helping others.  He is missed by many.

Big G eventually headed down to the big city in Sacramento to ply his firefighting trade.  He rose in rank, and boy is he ever rank, to Battalion Chief before retiring a couple years ago after some twenty years of service..

But before he did, we showed off a little in front of some new recruits.  This was the annual training where the training officers threw a smoke grenade or two in one of the truck bays.  Everyone had to don a SCBA and get through the smoke to the other side.  A hose was wound around and through.  The idea was to follow the hose, because in a real fire that's going to eventually lead you out and back to the truck.  Your ticket out if you can't see.  As long as you're going the right way.  But since you're usually at the nozzle, it's a pretty safe bet which way to go.

So G and I were standing in line, waiting our turn.  Some of the recruits were nervous, but we assured them it was a piece of cake.  Hell, we said, we would even trade turnouts inside just to show them it was a piece of cake.  No big deal.

They said no way.

We'd been challenged.

It really wasn't a big deal, but it kinda was.  I mean, you've got your nomex pants held up by suspenders  over your steel-toed boots.  Then there's your coat, with four or five heavy duty latches.  Then you toss the air tank over your shoulders and tighten the straps across your waist.  The you put your hood on.  The mask goes on over your head and then the hose gets connected to the regulator.  Then you put on your helmet and you're ready for business.

Once inside and before we got to the end of the line, we stopped.  Visibility was poor, like two inches, but it was good enough.  We basically reversed the process, making sure we had one mask always available to buddy breathe through.  It probably would have been easier if we weren't laughing so hard, what can I say. 

Big D eventually hurt his back in the line of duty and had to leave the fire service.  An entrepreneur, he has tried his hand at several gigs hither and yawn, much like me.  But one thing is certain, once a firefighter, always a firefighter.

A business associate and retired volunteer firefighting Captain said that to me one day.  I must admit, it's true.  I have no compunction about "going in" since I've become a mere civilian.  I've gone in to a couple of crashed vehicles, one in flames, to help get a victim out.  I guess it's an affliction not easy to suppress.

These stories, with certain twists and turns and different names of course, would be just about the same in any other volunteer fire district around here.  Fire is fire.  And humans are humans.  There's many more  stories to be sure, but you get the idea.   Living in the country and trying to maintain a good source of adrenaline.

These hills are littered with old volunteers like me.  Now that a new, paid generation is at the helm, we old guys can take it easy.  But, if the need were to ever arise, so would we.  Rising from the smouldering echoes of our firefighting past like flaming flamingos on the backs of bewildered kangaroos.  We may not have the pitch and stamina we once did, but we can sure as hell sit on a bathroom floor and party down if need be.