Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fire and Rain

It's been almost a week since my very first structure fire. I guess I've had a hard time sitting down to start writing about it. For days, I had been hoping for that first fire. Every time my pager went off, I was praying to hear some extra tightness in the dispatcher's voice as the words "structure fire" came over the radio. A week ago, it finally happened. But it wasn't exactly what I had in mind.

I was in bed, early in the morning, when the tones dropped. The first words to come over the radio were "commercial structure fire", and I was in my vehicle before they were even able to say anything else. My adrenaline and excitement were almost overwhelming. It was only just as I was reaching the highway that we got any further information from the dispatcher. Someone hadn't made it out yet. My excitement turned to dread, and although as personal vehicles we have no right to break traffic laws (preventing me from speeding), my fingers began to clutch the steering wheel even tighter than they had when I was merely suffering from adrenaline.

The first units on the scene gave a size up indicating that the house was already significantly involved in the fire. Still no sign of the man inside. All anyone knew was that he should be somewhere in the back right corner of the house. In the sky ahead of me, I could see the pillar of smoke rising up into the clouds. Although this was my first non-training fire, I knew enough to realize just how serious the fire must be given that huge visual indicator.

By the time I arrived, the whole of the House was mostly a wall of flames. I knew roughly what the odds were of someone still being alive in a situation like that, but I didn't want to admit that to myself. The crew I was assigned to was given the task of going in the back door to find this man. Reading the faces of my crewmates, I knew that this was probably a body recovery operation and not a rescue, but I didn't want to admit that to myself either. The flames were too intense for us to make a good entry, though, and eventually the roof came in. At the same time another crew of firefighters was cutting a hole in the wall of the house where they expected the man to be. Given the condition of what was left of the building, I was now certain of the outcome. But it wasn't until the hole was open and I saw the body that any real emotion hit me.

One of the division chiefs (the one who ran my training class) was standing by asking us to use the hose line to protect the body from the still raging flames, hoping to prevent any further damage for the sake of the family. I tried to focus on directing my water streamed towards hotspots in the room, but my mind was elsewhere. why wasn't he able to get out? why did it take so long to report the fire? How much fear must he have gone through, waking up in a blaze like that? how long was he conscious enough to experience it? Could we have saved him if we had arrived five minutes earlier? Did he feel any pain?

The man's charred remains held no answers for me. The gear on my body and the hose line in my hand, weapons to combat an enemy who had already won. I remembered bitterly how I had wanted so badly to get to fight a fire. well, I guess I got exactly what I wanted. As silly as it was, I felt a deep guilt for ever wishing for such a disaster to come into somebody's life, as though I might have prevented this incident by not desiring it so badly.

For the next couple hours we doused the entire building in water and foam, all to prevent it from reigniting. During that time I tried my best to focus on the task at hand and not to glance over at that corner where I knew the corpse lay. I kept a mantra going in my head, steeling myself for the time that I knew would be ahead when we would have to move the body from the building.

Finally the moment came, and other firefighters moved vehicles and strung up tarps to prevent the bystanders from witnessing what was about to occur. Me, I wanted to put my hands on the victim. I wanted to be the one to shoulder the unpleasant task of extricating the body from the smoldering remains of the house. As some sort of a self imposed penance, I wanted to force myself to deal with the consequences of the fire that I had been hoping for. And I did. The man, and a dog that had been trapped in the room with him, were both moved with as much dignity as possible into the vehicle that would carry them away.

I will be happy if I never have to do that again.

But with the pain and frustration and guilt came another emotion: relief. Ever since I started training to become a firefighter, my biggest worry had been that when I finally came face to face with gruesome and unjust death I would be unable to cope and unfit to perform my duties. I can think of very few scenarios that are worse in my mind than a fatality resulting from being trapped in a fire. yet there I was, witnessing one of the worst (I hope) calls I have or will ever have to deal with, and I was okay. Not happy, not calm, certainly not dispassionate, but able to perform efficiently the tasks assigned to me. Although I do not believe any amount of experience will stop me from feeling some sympathy for victims and patients, I know now that I can handle it. In the midst of my surprise and sadness at the loss of somebody's father I am relieved just to know that I can do my job.

I think I've had enough excitement for this week.

1 comment:

  1. intense read. we're lucky to have guys like you on fire detail. very well written post too, I might say.