Thursday, October 7, 2004
quote du jour:
"I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which a fireman has believe his is a noble calling..." -- Chief Edward Croker, FDNY, circa 1905

In 2003, my fire department responded to some 700 or so "requests for service." That's a new term that includes damn near everything -- from house fires to seniors who have fallen and need help getting up. As you may know, firefighters don't just fight fires anymore. Such is the case in Lakeland. And such is certainly the case for me.

I've often joked that when I'm on duty, the City of Lakeland is safe. Until Wednesday, I'd only had one working structure fire within the city while on duty. By working structure fire, I mean a fire in a structure that requires us to pull hoses and connect to a hydrant. Small trash or kitchen fires that are easily extinguished do not count.

Of course, Lakeland isn't really a destination for firefighters seeking action. Most of the buildings in the city are single-family homes and most are relatively new. This means that most residents have the benefit of new wiring in a home than was built somewhat to modern codes. This also means that there aren't a lot of fires.

The problem is that when the occasional fire does occur, I'm never around to help fight it. I've been out of town in at least twice and, thus, totally out of the loop. For the remaining fires, I usually find out about them in time to report to the station to clean up gear or to staff reserve crews until the folks at the fire can wrap things up.

Yesterday, I got #2.

Each year, about 12% of our total emergency responses are to false fire alarms in homes & businesses. When we receive a report of an automatic fire alarm, we do our best to treat them as real emergencies. Yet, most of our false alarms come from the same handful of occupancies. We begin to learn familiar addresses and it becomes harder and harder to treat each alarm as though it could be a real fire.

One home has it's attic smoke detector go off any time storm knocks out power in the neighborhood. A certain warehouse has a detector that is stuck on the middle of a barren wall that usually alerts whenever the building in unoccupied. Finally, there is the old folks' high-rise.

Lakeland Place is ten floors and 150 or so apartments of senior citizens. Many of the residents aren't very mobile. Quite a few others require oxygen. This year, fire alarms have become more frequent there. Most all of them seem to have happened in the middle of the night and all of them ended up as false.

When we received report of yet another fire alarm call at Lakeland Place yesterday evening, most of us automatically chalked it up as false. But when we turned the corner in front of the building and could see the facade, we also saw the smoke showing from one of the apartments.

Since before I joined the department, a common discussion at the fire station has always been what to do "the day Lakeland Place catches fire." I guess we're going to have to come up with another scenario to play out in our heads.

When we pulled up to the rear of the building, me and my partner each noticed residents sticking their heads out of windows to catch some fresh air. As my crew made it up the stairwell to the fire floor, we met dozens of residents on the way down. Many of them were as we had been only moments before and questioned if this was the real deal. We assured them it was and continued upstairs.

The ceiling and floors of each apartment are made of solid concrete. The walls separating each apartment from it's neighbors are supposed to be multi-hour fire walls. The structure did it's job and contained the fire for us. It also contained the smoke and heat.

When we got to the fire floor, we had a fair amount of smoke throughout the hall. As we made entry into the apartment, the first thing we noticed was the heat. Hands down, it was hotter than any "normal" house fire that I've ever been in. We also noticed how terrible our visibility was. The apartment is a small one-bedroom set-up and the window of the living room (where the fire was) had failed before we arrived on scene. So, I expected to be able a to see just a little bit. Yet, there was a time early on when we were no more than 10 feet or so from the open window and couldn't see any of the daylight from the outside.

Once we found the fire -- even flames are hard to find when you can't see your hands in front of your face -- we extinguished it surprisingly quickly. We then turned our efforts to searching each of the apartments for anyone who hadn't joined the exodus out. Every apartment was empty.

I always said that when Lakeland Place caught fire, we'd had dead folks on our hands. It's the smoke and gasses -- not the fire -- that tends to kill people. When you have a resident population that includes folks who don't move around or breathe well during good conditions... a fire is among the worst possible things that could happen there.

Yesterday, no one died. I thank God for that blessing and congratulate my brothers on a job well done.

As for me, I guess it's time to resume the peace and quiet on my shift.

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Copyright © 2004, Thomas Fletcher. All Rights Reserved.