The tones drop, just like they have for the majority of my life. I've reached the point where I've been a firefighter for more of my life than not. (Scary thought, that.) A box alarm; routine. At least it's not another medical aid.
Circumstances conspire: maintenance, a detail. The first engine responds as usual, but the second piece will be the Reserve. As I dress I have a clear view across the empty ladder bay to where she gleams in the corner, the last red engine in our slowly whitening fleet. I confess a soft spot for her, as she's been around only slightly longer than I. We were rookies together.
The Captain and the Deputy are both riding tonight and they outrank me in terms of both bugles and service. I climb up into the canopy and take my seat, facing rearwards. A recruit fills the final seat, and I wonder if he fully appreciates this treat. The Captain flips a switch and bells (real genuine BELLS) fill the air warning of Low Oil Pressure!!! and other malfunctions. The Detroit diesel shudders to life in a cacophony of sound garnished with a puff of black smoke. The Deputy flips a switch; a solid THUNK announces that three monster relays have engaged three banks of spinning and blinking halogen lights. Cap drops the shift lever (a lever!) into Drive, and our faithful steed strains against her parking brakes. With a whoosh of escaping air, we flow down the ramp into the night.
I am transported, across town and across a career.
5/4 – Engines 681 & 682 operate at an early morning car fire with exposures.
Shot on 645 Pro for the iPhone, which has some nice feature and a decent night mode.
Just another Sunday afternoon. Average. We’d seen a few patients, none too sick; I can’t remember what was for dinner. The fire tones dropped for a box alarm at a high rise.
It was no big deal. The engines go there multiple times a week, usually for burnt food. The timing was right for a well-done dinner. Conversation resumed in the ambulance bay.
“Fire Alarm to responding companies, I have a report of smoke in the hallway.” It was still not a very big deal; likely still burnt food.
Companies signed on scene, command was established, elevators were secured, and then things began to go sideways. “Engine 68 to Command, we’re bringing down a victim.”
That got our attention. Four of us dove for our ambulances, clearing the doors before the EMS tones could drop. We never leave together, but tonight we executed a perfect synchronized turn leaving quarters as I fell in behind Ambulance 9. A remote part of my brain saw the opening credits of Emergency! with the engine falling into formation behind the squad. That small part has never grown up, but there was no time to indulge it.
Radio traffic was busy with the ongoing rescue and a developing fire attack. The short ride seemed to take forever. As we arrived, Command was calling for us to meet the engine at the elevator bank.
Most of the residents had yet to realize that there was actually a fire in the tower. Evacuation was ongoing at what seemed a leisurely pace. We swam upstream with our gear. One elevator stood open, blinking its fire alarm light. The other showed activity on the floors above. Residents exited the stairwell and stared at us as they strolled past.
We began to review and mentally prepare. Airway is the primary concern, followed by smoke inhalation and burns. We have oxygen & the intubation kit, there are burn dressings in the first-in bags. The supervisor is en route with the cyanokit if we need it. What’s the Parkland burn formula again? It doesn’t matter; we can see the hospital from here.
The elevator dinged. The doors rolled open with a crashing rattle, and everything went pear shaped. This was not burns or smoke inhalation. It was a whole new nightmare, one I will remember for the rest of my life. My thought process came to a crashing halt just like the elevator.
Only for a second, though. We reboot quickly. We have the tools. Airway, breathing, circulation. Everything else comes later. We can do this. Let’s get moving.
January 21 – Home alone for the evening, lounging in front of the pellet stove.
January 22 – Cold day at work. This grew throughout the day. I kept waiting for the rig to hit it on the way out the door.
January 23 – My family says the dog is a good luck charm and she has to wear the shirt through the Superbowl. Cricket is not impressed.
January 24 – The Howe is finally safe at home. The trip was much longer and more expensive than planned. Details to follow.
That’s her older sister, Engine 2, in the background.
I sure wish I had those ladders.
The first long hill was interesting. I’d forgotten how underpowered these old trucks were. I was remembering quickly. We would get up this hill, but we’d do it in our own time.
The first few descents were interesting as well as I got the feel of her brakes and steering again. A big old truck demands defensive driving of the highest order, as you never want to trust that they will stop or turn as quickly as you expect.
Eventually we hit a good pace. The weather began to thicken into fog and drizzle, and I discovered the leak in the windshield. A gap in the rubber at the base meant that each left turn brought a spray of water on my face.
The previous owner had warned me that he ‘wasn’t too sure’ about the alternator. Neither was I. The voltmeter hovered just below 12 volts, and the ammeter was showing a slight draw. I couldn’t be sure if she wasn’t charging, or if the meters were just off slightly. I resolved to use the wipers and lights as little as possible and see how far we could go. I did have a spare battery after all.
The trip through Franconia Notch was surreal. I was driving a piece of personal and department history through some of God’s most beautiful country, yet I could barely see beyond the end of the hood.
At the foot of the Notch we stopped for food and fuel. As the gas gauge hasn’t worked in 25 years, this allowed me to calibrate for our trip. We were doing 6 MPG. One more gas stop should leave plenty to get home.
Back up on the highway we settled in at a comfortable 55 MPH. Climbing the hills wasn’t too bad. Oil pressure and temperature were holding fine, and voltage remained steadily just below 12. Vacuum reserves would drop on the long hill climbs but immediately come back as soon as I lifted the throttle slightly. Things seemed to be going well.
Then came the first thump. It sounded like I’d hit a piece of road debris. I hadn’t noticed any road debris. . . All the gauges still looked OK. Nothing looked wrong in the mirrors, and the chase truck wasn’t flashing its lights. Onward.
Just north of Tilton it all began to come apart, both figuratively and literally. Three things occurred almost simultaneously: I felt another thump accompanied this time by vibration, I saw something fly off behind me in the mirrors, and a motorist pulled up next to me honking and waving frantically. Thank you, sir, I can feel and see it.
Paradoxically as I slowed the vibration worsened. I couldn’t have blown a tire. The sound wasn’t loud enough, and the ride was still too smooth. I found that one of the rear tires had begun to disintegrate. It was still holding air, but it was throwing off large chunks of tread. This would not do.
We limped into a Walmart parking lot at the next exit, two hours from home and one hour from dusk.
Slightly less than a year ago, I departed for my first shift of 2011 through thick fog. It broke dramatically that morning, signifying hope and promise.
If I try to be objective it was a decent year. 362 days later I’m still working a good job with a good employer, my family and I are healthy, and our finances are in better shape than they were a year ago. Second grade is going fabulously!
Emotionally it’s been rough though. Mrs. Mack505 suffered the loss of two family members. My Public Safety family has been rocked with multiple losses, both on duty and off.
I was not there personally, but I was on duty and listened live as a firefighter lost his life. I’ve held my breath with each subsequent radio transmission and felt the ice in my gut as it became apparent what was happening. I’ve looked into the eyes of the crew who worked to save him, and of the good friend he relieved at shift change that morning. I can happily go the rest of my life without ever repeating that experience, thank you.
The fog returned this morning, bookending the year in gray. Goodbye, 2011. It’s a new day tomorrow, and I’m on duty at the best job in the world.
So the shortest day came
And the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries
Of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the New Year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing, behind us – listen!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise weakens in the sleeping land;
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.–Susan Cooper
It’s been a rough year and a rough month for my little corner of the public safety world. I count 6 deaths and 3 serious injuries this month alone. Things are feeling pretty dark around here today with the news of Peabody firefighter Jim Rice killed in the line of duty.
Carpe diem. Cherish the time with your families. Say those “I love you’s” and “I’m sorry’s.” Read the NIOSH reports and learn from them. Work out, eat better, watch your partner’s back. Wear your PPE, stop at stop signs, and don’t drive like an idiot.
Light those candles, shout, sing, and live for the day.
Rest in peace Patti, Sarah, Jon, Jim, Frank, Robert, Tim, and Kristen.
And thank you, Phil, for forwarding the poem when I needed it. Serendipity. . .
A little over a week ago it began as just another day at work.
Yesterday it ended with thousands of firefighters, a hundred bagpipes, and the obligatory television cameras.
I met a few old friends and missed meeting a lot more. I rubbed shoulders with the Chief of Fire from Syracuse, NY and with jakes from the ‘hood in DC. We were the proverbial Sea of Blue in support of our brothers and their families in Worcester. I hope we did them proud.
Rest in peace, FF Davies.
Sunday night we were in a Christmas mood at work. We dug the tree out of storage, hung the lights, and took a few embarrassing photos for Facebook. Then we started to notice the updates.
A Fallon ambulance was struck head-on on the other side of our metropolitan area. We followed live on FB, Twitter, and the Internet radio stream as the events unfolded. I listened as the crew was airlifted to Big City hospitals.
Overnight a NH State Trooper crashed his cruiser and was seriously injured along with his K9. I saw the crash site in my travels before I knew what happened.
Monday morning, a police sergeant in one of our cities was struck on the highway. He was seriously injured but is recovering in Big City Trauma Center.
Wednesday night, a Worcester firefighter was killed in the collapse of a burning three-decker. John Davies, a 17 year veteran, was searching for a missing civilian when he and his partner were trapped. His partner survived.
Services are next Thursday.
This evening I learned that FF Sarah Fox of Portsmouth, NH, lost her hard-fought battle with cancer this week. I’m not feeling much holiday spirit right now.
Tomorrow is a new day. . .