Smoke Showing

This week, the big story locally is flooding. It’s been the rainiest March ever in these parts and the second wettest month on record. Thirteen years ago, to this very hour, things were a bit different.

(Cue warbly flashback music and fade through black.)

The door rumbles slowly upwards, accompanied by the distinctive clatter of the idling Mack diesel. The expanse of glass in front of me reveals a raging blizzard. In spite of the date, this is no joke. It’s snowing sideways, with over a foot already on the ground. I slip the brakes and the middle-aged CF glides down the ramp.

“Engine 683 responding.” I’ve not worked with this officer very much, but the storm detail has thrown us together, and we’ve been running box alarms all night. This sounds different, though.

The snowplows have been doing their best, but the automatic tire chains still leave artistic spirals in the white street as we turn the corner. Our destination is only 1/3 of a mile away, but in this weather it still takes the better part of two minutes.

Years ago I learned to always keep the driver’s window cracked when responding. The old-time theory was that it increased your awareness of your surroundings. (It’s a habit I’ve given up with age, as I value my hearing.) Today is no exception, in spite of the weather. Our scene is hidden behind a thick row of trees as we approach, but something smells wrong.  Literally.

As we clear the hedges, I can see it. “Engine 683 is on scene investigating.”

Investigating?! “Lou, smoke showing,” I prompt.


“Working fire, Lou!”


He’s looking out the wrong side of the cab!! I reach across and punch him in the shoulder. “Over here. Large Victorian, smoke pushing from the basement windows. . .”

“Oh, yeah. Engine 683 to Fire Alarm, strike the working fire!”

The house sits fifty feet from the street, but I’ll never make the driveway in this weather. My crew begins deploying a preconnected line through the knee-deep snow to the side door. I flip the pump shift switch, drop the transmission back into ‘D’, and the truck begins to shudder. The diesel sputters, skips a few times, and dies in a cloud of black smoke.

It’ll do that if you forget to turn off the Jake brake. Oops.

Thankfully I know what I’ve done wrong, and it’s fixed before the line is stretched. Out of the corner of my eye I see a snow plow clearing out the hydrant less than 200 feet away. Once the line is charged on tank water, I begin to hand stretch a supply line. A police officer dresses the hydrant for me.

It’s one of our wonderful 2000gpm hydrants. With a large diameter supply line in place, the venerable Mack purrs just barely above idle, flowing all the water we will ever need.

The snow plow has turned around and attacked the driveway. It clears out just in time for the arriving truck company to take up position. Other companies begin to arrive; the second due engine, the out-of-town companies. We make an aggressive attack and catch it before it can extend up the walls and take the whole house. The homeowner will later speak at Town Meeting in praise of the response and will be a great help in securing some career staffing for us. (There will be another fire later in the year with a worse property outcome. That one will be on a Wednesday afternoon, and a severe staffing shortage will also help to highlight the need for full-time people.)

My Lieutenant that day will get his photograph on page 3 of the Boston Herald, trudging through snow deeper than his knees with a hose over his shoulder. The caption will mis-identify him as attacking the fire, although the photo was taken during overhaul. Still, any press is good press and he did look cool.

(Cue warbly music again, and fade from image of Lt trudging toward the camera, through white, back to the present.)

The job doesn’t change, but the details sure do. 683’s old Mack has been retired, sold to another department, and retired again in the intervening years. Truck 68’s rig has also gone. My Lieutenant that morning has retired, too. Shortly after this fire, we finally went from an all volunteer agency to a combination career/call model.

But in spite of all the changes, I will never forget that morning. For the briefest of moments, before we rounded the hedge, I KNEW. I could smell it, I could feel it; and no-one else had figured it out.

We were a well-oiled machine.

Sure wish I could find that photo.