The Charleston 9

Every time we go out on a call, we encounter something different. While some calls are similar, the exact situation varies and we have to be flexible to respond in the most efficient way. What this means is that every time we come back it’s important to take a few minutes to talk about what went well and what we need to improve on. This ensures that we are constantly reevaluating and critiquing our performance to give the best emergency response. Similarly, when other departments encounter issues or problems, we all have an opportunity to learn from these situations and prepare ourselves so we can avoid a tragedy.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a class by Dr. David Griffin. Dr. Griffin was the engineer on the first due apparatus at the Super Sofa Fire on June 18, 2007 in Charleston, NC. It was a devastating fire that claimed the lives of nine firefighters. His presentation was gut wrenching as we watched videos of the fire unfolding and heard audio of the final words of the firefighters trapped inside. But what I walked away with was invaluable. Not only did the events of that fire stand out to me, but also the culture of the fire service in general. Those men that were lost in the fire will not have died in vain if we can learn and change so that a tragedy like this never happens again.

While some of the events of that day were a perfect storm, there were some mistakes and there are some things, that going forward, we can control. Here are some of the important things I took away from this:

Personal Protective Equipment: We have the PPE, we should always use it and follow our SOPs. At one point in the lecture, Dr. Griffin told us that the old timers would put a wet sponge in their mouths to breathe through because they didn’t want to use the SCBAs. Crazy.  We need to keep up to date on industry standards and how to properly use our equipment.

Training: We should be constantly changing and learning different ways to address a diverse set of circumstances. For example, if we only practice doing a forward lay, things might not go smoothly if we have to do a reverse lay, portable pond or water shuttle operation. We need to have experience to address the situations that we might encounter in our district and our mutual aid partner’s districts.

Pump Ops: While being a pump operator might not seem sexy, if you can’t get the wet stuff on the red stuff, things are going to go downhill fast. A pump operator has to have the technical expertise to calculate PSI, water-flow, and friction loss in a matter of seconds to get the GPM to fire suppression levels. This brainiac firefighter is critical to stabilizing the situation.  But every firefighter should have a basic understanding of what is involved.

Traffic Control: Please, for the love of everything beautiful, if you are a civilian driving by a fire scene, turn around if you can, go another way, or pull over and wait until you can safely leave the area. The Fire Police will direct you. Don’t pull around the trucks or in between them. That happened to us at our last fire. Firefighters are trying to save lives and property. Do you really think your time is more valuable than the lives that might be inside that building? Not only that, if you drive over a fire hose, you are cutting off the water supply and damaging the hose that might stop water flow altogether. If you had a loved on inside a burning building depending on that water supply, you wouldn’t want someone driving over the hose. Just don’t.

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Pre-plans: One of the greatest tools we have as firefighters is our pre-plans. That means knowing your district and special properties of each building type in your area. Are there fire department connections, hydrants, dry hydrants, ponds, elevators, chemicals, people, animals, construction type, age of building, long driveways, elderly residents, and any other special considerations. Are there hydrants out of service? Is the road under construction? If it’s a commercial building, are inspections current? Most departments keep a binder of pre-plans in the apparatus to refer to. Our job is to keep them updated. If you have a special situation at your home or questions about your business, you can always notify the fire department in your area so they are prepared in case of an emergency.

Accountability: When firefighters enter a building, they give their tags to an accountability officer, so if someone goes missing, they know who they are looking for and their last known assignment. One of the tragedies of the Super Sofa Fire is that they weren’t sure who was left in the building for some time. I don’t remember what accountability system they had, but as firefighters, in all of the excitement on scene, we have to remember that the extra few seconds it takes to check in with the accountability officer could safe your life.

I pray that I never experience a situation like the Super Sofa Fire. It’s terrible to think that this tragedy was for a bunch of furniture. The one victim that was trapped in the building was rescued with the help of a mutual aid fire department. This truly was a perfect storm. So many things contributed, including the fact that the building has been modified and no sprinklers had been installed. (I still can’t figure out why someone would campaign against this life saving feature!) If we can learn from this, adapt to the changing environment, continue to train and build our knowledge so we are best prepared to face the situations we may encounter, they will not have died in vain.

If you have an opportunity to attend a class with Dr. Griffin, I highly recommend it. He is a dynamic speaker and will inspire you to be a better firefighter and by doing so, honor the Charleston 9.

Be safe.REMEMBERING THE CHARLESTON NINE_1529313949228.JPG_45833366_ver1.0_1280_720.jpg

First Structure Fire!

59758919_2801425899871505_8278936993644150784_o.jpgJust one week after graduation, I was able to respond to my first structure fire! The fire was in a four story nursing home near my house in the afternoon last week. We were called to stand by in our station in case the neighboring district needed us. Eventually, they called and we were off! We arrived on scene and the Chief told me we would be doing ventilation. I was pretty excited because we had covered that well in class and I felt like I knew just what to do.

The Chief and I unloaded the tools, fan, and extension cord and I got my air pack on. We waited just a few minutes before the second engine from our station arrived and a team of four of us headed up to the fourth floor of the building. Normally, you might think that going to the fourth floor of a burning building wouldn’t be high on anyone’s list, but that day, I was ready and pumped! The three other guys that I was teamed up with were experienced and calm, so I felt confident we could handle our assignment.

We arrived on the fourth floor via the elevator as the fire was on the opposite end of the building and power was still on. The air on the floor was smoky, but visibility was still good and we went to work. We set the positive pressure fan to push the smoke from the building and proceeded to open windows on the opposite side of the building to direct the smoke out. We grabbed what we could to control the water from the fire suppression operations on the roof. It was a mess! As they cut the roof above, showers of sparks rained in through the hole along with the water. A couple of the guys pulled a bit of the ceiling down to check for fire extension and thankfully, there was none. We worked for about 20 minutes and the Chief on the floor told us to take a break.

59786695_2801425766538185_3104166915736600576_o.jpgThat might not sound like a long time, but when you have 30+ pounds of gear on, carrying tools, and prying stoppers out of window frames, you can definitely work up a sweat. Water never tasted better!

After our break, we went back in and continued to contain the water as much as we could and check the status of the smoke on the floor. Things were settling down on the roof and the fire was pretty much out so after another short time working we were sent to rehab.

One thing that I would like to emphasize is that it takes a huge team of firefighters to make all of this come together safely. While we tend to think of firefighters running into the burning building, while we were in rehab, firefighters took our nearly depleted air tanks and filled them for us so we could go back to work. Paramedics monitored our vitals, others brought food and water, there were men on hoses, fire police, pump operators, drivers shuttling water to the portable pond, others carting tools and fuel to the team on the roof and still others operating the extension ladder, not to mention the guys cutting the ventilation holes in the roof. It’s really cool to see the teamwork in action and to know that every person there was critical to the success of the operation.

59793877_2801427223204706_2284652143086403584_o.jpgAfter rehab, we didn’t need to go back in. Instead, we helped roll out the large diameter supply hose to load back on the neighboring district’s apparatus. Then we put our gear back on the engine, and we were headed back to our station.

For me, this was a great first experience. I won’t say there wasn’t any danger, but it seemed minimal and we were prepared with proper PPE and plenty of air. We were able to see and communicate with each other and work together to accomplish our assignment without the whole place being involved. We didn’t have to work a super long time, and after helping to roll the hose out, we were sent home. I can’t imagine being at a fire that lasts for hours and hours. I’m not quite sure I’m up to that yet. Still, we were there for several hours and I was pooped at the end of the evening.  All in all, a good way to get my feet wet, literally.  

When we arrived back at the station, company members were there to help clean the gear and put the apparatus back into service while the auxiliary prepared a wonderful dinner for us! As a mom, I can say that having a hot meal waiting for you is awesome. It reaffirmed my decision to be a stay-at-home mom. I only hope my family appreciated my cooking as much as I enjoyed that meal. (Ok, I know that didn’t happen, but I can dream…) My sincere thanks to the auxiliary! They are just one more indispensable piece that contributes to a successful fire company.

One down, more adventures to come. Up next….Firefighter Survival Class.

Be safe!

Dive Right In

The last couple of weeks have been a crazy flurry of activity. Class skills testing and written test, granddaughter visit and traveling around the northeast, and Commissioner training done. I’m very proud to announce that I completed my Firefighter 1 class and am now classified as an Interior Firefighter. I don’t take this lightly. It is a great responsibility. But I also recognize that many people contributed to my success.

IMG_0131.JPGFirst, my own fire company is full of amazing men and women that have been patient instructors, mentors, and general cheerleaders. They make volunteering to serve fun, exciting, and often hilarious. Shout out to my mentor, Marc, for his patient instruction and encouragement the last year and a half. He’s the best!

Second, the state of NY has experienced, professional, and knowledgeable instructors that teach the courses designed to prepare newbie firefighters for the situations they will encounter. They also sacrificed many evenings away from their families to make our class happen.  And last but not least, my family has been wonderfully supportive and have pitched in to cook and take care of my very-demanding-drama-queen Siberian Husky while I have been away so many evenings.  Poor Nikita…

Having this behind me is not the end though. Being a firefighter, there are just about a gillion things to learn. At graduation, my instructor advised us to continue to train and learn new things because you can’t know them all. And he’s right. Even if you don’t have certain types of hazards in your own district, you need to be ready to help in neighboring districts at a moment’s notice. And so, I quite literally dove right in to the next challenge.

IMG_1339_DxO.jpgWe meet weekly to train and refresh skills on Monday nights. The topics vary from week to week, but we try to cover the major skill categories over the course of the year. This week: Ladder bail out. This involves diving head first off of a perfectly good roof onto a ladder and flipping yourself around as you descend. (Don’t try this at home!!)  For sure, this is a great skill to have however crazy it sounds.  If a room is getting ready to flash over, getting out quickly can be the difference between life and death. So with our team, we took turns bailing out over and over to practice the method. There were no 10’s scored last night, as there was no artistry in our technique, but we learned and practiced and added a valuable skill to our repertoire that might one day save our bacon.

IMG_1340_DxO.jpgI can’t wait to see what we will do next week!

Be safe!

 

 

Recruit NY!

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This coming weekend is Recruit NY! and nearly all fire stations in the state are hosting an open house.  About 70% of all firefighters are volunteers.  With volunteerism decreasing all over the country, volunteer fire departments are in need of new volunteers.  There are lots of ways that you can help.  Stop by and learn about ways you can put your talents to use protecting your community.

From fire safety education to maintaining accountability to conducting rehab operations to fire suppression, there are a wide variety of tasks.  Firefighting is challenging and rewarding.  And you can support your fire company/department without even running into a burning building.  You can donate services like grant writing, yard maintenance, or tech support.  Or you could join the Auxiliary and help provide hot meals to exhausted firefighters after a long call.  

But besides the obvious benefits of helping to make your community a safer place, there are some other hidden gems that make being a firefighter a great volunteer opportunity.

  1. You don’t have to hold your stomach in when wearing turnout gear.  Yes, it will make your butt look big, but every hero has to make some concessions.
  2. There is no fuss, no muss, no need to wear make up.  Getting ready for a call only involves jumping in your car and getting to the station.
  3. You don’t have to do your hair, because once the hood and helmet go on, no one will see it anyway.  Easy peasy.
  4. You don’t have to spend time worrying about what to wear.  Turnout gear covers all of the operational activities that you will perform as a new recruit.  And with practice, it only takes a few seconds to get completely dressed.
  5. You have tons of accessories.  In fact, Malibu Barbie would be hard pressed to have more accessories than a firefighter.  From haligans to axes, handlights to chainsaws, backboards to SCBA, we’ve got you covered.
  6. Our rides are awesomely cool. Who doesn’t want to ride in a firetruck?  I would hazard a guess that even Batman would dig that.
  7. No one ever went hungry at a fire house. Ever.

When you are out this weekend, stop by, grab a snack and check out your local fire station.  You might even learn a thing or two.  Consider joining us!  Are you in?

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Rehab

My second live burn didn’t quite go as I had hoped, but what I learned that night was an important lesson.

Our fire company is the designated Rehab Unit for our area. We provide a critical service on the fireground to help keep firefighters safe. We take care of the firefighters actively engaged in firefighting operations by providing medical monitoring, hydration, snacks, and helping to prevent life-threatening conditions such as heat injury, heart attack and stroke by carefully documenting and observing those in rehab. Protecting firefighters is the name of the game. Unfortunately, a lot of times the real danger isn’t the fire. Sometimes are protecting firefighters from themselves.

A few months ago, I was on a rehab call. We had over ten interior firefighters come through rehab and most were fine after the ten minutes we usually require them to stay. We take two sets of vitals, give them water and food and send them on their way if their vitals are within the parameters we have set for safety. That night, one firefighter was a little high on his blood pressure and heart rate and it wasn’t coming down. After about 20 minutes and four sets of vitals, he was noticeably irritated with me because I wouldn’t let him go. But safety is our biggest priority. We don’t want firefighters to become the next patients.

I called in the EMTs to check him out and they got the same readings as I had. It was just too high to go back in. He argued he was fine, but I didn’t have a choice. He was done. Those parameters for vitals is what the town chiefs had agreed to and I didn’t get to change the parameters just because he said he was fine.

Fast forward to Thursday night: My second burn night, we had two fires we were going to work. One on the main floor of the burn building, one on the second floor that was going to simulate a basement fire by attacking the fire from the second floor. I was first on the nozzle for the back up line and was pretty excited. We did three evolutions of the drill and then we got sent to rehab for a break before we took over the attack line.

My first set of vitals were not good. Confession: I have been struggling with high blood pressure and had been given a new medicine recently, but had not adjusted to it. I knew I had been high going in and I was a little worried, but I had been fine at the burn the last week so I was hoping for the best. When the automated cuff pumped up over 200, my worry was confirmed. And the numbers didn’t go down. I felt fine, but the numbers don’t lie. Our rehab team took it seriously and diligently monitored me. They called in an EMT to check me out and that was it. The short story is that my night was over. I couldn’t go back in and finish the drill.

The longer story is that I was disappointed and a little embarrassed. I work out at least three times a week, walk every day with my dog, eat pretty well, and I’m not super overweight. (Technically, I’m about 6 or 7 pounds overweight, but it’s all muscle, really…) But the rehab guys were right. I had no business going back in and putting myself and others in danger. Honestly, I wasn’t totally up front with my medical condition right away. I sat there hoping things would get better, but they didn’t. The longer I sat there, the more information I coughed up. And then I thought about that firefighter arguing with me months ago, and I was a little humbled. I was doing the same thing he did, only a slightly more compliant. I didn’t argue, I just tried to accept my fate.

The bottom line is that no firefighter ever wants to be sidelined. We train and get pumped up to do these things, and getting pulled from the game is disappointing and frustrating. But rehab is a serious part of firefighting operations.

So how do we prepare for firefighting operations so we don’t get pulled?

-Make physical fitness a priority. You wouldn’t expect to be able to run a marathon without training. Don’t expect to be able to run into a burning building and extinguish a fire without preparing your body. Firefighting is extremely strenuous. You need to have a high level of fitness to do the job safely.

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Stay hydrated all the time. You can’t just chug a bottle of water and be hydrated. It’s something that you need to keep up with, especially in the warmer months. It’s easy to check by the color of your urine. Clear or light yellow is best. I always carry water with me. I buy it by the case and throw it in my car. It’s easy to sip while I’m driving and I always have it with me.

Listen to your body. Take breaks and don’t overdo it. If you rest before you’ve overexerted yourself, you will be better prepared and able to get back to work.

Give your body a chance to cool off. Take off your turnout coat at the very least. It’s important even if it’s cool outside. With temperatures extremely high inside the fire and body heat trapped in our turnout gear, your body needs this time to recover. Lots of water or even ice will help you cool off and be able to continue working after your break.

-Listen to your rehab team. They don’t have a glamorous job, but it is critical to keeping firefighters safe. Remember that they are firefighters and EMTs themselves and they understand exactly what you are up against on the fireground. They know what they are talking about and your best interest is their top priority.  Give them ALL of the information that will help them help you.

Two more classes to go.  Stay safe. 

One down, one to go!

First live burn under my belt! It was definitely not as bad as I was imagining and pretty informative. Quick shout out to the great State Fire Instructors that have spend the last 9 months teaching, mentoring, and occasionally yelling at us. They are awesome! Their real world experience is invaluable to new firefighters.

Live burns are CONTROLLED burns. Not what you will find in the real world, but a safe way for newbies to observe and extinguish interior fires. The first exercise we did was to experience thermal layering and diminished visibility.

We all went into a room where all the doors and windows w20181205_200138.jpgere closed. We all had our SCBAs on and our gear was checked for proper donning before we entered the room. Safety first! Then they went over facts about fire and talked about what we needed to do if there was an emergency.

One thing I love about the fire service is that anytime we get together, the exits are pointed our first thing. This is a good habit for everyone. Egress is important in an emergency.

Then they lit the fire. At first we didn’t really feel anything. We just watched the flames get higher and the sparks start to spread out across the ceiling. Then we stood up and you could definitely tell the difference in temperature. Still not as hot as the high school band fireworks booth in the hot July sun, but then I did have my turnout gear on. They hit the fire with a little water, and visibility went to almost nothing. It was actually pretty cool.

Then we all went outside and divided up into companies. One company was on attack line and one was on backup. They started another fire on the second floor of the training tower and we took turns pulling hose, knocking the fire down, backing out, and doing it again. It was pretty fast paced and we rotated firefighters from the nozzle to the end so we could all get a chance to see the whole process.

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Every firefighting operation requires rehab. (Not the kind of rehab you would think…) Rehab is the process of having your vitals monitored, getting some food and hydration, and getting released when your vitals are within an acceptable range. Working a fire is intensely physical. It’s not uncommon to see vitals of 160/100 or higher right after fighting a fire, even for the youngsters in my class. In fact, after this last one, my BP was a lot better than some of the other guys who are, by the way, still young enough to be my kids. Just sayin’…

We rounded out the night by conducting the first formal NYS decontamination training. We were hosed down, scrubbed up and rinsed off all while still being on air. Then we took off our SCBA’s and hoods. We had special wipes to use on our hands and necks and faces to finish the decontamination and get about 80% of the contaminants off of us. Then we bagged up our gear and headed home to wash our turnouts, helmet liners, and SCBAs to get the last 20% cleaned up. Everything reeked of smoke! When you’re on air, you don’t smell anything, but it was pretty stinky on the outside.  A few loads of wash in the extractor and everything is ready for next time.

I remember one of my first few calls where one paramedic commented on how clean my gear was. I defended my newbie status by saying I had just washed it. But I really hadn’t been through much, to be honest. Until now, having dirty gear kind of gave a firefighter street cred. You know, you’ve been through stuff and it shows. But studies show that if you don’t wash your gear, you continue to be exposed to those nasty contaminants that do bad things, like cause cancer. Washing your gear is an important part of keeping yourself safe. Not that I need more laundry to do, but I am kind of an expert by now.

My next live burn is Thursday night and that will be the last live burn for this class. It’s been a long haul and I can see the finish line now!  Three more classes to go!

Into the flames…

I have a history of making spontaneous and sometimes not well thought out decisions. I once signed up for a 45 miles bike ride the night before because my son was doing it. The same son talked me into doing my first triathlon the week before the event. I even won my age group! My youngest inspired me to climb to the top of a 40′ telephone pole and jump off and try to grab a trapeze.  I didn’t actually grab the trapeze, but I did jump. One of my twins and I did the Warrior Dash and jumped over fire, climbed over wrecked cars, crawled through mud and climbed over 12 foot walls. I’ve danced the Thriller Dance in full zombie make-up and jumped into a helicopter for a ride even though I am terrified of flying.

img953953-4.jpgAnd one time in Vancouver, I did a 4 mile run, followed by a 20 mile bike ride with my sister after an evening dressed up as martinis and celebrating her birthday. (I’m not sure either one of us can go back to Vancouver.) Most recently I joined the fire department because the Assistant Chief said everyone should. Maybe I’m just easily convinced to do these things. Either way, most of the time I don’t have time to think them through, and it’s easier that way.

Now that I have been with the fire department for a little over a year and have been in several classes, learned to drive a fire truck and rescue vehicle, pull and load hose, and almost got run over directing traffic (thanks to my friend and fellow firefighter, Steve, I’m alive and well) I’m having a little more time to think these things through. The class I am currently in, BEFO/IFO/SCBA/FF1 began last August and will be over in four more sessions. Of those four sessions, two will be live fire exercises. And here is where the problems begin.

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I have literally been obsessing about going into a burning building on purpose and thinking of all the things that I might rather be doing, like getting that colonoscopy I have been putting off. Cancer screening is getting pretty high on my list and the nap that goes with it is pretty awesome. Scanning all of the manuals for all of our appliances is also one of those things getting closer to the top of my list. Paper is just weighing me down and I really have to stop putting this off. I really need to level the front walkway. It gets this puddle in the middle where it has sunk in a little. This is really starting to bug me. And don’t get me started on caulking the separating crown moulding after the wild humidity swings in NY.

It’s not that I’m afraid or anything. And this probably has nothing to do with the fact that I am the only woman in my class and that I am literally old enough to be every other student firefighter’s mother. I’m even older than almost all of the instructors. If I fail, it will be even more noticeable than if one of those 20-somethings decided it wasn’t for him. Not an option here.

1069210_714390006690_886772268_n-2.jpgThe real problem is time. If only I didn’t have so long to dwell on this, it would be easier. Last week when we did search in a smoky building in the dark, I have to admit, things started getting real and I had a moment when I questioned my life choices. Shouldn’t I be out having lunch with my friends and wearing wedges instead of fire boots? But like the telephone pole and the triathlon, I’ll probably get in there and do fine. I hope. Fingers crossed.

I’ll just worry about that tomorrow.

See you on the other side.