Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Remedial Firefighting.

I love my community. It's a bit of a throwback to a simpler time when people smiled and waved and, whether stranger or friend, people helped one another. Our county is quite rural, and though we are only 1/2 mile from an incorporated city's limits, even the city is quite rural in comparison to the neighboring county where I work. Rural is not bad. I like it. It's peaceful and safe and the people have hearts and smiles the size of Texas. But it comes at a price, one that people are usually unaware of until they have to pay that price. Emergency response agencies in rural communities are often lacking, (to put it quite conservatively) not only in equipment and personnel, but also in training and tactics. It just goes with the territory, I guess.

I'm writing this because my neighbor's house burned down today. It's sad watching people lose everything they have...everything they've accumulated throughout their lives, not just material things, but irreplaceable things like pictures and family heirlooms. The shock, the grief, the fear. Everything is so overwhelming to them. "What will we do?" "Where will we go?" "How will we live?" Though, in my 14 years of firefighting, I've seen it many times, I'll never pretend to understand how they feel.

When your house is on fire, you call 9-1-1. You EXPECT trained, capable help to arrive. You EXPECT them to arrive in a timely manner. When they get there, you EXPECT that they are going to utilize years of knowledge, training and experience and do everything in their power to save your property, if not your very life. Imagine your disappointment to see a rag tag rural volunteer fire department show up with very little manpower and an absolute incapability to fight the fire in your house with any respectable level of competence. Those words may sound harsh, but that's just what happened today. The fire department that I worked with is also volunteer but heads and shoulders above what I saw today. Being in a neighboring jurisdiction, they even showed up today to help and, like me, just shook their heads in disbelief as the jurisdictional department not only didn't fight the fire, but actually assited it in destroying the house.

It started from a small air conditioning unit out in the Florida Room on the back porch. The flames climbed up the rear exterior wall of the house, through the eaves and then quickly spread through the attic.That's bad, because the only way to fight such a fire is by ventilating it. This must be done correctly and time is of the essence. Fires in enclosed spaces naturally build up super heated gases and all of that heat has to have somewhere to go. It makes sense that if you give it somewhere to go then you can enter that space and extinguish the fire. This is usually done either horizontally by taking out a window or vent or vertically by cutting a hole in the roof. Attic fires usually leave you no option but to cut the hole. This is dangerous because it involves putting firefighters on the roof which, by this time, will be in a deteriorated state because the fire is burning the structural integrity of the trusses away with each passing minute. A roof collapse can kill a firefighter. If not vented artificially, the fire WILL vent itself naturally. It is inevitable. If you're going to offensively fight a fire, you would rather choose the time and place for that ventilation rather than wait for it to happen naturally. Often it will vent itself too low on the roof line leaving a large portion of attic space exposed. Firefighters will usually choose a point high on the roof, near the peak or ridge to cut their hole. Heat travels up and you have a much better chance of saving the remaining portion of the roof if you vent it at it's highest possible point.A cardinal rule of firefighting is to ALWAYS fight the fire back upon itself. You never fight from burned to unburned unless you want to push the fire onto new fuel. In other words you fight it head on. Occasionally you may want to flank it but you never fight it from behind.

One tool that is common in firefighting today that was not 15 years ago is PPV or Positive Pressure Ventilation fans. These are powerful, gas powered fans that force large volumes of fresh air into a structure, clearing smoke and pushing fire. The trick is to force that fire in the proper direction by ventilating in the proper place and compartmentalizing the fire (cutting off routes for the fire to spread to other parts of the structure). This can be as easy as shutting interior doors. Using one of these fans can make you a hero or a zero. If you use it properly, you can save the day and knock a fire down before it completely destroys the house. If you use it improperly, you will very quickly burn the house down yourself and look extremely foolish in front of everyone. In short, you MUST properly ventilate for this tool to work and you must place the fan behind your attack lines so as not to push the fire onto your firefighters.

This fire department did nothing correctly. Attic fires must be fought from INSIDE the house. They never went inside. It took the career firfighters from the city to show up before someone finally went inside to put water on the fire. By then it had already vented iteself and very low on the roofline. Probably the most stupid thing they did was to crank up that blasted PPV and place it behind the fire! Another firefighter from my county, a career Lieutenant, was in the neighborhood and, because the alarm was initially reported with entrapment, he responded in his personal vehicle. He and I were on a hoseline. (that's right, two dudes in civilian clothes manning a hoseline from the fire truck while the firemen walked around completely lost as to what to do.) We objected strongly before the PPV was set up...both to its placement and its timing. "Not now, and not here!....If at all, up front and later!", we said. But stubborness and ignorance are a dangerous mix. And within two minutes after the fan was set up...smoke conditions in both the back yard and the front yard ran everyone away from the house, choking and coughing. It was a lost cause the moment the fan was set up. Not wanting to be a part of burning down this house, the Lieutenant and I left, shaking our heads in complete awe at the lack of training and pitiful tactics of this fire department.

The family had two dogs...big Chows. Now they have ONE severely burned dog with no hair. This is the price you pay for getting away from the drugs and thugs that invade the more densely populated areas. With the exception of the Sheriff's Department, our Emergency Services SUCK! I hope and pray that I never need their help.