Tuesday, September 20, 2005

My first Fire…

During our recent trip to Upstate NY, at the party, I spent some time with an old friend, by the name of Tom Metcalf. As we talked and reminisced I found myself remembering where we first met. It was at the very first fire I was involved in with the North Bay FD.

I’d joined and been accepted into the department only a week or so before this particular fire, and had participated in a grand total of one ‘Training Drill’.

On the night in question (I’ve often wondered why the worst fires seem to happen at night) the alarm went off, I rushed to the station only to be the second person to arrive. The other person there was Pete Roshier (R-ow-sher). Pete ran the local hardware store and had been in the department for many years.

As I came in the door, he starts yelling at me to jump in the front line pumper and drive it to the scene and he'll drive the tanker.

Now, I remembered, from my one drill, that the chief wanted the trucks to roll fully ‘loaded’ with personnel, and with qualified operators, but Pete’s insistent, and says “There’ll be ‘somebody’ there to run the truck, just get it there”. So, in deference to his long standing in the department, and his role as a fire commissioner, I fire that truck up and head out.

As we’re pulling up to the Bristol residence, the place is really working (which is FD speak for ‘really, really burning’), smoke and fire is visible from several windows and through the roof in at least one spot, it seems like everyone is yelling about getting lines (hoses) into the place.

One of the assistant chief’s points me to where he wants the truck parked, and I slip it in there as smooth as can be. I set the brake, slip it into neutral, engage the PTO (power take off) that runs the pump and jump out of the truck.

This particular truck had a front mounted pump, so I stepped in front of the truck and attached the two 1 ¾” line ends that had been left there.

Now… I’m in real trouble... I look around, the Asst. Chief that had been spotting the truck is gone, and I’ve expended the sum total of my vast fire fighting knowledge (obtained from that one drill), by parking the truck, and have absolutely no idea what to do next!!

I’m frantically searching for someone, anyone (you see that ‘somebody’ Pete had promised… wasn’t waiting on me when I got there) who has a clue how to get the water into, and out of this pump and to the guys waiting for it at the house.

Suddenly, I know it was probably only seconds, but it felt like hours, Ron Turk was standing next to me and asking what the problem was. I started to explain… and before I could get two full syllables out he was pulling levers and twisting handles and, like magic, the hose lines charged and water was going on the fire.

I knew what had to happen next….

I enlisted some help, got the ‘draft’ lines off the truck and prepared for the tanker to show up.

The tanker arrived; we slid the ‘portable pond’ off the back, opened it up and dumped the tankers contents into the pond. As the tanker pulled off to get more water, I realized, I was again in trouble. I had no clue how to shift from pumping from the pumper’s internal water supply to drafting water from the ‘pond’.

I started asking, yelling, screaming for someone (‘somebody’ had still not shown up)… to show me what needed to be done.

In plenty of time, Abe Cable came by and showed me the various levers and handles that needed to be moved, the sequence, and a brief ‘why’ explanation… In no time I was drafting from the pond and sneaking a little back into the internal tank for ‘reserve.

Shortly after that, tankers and pumpers from neighboring departments were showing up and there was a full scale attack on that fire. For several hours men and machines battled with that fire, sometimes gaining on it, sometimes not... Probably 40 or 50 guys, just like me, who'd jumped from the comfort of their homes to do this job... Everyone worked tirelessly, for 4 or 5 hours...

It didn’t really matter though, the fire had gotten too big a head start before we'd been called, and by the time it was over the house was a total loss.

Several things happened to me that night; I got:
  • a severe ass-chewin’ for driving that truck and not being ‘qualified’.
  • an atta-boy after the ass-chewin’ for showing up and getting the job done.
  • informed ‘somebody’ never shows up!
  • to spend the rest of the night guarding the scene, talking and drinking coffee with a guy by the name of Larry Flint, and the beginning of our long friendship was born.
  • knowledge that any fire can be extinguished with a thimble full of water, and a lawn chair. (If you sit in the lawn chair long enough, the thimble will put out what’s left of the fire)
  • a front row seat to an arson investigation, something I hope none of us ever have to go through.
  • and last.. but not least....
  • totally, completely and hopelessly addicted to firefighting. An obsession that lasted nearly 14 years.
Oh yeah… Tom Metcalf… Well, it turned out that he and Jim Bristol (the home owner) were friends, and had been over at Tom’s place when the call came in. Someone eventually tracked him down over there, I think it was his wife, and they'd shown up, hoping for the best.

Tom stood near the truck during most of the fire, and talked with me off and on all evening. I don’t really remember, about what, but we ended up as new friends as well.

Eventually, a few months (or maybe it was a year or so) later, Tom joined the department too.

In talking with Tom at that party, and he’s close to 60 now, he remembers every fire, every charge inside we made, every.. “everything”…. Maybe, one day, I’ll remember them all too. For now though y’all will just have to take them as they come to me.

I’ve also been talking with Greg Campbell (from McConnellsville) as well… he’s told me he has a lot of pictures from fires, training exercises and so on. I’ve been trying to get him to scan a bunch for me… it would be great to see some of those times in ‘color; again.

If he ever sends them, I’ll post them here as well.


Firehawk said...


"Somebody" never shows up...

That's pretty classic. I think that's pretty much true for every job. When you can't name a particular person who's going to be there...no one's going to be.

Another one that makes me want to be a fireman!

Trevor Record said...

Yeah, there's always some one who doesn't show up.

It sounds like you've made so many friends from fire fighting, it sort of makes me feel like I'm missing out!

Of course, tehy don't have a volunteer department around my parts, as far as I know.

Bill said...

Firehawk - Yeah, that was a 'life lesson' for sure!! I remember being in a stark panic as I frantically looked for someone to get the pump on line... It all ended well as everyone went home safe.

Trevor - You're right, I did. It saddens me sometimes, knowing we're all so far apart, and that here, they have no VFD's either...

To both of you, I look back on that time with great fondness. I don't know where I found the strength, the energy or the time for it all... but somehow, I did.

I'm glad the 'good times' come through! Thanks!

Beth said...

Upstate NY is just filled with volunteer firefighters. Every firehouse I've been around seemed more like a brotherhood.

Joe Fiala said...

Great story, Bill. It brought up all kinds of good memories about my first fire. I've created a post at my blog, Firewhirl, linking to your story.

Stay Safe.

Jay said...

I congratulate you for trying anyway, which is more than most could have done. It seems in life that there never is the 'somebody' that has been promised.

Bill said...

Beth - Yes it is, and it's one of the things I truely miss. It can be more than a brotherhood at times, like an extended family.

Joe - Thanks for the link, I appreciate the nice things you said as well. If you'd like, look around the archives or email me and I'll send you links to the other posts as well.

Jay - Thanks, I'm just glad that everything turned out Ok that night! Less than two weeks from that fire there wasn't a piece of equipment we had I couldn't run. (Fear is a powerful motivator!)