Murphy’s law is an adage as old as time which is usually repeated as being “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. While there are varying interpretations on “going wrong” (everything from having the point on your pencil break halfway through a test to getting into a car accident on the way to a job interview, and worse…), last Thursday was a good case in point.
I got home from work, and you were busy eating supper (which meant that your mother was being sitting there looking incredibly worn out while trying to keep you from falling asleep during your meal). I said a quick hello, and then hurried right back out the door to pick up her mother’s day present (note to you – I will only be doing your shopping for so long, so starting thinking, and saving, now for mother’s days in the future).
By the time that I had returned, you were full and still wide awake, so I offered to hold you while mom downed some supper of her own. I had an hour until I had to head over to the station to help out with an EMS practical test, so this seemed like a good chance to bond.
You slept through the bonding, but I got my fill anyway, and then off to the station I went. The testing was pretty uneventful, and I returned home an hour or two after I had left. Your mother was just wrapping up with your next feeding, so I volunteered again for some father/son bonding time while she got some time to herself. We sat on the couch, I showed you a few of my favorite TV shows (which you also slept through – oh, the life of week old baby!), and your “big brother” (Roscoe the beagle) did his part by snoring from the other end of the couch.
All of that peacefullness was forgotten in a heartbeat as the pager went off: “Paging fire for a fully involved garage fire”. That alone is usually my cue to get ready and head for the door (as the “all call” page is not far behind), so I stood up with you in arm and started heading towards the bathroom with the unenviable task of letting your mother know that I was about to head out the door for third time since I had been home from work.
As her “I’ll be out in a minute, hang on” reply drifted towards me, the last few words were drowned out by an update from dispatch: “I am on the line now with a caller who states that they are trapped in the residence, with flames advancing towards them”. The usual hurry of getting dressed and running out the door was hastened even more. I quickly did the father to mother handoff (and tried to avoid the pained look in your mother’s eyes) and kissed her cheek as I ran out the door to my car.
Address confirmed, located on the map, and out the station door three of us headed in one of the department pickups. As we got closer, the plume of smoke against the night sky made the location of the fire pretty obvious (as did the ambulance that pulled out in front of us, heading to the same spot). Command came over the radio “hook a hydrant for us as soon as you get here”, and we knew our first assignment.
As we arrived on scene, three doors burst open as the gear lever slammed into park. Two of us ran towards the hydrant, and the hose was hooked up. I stood by as I waited for the signal to open the hydrant – and realized my first mistake of the day. Luckily, one of the other firefighters gave me the signal manually, because I had forgotten to grab a radio as I hurried out of the truck.
By this time, the other two guys who had arrived with me were “packed up” (oxygen tank on their back, mask on, ready to head in) and given their assignment. I hurried to get a pack on as well, and by now another truck had arrived. I was partnered up with another guy, and given the task of checking the neighboring house. Not wanting to be caught “deaf” again, I ran back to the truck I had arrived in and grabbed a radio before heading off to our task.
Three of us heading to the neighboring house, and began to attempt to force entry on the main door. It turned out that the house was vacant, and we headed back to staging for our next assignment (so far I had managed to stay relatively clean – pay attention, this will come back later in the story).
Another firefighter and I were assigned to grab a chainsaw and a ladder, and start making some ventilation holes. Got that going, and then I was working hosing off insulation coming off of the side of the house as other firefighters worked on checking for fire extension. A little bit of moving hoses around as the attack crews repositioned themselves, and I was running low on my first air tank.
I headed back towards the staging area to change out air tanks, and was caught in a decision point. One of the other firefighters was being tasked with shuttling empty air tanks back to the station to refill them, but they needed somebody to go along to help out. Before I realized what had happened, I heard a voice that sounded a lot like mine saying “I can go along”.
So now I had signed myself up for shuttling air tanks back and forth. Not the most glamorous job on the fireground, but definitely still something that needs to be done. The two of us loaded up a dozen or so empty air bottles into the back of a truck, and headed for the station.
I was pretty proud of myself for remembering how to correctly cascade (filling each bottle with some air from each tank in the system, rather than just cheating and using the last tank because it had more than enough pressure to fill an air bottle in one shot). We got them all filled up, loaded back into the truck, and back to the scene we went.
Mistake #2 – it turns out that they had been trying to contact us while we were at the station. I had managed to grab a radio early in the incident (after I realized that I had forgotten to grab one upon initial arrival), but it had sat in my coat pocket – which was in the back seat of the truck while we were in the station filling bottles. After a quick comment about doing a better job of staying in contact, the two of us headed back to the station with another load of empty bottles.
Things went a little faster yet this time, and we even had a radio with us. My co-pilot laid out dirty hose to dry while I filled bottles, and the radio stayed silent. As I was finishing up, my fellow firefighter reminded me that he had been instructed to call back over the radio to command once we were ready to return. He tried raising them twice over the radio, and then made the decision that we should leave the bottles at the station since command hadn’t responded to instruct us to bring them back.
The entire drive back this decision knawed at me a bit, but onward we went. It didn’t take long for mistake #3 to show itself:
Command: “You better take this empty bottles back quickly, we are running low on spares.”
Me: “We have a dozen at the station, should we bring those back before filling these?”
Command: “Say that again?!?”
Lesson learned. If you don’t agree with the decision of senior officer, you don’t contradict him – but you can certainly repeat the instruction back to him, possibly with information that you think he should know and see if the order changes. In this case, I could have pointed out that if the air tanks aren’t being used, they go on the trucks – and the trucks are still at the fire, so probably good to bring them back even if we couldn’t get ahold of command to confirm that order.
If only the downward spiral had ended there…
Tail between our legs, we took the empties back with us to the station. We dropped them off for filling (another truck had now returned back to the station, as the incident was quickly moving towards the salvage and overhaul phase), and loaded up the full tanks from the previous run to take them back to the scene.
Right as I had set the last full tank down on the tarp (green half for full, red half for used – thankfully I got this part right!), I heard a comment from somewhere behind me – “Which fire were you at? You look far too clean to have been here!”
I could feel my face turn a bit red, and any sort of snappy comeback was hidden behind the fog of still reeling from my list of mistakes so far this evening. I know that I mumbled something, then I turned back to what I was doing. The jokes kept coming about my clean gear, and then I got my next assignment – to go back into the vacant house next door, and see how bad the smoke conditions in there had gotten. I tried to gather myself together again, and headed off towards the house.
I got about three steps before I heard “Wait!”. I turned around, and someone was handing me my hood – “Wouldn’t want you to get this dirty, it wouldn’t look right with the rest of your gear!”. Apparently my hood had fallen out of my pocket onto the ground as I walked towards the house. Not mistake #4 – but it sure didn’t help how I was feeling at the moment. I thanked him, and continued on into the house. I made a quick sweep, and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I returned back to staging to report my findings, and await my next assignment.
It didn’t take long, and then I was instructed to go pull the pickup closer so that we could load it up with dirty hose and spent air packs. This seemed like a task that I could handle – after all, I had done more time in the truck than anywhere else! I walked over to the truck (looking to make sure that all four doors were closed as I walked over), put the truck in gear, and then started to roll forwards.
Ting. Ting. Ting ting ting.
I immediately stopped, put the truck back into park, and then opened my door. Without even looking, I knew what had happened. As I got out to walk around behind the truck, the captain in charge started to walk in my direction. Sure enough, as I rounded the back of the truck, I could see that the tailgate was down and there was an air tank laying in the road a few feet behind the truck.
Mistake #4 – when you are the driver of the truck, you do a complete 360 before you get in and move it, even if you are only moving it a few feet. As the captain walked over to see what happened, my heart sunk when I looked up to see that there was a cop parked a few feet from me. No doubt in my mind whatsoever that he saw what happened (and I swear that he was trying hard to hide a smile). As the captain came over, I told him what happened and offered to make sure that the air tank got set aside to be inspected upon our return to the station (and didn’t accidentally make it back into service without being looked at first). Thankfully it was just one, because there were quite a few air bottles and packs laying in the back.
Next lesson (I knew this one, but apparently Mr. Murphy wanted to remind me) – always, always, ALWAYS check everything. No matter how seeminly insignificant your action, always know what you are getting into. I only moved the truck 20 feet, but that was enough to make a round object roll.
I set the air bottle in the cab of the truck, closed the tailgate, and then moved the truck ahead so that we could finish loading it. The rest of the incident went rather uneventfully (thank you – I needed a break!), and we got all of the dirty hose drained, folded up, and into the back of the truck. As it came time to leave, the truck was pretty full with stuff. I did my best to make sure that nothing in the back was in danger of sliding on the ride home, and then hung back to see if someone else would volunteer to drive back. No such luck, so I took a deep breath and hopped in the driver’s seat one more time.
The truck was a bit more full, as we had the entire box full (the normal pump/toolbox/chainsaw compliment, plus all of the spent air packs and hose lengths) plus five guys plus their stuff…plus the gatorade cooler. I set my helmet in the middle of the seat next to me (on top of the usual compliment of maps and bare bones medical supplies), and then shoved my mask and its bag down between my seat and the door. I was pretty nervous for the entire drive back to the station, but I never did hear the sound of anything shifting or bouncing off of the pavement, and we made it back to the station in one piece.
I lined up with the apron of the driveway, and starting backing into the apparatus bay (nothing says extra nerves like the night I had already had compounded by the department safety officer sitting directly behind me in the truck while I backed in!). It is customary to get yourself close, and then to open the driver’s side door to stare at the ground while backing into your spot, as there is a black mark on the floor and another on the stepboard of each of the trucks to help make sure that you are in just the right spot (it is a pretty tight fit for everything as is).
As I opened up the door, I heard a quiet thud and realized that my mask and its bag had just fallen. I stopped (to avoid running them over), and thankfully somebody leaned in and moved them out of the way of the tire. I got the truck into place, put it into park, turned it off, and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
I stashed my gear back in my locker, and only caught a few more playful “Wow, new gear?” comments as we all set to work unpacking the used gear and getting the trucks ready to be put back into service again. Once everything was back in place, we all gathered around the desk to fill out of time sheets, and had a quick debriefing about the incident.
The crazy night now over, I filled out my time sheet and hurriedly made my way towards the door. It was already after 1:30 in the morning (the call came in a little after 9pm), and I still had to shower and try to sleep before heading to work again in the morning. With the way that my luck was going, I was sure that the dog would also want to go outside when I got home, and you surely had a rather fragrant diaper just waiting for my to key to hit the door lock at home.
Life Lesson – when your day seems to be falling apart around you, its ok to take a deep breath…then keep moving forward, but be sure to stop and look back afterwards, because you likely got inundated with more than one “teachable moment” all at once. It’s easy to see the above story as either the plot line for a new comedy (your aunt sure got a good laugh as I detailed the entire evening for her) or a day gone horribly wrong. What is harder to see is that sometimes life decides to hand you a bunch of lessons all at once. Some might be subtle (walk completely around the truck instead of just looking at 3 sides as you walk up) and some might be repeated so that they become obvious (people on the fireground often communicate with radios, make sure that you grab one) – but all are important. Be sure to not take yourself too seriously (it really must have been a funny sight to see most everyone else not in command covered in blown-in insulation and soot, while at most my turnout gear was a few shades darker than factory fresh from previous incidents), but be sure to take the opportunity to learn seriously, because the laughing will quickly turn sour if the same mistakes keep happening to you again and again.