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April 2017

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This may be kind of stream-of-consciousness, but that's as articulate as I'm feeling at the moment.

Regular readers, either here or on Facebook, know that I've recently joined my local volunteer fire department... not as a firefighter (soooo not in shape enough for that!!) but as their photographer/web/PR person. I'll probably "upgrade" to Public Information Officer at some point, but there's training to be done first, and the next set of classes get taught at the state level and they're not currently on the calendar in Indiana or any of the surrounding states. So for now, I'm the photographer and the web geek and general Extra Set of Hands whenever I can be useful.

That last part is mostly what this post is about. My first few runs after I signed on were pretty benign... a fender-bender car accident w/ minor injuries who'd already been transported when I arrived... a car fire (unoccupied)... some storm chasing. Then we had The Big Fire wherein a store caught fire downtown and tried to take the whole block with it. The building was fully involved when we got there, and there was uncertainty as to whether the man who lived over the store was out of the building, so the guys were preparing to enter and search this heavily involved building. As I looked at the flames pouring from the roof, and thought about the fact that this meant they'd have to go up an old wooden staircase and search the second floor, it began to sink in that this was the first time, in my limited time of involvement, that "my" guys would be going into danger. They train for this (even as recently as last month!)... they signed up for this... but knowing that didn't make it any easier to watch them getting ready to go into an obviously dangerous situation.

Thankfully, before the first search team was through the door, the chief got the ambulance company on the radio and verified that the person they were transporting was, in fact, the only resident and the only person who had been in the building, so the search/extrication was cancelled and the focus turned to fighting the fire. And what a fire... 12 other departments responded to our request for mutual aid, bringing tanker trucks from two counties (did I mention that the power was out due to storms? Hydrants aren't so useful once you've used up the water in the water tower and there's no power to the pumps to fill it up again...), and the primary fire took six hours to put out, and the last rekindle was squashed almost 13 hours after the initial call. One of the guys, who works fulltime for nearby Anderson FD and then volunteers with us, took some time to give me a crash course in Fire Behavior 101 so I knew what I was looking at and what to watch for. I can tell you that no amount of watching BackDraft or other fire movies or TV shows can prepare you for the adrenaline rush when the smoke turns from dirty gray to black and angry and rolling and then FOOMP!! goes the flashover. It's hot. It's loud. It's oddly pretty. And it's scary as hell, especially since the second flashover came just after a crew had entered the front of the building to try to knock the interior fire back. I didn't know what I was seeing at that point... I was just shooting and noticing that the smoke was behaving differently, then I heard the "Get Out! Get Out! Get Out!" call and three blasts on the air horn of the engine in front of the building and guys came pouring back out the door just before the ominous rolling black smoke turned into OMGFire! Part of my brain was focusing and shooting and going "Ooh! Fire Pretty!"... part was counting helmets to see if everybody I'd seen go in also came out (they did)... and the sane part was telling the first part "Hey, are you crazy?? Back up! You do not need to get closer to get good pictures!" (I had occasion, later, to be glad that I'd shot so many pictures... almost three times what I posted to Flickr... as the State Fire Marshal found they made a good timeline of exactly how the fire progressed, so he has a DVD w/ the full set as part of his investigation of the fire.)

Then there were the cold, hard reality checks of seeing the RIT (Rapid Intervention Team) set up right out front with extrication tools and a Stokes basket and four team members ready to go in case of a firefighter in distress, and the "rehab" area set up away from the worst of the noise and hubbub to provide rehydration, check blood pressure, treat smoke inhalation, etc., as firefighters rotated on and off the hoselines through the course of the night. By the third hour of the night, I was in the habit of keeping a fresh bottle of water on me at all times, and my first words to any of the guys was "Have you had water?" We went through cases of it, kept stocked all night by the FVFD Ladies Auxiliary, who also made a 2 a.m. Burger King run for what seemed like never-ending bags of cheeseburgers. Residents came with bags of ice, cases of Gatorade and prayers for the safety of all the crews. Of course, they also came with lawn chairs, 'cause this was the most exciting thing to happen in TinyLittleTown in years. Heh.

At one point in the evening, the Chief was calling for a flashlight and wasn't getting one, and I had the realization that if I only knew Where Things Live on the various trucks, I could be helpful by doing fetch-and-carry tasks, freeing up firefighters to actually, you know, fight fire. I like to know stuff... so I was already interested in learning how things work... but this fire was the point where I realized that I wanted to go through as much of the regular firefighter training as they'll let me. If I know what to expect in any given scenario, then I can (a) do a better job of staying out of the way, (b) get better pictures, 'cause I'll know what I'm looking for and (c) occasionally be useful in a not-actually-attacking-the-fire capacity. Thankfully, our training officer (who is also the former webmaster and who's been the ever-so-patient recipient of my three million newbie questions) is in agreement with this, and we have a new probie who just joined the department, so I'm going to get to go through a lot of the training at the same time he does. Yay!

And it's not always fires... Monday night, I had the sudden realization that "Yes, I am now driving pell-mell towards the giant cloud of toxic gas! When did this become my reality??" as I went racing to a very large anhydrous ammonia spill. I was smart about it... I slowed down (I had to run the last quarter-mile when EMA wouldn't let me drive to the scene... ARGH!... my credentials really need to get here soon!) long enough to check that the guys were off-mask before I went running up to the scene. I like my lungs. A lot. Really not a fan of breathing ammonia. It sure makes pretty white fog, though! And today I got to go back and take "scorched earth" pictures at the scene, so Josh can use them in training. But "pretty fog" or not, I was reminded that this is an inherently dangerous thing that I've gotten myself involved in, and the more I learn, the smarter I can be about keeping myself safe and helping to keep the crew safe.

But sometimes, no matter how much you know, it's not enough. I got home from work last night and was doing some maintenance on the Beetle (Volkswagen apparently thinks it's normal to have to disassemble half the car in order to add brake fluid) and my phone chirped that I had a text message from Josh. I wiped the worst of the gunk off my hands and tapped the screen to get the message.

And there it was, in black and white... proof that these guys are mortal, hitting a little too close to home. "Can you put a thing on (web)page and Facebook... thoughts and prayers with Muncie Fire and their families... line of duty death."

Muncie, IN, is about 35 miles away in the next county over. A 40-yr-old firefighter there, married with three kids, lost his life yesterday when the roof collapsed at a huge church fire that they were fighting. He'd been a chief in the Yorktown FD, between here and Muncie, before going to work for Muncie FD, so some of our guys may have known him. My friend Wendy, who used to be an EMT, knew him. I look at Yorktown FD's Facebook page, and the comments on the news articles (especially on the firefighter sites, rather than the local newspaper site), and I can see how the whole firefighter community takes these things to heart, even if they didn't know the man personally.

And it makes you think.

And I don't like it. I've only been doing this for six weeks, but it's amazing how close I feel to this group of guys and their families in just this short time. I don't like having to think about the fact that one day it might be one of our guys who goes into a burning building and doesn't come out. Firefighters are heroes and heroes are supposed to be immortal... right? Right???

So I'll go to as many classes as I can. I'll learn Where Stuff Is on the trucks, and I'll learn to change the SCBA tanks in the air packs so they don't have to take the pack off and put it back on again when they're already tired, and I'll learn everydamnthing I can about safety, and I'll do everything that I can to have their backs while I document what they do and why they do it.

And at the end of the day, I'll hope and pray that they all come home.
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