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Monday, May 9, 2011

When Murphy Smites You

Worst winter storm of the year to date in full effect. A few feet of snow on the ground in a few short hours. High winds. Ice-inducing temperatures in the lower teens.

What winter storm would be complete without a structure fire?

I was out of position from home (why I was out in that weather is another story by itself). I drove straight to Station 54 to pick up Tanker 54, to follow the duty crew of first-due Engine 54.

When I next saw 54 was not on the scene of the fire, but about two miles from the station, where the pumper had decided is was not going to go any farther up the gentle hill.

Tanker 54 can go 4WD, and I was already in that mode. You know how on some calls you learn really unexpected useful things unrelated to the nature of the incident? Well, we learned that day that Tanker 54 can push Engine 54 bumper-to-bumper without so much as a blemish to either truck's bumpers.

Over the crest and down the hill, approaching the scene, E54 now had an opposite problem. It didn't want to stop. The engineer made a split-second decision. The choice was to pass the driveway, turn around and try to come back if you can make it up the hill, or ditch it right there and make do. He chose Plan B, and I won't second-guess that. I still doubt E54 would have made it back up the hill.

So there's E54, nosed into a snowbank in the ditch at the end of the driveway, tail end blocking half of the road. I was able to stop the tanker short, and we went to work.

We were humping a lot of hose in, and hauling equipment up the driveway. Other rigs were coming, but so far we had just four guys working the scene, with flames showing from the rear. The homeowner advised everyone was out, which was a relief.

Putting down a porta-tank was not a really practical plan at this point with me on the high side and opposite from where other units would be arriving from, so I set up to pump the tanker's water to the engine and get set up as a backup pumper. I switched the tanker into pump gear, and it quit.

WTF. You're joking.

Started it up, shifted to pump, quit.

Son. Of. A.

So porta-tank it was. I dropped it on the uphill side of E54 next to the E54 pump panel, but below me so I could gravity drain into it through a hose. And this whole call is going to crap.

Then we heard on the radio. Next-due Engine 56 was in the ditch, too. Lost it some miles away from us. But a snow removal crew was right there and was hooking them up to chains and heavy equipment to get them out.

Can you say defensive mode?

Engine 57 made it in, followed by Tankers 57 and 53, and finally we were getting somewhere, but it was mostly a spectacular Charlie Foxtrot despite all efforts to reign in the bad luck. There's only so much you can do in these cases, you know.

As luck would have it, and there was plenty of luck to spread around, the closest fill hydrant was a ways off on the downhill side of E54, so T53 and T57 were having to pump off their tanks uphill into the porta-tank, which is quite less than an ideal configuration. I would have preferred a downhill-side relay pumper by another porta-tank but it just wasn't happening.

On Tanker 57's second return, we found the pump panel compartment frozen closed. Are you freaking serious? Someone was a little over excited and didn't take enough care to completely close one of the outlet valves. It dribbled inside the compartment all the way back to the scene, caking ice along the bottom of the compartment door. A kind neighbor who came out with a thermos of coffee for the guys instead donated it to us so we could use it to melt off the ice and get to T57's water.

Engine 56 did eventually get extracted from their ditch and made an appearance, but this was a loser before the tones dropped. Sometimes that just happens. Sucks to come off like keystone kops to the neighborhood, but these were extreme circumstances and Murphy certainly brought a big stick to adjust some attitudes that day.

Hours later, as E54 was being extracted, I noted that the driver's window and mirror were smashed out. Seriously? What happened? The engineer related that, just prior to when we first met and pushed their engine up the hill, a chunk of the front left tire chain had come loose. It came around, tore the axe right off the side of the cab and launched it off the road into an anonymous snow bank (it wasn't recovered for days, until some snow melted), hardly paused on its way by while tearing off the shoreline cover, smacked into the mirror, and then deflected into the driver's window. Of course, that narrative summed up something that happened in about a quarter-second.

It was not a happy day for the E54 engineer. Or really for any of us. I learned a valuable lesson myself, something I had absolutely ZERO excuse for not already knowing: Tanker 54 will not pump when it is in 4WD.

Murphy enforced his law, just in case we were inclined to forget that it happens sometimes.

The homeowners were unhurt, and we all made it home as well, and that's what matters when you can't have it all.


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