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Friday, August 10, 2012

When Trouble Finds You

The question of whether the blog should end or not isn't meaningful if it is going to be kept online for access to some of the old stuff some of you guys find of value. I never intended to delete the thing, but felt it was necessary to offer an explanation instead of just ceasing to write. But since it will stay up, I can't rule out occasionally feeling like writing something, and what better place than this?

One reason the readership has always been sort of low is that I blocked search engine access to avoid netting people who were searching for power dispatch terms like NERC and FERC, but to heck with that, I've not said anything I'm not willing to stand behind so why hide? I had always intended the audience to be fellow 911-types, but no need to keep the audience so narrow. I've disabled the search engine block.

So, I guess it will live on, now that I have explained my dearth of inspiration and no longer feel like an apology for long periods of quiet is necessary.

And of course, there's a tale to tell. Of course. Sometimes trouble finds you without you looking for it.

While driving home with my family after a weekend of camping, we were in the middle of nowhere but nearing home shortly after midnight when we drove past a family-owned commercial farm. It was a very humid and warm evening, with fog banks in the valleys. Up in one of the high windows of a barn/shop building, maybe three stories up, I was pretty sure I saw a thin curtain of steam or smoke coming out.

After the first ten or so years of my fire career, constantly being hyper-vigilant and constantly double-checking stuff that turned out to be nothing, I nearly kept going, but..... but I just gotta double check this one. Turned around and went back.

Something white is coming out, sure enough. And.... sure as hell, there is an unmistakable orange flickering visible within.

Game on.

Woke up the wife, put the phone in her hands, and told her to call the cavalry.

It took quite a while to wake the family across the street, and we're far enough out in the country that I wondered if they'd appear with two barrels pointed at me.

The guy came out, looked over my shoulder. By now, flames were easily visible from two upper windows. All he said at first was "Oh my God, my God!" in that all-too-familiar tone we've heard before. I snapped him out of it and asked if there was anything we could try to save. I suppose I could have just gone into the barn first but I'd never been in there before and hadn't a clue what was saveable or worth saving, if anything. The livestock, he said.

I always assumed the building in question was an operations thing, no clue there were critters in there. We went over and he started letting them all out. I'm not a farmer or ranch hand, and didn't have the slightest idea what gates to open or where we were going to send them, or what words to say to motivate the animals to get moving at 0-dark-thirty. But I kept track of his location while watching the glow outside get intense. I stepped out once, and it was really getting going good. This was a very old building, drying out for many decades. When worrisome-sized pieces began falling outside I told him time was up and we had to get out.

As we came out, there was a sharp BOOM from across the street. The heat or falling debris had already caused the 12kV primary tap on the power pole in front to fault, blowing the cutout. Oh, and the pole was on fire. Now I'm wearing two hats again.

I went and found Mrs. Grumpy and got the phone from her so I could call in an update, and told her to head on home before the family was hemmed in by fire engines and hose lines. Turns out she was still talking to 911 and handed me the phone.

I identified myself as a firefighter of the jurisdiction where the fire was, and advised of the new power line problem.

"OK, we've got two engines and tanker en route".

I literally chuckled. I remember hearing myself chuckle and thinking that it was amusing that I was amused.

"This is a working fire in a large commercial/industrial building with multiple exposures, I need you to upgrade this to a full structure 2nd alarm"

She didn't argue.

When Engine 56 arrived with just two aboard, I met the guys and gave my report. I didn't have my PPE with me, but there were just two of them and the Captain was about to have a very busy night. I proposed taking over as his engineer, and that's where I spent the next six hours, operating the pump of the first-arriving engine. The place burned to the ground (it was beyond saving from the get-go), but despite having no hydrants we saved all of the exposures and there were no livestock losses. Not bad.

Late in the game, after the fire marshal showed up, he was told that I had discovered the fire and we chatted. Now, it looks reallllllly bad when a fireman happens to find a major fire in its incipient stage in the middle of nowhere, but I joked with him how I was thankful my wife and kids were with me, that we had just left a friend's house prior while dropping off a camping buddy, and of course my cell phone will show my locations.

If I had been alone and this had been before the age of cell phones, I would have been screwed. And I wouldn't have had the good sense to call it in anonymously and run away. That's a shame, that there are enough dirtbag mutts doing nefarious things that being in the right place at the right time can look all wrong.

I did notice he made a point of "accidentally" meeting a reporter near enough to me later on that I could overhear their conversation, probably just to check to see if I would try to inject myself. There were several points where I could have helped with the answers. I turned my back. No thanks.

I managed to keep my name out of the press, thank goodness, with help from our PIOs after one place got my name. One media outlet mentioned the fire was found by an off-duty firefighter, but after that no further mention of how it was found or who found it was made by anyone. I don't think that even all of our own guys on the FD know it was me, and that's fine. The power company serviceman who showed up went the extra mile and put in an award recommendation for me (a non-union guy and his boss no less!), but I had to see my boss to bat that down for the same reasons, and my serviceman understood why. Let's be real here, I didn't actually do anything heroic. I woke people up, stood around in a burning building when I shouldn't really have, and ran a pump without a lid and gloves for hours. Not recommended. Now, the farmer who actually rescued livestock while I watched, he should get recognition.

It's what we do, not for the recognition, but because we're sort of nuts that way.

And we're not always thinking about how we're going to get a ride home afterwards. One of the BC's had to drive me home that morning, where my family was still sound asleep. Good.

And that's the latest tale of how trouble found me when I wasn't paying attention.

Stay safe out there.


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