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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

So That's How it Ends

Engine 56, Squad 56, Medic 98, possible cardiac arrest...

I was close to Station 56 and made the squad, responding behind the duty crew in E56.

The dispatcher advised us that the elderly female patient was found caught between the bed and a wall, and that her daughter couldn't detect a pulse and couldn't get her freed. Not a good setup for the patient.

As the Engine arrived, the dispatcher further reported that the patient's 96-year-old husband was also present in the room in an adjacent bed, and that the daughter couldn't remove him from the room, either.

E56 reported a probable code and then went radio-silent. Busy. But by the time we arrived and were entering the home, they came back on the air to amend their situation to DOA.

It seemed like it would still be prudent to move the husband away from the sight, so we set about trying to do that. He was not cooperative at all, and kept asking questions. He knew there was trouble, but not precisely what it was. Awkward. EMT classes don't teach that part. But then his daughter stepped in and told him the full truth.

He calmed immediately. He rested his head on his pillow. His eyes focused on nothing in particular. Then he whispered the words. "So that's how it ends." He slowly turned his head to look out the window, and sighed.

We gathered our equipment and left the room without a word. There was nothing we could give him nor anything he wanted from us. He remained turned away from us the entire time.

As we walked through the modest home, without the focus of an emergency, there was time to observe. They had apparently lived there for a very long time. Everywhere, pictures of family, the couple, portraits, vacation shots. The story of two lives as one, of a long marriage.

We see this all the time, but it still wears on you. And it makes me reflect on how the story of my marriage to the most amazing woman in the world will end. It will have to eventually, one way or another.

Fill your days with love and life. The sadness of the final parting may not be avoidable, but you should take the initiative to make the story worth telling and worth experiencing, with no regrets.

With no regrets. That was the piece I hadn't processed. He was sad, no doubt about it, but his peaceful acceptance told me he had no regrets.

There's your reminder. Do with it what you will.

Friday, May 13, 2011


The weather radio chirped to life with a storm warning, possibility of hail, winds, tornadoes, all that cool stuff.

The skies were clear above, but ominous dark green to the west where the cloudy front was advancing from.

The family was out of town, just me around for work, so I headed up to the station to wait for something interesting to develop. A few other guys also appeared there.

We were standing outside on the apron, bay doors open, watching the gloom overtake us, listening to the distant constant dull roar of thunder. And then flash-BANG! That was a close strike! We were all sort of whoa, that was cool. We were being pretty dumb about it, though, and didn't go in. There was no rain or even any wind to speak of. Yet. Less than a minute went by, and flash-BANG! again. OK, time to find shelter.

Medic 61 was just clearing the hospital as we regrouped under cover. And then it started. Pow. Pow. Pow pow. pow-pow pow pow-pow-pow... the hail! And this wasn't regular storm hail. It didn't start small like pea gravel and just make a bunch of noise. No, we skipped the preliminaries showers and rain and little hail, and went straight to golf ball hail.

That was my first experience with a good oh-crap hailstorm. It was deafening. It was beating the absolute crap out of everything in sight. Medic 61 rounded the corner and we scattered as they dived into the bay head first to escape the beating. The windshield was starred in two places, and the light bar housing was cracked, not to mention the pockmarks on the hood. Holy crap!

The captain did not wait for word from the NWS, he just went over and activated the tornado sirens anyway. Hail this size comes from a specific pattern of moisture and thermal air currents, and is fairly good indicator of tornado risk.

The hail lasted just a few more minutes, but it came down so heavy that the ground was completely covered. It looked like a couple inches of snow at first glance. A layer of ice chunks entirely covering the ground is a sight to behold.

After it quit and we were outside marveling at the debris, and bemoaning the punishment dealt our personal vehicles (my windshield was utterly destroyed while others completely lost tempered side and rear windows here and there), unsurprisingly the 911 calls started coming in. As we pulled out in Engine 61 to investigate the cause behind an automatic alarm (hmmm, I wonder what set that off?), it was surreal to watch Medic 61 back out of station, lights flashing, to check out someone who had been caught outside in the hail. Never before or since have I seen a fire rig come out of the station backwards to answer a call.

Summer hailstorms. They'll mess up your town and destroy your cars. Been there. Done that. Didn't bother with the T shirt.

(images from similar storms kyped from the internet)

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.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Sadly, it is a fact that there are a handful of spoiled apples in the barrel with us firefighters. Cops and medics have the same problem. Some douche steals something or leverages their position into an abusive action, egregiously violates ethics, or just plain exhibits bad behavior. Thanks for the bad publicity on the rest of us. Not.

Unsurprisingly, the power company is no exception to this rule.

One of the more noteworthy characters was a substation operator, "Martin". Martin was assigned to a region in a remote part of the system, prone to troublesome outages and hard-to-reach infrastructure, with long drives between stations.

Martin had lots of alone time.

Now, it isn't unreasonable for guys to do a little personal business on the side, as long as it does not waste resources or put them out of position to respond as needed. My dad, the Smooth Substation Operator, frequently did a little shopping or other errands, but he always participated in the side action by using shops and businesses along the paths he needed to drive anyway, and during time periods where no emergency or urgency was in effect. And to be sure, when the rounds were complete and it was standby time, it was routine to park at a big unstaffed substation, bust out the hot dogs, and watch baseball on the portable black and white TV. Ready and in position to respond, of course.

Anyway, back to Martin.

With little to no normal oversight, Martin was a senior guy who had been around a long time, with a proven ability to be able to resolve problems without help, a prerequisite for remote postings. But he torqued off the wrong person, and the office got a little phone call.

A few days later, Martin was met at one of his major substations, by an unannounced entourage consisting of his boss, his boss' boss, and an HR rep. Bad news. In his shop truck, they found numerous (illegal) animal traps, fresh pelts, and similar sundry items wholly unrelated to the delivery of electricity.

The things you can do in a lawless area without a supervisor, when you have lots of time.

See ya, Martin. He was a couple years away from retirement, and blew it all away. Nice move. That was several years ago.

We recently had someone pop Martin out of his position of notoriety. Multiple someones, in fact, all at once.

Three linemen, best friends of course because they work together and drink beer together after work pretty much every day, were out on a two-week fishing vacation with their families.

The campground was fairly nice, and had very secluded individual sites. It was a popular place, requiring reservations in advance, and they secured three adjacent spots relatively near the road that ran outside the park.

Not content to just rough it, or live with a generator, or use kerosene and batteries like the rest of us, these guys got resourceful. They brought with them - I swear am not making this up (thanks Dave Barry) - a small 15kVA poletop transformer and associated hardware, a few hundred feet of secomdary cable, and a small pre-wired "portable" circuit breaker panel with attached electrical outlets. It was a fantastic kludge, actually.

As these guys were pros, it was no trouble at all for them to wait for cover of darkness, lug their gear to the road, and install the transformer on a pole at the road which carried the local 8kV distribution feeder.

Think about it. This required extensive and intelligent planning. The right transformer, enough cargo space to move it and the wires and related stuff. And of course the equipment necessary to hoist the transformer. After all that, it was no trick at all to hook it up to a live feeder and tack the service drop cable to the pole. These guys could have done it blindfolded, it was a very routine task. With some leaves and branches and debris as cover, who's going to notice the secondary cable on the ground going into the woods?

They were living it up pretty good, but got dumb and left too many lights on, ran too many music players, and conspicuously did not produce any generator noise. How exactly are they doing that, someone apparently wondered, and checked it out.

It's too bad, because they were excellent linemen. A little shenanigan here and there, or an honest minor oops, can usually be survived. A full-blown caper like that, not so much.

See ya, boys.