Written by: Keith Padgett, program director, Fire and EMS
Firehouses are known for great home-cooked meals; however, on one particular day we had just sat down for take-out pizza. A combination of emergency calls and company level inspections had filled our day so there was not time to cook dinner. As we began to eat, a severe thunderstorm was moving through Coweta County, Georgia, focusing mostly on the north side with lightning strikes setting off business and residential fire alarms. Engine and truck companies were responding from call to call, exhausting resources in that battalion. A battalion is normally around five to seven firehouses that may have an engine or truck company assigned to each firehouse, with each fire apparatus staffed with three to five firefighters.
My crew that day was a team of four firefighters including myself, assigned as the company officer in charge. It was a great group of younger guys that I had been working with in the same firehouse for about two years but they had very little experience dealing with large events. They had responded to smaller residential fires, which were often referred to as a “room and contents” fires, a fire that does not spread beyond its origin and is quickly extinguished by responding firefighters, mostly kitchen and chimney fires. I knew that these men were well trained in many areas that allowed them to perform their job in the best possible manner. Firefighters are constantly training to prepare for the unknown as they must always be ready to respond at any minute to whatever situation arises.
The storm was getting worse and most of the companies on the north side of the county were out responding to calls by the time we opened the pizza boxes. “Move ups” are when other resources are needed to cover an area that has been depleted of all of its fire companies. We knew that we would be moved to the battalion on the north side if things did not improve soon. The buzzer sounded at the first bite. We were being moved up to the 2nd battalion to cover while the other companies were out on calls. We would go to a firehouse there and be prepared to respond if required so, as any good and quick-thinking firefighters would do, we took the pizza boxes with us.
As we started down the road, the fire calls kept coming with little relief. As soon as we got into the area, we would be responding to calls, so we took advantage of the little time we had to eat. Firefighters are resourceful, so eating on the way to another firehouse may sound like something you would never do, but with the day going as it was, we may not have had an opportunity to eat again for another 12 hours.
As we traveled to the 2nd battalion, a full alarm was dispatched to a lightning strike in an apartment complex and our engine was included in the responding units. The crew began shaking their heads in disbelief, and at the same time smiling because we knew we were in for a long night. The apartment complex was still a few miles away when we were dispatched, and other fire companies arrived on the scene before us, reporting a working structure fire in several apartments that had now vented through the roof. The radio traffic indicated that the fire crews on scene were having a difficult time deploying fire attack lines in an attempt to contain the fire. The fire officer who was serving as the incident commander immediately called for a second alarm, a full complement of additional fire resources to respond to the scene.
Our engine arrived just as the 2nd battalion chief was turning into the complex. He is a longtime friend and mentor of mine. As we drove through the complex to the apartment building involved, we could see the large amount of fire engulfing much of the entire roof. We stopped behind the battalion chief’s vehicle as his driver slowed. The chief officer stepped from his car and began to survey the situation, which was evidently not well. I approached him and we exchanged a few quick comments on the construction of the building and what we believed would be the travel of the fire from that point. The first arriving units had been unsuccessful in their attempt to stop the fire and it had gotten by them, now traveling along the roof line to additional units. As I began to walk away, I turned to him and said, “If we can’t stop it, we are going to burn the whole world down.” He simply replied, “Don’t let that happen.”
There was an engine connecting to a fire hydrant on the south side of the building that I believed would be able to handle the attack lines I would need to stop the fire from spreading any farther. I told my crew to deploy two lines to the third floor of the building, utilizing the exterior stairways. We were able to accomplish this relatively quickly, preparing us for an interior attack. Once we had our lines in place, we made entry into two top floor apartments by breaching the front doors to each apartment, where we were able to gain access to the attic by combination ladders. The fire had traveled quickly and was almost to our location by the time we had established lines in the attic. The fire was brought under control and extinguished, stopping the spread of the damage at that point.
Our ability to bring this incident under control was directly impacted by each member of the entire crew, along with the decisions made by the company officer and battalion chief. There also must be a strong background in areas such as building construction, fire behavior and leadership, which allows firefighters and fire officers to perform the duties to save lives and property. Well trained professionals must also be well nourished, even if it is eating a pizza out of the box in the fire truck.