Discover inner thoughts of Fort Polk firefighters
October 12, 2010
- Multi-talented heroes deal fight fires, save lives
FORT POLK, La. Fort Polk firemen spent Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 3 through Saturday, educating the public about the basics of fire safety. The week highlights methods to prevent fires but also spotlights what firemen do and the importance of their jobs. Beyond understanding this pivotal work, there's a curiosity about the men and women who put their lives on the line to save others no matter the circumstance.
Delving into the mind of a firefighter can produce a fascinating mix of skills, experiences and emotions about the job they do night and day. It can be a challenge for firefighters to remember all the calls they've made, according Mike O'Toole, assistant chief, Fort Polk Fire and Emergency Services, Directorate of Emergency Services. "I guess it's a defense mechanism. Often you remember your first call and your last, but everything in between is fuzzy. But once we start talking about things we start to remember," he said.
O'Toole and Capt. Jason Holcomb, another Fort Polk fireman, offered a few insights into what makes firefighters who they are. O'Toole said as soon as they get a call, they begin getting into the mind set of what they have to do when they get on site. "It starts from the time the alarm goes out. We have a pretty good idea of what's going on, but we're flexible enough to change on the fly as the situation does," said O'Toole.
He said the first things they ask when they reach the scene of a fire is if there's somebody in the building, where they are and how to get there.
Once they know what they are looking for, they go in. "As soon as you walk into a fire you have zero visibility. The first thing you're looking for is the fire, but you can't see because the closer you are to the fire the thicker the smoke is. So you get down on your hands and knees and start crawling. You're feeling around for victims even if they tell you everybody's accounted for and out of the house," said Holcomb.
He said entering a blazing house is controlled chaos. "You're looking around, breathing, trying to talk to the guys on the radio. It's extremely hot and you're carrying all this equipment -- flashlight, radio, a forcible entry tool like an ax. We've got a tool to handle most situations and help us get back to safety," said Holcomb. Meanwhile, he's also helping his partner pull the hose.
There is a two-in, two-out rule during a structural fire, said Holcomb. "That means we have two guys in the structure putting out the fire and two guys on the outside ready to relieve them. A rapid intervention team is also set up to pull them out in case something goes wrong. Putting a fire out is one job, but there are dozens of tasks within that job that firemen have to do. It's labor intensive," added O'Toole.
"You've got your attack, rescue and ventilation crews, not to mention the firemen getting tarps and lighting the scene so others can see," said Holcomb.
Firemen regularly put on 100 pounds of gear in 100-degree weather and walk into a burning building. "These guys are hot and sweating and working their butts off. That gear isn't letting the heat in, but it's also not letting the heat out. So we have to constantly rehab our guys until the job gets finished. One team comes out and another goes in to keep the momentum going," said O'Toole.
Once they find the fire, they attack it with all they've got. A raging fire builds a smoldering thermal layer of gases that collects at the ceiling and begins to mushroom down. This fills the room with smoke. "Sometimes you can put a small stream of water on the fire, swirl it around, close the door and make the fire steam itself out. Other times, the fire is too strong and requires a more direct water attack," said Holcomb.
Once the fire is out and there's an all clear, they ventilate the structure and start forcing smoke out. "By that time we are exhausted and a fresh team is ready to go in to hit with water any embers still burning. Then we start cleaning equipment, pack up and head back to the fire station," said Holcomb.
O'Toole said it's rare to have a house fire that involves a victim on post and he said he's thankful for that. "I've been here 13 years and only know of one situation where the dad went back in to get his kids and got overcome with smoke. I wasn't on that call but the firemen were able to find them, pull them out, establish their airways and get them to the hospital. The dad was in serious condition for a long time but they all recovered," he said.
Being a firefighter isn't just about fighting fire anymore. "Just to be a basic firefighter on Fort Polk, firemen have to be certified as an EMT, a hazardous materials technician, airport firefighter and trained in dive team, confined space, vehicle extrication and high and low angle rescues. You have to stay current on all these certifications," said O'Toole.
"Every one of these requirements has a refresher course with a certain number of hours that has to be renewed every year," said Holcomb.
Armed with this knowledge, these multi-talented heroes deal with so much more than blazing flames.
For instance, they race to assist with medical calls. "We got a call the other day with a lady that was unresponsive and from the time we got the 911 call to the moment we were on the scene and caring for her it only took six minutes," said Holcomb.
But there can also be frustration and even tragedy. O'Toole said the majority of motor vehicle incidents he sees seem senseless. "We go out there and do our best to save people if we can, but we're behind before we ever get started because we only have that theoretical golden hour to get people out of the vehicle and on their way to the hospital. You're fighting the clock from the time it starts to the time it ends," he said.
Then there are the calls when they know time doesn't matter. "In those cases someone has been killed in the accident and they just need us to help get them out," said O'Toole.
Another job Fort Polk firefighters are trained for is dive team recovery. Holcomb said he and O'Toole have been out on recovery calls together several times. Usually, when this happens, firemen on the bank and in the water coordinate their efforts to find the body of someone that has drowned by performing a grid pattern and sweeping the area using rope. "It's an unnerving situation to dive and try to find these people. You get out to the site and the family is there camping out and they aren't leaving. It can be a rewarding experience to be able to give a loved one back to their family," said Holcomb.
"It's hard for us to go out and find these bodies, but it's closure for the family. It's a bad job, but it has good purpose. We have to try to look at the positive side in such a sad situation," said O'Toole.
Another type of rescue situation that doesn't happen often, but is still part of their arsenal of training, is a high angle rescue. "It was 2005 and the guys at the fire station got a call about a guy that had fallen off a water tank (tower) here at Fort Polk. We were just starting to send people to school to learn how to rescue people in these situations. O'Toole had just come back from a two-week certification on high angle rescue. We pulled up on the scene, surveyed the situation and found out we had one guy up there that had been on top of the tank when his equipment malfunctioned and he fell and landed on the handrail. In the process he had broken a bone in his left ankle.
"Our ladder truck only went up 110 feet, so we couldn't reach him. It got us about halfway up the water tank. We walked to the end of the ladder and climbed the rest of the way. We weren't secured to anything. We were just climbing. I was a little scared but there was a man up there that needed our help and it had to be done. We got up there, talked to the guy and stabilized and splinted him.
"Then we radioed to the ground that we needed a basket and webbing to secure the victim. We had to figure out the best way to get him down. It was decided that the most appropriate course of action was to have a medical evacuation helicopter pick him up once we got him packaged. They are the subject matter experts on hoisting victims to safety. After we got him packaged, they hovered in and dropped a cable. We attached the cable and the bird took off and set down at the hospital.
"There was a lot of wind and rotor wash coming off the MEDEVAC helicopter. The tank was swaying and shimmying. After it was over, O'Toole and I had to sit down after he was gone. You have such adrenalin going that you have to catch your breath," said Holcomb.
So, the next time you hear that siren or see those engines racing to an emergency, you'll know the situation is in good hands.