FORT POLK, La. — Fires happen. When they do, it’s crucial to have the equipment necessary to deploy at a moment’s notice to save lives and property.
Charlie Strickland, Directorate of Emergency Services Fort Polk Fire Station battalion chief, said one of the most important tools Fort Polk’s Fire Station has readily available is a ladder truck.
Strickland was the incident commander on scene during the most recent fire on the installation.
During the fire, Strickland said they used a ground monitor — a device used on large fires in which large amounts of water are required — that was putting out 500 gallons of water per minute.
“We were also using the fire monitor attached to our engine that can fire a controllable high-capacity water jet at a fire. It was putting out 500 gallons of water per minute. In addition, there were firefighters with two landlines on the fire with 400 gallons of water per minute,” he said.
The problem was firefighters couldn’t get water on the fire based on where they were positioned.
“The streams of water were arching over the fire. We couldn’t get a direct stream. If I wanted to get water on the fire, I had to cut back our pressure. When you do that, you are losing volume, so I’m not getting as much water as I needed to put out the fire,” he said.
Strickland said that can happen when you are called to a fire in a cul de sac with cars parked on the street.
“We don’t always have the luxury to set up exactly where we need to hit the fire perfectly with a monitor,” he said.
That’s when he called in the ladder truck.
Capt. Jesse Jackson, lead firefighter and remote ladder truck operator on the scene, said the ladder truck differs from other engines in the fire station’s arsenal, not only because it has a ladder that can reach a seven-story building, such as Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital, but it also has a large nozzle on the end of the ladder that allows for 360-degree directional water flow.
“I can point that nozzle anywhere I want to within 110 feet of that truck with up to 80 PSI (pound-force per square inch),” he said.
Jackson controlled the ladder pump remotely and was able to reposition the ladder and pump where the fire was burning the hottest.
“I have three levers and three switches that help me control that ladder pump as far as directing the water where it’s needed most. The controls are located on the back of the truck, away from the fire and I was as safe as I could be,” he said.
By this point, the roof had caved in and fire fighters couldn’t get eyes on the fire to direct where the water stream needed to go.
“We already had a vent — the removal of heat, smoke and fire gasses from a structure to reduce injury to citizens and fire fighters. The vent (the roof) was caving in. Everyone was accounted for and I wasn’t putting anyone inside. We were trying to do the best we could to keep it from crossing over to other buildings in the duplex,” he said. “We had a water curtain — a sheet or wall of water — set up to keep the fire from spreading to the other occupants’ homes,” he said.
A firefighter climbed the ladder truck to get a bird’s eye view of what was going on because Strickland said he couldn’t safely put people on the roof to get him that information.
“We needed to get a visual on the fire and have him feed us the information we needed so we could use the pump on the end of the ladder to remotely aim water down into the fire,” said Strickland. “As soon as we got the ladder truck in position, within two minutes, the majority of the fire was out.”
Strickland said had they not had that ladder truck, they would have lost not only the homes where the fire originated, but also the other homes in that duplex.
Jackson said the fire station has used the ladder truck in many other fires on post.
“We had another fire with similar circumstances, but the entire top floor of the building was on fire. We were called into that fire late — 30 to 45 minutes after it started. There was no way to save that structure, but we kept it from spreading further,” he said.
That’s one of the reasons Strickland said the ladder truck is ready for action each time the fire station is notified that there is a possible fire in progress.
“Though still at the station, the ladder truck is manned and ready to go if needed at any point. If we get to a fire and it requires considerable work to extinguish, the ladder truck is called in. When it gets to the fire, we hold it in reserve while trying to put the fire out with our other fire engines. If we think we have the fire under control without engaging the ladder truck, even though it’s there, we won’t call it in. But if we put firefighters on a roof or the roof vents, there is a good chance we are going to use that truck,” he said.
Strickland said the Fort Polk ladder truck is a 2001 model.
“We are a bit behind in the technology available on the newest trucks. As an example, if we were only talking about replacing the fire pump on the ladder truck, we are conservatively seven pumps behind the newest pump available on the market right now,” he said.
As old as the truck is, Strickland said the ladder truck is irreplaceable to the Fort Polk community. Fighting fires is just the beginning of the truck’s usefulness to Fort Polk.
“It’s not just about what it’s designed to do, it’s also about what else we can use it for,” he said.
Strickland said Fort Polk firefighters have cultivated the uses of the truck and, over the years, come up with their own plans and procedures.
“We use that truck like a crescent wrench. It’s a tool in our toolbox and we use every tool we have to its maximum capabilities,” he said. “When it comes down to it, it’s probably one of the most useful trucks we have in our fleet. The size of the truck and the amount of equipment we can put on it is impressive. It’s a jack of all trades because it can do a little bit of everything.”
Strickland said if a rescue truck goes down, they can call in the ladder truck to perform the rescue; if an engine goes down, the ladder truck can fight a structural fire; if someone gets hung up in a tree or on a water tower, they will use the ladder truck to get them down; it can be used for any predicament on the installation.
“That being said, we don’t use it unless we have to. We have contingency plans for every situation and do our best to take care of this truck so we have it when we need it. I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” he said.
With the ladder’s capability to reach 110 feet, Strickland said there is no other way to get the commanding general or garrison commander out of their offices in case of a fire at bldg 350.
“It’s the same scenario at BJACH. We have a designated parking spot for that truck at the hospital. It’s not only a necessary means of escape, it’s also the only way we can get water up to the seventh floor and extend a hose line,” he said. “The same would be true in providing a secondary escape route for air traffic controllers at the air field. We have used the truck to save people trapped on the red and white tower closest to BJACH.”
Another use is in a mass decontamination scenario. Strickland said nobody wants to hear that the ladder truck can and has been used in hazardous materials situations for an emergency gross decontamination because that’s not what it’s designed for, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less viable a choice in that situation.
“It takes an hour to set up a tent to decontaminate people. It takes five minutes to set up this truck and begin getting the hazardous material off of them. I think it was in 2002, we had an anthrax scare and we used it for that purpose. We set up and as people came out of what was the old commissary, they went under a deluge of water from our ladder truck and into a safe area,” he said.
Jackson said it’s conceivable that you could have 4,000 people decontaminated before the decontamination tent was set up.
No matter what the ladder truck is used for, Jackson said it is essential when it comes to saving the lives of Soldiers, civilians and firefighters.