From the brotherhood and bonds found in those tough times, to the exciting and unforgettable moments, and over the many years one thing stands out to me in the fire service. There constantly is always something new to learn, to understand, to overcome, and to adapt to. Whether from the classroom, back of the bay talks, or the hands-on techniques, theirs’s always something new. Lately it’s the technology we use every time we roll out those bay doors. For some, adapting and overcoming things can be fear, nerves, learning the basics, or mastering the advanced. For the others of us who have been in the fire service for many years, we tend to learn old habits, old tricks, and learn the old-school way of doing things. That we don’t need technology to do the job, or these new fancy toys having technology added to them. To rely on our instincts and knowledge, yet everything we use when we leave those doors seems to have it in some form.
This is not a Hollywood movie script, this is not a five-o clock news story about your local fire company, nor your Sunday morning newspaper write-up in the columns. I only know how to be honest with people when I talk about the fire service. So, this is a raw conversation about what we face, what my brothers face. What we do is special, when the air brake on the truck sets and you open that door, you’re going to battle. it’s a terrifying beautiful thing, it’s chaos and its peace, it’s something we wouldn’t want to live without, yet sometimes it’s the hardest thing to live with. For me personally, I’m trying to adapt and overcome that the future is now and that technology is and will continue to be added to our world. So, this is my own personal story and experiences of how I witnessed technology enter into this side of the world over the years and will continue to in unique ways for many years to come.
On a very hot and humid day in mid-July day in 2020 around 9:50 a.m., a box alarm would drop for our department along with our neighboring companies (mutual aid companies). Dispatched to a report of an air conditioner on fire in a house; this being in our town or our first due coverage area. Within two minutes the first commanding officer was on scene to advise it was a two-story “taxpayer” residential house, smoke showing, and a well-off room and content fire on the first floor of the “AD corner”, Right corner of the front door. As we turned out and left those bay doors in the engine, only a few short blocks from the address we could see the header of smoke rise over the town. In the officer seat I advised the comm center the engine is on the road. Knowing we were “catching a job” going to work, I gave out the job assignments of “plug” hydrant, water can, “Irons” axe and Halligan bar, and nozzleman to the guys in the back. Heading up we got our assignment over the radio to hit the hydrant at the corner, lay in, and bring the crew to the front. As we dropped off our guy at the plug to wrap it, we layed in with the engine and yelled back to make sure the boys were ready to work. As we layed in, and pulled up going bumper to bumper to the neighboring town ladder that arrived with us. The ladder was assigned to take “the address”, front of the hose and pull a cross lay in to get a knock on the fire. My crew was assigned to do a quick primary search and to start venting the second floor once the fire was controlled. I hopped off the truck with a Halligan bar in hand, the old metal braced air packs with just a cylinder, “pass alarm” (personal alert safety system), and a nematic air gauge attached on your back. As the hip straps sway at your hip and go to work with adrenalin, hopes, dreams, and the knowledge you have learned and have been taught from the many trials. As I grab my partner and head for the door with our packs, box lights, tools, and an older “TIC” thermal imaging camera. We make the door turn our cylinder on, mask up, and push past the fire floor to the stairs to start our primary search on the floor above, as the truck crew continues to knock the fire down. Visibility was good till we hit the landing of the steps and noticed that the smoke was starting to bank above and seeing that the fire started at the base of the steps and spread from there, we weren’t sure if we would find any pockets upstairs. As we started up the second half of the steps from the landing, the heat was moderate enough to let you know it’s there when it hits you in your chest. We were two steps from the top of the second floor and it was like midnight in this second-story hallway, with what light was peaking in through the window from the floor below. We took the last two steps and entered into the pitch-black smoke banked to the floor and we couldn’t see in front, back or side to side of us. The light from downstairs coming up the steps didn’t exist anymore and we now had to begin our sweep. As we grabbed the left wall to begin to crawl, we wouldn’t see anything even with the box lights, and the TIC we had wasn’t cutting it. We were hoping to have the TIC help us scan ahead and the rooms before we entered them. Either way with or without the tech helping us, we were going to work and began our down-and-dirty search of the top floor. Seeing nothing out of the mask we held that left-handed search. With a hand or foot on the wall, we searched each room by hand and swept our tools to see if anyone was up there. As we cleared the top floor and all four bedrooms, we couldn’t see anything, only feel and hear what was around us. We deemed the top floor was clear and everyone was out after we finally circled back to the steps to regroup.
We were told to vent a window on our floor in the front of the house, we had our bearings but trying to figure out which room was which was still a project in the pitch black. We went into the room that was on the left, right of the stairs and assumed it had to reach the front from the orientation of the steps that it turned us towards at the landing. We searched the walls and after finding what we thought was a window which turned out to be a mirror we smashed the window and ended up being directly next to it. We took the window and seal and finally started to let the smoke out and lifted our visibility. Unknown to us at the time we were almost at our quarter service alarm for air left in the cylinder and time to get out, but where weren’t watching our gauge, and the alert didn’t sound yet. As what we were assigned to do was complete, we decided it was time to back out and take a breather. As we made it out, we went to the front bumper to take our packs off and relaxed for a few minutes. That’s when we both noticed that our air cylinders were both almost at a quarter and if we stayed any longer or things got worse, we would have been in trouble with air. Along with the TIC not aiding us any and having to work just that little bit harder, we could have been in a pinch if things went south or needed to look for anything in partial. If there was a person still in there or if fire got in the wall and was running the walls on us up there; we would have been clueless to a point till we found them, or till the fire broke free through a ceiling above us or on a wall on us. Just some of the struggles we face, even with the basic technology we have we can’t always rely on it or count on it very well whether it is old, outdated, or just has seen better days. We must always still keep our skills sharp for when the things that are supposed to make life just a little easier, faster, and safer work against us.
As time passed, we gained more new technology in our firehouse and into our world. We upgraded our air packs, TICS’, radios, and lights, and went from whiteboards to iPads for connection to the officer in charge and a more digital footprint on the fire ground. This all came together to on an early morning fire in April of 2023 in town. The box would drop at roughly 3:40 a.m. for multiple reports of a working fire at an old pizza joint that closed during Covid and was vacant. When we arrived, we all knew this building very well and have been here when it was open for small and some larger fires. It’s a large square 2 story taxpayer, restaurant on the bottom floor and apartments on the second floor. covered in grease from the many years of serving food and other chemicals from the renovations that were going on at the time of the fire. It was nothing but a column of black-brown turbulent smoke when we arrived on the engine in the air, the fire had yet to break free from the interior. Hopping off the truck with a halligan bar in hand, but this time it wasn’t just a metal-backed air pack, tools, and some box lights. Now with our new MSA air pack, all equipped with personal handheld TICs’; outfitted with “RFID” Radio Frequency Identification chips to sync our radios and TICs to them when we grab them. GPS and Bluetooth that would active as you turned on the pack and connect back to the incident commands iPad, to tell who had each air pack and whatever else was connected to the pack via RFID. As a water supply was established and monitor nozzles were pulled and placed in the street, I headed for the front door hoping to make an interior push before it decided to flashover or let loose from the above. Seeing we may be on our own for some time being so early in the morning and hoping to save what we could on the first floor. As I turned on our newly acquired air packs for the first time on a call, they came to life compared to the old-school air packs we had. The digital display booted up that was dangling from the shoulder strap to tell me the pressure in the cylinder. The rear indicator LEDs flash, and the voice amplifier that was attached to the shoulder strap beeps to tell you the system is good. As I masked up in the doorway the new mask outfitted with a “HUD” heads-up display flashed its LED indicator. That would tell you roughly how much air you had left based on the color and the attached mask TIC screen flashed to life in the corner. it was surreal to see all this vital information packed into a small little strip on the nose and in the corner. As I checked myself over, I yelled for someone to get a hand line to the door and come in behind me. As I crouched along the floor with smoke banked to it, sounding the floor as I went. I clearly remember the view through the TIC in the mask and in my hand. I could make out the long bar, stools, benches, and tables that were all around me. The heat that was pushing down the stairway that was off to my right that ran up the middle of the building.
As I pushed to my right to see if I could see the seat of the fire, my shoulder vibrated. I looked down to see it giving me real-time pressure changes in my cylinder from how I was breathing, how long I would have left on this cylinder based on my breathing, and my heart rate all based on my breaths. As I pushed farther into the building opening a door that split the bar and dining area, I started to see in the TIC that the floor and walls were hot up as I got near the staircase. Behind me, I could hear someone coming to see what I was doing as I was alone at the time. They could see where I was through the black smoke from the LEDs alone on the back piercing the blackness. As they got close, I told them to stop due to not knowing at the time the floor collapsed inwards underneath the flooring itself in multiple areas. I could see through the TIC the outline of the floor looked slanted and with how warm the room still was something didn’t seem right. Along with the stairs being burnt out and yet there was no fire downstairs when I made the push. Nothing but pitch blackness and a hint of a flirter to my left up the stairs somewhere. If it wasn’t for that TIC giving me a heads up the area I entered may have already burnt and may have been the original seat of the fire. In danger of collapse, we could have ended up in the basement when it collapsed from the additional weight. Me and my buddy that came in to find me discussed a plan to attempt to go further around the other way or make a stand here for now. As we saw the fire start to glow above us coming down the stairway and seemed to pick up in intensity, we could tell something was about to happen or has above us. We were about to be overcome by fire coming down staircase at us; it would have been like being in a firepit surrounded by fire without a wet line in sight of coming. As we notice this our HUD and chest display lights up; first his was for reaching half-life on air in the cylinder and being ordered to back out. Then both light up seeing a running man symbol on his chest and in my mask, signaling an evacuation was declared on the structure. Before dispatch could hit the evacuation tones over the radio or even faintly hear air horns, the 3 blasts to back out; a command was sent from a push of a button on an iPad that was on the scene. Notify us that conditions that we couldn’t clearly see from inside have worsened and anyone else with an airpark on not attempt to enter. As we made our push back out being met by more heat and being able to see through the TIC that the floor above us was heating up. Smoke was pushing and moving all around us and we heard what sounded like master streams from the ladder hitting the floor above us. As we made it back out the door and to the engine in front of the building, we saw what had unfolded. As we were inside searching for the seat of the fire or where to bring the line all within 7 minutes roughly; the fire broke through the roof line. This caused the roof to begin to collapse inwards, and the fire was exiting every orifice, window, and opening of the second floor straining the integrity of the building. That room that we just left was now fully involved on the first floor and fire pushing from windows in the corner. If it wasn’t for the technology with and equipment on us, we could have been in a bad spot at a bad time when it all gave way to the first floor. To some including me, it seemed overkill or may cause tunnel vision relying so heavily on the new technology we carry. Yet in the end, the new technology and chips placed in the air packs, TICS in the mask, and an interface run from an iPad can make all the difference.
It’s no longer the day of hopping off the truck with a halligan bar in hand, the old metal braced air packs on your back as the hip straps sway. Technology is here to stay and will only get more advanced in our world, this world, my world. The fire service is seeing it slowly but steadily creep in. It’s becoming intertwined in everything we wear and use when we leave those bay doors. From the nozzles on our hoses telling us the amount of water left in the tank with LED indicators, to the radios we carry increasing in heat deflection and their own abilities. Fire engines’ pump panels can be controlled through an iPad by phantom control systems and Sam flows. Allowing the operator to control the pressure and lines from a distance if need be. The self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that we wear on our back with GPS, Bluetooth, RFID, and real-time health monitoring; to the mask we put on our faces with HUDs and built-in TICs. The new future for HUDS in the mask being fronted by
C-THRU is almost seen as an Iron Man-type view. Giving a digital layout with the outlines of your surroundings in an augmented reality overlay and live time video feed. Along with detecting shuttle changes in brightness to predict shapes invisible to the human eye, it is seen as the dawn of the new age, the age of AI. The ability of thermal imaging cameras to track and be tracked for “R.I.T” Rapid intervention team purposes. It can be viewed in live time, and give cardinal directions and even ping a location you entered to track it back out. Everything now seems to have RFID, Bluetooth, GPS tracking, cellular service, or some other form of technology integrated into it to connect it to a server, hub, or another device; to track, control, account for, and maintain the controlled chaos that is the fire ground. There are new vehicle extrication tools that I have used by Genesis rescue tools, that can be controlled, monitored, and diagnosed from a scene of an extrication. although an iPad connected via Bluetooth to the tool and their software installed on the device. New forms of throwable TICS ‘can see in the fire building with 360 degrees of view to evaluate interior conditions when first arriving at a structure fire; and be used for confined space and structural collapse purposes. At the end of the day the future is here and now slowly intertwining the days of yesterday. It’s no longer the day of hopping off the truck with a Halligan bar in hand, the old metal braced air packs on your back as the hip straps sway.
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“Season 1 Finale – Kevin O’Toole and Ethan Sorrell – Bladensburg FD”. Youtube, Into The Smoke TV, 14 March, 2023, https://youtu.be/sKGJ_c0ajU8?si=fQv_PIhv6W__9cdr. Accessed 17 Oct, 2023.
A video made just over 10 years ago discussing the challenges Kevin O’Tool and Ethan Sorrell faced at a basement fire in a house in Bladensburg Maryland. This video helped to provide insight on how to talk about and emerge the reader into the experience and the difficulties that are seen by many others in this service. How to show and explain the drama and chaos that goes and recall thoughts on a topic. Used as a character source for the writing of the story.
“THE CALL – Official Firefighting Documentary”. Youtube, Creative Spark Productions, 16 Dec 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYx1MHBpSaU. Accessed 17 Oct 2023.
This video posted just a few years ago helped to lay the foundation for what I wanted to discuss and helped show the modern struggle firefighters face in doing the job, and the thoughts after. How the world is changing and the struggles many faces doing this job day to day. That even when we face the hardest times, we all learn in the end. Used as a character source for the writing of the story. Used as a character source for the writing of the story.