On July 10th, 2008, the Ellis Block in Springfield, Vermont, burned. This building contained a movie theater and two floors of single-room apartments.
Springfield won a contest for the honor of hosting the Simpson’s Movie premier, just under one year previously. The opening was held in this theater.
I was at the computer in the office when the radio crackled to life. It was late evening, around eleven. I was getting ready to go to bed; although I usually stay up much later, I was on the schedule for a twenty-four hour shift at my paid department starting at six the following morning.
The Springfield Fire Department dispatcher was calling the Hartford dispatcher on Hartford’s channel. Each of the departments that I run with are dispatched through this single channel so I listen to Hartford dispatch most of the of the time. About fourteen different agencies are dispatched though Hartford and so one can hear almost everything going on regarding public safety in our region on that one dispatch channel.
The Springfield dispatcher was asking for resources for an incident in Springfield. They were working an active structure fire, an apartment building, and needed interior-qualified crews. Springfield named several departments and specific resources they wanted from each. They wanted a truck and crew from my volunteer department.
I was a little rattled. An apartment building. I got up, grabbed my keys, and went outside. I jogged over to the house and was getting in my truck when the tones went off. I forgot my camera although it was sitting on my desk within reach when the radio started talking.
I drove the mile to the firehouse. Living closest to the station, I was the first person there. I unlocked the door and went into the corridor. Turning left into the apparatus room, I flipped on the overhead lights and headed back between engines two and three to head back to the turnout gear lockers. I knew that Engine Two would be our first due truck so I pressed the button to open the bay door on my way by.
I pulled my pants-and-boots bundle out of my locker. Shedding my shoes, I stepped into the boots and pulled the bunker pants up, threw the suspenders over my shoulders, and closed the Velcro front. I grabbed my coat, helmet, and SCBA facepiece bag out of my locker. As I was gathering these items, the chief came in. We exchanged pleasantries. He asked me to drive Engine 2.
I threw my stuff in the pump accessory locker on the truck and closed the roll-down door on the locker. I pulled the extension cord from the shore power port on the truck and opened the driver’s door. Before climbing into the truck, I turned on the battery switch located on the floor between the door and the driver’s seat. I climbed up into the truck, belted in, and started the truck. I flipped on the red lights.
The chief climbed up into the right-hand seat, the officer’s seat. A new member of the department climbed into the back of the cab and belted in. No one else was at the department yet and Springfield was calling again for interior crews. The chief called dispatch and notified them we were on our way.
As we drove to Springfield we discussed where the fire was located. Based on the address, it seemed that it was either the theater block or the block next door, right in downtown Springfield. We switched over to the Springfield tactical channel when we came into Springfield. The chief called the Springfield incident commander who advised my chief to park the truck on arrival at the scene and go check in at IC, incident command.
We came around a curve into downtown and could tell that it was the theater block that was on fire. We stopped behind another fire truck about 150 feet from the theater block.
The theater comprised the first floor and an auditorium behind the building itself. Single room apartments with shared bathrooms made up the second and third floors. Flames were visible in numerous second floor windows of the three-story brick edifice.
My chief told me to pack up. All of the seats on the fire truck except the driver’s seat have airpacks embedded in the seat. On the way to the fire, the firefighters can put on the airpacks and be ready to deal with poisonous environments immediately on arrival. The chief had donned his pack on the way to Springfield. Mike, the new member, could operate the truck on scene but was not qualified to go interior.
The chief went to find IC while I put on my pack. I asked Mike for a set of irons and he got a halligan bar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halligan_bar) and a flat-headed axe off the truck as I finished getting my mask and hood ready. The chief came back and said that he and I were going to go help with a primary search of the third floor. We would go stage behind the building while another crew gained access from the second-floor roof over the movie theater auditorium. Mike would stay with the truck in case it needed to be used.
I watched the fire through the windows as we made our way to the back of the building. The second floor had been burning for a while; we had to go check out the floor above the fire. It seemed sketchy but unavoidable. Not all of the residents had been accounted for.
We gained access to the roof via a ladder the access crew had placed. Once on the roof, we waited for a few minutes while a charged hose line was made available and the door from the roof to the building was breached. While those tasks were being accomplished, the several teams on the roof plotted strategy. My chief and I would go in as one team and search every room on the right-hand side all the way from the door in the back to the front of the building; the Springfield crew would do the same on the left.
The crew working on the door got it open. It was dark inside. Smoke came out.
We put on our masks and attached the airpack regulators. Up until now, the masks had been dangling from the regulator at the end of the hose attached to the airpack; about waist level. The mask fogs up and limits visibility if the user wears the mask without air but the pack is only good for fifteen or twenty minutes of use by a working firefighter; we wait until the last minute to go on air.
The chief took the halligan and I took the axe. We crawled in and turned immediately to the right, to the first door. The chief reached up and turned the handle. It was unlocked. He pushed open the door a few inches and we could see orange inside. Looking further inside, we found that the floor of a closet in the room was burning.
We dragged in the hose line and hit the floor in the closet. The visible active fire was knocked down but the base was clearly still going. Our job, though, was not fire suppression but to perform a quick primary search for victims. We crawled into the room, sounding as we went.
‘Sounding’ is a technique used to test the integrity of the surface the firefighter is crawling on. The firefighter is carrying some heavy implement like a Halligan or an axe and taps or slams the floor ahead as they crawl to assess stability. Acutely aware that the second floor had been on fire for some time, I was sounding constantly as we went. I did not want to go through the floor.
Once in the room, we performed a right-hand search; a quick sweep under, around, and over everything in the room. We stayed on our hands and knees and close to the ground; the air in the room was very hot, even through our turnout gear.
We found nothing so we retreated into the hall.
The Springfield crew was also in the hall. They warned us that the floor on the first room of the left-hand side of the hall was gone and cautioned us to not go in there. Looking over, I could see into the room; flames from below were visible.
We could see down the stairs and into the front of the second floor. No fire was visible towards that part of the front as we moved forward down the hall. The next three doors were locked. The reinforced doors were very difficult to open given the gear, canned air, the heat, and working from a crawl. One by one we forced open the doors and performed a fast search of the room within. In two of the rooms, visibility was much worse than in the hall; we needed to maintain physical contact to stay together. The heat was intense.
Finally we were done and retreated back out onto the roof. We had found no one but ruled out the possibility of trapped or incapacitated residents on that floor. I was relieved when I had descended the ladder from the auditorium roof back to the parking lot. We walked to the front of the building to check in with staging.
As we arrived at staging, IC declared the building at risk of collapse and withdrew all interior crews. Horns were blown from all apparatus to notify any firefighters still in the building that they were to immediately exit the building. We moved further away from the building in case of possible collapse.
For the next several hours, I ‘staged’. I waited with the rest of the firefighters for possible assignment while the fire was fought by tower trucks. I moved around with my chief as he checked in with other chiefs. I had left my camera at home but did have my phone. I took lots of pictures with the phone and was very pleased with them.
At some point in time, the Springfield Community Emergency Response Team showed up with hot food and drinks for the firefighters. It was gratefully accepted and fed everyone. It was awesome of them to get up in the middle of the night and come help us.
My paid department sent a truck and a crew; the chief at that department went, as well. Around 05:00 I found the chief and told him that I would be late for my 06:00 shift. He was understanding.
Once the fire was out, we helped to break down all of the water supply elements; thousands of feet of various sized hose in fifty-foot lengths connecting different engines up the road to the river from where the bulk of the water was pumped, then into and around the fire building, All of the hose needed to be uncoupled, drained, and rolled.
Several members of our department had come to the scene in personal vehicles. Around 07:00 and with the permission of the chief, I borrowed a truck and went back to the station. I got my own truck, stopped home for a few minutes to check in with Rabid and pick up my stuff for work, and then went to my paid department.
The truck from my paid department had been released from the scene several hours prior to the truck from my volunteer department, the truck I arrived on. As a result, the offgoing shift had all gone home; the other three people from the incoming crew, my shift, were at the table in the dayroom when I walked in. We would be working together for the next 22 hours.
The shift lieutenant looked up at me.
“Have you had a shower?”
“Go get a shower then get some sleep.”
I did as I was told, sleeping four hours until the next tone.