Finally, a first-due job… and a pretty good one, at that.

photo-2Our wagon driver’s voice came from the front of the cab, punching through the audible mess of sirens and air horns as we screamed a left out of the firehouse.

“It’s off! This one’s off!”

The other back step guy and I looked at each other.

What?

We just left the firehouse…

…we’re nowhere near the address…

…do you see… I don’t… there’s no smoke in the sky…

…nobody’s said anything on the radio…

Nevertheless, as our brains struggled with how in the hell he knew that, we simultaneously reached back to turn our SCBA bottles on. Wayne may joke about many things, but this is not one of them. (Incredibly, he would tell us later that he knew about the fire so far in advance because of a “different cloud pattern”—his words, not mine—in the sky towards where the call was.)

We double-checked our gear, and I tightened the last of my harness straps as we made the turn onto 25th Place.

photo-1First thought: Ohhhhh yes.

Second thought: Hey dumbass! Quit staring… you have stuff to do.

As I laid out the supply hose and the wagon took off, I saw bright red paint disappear into a haze that enveloped the block. I ran to catch up to the rest of my crew, and I saw that the lineman was already masking up at the front door. I dropped to put my mask on, made sure his hose was flaked out well enough behind him, and headed inside.

What in the name of… Christmas?

Trampling through the living room and working our way towards the stairs, we found ourselves walking over an unbelievable amount of Christmas decorations. Reindeer, nutcrackers of varying sizes, tinsel, rope lights, string lights, extension cords, wrapping paper… anything you can think of, it was in our way (yes, that is Santa and his sleigh in the first picture).

The first floor had a little bit of fire going in the bathroom and kitchen (to our left and right off the small hallway, respectively). My lineman whipped the nozzle around in each room as I fed him more and more line to advance. Our ultimate goal laid in getting up the stairs to the second floor, so we knocked the first floor fairly quickly and prepared to go upstairs.

There was only one problem, which I had been warned of in the Academy (I can still hear VanHagen’s voice): “…yeah, you might have a minute or two to do your own thing, but just know that pretty soon you’re going to have about twenty other [expletive]ers coming right up your ass. If you’ve got something, it’s gonna get real crowded—real fast.”

And such was certainly the case. The third due engine company hoping to steal our fire with their own hoseline; the rescue squad trying to muscle past us to do a search…

God only knows who else was crammed in that hallway, but there wasn’t a whole lot of room to move. To top it off, it felt like every person behind us was standing on our damned hose—an unfortunate reality of being in a narrow hallway. After some pulling, some shoving, and a good deal of yelling, we had finally freed up enough line to make it up the stairs (which were rapidly turning into the world’s nastiest Slip-n-Slide made of soot, water, and melted plastic Christmas crap).photo-3

At the top of the stairs, Truck 15′s bar man was hooking the walls in front of me, and my lineman was working his way around to the left. We could see the orange glow just past the landing, and we wanted nothing more than to get in there and hit it. A few minor fires jumped up around us, sometimes beside us, sometimes behind us. George was smashing walls with his halligan bar and finding little pockets of fire; each one we extinguished put us closer and closer to the seat of the fire, as we moved inch by inch. The second floor was fully involved, and we approached the middle of the room to find the entire ceiling glowing. I sidled up beside Tate, anchoring the hose with my body so he wouldn’t have to fight as hard against the nozzle pressure. He knocked down the left side of the room, and was even nice enough to give me a minute or two on the line to knock down the right side—seeing as it was the first real house fire both of us had ever had, I was pretty damned appreciative (much to my chagrin, however, he was sure to snatch the nozzle back real quick. It was, after all, mostly his fire).

We heard the truck working around us, their saws opening up the roof and their hooks breaking out the windows. The smoke that had once surrounded us with a soupy blackness transformed into a thinner gray, and began to clear out.

And just like that, most of it was gone. We were ordered to be relieved by another company—and were running low on air anyways—so we made our way down the stairs and outside as the next engine sprayed down what little licks of fire were left.

photo-6Outside, we all peeled our masks off. Our coats were steaming, our faces were sweating, and our gear was fully soaked with dirty water.

But we had done it.

Engine 26 had fought the beast, and we won—and we had a kick-ass time doing it, too.

We cleared that call several hours later—after the inevitable and exhausting overhaul work of tearing stuff up, shoveling it into buckets, and piling it in the front yard—with soot on our faces and pride in our hearts.

Sounds corny, doesn’t it? Well, it’s true. The two of us spent the rest of that tour smiling, having finally done something that many people only dream of as a small child in a Halloween costume. Anyone older and more jaded experienced than I will probably say I’m just a young excited kid, still wet behind the ears and with much to learn—and they’re absolutely right. I’m still far too young on this job to know my ass from my elbow, but I’m having way too much fun for anyone to damper my spirits.

photo-5Say what you will, gentlemen—critique to your heart’s content, if you wish. But remember that you, too, had a first fire. It may not have been perfect, it may not have been a big story in the local paper. But it was yours, and it was your first.

I’ve got some great guys around to teach me and plenty of time for them to do so; for now, congratulations—here’s to Engine 26 gettin’ it done!

Proudly,

/RL

P.S. – My apologies to the big dude from Truck 6. Give me a call and I’ll buy you a beer.

Image © available upon request, used with permission.

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Alex Capece

Washington, D.C. Firefighter and Paramedic

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"For anyone who ever wanted to grow up and become a firefighter... from someone who did just that."
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