The sounds of the alert tones echo off the polished concrete floor and the Butler Building steel walls in the engine bay of the fire station.
“Beeeeeeeeep! Booop! Beep! Beep!
“Company thirty-six, Engine one thirty-six, Truck thirty-six, Special Unit thirty-six,” the dispatcher begins in a calm business-like manner, “Wildfire impinging on a structure, box two-thirty-six oh one” the dispatcher continues giving the exact address of the fire following his first announcements. When he is through the first dispatch announcement, the dispatcher begins to repeat it again.
By the time he is halfway through the second announcement men and women are scurrying to their assigned lockers in the apparatus bay where their protective firefighting gear is hanging.
The deputy chief runs into the engine bay and shouts the order for the firefighters to “Bunker up!” meaning for the firefighters to don their normal firefighting turnout gear rather than forest fire fighting gear. The deputy knows the address, having grown up in the community and has made a decision. This fire can be fought using structure firefighting tactics rather than wildfire tactics.
The crew suits up stepping into their knee high boots which are nestled inside their bunker pants. They pull their pants up to be held in place by – what else? – red suspenders and don their forty inch long tan turnout coats. They grab their helmets and head for the rigs.
Jimmy, the driver on Engine 1 is already sitting in the driver’s seat and hits the starter button. The Detroit Diesel – all 475 horses roar to life at the push of the button and a black exhaust purges from the tailpipe as the crew boards the rig.
When the crew has boarded the rig, they pound on the window separating the driver from the crew signaling it is okay to go.
The 45,000 pound behemoth begins to roll through the open door and onto the apron in front of the station. The officer, riding next to the driver in the front seat taps the Federal Que siren button on the floor to make sure the apron and the street in front of the station are clear, The officer hits the rocker switches on the dash board to actuate the lights on the front top and sides of the engine and hits the switch to activate the electronic siren, while simultaneously stepping again on the switch to activate the Federal Que siren. The switch is much like a headlight dimmer switch found in cars in the 1960s. As he presses it with his foot the siren winds to a higher pitch and as he lets of the siren decreases in intensity. “Ahrrrrrrrrrrrrh! Arrrrrrrrh! Arrrrrrrrrrrrrh!” It screams as if waiting to be released from the chrome confines of the chrome siren housing mounted on the front bumper.
“Baaaap! Baaaaaaap!” sounds the air horn mounted on the top of the cab and controlled by a chain hanging from the ceiling next to the driver. The air horn is the bass section of the engine’s ensemble, the electronic siren is the ever-changing melody with accompaniment of the Federal Que harmonizing, and the staccato roar of the diesel is the percussion section. Flashing red and white lights provide the visual accompaniment to the red and white fire company orchestration. Behind the engine follows the 100 foot aerial ladder truck and the “Special Unit,” a heavy duty pickup truck designed for wild fire response. Each unit is running with their sirens and lights playing their part in the Company 36 orchestra – Opus to a fire.
As Engine 1 reaches the intersection a half a block from the station the officer grabs the radio’s microphone from its holder on the dashboard.
“Engine one thirty-six, truck thirty-six, special unit thirty-six responding,” responding he says into the mic.
“Engine one thirty-six, truck thirty-six, special unit thirty-six, responding on the two-thirty-six oh one box,” replies the dispatcher from the safe confines of the dispatch center ten miles away.
As the engine approaches the intersection, Jimmy takes his foot off the accelerator allowing the Jake Brake – the engine retarder common to diesel engines – to grab causing the engine to let out a low growling sound. The local police department having heard the dispatch is already in the intersection and the officer has traffic stopped. He waves the engine forward and Jimmy hits the accelerator as he rounds the corner.
As the accelerator pedal is pushed toward the floor the Detroit Diesel responds. The intensity of the motor increases and the engine surges onward.
“Chief Thirty-six responding,“ says a familiar voice over the radio.
”Chief Thirty-six,” echoes the dispatcher.
At the intersection ahead of the engine a familiar red and white van with red lights flashing makes a turn and pulls onto the street ahead of the engine.
As the units head out of town, led by the chief’s van, people on the sidewalk stop to watch. Some know the men and women on board and offer half-hearted waves. Some stand silently and motionless, perhaps offering a prayer for the men and women on board the rigs and the people who need their assistance. Young children, mostly boys, run along the sidewalk trying to keep pace with the engine but after a few steps realize it is futile and stand and watch as the fire apparatus speeds by. If you look, you could see it in their eyes. They want to be on the engine or truck with the firefighters. Cars that had been moving on both sides of the street pull to the side to let the rigs pass. The rigs roll through the stop-lighted intersection and continue on to their destination. After the rigs pass the street quickly returns to normal.
“Chief Thirty-six?” asks the dispatcher.
“Chief Thirty-six,” replies the chief as he leads the rapidly accelerating parade out of town.
“Chief, call back advises fire is in the leaves impinging on the house. The house has been evacuated and the landowner is trying to control it with a garden hose but the fire is gaining,” states the dispatcher in a calm voice.
“Okay headquarters,” replies the chief. He knows the address and he knows the development where it is located in the woods. It is classic suburban-woodland interface where houses have been built in the forest. Most of the residents in the development think ii is “kewl” to live in the woods and be close to nature. They enjoy their closeness with nature and the calming shade of the forest. They enjoy the changing colors of the leaves in the fall and often see no need to rake them and keep them away from their house or out of their gutters. Then as spring arrives and the fallen leaves of last autumn dry out they become tinder, available to any spark to set them ablaze.
“Headquarters, Chief Thirty-six,” says the chief speaking into the beige microphone of the fire radio mounted in his van.”
“Chief Thirty-six,” responds the dispatcher dutifully.
“Headquarters have forty-one’s tanker and brush unit respond along with company thirty-five.”
“Affirmative Chief. Tanker and brush from forty one and company thirty five,” replies the dispatcher repeating the chief’s instructions.
The chief puts the mic back into the holder on the dash and a new series of Plectron tones begin to emanate from the speaker as the headquarters dispatcher alerts the companies requested.
Plectron Corporation, formerly of Overton, Nebraska developed a squelch override system of radio tones that allowed for receivers set for specific tones to be activated in lieu of all other tones. The series of high and low beeps would activate the receivers specifically tuned to those tones and became the standard for alerting fire departments, EMS, police and other emergency services who shared a common frequency.
Within two minutes of responding to the alarm the chief turned into the development. Angry plumes of white smoke billow across the roadway, swirling away as thechief’s van and the fire apparatus behind him drove through. The wind was blowing from the north pushing the hungry flames into the dry leaves giving them fuel to gain strength and pushing relentlessly closer to the house. The chief stopped his van alongside the driveway allowing the engine to pass.
The chief grabbed the mic and said, “Engine one pipe it if you can.”
“Roger Chief,” replied the officer from the engine.
It was a gutsy call. The master stream appliance mounted on top of the engine is usually used on large out of control structure fires. They are sometimes called deck guns, monitors or wagon pipes. The inch and a half tip can flow a solid stream of water at better than 1200 gallons per minute and the 1750 gallon per minute pump can drain the engine’s on-board water in less than thirty seconds. If the chief has made the right call the fire will go black in less time than that – but only if things go right,
The engine pulls past the chief and comes to an abrupt stop less than fifty feet from the four foot high flames. Jimmy jumps out of the driver’s seat and puts the pump in gear, while a firefighter from the jumpseat behind him climbs to the top of the engine and mans the wagon pipe. Jimmy pulls the levers to begin to flow water to the appliance as the firefighter trains the gun on the rapidly moving flames. A torrent of white water gushes from the tip on a solid stream directed at the flames.
As the water sweeps the flames they die to blackness. The fire is extinguished just that fast and the danger to the house subsides. The firefighters know their jobs and grab rakes and shovels from the special unit, now on the scene, and they pound the remaining flames into submission. A firefighter pulls the inch and a half “trash line” from the front of the engine and uses it to cool any remaining hot spots.
“I didn’t think it would get away,” says the landowner to the chief as they stand beside the van looking at the blackened yard. The chief gives the landowner a look of derision and turns away. He keys the mic of the handheld radio.
“Headquarters, Chief thirty-six.”
“Chief Thirty-six,” responds the dispatcher.
“Cancel all responding units on the two-thirty-six oh one box.”
“Affirmative chief,” responds the dispatcher.
As the dispatcher sets off the tones recalling the units from companies forty-one and thirty-five the chief looks around and says to nobody in particular, “Stupid isn’t illegal but it ought to be.”
This wasn’t the first wildfire on South Mountain and it won’t be the last. Because of carelessness, stupidity, or even intentional setting the woods here will burn again. It is almost a certainty. On this day the firefighters were lucky. No lives were lost and no significant property damage occurred. The call to “pipe the fire” was an extreme move by the chief, but his experience and a well-trained engineer and crew saved the day. The next time they might not be so lucky in the ever-growing suburban-woodland interface in Penn’s woods.