We had back to back runs. The chief and the crew were on a squad run, headed to Greene Memorial. I was off-duty. We got a call for smoke in Hosmer, a dorm in Presidents at Antioch College. We were short-handed and rolled with three of us. I was the lieutenant. I wasn’t too worried. Most of these calls were bullshit and I was sure I’d be calling dispatch in a few minutes with my favorite status update. “Miami Lieutenant 4 to Central, 811 can handle”. That’s gonna be on my tombstone.
We got to the corner of Livermore and North College Streets. Dark gray billowing smoke was coming from 2 or 3 second story windows, with a little coming out of the downstairs door. Shit. I called the squad on the radio and asked what their ETA was. The answer was 20 to 30 minutes – they were just getting to Greene. I hadn’t clicked off the mike – Colin heard me say “Shit! He told me later he turned to Angie and said “Mikey’s in trouble. We need to get back NOW.” He knew I was in trouble.
I was the most experienced fire lieutenant and was in deep shit. On a scene like that, the first five minutes on-scene and the decisions you make in those first five minutes determine the outcome of the call. We had 3 guys, one rig, and an uncleared dorm with smoke pouring out.
Colin knew I needed help. He started acting as second in command from 10 miles away. He did the stuff I couldn’t do – he arranged for mutual aid and got Xenia Township-our nearest mutual aid company – rolling. He answered dispatch for me.
Matt, my chauffeur on 811, hit the hydrant. I had Dave, my only other member, start humping the gated wye and the deuce and a half line to the door. Our 200 foot pre-connect wouldn’t make the stretch. There went the easy plan. (Thanks to Todd Van Lehn for embarrassing me in drill by having the scene 212 feet from the rig – I’ve never made that mistake again no matter how stressful the scene was.)
While the crew did that, I walked up to the mass of students. I sought out the housing director. “We have an all clear on that dorm? No?” Fuck. I masked up, turned on my airpack and went. I needed to make sure no one was in there. There wasn’t time for any other options.
The heat and smoke had screwed with the front door and it wouldn’t open. I had the irons with me, but I just used the Dayton Door Opener, patent pending. I kicked the door open. Check later to see if it was actually open. Dark smoke billowed out.
I headed up the steps, yelling all the way. I hit the second floor, got down, and went to the fire room. I did a quick search , then searched the next room. Nobody. I headed outside.
Colin radioed me. Xenia Township was rolling. I told him we had an all-clear.
Matt had hit the hydrant and was helping Dave hump the 2 ½ to the door. I did a 360 rotation around the building (thanks again for the lesson, Todd). Our medic pulled up about then. Colin assumed command from me. Xenia rolled up , connected to the wye, went in, and had a quick knockdown.
Was it dumb? Hell yes. Would I have come up for a medal if I had saved someone? Fucking A. But there was no one there to save. I took the same risks as if I had saved someone. There’s an old saying on the fire department – save a little, risk a little. Save a lot, risk a lot. Someone might be up there – yeah, you risk a lot.
I risked a helluva lot. Going up to the seat of the fire solo. No backup, no hoseline, just my irons. I’m an engine guy , born and bred, but I was doing the flat out crazy job. A real truckie. There was a chance someone was up there. I needed to do this. It was my job to make that search. It wasn’t brave or heroic. It was simply my job.
And that’s why you don’t see many medals on firefighters of my generation. We turn ‘em down. We risk our lives day in and day out whether or not we save someone that day. We’re just doing our job. It’s luck of the draw whether or not we make a righteous save.
But we’re in there every day making the righteous searches. That’s our job. And if you catch us off-duty, please feel free to buy us a beer or a coffee.