Thursday, July 16, 2015

Chicago Fire Week #4: "It got hot, dark and very intense"

 
Photo courtesy of bobanddawndavis.com
   This is the second part of my two part series on fighting a fire, the one that caused all the trouble. As the firefighters described going into the burning building, I asked what seemed a simple question: Why go inside? Why not fight the fire from outside? Wouldn't that be safer? That led to the "It's the Chicago way" quotes, which naturally upset every suburban fire department, and then upset the Chicago Fire Department, which blamed me. The question whether it was true was a side issue. It actually touched upon very sensitive issues of truck staffing—fires are  increasingly rare, and suburbs get by with far fewer firefighters than Chicago does. At one point during the controversy that followed the column's publication, one of the men I interviewed called me and asked if I couldn't just say I had made the quote up. That bothered me—I said no, I wouldn't say that, and had the quote on a high quality digital audio recording, and if they denied it was said, I'd put it online. The whole episode left a bad taste in my mouth, since my only goal had been to describe how a fire gets fought.


     Fighting a fire is part mental and part physical, part team effort and part individual achievement, somewhere between tearing down a house that's aflame and winning a football game where you risk dying if you're not careful and sometimes even if you are.
     On Friday, we followed Engine 106 to a fire at 3037 W. Belmont and met a few of the firefighters from Battalion 7, and if you missed it, you might find today's column more rewarding if you read Friday's first, perhaps through the miracle of Internet technology.
     As the column ended, a resident who had fled the building begged firefighter Rich Irwin to "Save my baby!" If you expected Irwin to immediately bolt up the stairs and snatch the tot, you've seen too many movies.
     Remember, Irwin was on the street -- there were a dozen guys in the building already, working a hose up the stairs to the burning third floor, cutting holes in the roof and feeling around in the smoky second floor with their hands. To be honest, news about the baby caused "a surge in adrenaline" and not much else. "Either way, we're going in for a primary search," said Irwin.
      A reminder that, more than even heroism, firefighting requires strategy. You might have wondered, for instance, with flames pouring out of the back staircase, why didn't the firefighters park themselves behind the building and hurl water on the fire directly from there? Why sneak up on it?
     "We always come from the unburnt part to the burning part, always," said Lt. Frank Isa.
     Fires are not so much extinguished as they are beaten back. Had Engine 106 come in from the rear, they would have merely pushed the fire into the rest of the structure and lost it.
     "In Chicago, we do what's called an 'interior attack,' " said Isa. "We go to the seat of the fire. A lot of suburbs will hit it from the outside."
     That's a point of pride among Chicago firefighters. They do not stand around pouring water on the roof of a building while it burns to the ground. They grab their axes, strap on their masks, and go in to fight a fire face-to-face.
     "It's all about being aggressive," said Scott Musil. "And pride. We're not in the suburbs."
     "[The suburbs] do an exterior attack," said one firefighter. "That's why they lose most of their buildings. If we stood back and put water on, we'd feel like we weren't doing anything."
    "It's the Chicago way," said Larry Langford, the Chicago Fire Department spokesman, and isn't it nice to see that "the Chicago Way" doesn't just refer to Rahm Emanuel cussing out clerks but also to the more aggressive, perilous and effective approach to fighting fires?
     So where were we? Tino Durovic kicked in the door on the third floor, a wave of heat and steam hit him, burning his face and ears, even under his mask and hood. He instinctively dived face first to the floor (General Fire Tip: It's safer on the floor; many people who died in a fire standing up would have lived crawling.)
     The heat melted the reflectors on Durovic's helmet -- not necessarily a bad thing; a firefighter wants his gear sooty and scarred. Firefighters will sometimes take a new turnout coat into the alley and drag it around a bit, to give it character and avoid showing up at a fire gleaming like a newborn babe.
     Durovic didn't stop advancing when he got burned, by the way. Nor when his low-air warning alarm went off. (Firefighters carry a bottle containing 30 minutes of compressed air -- regular old air, don't call it "oxygen," oxygen would be ignited by a spark at a fire and burn your face off. But that's 30 theoretical minutes of air; if you're working hard, breathing fast, with your adrenaline up because you're trying to save a baby, you can easily run out in 15).
     "It got hot, dark and very intense, but we had to hold that stairway," said Isa.
     "There was no time to get out," Durovic said. "We'd lose the whole thing. I yelled to Frank, 'Gimme more line!' "
     A brave thing for him to do?
     "Anybody else would have done the same thing," said Durovic. "Any other fireman."
     In fact, others did, when they finally pushed the fire back, the nozzle spraying 250 gallons a minute, Durovic, his air gone, handed the nozzle over to Eddie Lashley, who held until his air went, then handed it to others. Fighting a fire is far more complicated and requires far more firefighters than I can mention here.
     "We're in the third floor, thanks to everybody," says Isa. "Once we made the third floor, we beat it. It's simple as putting it out. Now we can attack it. We meet it face-to-face and say, 'You're done; it's over.' We call in [and say] 'Battalion 7 -- the fire's knocked.' "
     There's still work to do, and still danger -- knocking holes to drain hundreds of gallons of water to keep the floor from collapsing under you, for instance.
     Durovic, I should mention, when he finally went down to get more bottled air, collared the lady with the baby. Exactly where, he asked, had she left that baby?
     Oh, she said, her baby goes all over.
     Her baby was a cat.
     If you feel deceived, imagine how the firefighters felt.
     Actually, they took it in good humor. All part of the job.

                     —Originally published Dec. 6, 2009

32 comments:

  1. Many suburban fire departments seem to imitate Chicago's.
    I remember reading that Schaumburg's is known as "Little Chicago" in a newspaper article years ago, because it's run just like Chicago's.
    Also, I read that painting the top of the cab of the fire engines & trucks black & not using red, started here as a way of memorializing the fire fighters that died in the Great Fire of 1871, which fire departments around the country now do.

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  2. In a more balanced world, the resident would be confronted with a firefighter coughing and gasping for air. In tears he would say. sorry madam, I couldn't find your baby a stupid cat kept getting in the way.

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  3. Just like some cops(and I don't mean the ones fighting thugs), firemen can be bullies at times too I guess. I'm sorry that it turned out like that or that they blamed you.

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  4. What an ending and what a stupid lady, putting their lives in jeopardy like that or their families could have lost them. The technique of fighting the fire back and air from the ground was very interesting.

    I didn't realize suburban firefighters were somewhat inept in comparison. Us suburbanites need to worry now.

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  5. Riveting. Even the 2nd time 'round.

    John

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  6. It's good of NS to put something up, even on his time off.

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  7. Wow. I can fully understand why suburban firefighters got upset over that. My dad was a volunteer fireman in the S. suburbs for over 30 yrs., and in my neighborhood was probably a dozen others, including a Fire Marshal. They don't stand outside and blast water at the fire. There was plenty of times my dad had to go into a burning structure, it's not just a city thing. Unfortunately, he once had a situation where they had to find a baby, and my dad found the child too late. He never shook off the memory of carrying out that lifeless baby. Reading these articles this week has been very interesting indeed. Thanks for running them.

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  8. I can't find fault in firefighters taking pride in their community and methods. The "Chicago Way" was blown way out of proportion; I'm sure it wasn't intended to insult suburban firefighters. But, I can see why they tend to avoid the media. Anything you say may be politicized.

    I appreciate your week of firefighter stories, thanks.

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  9. Too bad the episode left a bad taste in Neil's mouth, but it sort of goes with the territory. I was, once upon a time, an advertising manager who had the ancillary responsibility of facilitating opportunities for "free" publicity. My bosses were universally delighted at an opportunity to present their case to one of the gentlemen of the press, but often disappointed -- and sometimes enraged -- at the unintended consequences. Sometimes their annoyance was justified, a case of being misquoted or their words being taken out of context, but usually it was just a matter of the journalist doing his or her job.

    The lesson. If you want publicity but think you need to control the message buy an ad.

    Tom Evans

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    1. Interesting point, Tom.

      "...buy an ad." Spoken like a true former advertising manager! : )

      I have a friend who used to be quoted and interviewed by the media a lot. He wasn't looking for publicity as much as he was an "expert" whose opinion was sought out. His annoyance was that often the reporter already knew what story they were going to write, and were mostly just hoping he'd say something succinct that would further the point that the reporter was going to be making anyway. Thus, a 30-minute interview might be reduced to 2 out-of-context quotes that may or may not have reflected what the interviewee really thought about the topic, in general. "Goes with the territory," indeed, but it was often frustrating for him to see the results.

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    2. Happened to my boss once. With "60 Minutes."

      TE

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  10. I have to wonder how the Chicago firefighters formed their impression of the (dozens of) suburban fire departments, and how accurate it is. Or is it just the FD equivalent of exceptionalism? Surely they can take pride in their work without minimizing that of others.

    But, as someone stated the other day, thank God there are men and women willing to do this work.

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  11. I still can't see most women carrying a heavy person down the ladder in a fire. Sure there may be a few lady wrestler types. But one shouldn't be hired just for pc/ affirm. action purpose. Now I support women as pilots, physicists, astronauts and in some aspects of the military so don't get me wrong.

    Nikki, how awful for your dad and the baby. Like the firefighters who found so many charred kids at the Our Lady of Angels Fire, cause the archdiocese pulled strings to get grandfathered in so they didn't have to buy special alarms or such. PBS shows a good special on that now and then, Angels too Soon. I've even visited their grave monument at Queen of Heaven cemetery in Hillside. In those days doubt they gave firefighters counseling or mentioned PTSD, they had to internalize it or "tough it out." Not saying that's a good thing.

    Coey, let's be realistic, most firefighters are men.

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    1. (I wasn't born when that fire took place, but developed an interest after seeing the special. And my mom had mentioned it to me when I was young.)

      How about landlords saying they want to keep their smoke alarms working but certain clients keep stealing the batteries out of there?

      (Yes, I voted for and like Pres. Obama, by the way)

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    2. Certainly most firefighters are men, and women must meet the physical requirements. No reason not to appreciate all who do the job.

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  12. Didn't say I don't appreciate them, did I?

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    1. It seemed as if you took issue with my expression of appreciation. My apologies if I was mistaken.

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  13. Not at all, dear lady.

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  14. A friend of our family dumped his wife when he fell for a firelady that was at the fire engine house where he worked in the suburbs. She was a slip of a girl, so I don't know what she could carry in a pinch.

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  15. She carried away a 200 pound guy, didn't she?

    John

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  16. good one, tate, except he wasn't 200 lbs but less,

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  17. What is that one firefighter doing in the pic- the one who is standing? Praying?

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  18. NOTE- some of the posts on the other side of the blog aren't getting posted this evening, some glitch perhaps

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  19. It's working on Fri. morn.

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  20. I take that back, yes some of the comments aren't getting posted.

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    1. It's not me. No filtering on at all.

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    2. NS,

      Methinks the ole L. A. Athletic Club has become overbooked, and there are people sleeping on the treadmills and on the benches in the locker rooms now. Odd, in that it's probably hosted less than 10 guests, from what I can tell. But, boy have we left a mess... ;

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  21. Funny, Jakash. Yes, from what I can gather, there are supposed to be 217 comments in the L.A. Club, but the last 15 or so don't show up. At the bottom of that page, there is a "Load more" icon to click, but I tried clicking it and it doesn't seem to be loading. Definitely overbooked...

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  22. "It got dark, hot and intense" says the quote.

    That could also pass for the start of a romance novel.

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