What could possibly go wrong?

Firefighters plan and prepare for every contingency, yet crazy things happen and things will go wrong

We are pretty much in the business of showing up when things go wrong. Not just when something is on fire or a loved one is lying in the middle of the floor turning blue.

We show up for all kinds of problems. Water leaks, people stuck in compromising positions, animal or reptile problems, you name it; we show up.

But what about when things go wrong for us?

When something goes wrong at the barbershop the stylist gets another pair of scissors or borrows a clipper. If the cash register breaks at the market, the cashier asks you to move to the next check-out aisle.

When we have an equipment failure the outcome can be far more dire. And, we go to great extremes to prevent such a failure.

Truck checks
Small engines are run every morning to ensure readiness. Of course it is rare for a malfunction to occur at this time. The pull string hardly ever breaks in front of the fire station. It saves itself for the real emergencies. And chain saws always run like finely tuned Indy racing cars on the apparatus floor.

The apparatus is fired up every morning and sits on the pad blinking like an LED Christmas tree; all the lights work without fail. The pump glides effortlessly into pump gear like a scalding hot knife going through warm butter. Every valve slides back and forth like they are made of oily glass.

Now, everything is electronic or pneumatic — the wizardry is astounding. So when they fail you have to have a manual override for this and that, a crank handle for this and a button to override that. I always make a practice of knowing the procedure for manually shifting the pump for when it fails.

Recently, our pumper was out of service for a week because the computer went out. No pump, no emergency lights, etc. I am showing my age here, but it was nice to have a wheel throttle to turn and a valve to slide.

A long-time colleague and friend likes to call me Mr. Dinosaur and caution me about knocking things over with my tail.

Mistakes will be made
However, things go wrong and we have to overcome to save the day. I used to work for a fire chief who likened the entire episode to a mistake.

After an incident, we'd have people were going back and forth with, "you should have done this, that didn’t work properly." The chief would step in and tell everybody to calm down. The entire thing was a mistake.

If the cause of the fire was electrical, he would explain the house was mistakenly wired. An arson fire was obviously a mistake on the part of parents. A fire started from an appliance was a mistake on the part of a design engineer.

We just showed up and tried to help.

Staying connected
I have been involved in some epic failures. And not just equipment, human failures, also.

You know when everybody is sitting around the table and out of somebody's mouth comes, "Do you remember the fire at blah blah blah?" and a story ensues. This is always one that is re-told.

Nothing causes unbridled chaos and confusion like a Southeast Texas thunderstorm. Of course, the usual batch of transformer fires, fire alarms and wires down ensued.

Toward the end of the weather event news came of a house fire; it had been struck by lightning. We were in a ladder truck equipped with hose and a pump, which was good since help was going to be a while in coming.

The battalion chief arrived first and announced that flames were coming from the second floor of a large 2½-story house. We were instructed to locate a fire hydrant and lay a supply line.

It didn't sound too difficult; after all, we practice this.

It proved to be slightly trickier than I had expected. The fire was at the end of a short street off of a main drag. The nearest fire hydrant was on a street south of the fire in the middle of the block.

After a little backing and maneuvering, the hydrant man got off and dragged the supply hose the hydrant and motioned for me to proceed to the fire.

I pulled up the burning house and sprang from the cab to connect the supply hose. However, I was met by the chief at the rear of the truck.

He wore Ted Kennedy half glasses and was a stern taskmaster. He didn't play. He was by the book and his shift drilled everyday. He questioned me as to my getting the memo on the supply line.

I eagerly escorted him to the rear of the truck to show him the supply line.

Imagine my shock to find no supply hose on the ground. I looked up and down the street, under the truck, in front yards; no supply hose. I smiled and shrugged.

Upon careful investigation we learned that the last time the supply hose was reloaded the second and third section somehow didn't get coupled. I'm not sure how that happened.

Fortunately, the next-in pumper, being driven by an old friend, noticed the hose in the middle of the road and filled out the lay.

Another epic moment again involved human failure.

Carpe diem
I worked for a while at a small town fire department. There were three career firefighters on duty supplemented by a volunteer force. We manned an ambulance and a pumper.

In the event of two ambulance calls, the first two career fighters took the first out ambulance and the second ambulance was staffed by the remaining career firefighter and a volunteer.

One day, I was on the second-out ambulance. I raced to the scene with a volunteer. We arrived and found a teenage girl having a full-blown seizure.

We immediately made the patient comfortable, didn't restrain her but protected her from hurting herself. We inserted a bite stick to protect her air way. We did all the stuff a good EMT would do.

The family acknowledged the teenager had a seizure history. The young girl stopped seizing and was becoming postictal. Things were going our way.

But then just as quickly, they weren't. I heard a thud and turned. To my horror to discover my emergency medical associate on the floor having a seizure. Yes, a full-blown grandmal seizure. Is this house built over a nuclear waste facility?

I sat down and put my hand on my forehead. As an aspiring game show host, I can usually say something. Not this time. I was completely at a loss.

The father of the girl stepped forward and suggested that he would take the girl to the family doctor and I tend to my friend.

Great idea. I thanked them and told them to call any time; we're here to help.

Whenever I think of this incident I am always reminded of the Steve Martin movie "Roxanne." There is a line in the movie where Fire Chief Steve Martin says, "We don't want the public saying whatever you do don't call the fire department.”

Things can and do go wrong. Let me hear from you.

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