Hey let's do lunch … after the fire

Battalion chief tells mutual aid partners to call back if things get worse

There’s a fascinating story floating around the interweb these days about firefighters not responding to a call because of lunch. Yes, you read that correctly. I have looked into this rumor, because certainly there has to be more here than meets the eye.

Unfortunately, there’s not. I always thought the deal was we dropped whatever we were doing in the event of a crisis. God knows I have over the years.

As the story unfolds, it’s a peaceful Mother’s Day in Jones County, Miss. People are having lunches honoring the person who carried them in their womb and endured the pain of childbirth. The person who fixed skinned knees, mended broken hearts, was always there for the good and bad. The person who taught you to wash behind your ears and gave you the nasty-tasting cough medicine and could always be counted on. There’s just something special about your mom.

And Mother’s Day in Mississippi to boot – homemade biscuits with honey, chicken and dumplings, Happy Mother’s Day y’all! I can almost smell the magnolia blossoms and mustard greens! What could possibly ruin this southern-fried Sunday?

There’s no good time for a fire

Well, let me tell you. Suddenly the serenity was shattered in Jones County, as a fire call went up. A duplex had burst into flames on Redbud Drive, and at 11 a.m. Just before the big lunch!

A fire is not just a dangerous event, but also an emotional plane crash for the homeowner. Sometimes, fires are just cruel. I’ve heard people say a given holiday or season is a terrible time to have a fire. There’s no good time for a fire.

I was driving home one Christmas morning and noticed a plume of smoke on the horizon. Naturally, I had to investigate. I arrived to find a small wood-frame house with flames coming out the windows. My attention was drawn to the owner, an elderly female who was sitting in a lawn chair in the driveway.

As the house burned, she looked on passively. I couldn’t help but feel bad for her. I guessed she lived alone and was retired. Everything she had was turning to ash – not just the big things, but also the pictures of firsts and milestones that are truly irreplaceable.

Mutual aid agreement

Meanwhile, back in Jones County, the local life savers from the Jones County Volunteer Fire Department responded, but were outgunned. As the fire progressed, the air horns were sounded and a defensive operation was initiated. It’s about now that things begin to unravel.

A mutual aid agreement existed with Laurel, Miss., and Jones County requested a pumper. Jones County was told to call back in 15 minutes if the situation gets any worse.

If it gets any worse? The house is burning down. How much worse is it going to get? Unless a 747 makes an emergency landing in the front yard, it can’t get much worse. It’s been my experience fires don’t usually get better without intervention.

The fire chief threw out some double talk about Engine 5 and Engine 2 – one was on an assignment. Then he revealed the assignment was lunch. Don’t believe me? Watch the video.

He had me for a brief second. I thought he was going to say the resources weren’t available. That’s defendable. Most small places have a mutual aid rule of one mutual aid assignment at a time. Most of the places I have worked have that rule. You have to have somebody to take care of the home fires (pardon the pun). But then he lost me when he revealed the assignment was lunch.

I really don’t get this at all. I can’t even fathom the times I’ve left a meal for an emergency. I made a run a couple of Thanksgivings ago that came in as everybody was admiring the spread just laid out on the table for the big meal.

I’ve left meals in restaurants many times. A lot of firefighters get their food to go for that reason. They eat out of the bag on the way to the emergency or on the way back. Sometimes, if we return after a call – that’s always humorous, people dripping water and their clothes sticking to them – the restaurant is accommodating and gives us fresh food, sometimes they make us re-order and re-pay.

Not a volunteer issue

Back in Laurel, the fire chief said the on-duty battalion chief made this decision. They are scheduling a meeting to review the mutual aid agreement. I guess there is a dinner time caveat in the agreement.

I have looked at the comments that follow some of the articles I have read on this subject and it seems there are a lot of paid versus volunteer comments. That is completely convoluted. It’s hard for me to imagine any firefighter, paid, volunteer, union or otherwise finishing lunch before going to a fire.

Plus, mutual aids can be fun. They usually want manpower or water. You get to go and use other people’s equipment, then leave.

I worked for a chief once who compared situations like these to a paint brush – when this type of thing happens, it paints all of us. True enough. The average guy sitting in front of the TV probably equates this to all firefighters. He thinks we all operate this way.

But let’s be fair, I’m sure the Laurel, Miss. fire department does a good job and I’m sure there are highly capable firefighters who take risks and save lives in this crew. This just wasn’t the best of ideas. I’m not sure what the on-duty battalion chief was thinking, perhaps it was one of those all-you-can-eat places. My long-term goal in life is to go to a Chinese buffet and only have two plates. Not there yet.

Can you explain the rational? Have you ever experienced anything like this? Let me hear from you in the comments.

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