Two days before Christmas right after lunch the structure tones went off. The computerized voice said the words that firefighters love to hear, "structure response."
That shift I was acting as an engineer and my regular engineer was acting as captain. This happens from time to time when a captain or engineer are off duty and the position wasn't able to be filled by someone of the same rank. The department will "upgrade" qualified personnel to act out of their rank and then fill in the lower ranked vacancy.
We quickly jumped into our turnout gear and hopped in the truck. Most structure fire calls turn out to be anything but a fire. Sometimes it's a lawn mower blowing l little too much smoke. Other times it's a BBQ. When dispatch states that they have multiple callers with smoke and flames showing you know you have a working fire. We had none of that this time.
As we neared the freeway (the call was a couple of districts over) we heard another of the responding units state that they had smoke showing and then declared this a working structure fire. At my department this declaration gets a couple things started. Another engine is added to the call along with another battalion chief. In the dispatch center they also start a running clock on the fire called the fire timer. It also lets the rest of the incoming units know that it's time to put our game faces on.
As we exited the freeway the column of thick black smoke was very visible. The street that we had to take took us in front of the local mall. It was a three lane road with traffic at a near stand still trying to get a look at what was going on. Up ahead in traffic there were a couple of police cars and an ambulance all with their lights and sirens going trying to edge through traffic. No one was moving for them. It wasn't until the drivers heard the wailing sound of our growler siren combined with the air horn that people started to get a clue. All doubt about what they should do was removed when they looked in their mirrors and saw big red coming at them fast and angry. Even the cops moved out of our way.
Pulling up on scene we found ourselves right behind our battalion chief. He assigned us to shut off the utilities which we did. The BC, now IC, then assigned us to back up the interior team. At the front door there were two hose lines. One went left and up the stairs the other to the right and downstairs. Both led into darkness.
My captain instructed our hoseman to follow the line up the stairs. When our firefighter got to the top of the stairs he found that there was no room. There were already too many firefighters in the deceptively small upstairs. I never made it to the top of the stairs. It was there that I heard it.
"MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY"
While a house on fire qualifies as an emergency to most people to firefighters it's what we train for. That is our office. Even if we don't get to go to the "office" as often as we'd like (except maybe for my brothers in Detroit....watch Burn). When a firefighter has an emergency a mayday is declared. A mayday means the s**t has hit the fan.
When I heard the mayday the person calling it out identified that the firefighter on the first floor hoseline was lost. For my crew it was simple. We knew where the hose was and where the firefighter was supposed to be. We boogied down the stairs toward the line.
As we got close to the front door I saw a firefighter crawl out. It was the missing fireman. He had made it out even before the RIC crew could make it inside. Within second the mayday was canceled.
Afterward it became more clear what had happened.
There had been an attic collapse in the back bedroom which caused the area around to flash over. The firefighter and captain tried to make it out of the back sliding glass door but were separated. As soon as the captain lost sight of his fireman he called a mayday. The firefighter, falling back on his training, turned and followed the hoseline out.
This call served as a chilling reminder that things can go wrong. My department and more specifically my crew have gone over the events and tried to learn how to keep that from happening to us in the future. If I never hear another mayday on one of my calls I wouldn't be disappointed.