The shout was for more hose as Capt. Mike Wittenmeier pushed down the smoke-filled hallway.
It was hot and humid, with only a few feet of visibility. Smoke filled the hallway, and Wittenmeier wasn’t pleased with the slow progress.
“Come on,” he yelled to a beleaguered reporter who was attempting to lug the hose down the hallway.
Fortunately, the smoke came from a machine, and there was no fire. But training was as real as possible for the six or seven firefighters who participated.
Every month, firefighters with the Peoria Fire Department practice what to do if there is a fire high off the ground. And by inviting a reporter along, they hoped to convey the difficulties associated with such fires and the need to remain vigilant.
Within the past few months, Peoria firefighters have battled two high rise fires. While that might not seem to be a large number, it is unusual for a city of this size. Battalion Chief Tom Carr said that all fires require training and practice, but high-rise fires require a bit more because they aren’t very common. Also, he said, there is a definite safety aspect.
“With a house fire or a structure fire, there might more than one way in or out of the building. With a high-rise, there tends to be just one way in or out,” he said.
Greg Walters, the fire chief in Peoria Heights and also the fire science program coordinator and instructor at Illinois Central College, agreed, saying such fires are more difficult because they happen less often. As a result, training sessions like one last month just north of Downtown Peoria are critical, officials say.
Carr said cities such as Chicago can bring up to 60 to the scene, but in Peoria, the number is about two dozen. That’s five engines and two ladder trucks, each of which has about three firefighters. A few go in to check out what happening, while others find the fire hydrant and then the outside connection on the building. It’s there, at the standpipe, that hoses can pump water up to the floor in need.
Yet, most of those aren’t rushing into the building. Rather, they are manning stations outside to either assist with water or are “ready reserves” to replace firefighters who were in the building before. Everyone has a place and purpose at the scene and national fire safety protocols dictate a certain number for safety.
Capt. Richard Booth, who has 34 years in the department, says those firefighters are needed because it’s hard work lugging equipment and gear up to the floor where the fire is. Each firefighter wears or carries about 80 pounds of gear. The turnout coat, which is the jacket most of us see the firefighters wearing, is heavy and feels like the lead protective smock that is used when someone is X-rayed.
The pants and boots are also heavy, and the boots make a foot feel suctioned to the floor. Add on a 19-pound backpack with a oxygen tank, a face mask, a flashlight and a helmet and it’s easy to see how a person can be worn out. But that doesn’t include the “high-rise pack,” Carr said. The pack is about 50 feet of hose that is tightly bundled and carried by the firefighters on their backs.
Within a house fire or a single story fire, the water is on the same level, for the most part, as the fire. With a high-rise blaze, a firefighter can ride an elevator up a ways, always stopping at least two floors below for safety. From there, they have lug hoses and other equipment. Carr and Booth both say that for safety, policy dictates that a team sets up a few floors below the actual fire. Modern buildings have hose hookups on every floor. It’s too dangerous to try to set up a hose on the same floor as the fire, Booth said.
“If you do that, you can get into the trouble as there is smoke and heat, and if the fire flashes, you might be trying to screw in the hose while the fire is coming to you,” he said.
For that reason, the practice is to “hump hose” through the stairwell. Usually, it’s a a floor or two below the actual fire. And even that’s a difficult process. Imagine a hose, fully charged with several pounds of water pressure. The hose itself is heavy, and with each gallon of water weighting about 8 pounds, the line becomes almost like a small steel pipe. The gloves used by the firefighters aren’t the grippiest. Combine that with the practice of staying low to the ground to avoid smoke, and it’s hard work.
A single tank of oxygen can last between 20 to 30 minutes. A typical rotation for a firefighter is about two tanks or about 40 minutes maximum. Guys are rotated out to rest and rehydrate so they don’t get injured.
During the training exercise, the reporter tripped and fell a few times. The hose slipped through his hands and his helmet fell off. Had it been a real fire, the consequences could have been severe. Instead, he was able to get to a ventilated room and drink some water after about 15 minutes of “battling the fire.” It’s for that reason that so many firefighters show up, Wittenmeier said.
“Imagine trying to do that with half the guys there,” Wittenmeir said.
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