“It’s going to be a scorcher!” say the off-duty platoon members as their reliefs file in one by one on a July morning in Providence. They are off to the beach or to their air-conditioned homes, grateful that fate was kind and the schedule demons favored them–this time.
“Attention Engine 2, Engine 12, Engine 7, Ladder 7, Ladder 4, Special Hazards, Rescue 3, and Division 1: a still box.”
We put down our mops and brooms, brushes and towels and converge on the apparatus floor, housework done for now. The dispatch repeats over the PA system as we don our gear, our skin soaked with sweat. Breathing heavy, we get dressed, get on the trucks, and go.
“Attention Engine 2, Engine 12, Engine 7, Ladder 7, Ladder 4, Special Hazards, Rescue 3, and Division 1: Respond to 21 Metcalf Street for a reported house fire.”
Windows down, we roar through
the tired city streets toward Metcalf, the heated breeze created by the speeding truck doing little to alleviate the oppressive conditions. Minutes later we are there, packs on our back, tools in hand, ready to fight. Heavy smoke and fire are visible above the third floor; all occupants are reportedly out of the house, the rear stairway leads to the attic, and away we go.
A crowd has formed, drawn by the commotion on their street, eager for some excitement to break up their day. The heat wave is in full swing, temperatures in the mid-90s, humidity nearing 100 percent. The people wipe their brow, fan themselves, and slump into the sparse grass that lines the street, the oppressive heat sapping their energy. Nobody moves; its just too hot.
It is hot–so hot that things around us seem to erupt in flames. Unlike the rest of the people who inhabit the city, those fortunate souls in their shorts and T-shirts, we are not dressed for this. Our clothing is heavy, soaked with sweat, and cumbersome. Every step we take is a workout unto itself, and the thought of moving closer to the heat, rather than away from it, is obscene. Yet, forward we march, into the darkness, through obstacles unseen but certainly felt; arms, legs, monsters, wires, and hooks all doing their best to slow us down and allow us to be consumed by the very thing that we are inching relentlessly toward.
“Stay hydrated,” said the weatherman this morning, his words echoing in my head. That his voice originated in some air-conditioned studio somewhere that is not here, in the heart of the sun, is not lost on me as I remember those words and regret the station coffee instead of a gallon of water that I consumed in copious amounts this morning before the bell tipped.
Inside the burning home, the temperature outside is irrelevant; heat is heat, and we have survived worse. A house on fire can only get so hot before it flashes, and we are not there yet. There is time, and there is work to be done. Ladders on the outside go up, hoselines on the inside advance, radios clack, orders are given, things get accomplished.
“Charge my line!” orders the firefighter in front as he finally confronts the beast in the attic of a triple-decker with exposures on both sides. The pump operator wastes no time, calculates what he needs to do to get 100 psi at the tip of a 200-foot length of line 30 or so feet above him, throttles up, pulls a lever, and watches the lifeline slither through the doorway toward the crew at the top of the stairs.
It’s a good job; we wrap things up in about 20 minutes, pull some ceilings, open walls, find no extension, and descend. One by one, we exit the house and enter the cool, refreshing atmosphere that the rest of the city is suffocating in. Escaping hell must feel similar, I think, as I take off my coat and helmet and bask in the cool summer air as I watch the crowd struggle with the heat.