Press-Republican

September 29, 2013

A day in the life of city firefighters

By FELICIA KRIEG
Press-Republican

---- — Plattsburgh City Department firefighters have learned to anticipate the worst.

Photographer Gabe Dickens and I spent a recent Saturday with the department’s Platoon 3 at Station 1 on Cornelia Street.

After briefing, washing the fire trucks and tidying up the firehouse, as the department usually does on Saturdays, the seven firefighters ate lunch together in the small break room of the firehouse.

“It’s not like an office job, where everything is the same every single day,” firefighter Jim Ackerman said. “With this job, every day is different.”

“They put a lot of faith in us to be there quick in their emergency,” firefighter Jaime Schwartz said, reflecting on his favorite part of the job. “Every emergency, somebody here in the city has is their worst day, so they call us, and it feels good to be able to help them.”

Schwartz’s father was a firefighter for 25 years in New York City.

“I’ve heard stories about it all my life,” he said. “This has always been what I wanted to do.”

“Apparently, in kindergarten, that was my answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up,” firefighter James St. Dennis said.

Some of Schwartz’s fellow firefighters were more reluctant to share how they became interested in the emergency-services field.

“We don’t talk a lot about what we do,” firefighter Tim Clark said. “We just do.”

‘CAN’T LET GUARD DOWN’

Perhaps that’s because most of them have seen things the general public would rather not.

“I’ll never forget it,” said Cory Crahan, senior firefighter and acting lieutenant, recalling one of two calls that stand out in his mind as being the most horrifying. “It was a car fire with an occupant inside, and he died in the fire.

“I was on for a fire where we had confirmed entrapment,” Crahan said, referencing a fire on Court Street about five years ago.

“We actually went in without a hand line ... and we’re dragging him out, and it was pretty emotionally charged, just in the fact that we’re in rescue mode. It’s something we’re trained to do, but it’s not one of the things we most frequently do.”

Crahan went on another call for an infant who wasn’t breathing.

“When this dispatch comes in, you’re stomach kind of turns. You just know the outcome is not going to be good,” Crahan said. “You really dread going there, but when you get there, you just have to do what you have to do.”

“You don’t like to see children, infants, little kids — you don’t want to see someone like that get hurt,” firefighter Scott LaFlesh said. “You don’t want to see anybody get hurt, but it’s even more traumatic and stressful when you’ve got to deal with something with little kids.”

For these kinds of situations, procedures must be second nature for emergency responders, he said.

“You can’t ever let your guard down.”

AMBULANCE CALL

Just after 11 a.m., our conversation was cut short by the blaring tone that signifies a call for an ambulance — for a 2-year-old with an arm injury.

I jumped into the back of the red ambulance, buckling myself in, and Ackerman and firefighter Branden Zylstra climbed into the driver’s and passenger’s seats.

Although all firefighters are trained EMTs, Ackerman and Zylstra act as the EMTs for Platoon 3.

We went to a house in the South End, where a boy was lying on the floor. He didn’t appear to be seriously injured.

Ackerman and Zylstra calmly asked the boy’s parents what had happened.

His arm had been injured while he was wrestling with his father, and his parents wanted to bring him to the hospital as a precaution.

Zylstra checked for broken or fractured bones, and Ackerman fashioned a sling for the child.

Then he walked with his father to the ambulance, and we drove to CVPH Medical Center.

After we returned to the firehouse, Zylstra entered the specifics of the call into a computer-records system.

‘HARD TO SLEEP’

City firefighters say they are always prepared for an emergency call, even though they can, technically, sleep at night during their 24-hour shifts.

“I tell people, ‘You sleep as good as the day you bring your newborn child home,’” St. Dennis said.

“If the ambulance goes out, the tone goes off, (and) everybody hears the tone. Everybody’s up,” Clark said.

“If anybody has ever tried to get back to sleep after a loud tone in the night in an unfamiliar area, not in your own bed, not anybody’s really getting a lot of rest here.”

Clark said sometimes the quiet nights are the worst for him because he’s always anticipating a call and can’t fall asleep, as a result.

‘FOLLOW THE HEAT’

While there were no calls for fires while Dickens and myself were at the station, Crahan described to us the steps firefighters take after they gear up and arrive at a fire site.

“Subconsciously, you’re looking. You’re taking into consideration. You’re looking at the weather, at power lines. Is there a car in the driveway? Is there snow on the ground? Are there footprints out of the house?”

It’s difficult for most people to imagine running into a burning building instead of running away from it.

“It isn’t for everyone. You have to have a certain personality to handle some of the stuff,” Crahan said.

Once firefighters are inside a structure, finding the fire is harder than many may think.

“For the most part, you’re not going to be able to see anything because the smoke is so thick, so you basically just need to use your senses to find the fire. You kind of go where it feels hottest.”

Crackling or popping noises can also point a firefighter in the right direction, he said.

THERMAL-IMAGING CAMERA

Sometimes, the department will use a thermal-imaging camera to find the heat source.

Objects that are the same temperature will appear black, while the hottest object in the area will glow white on the camera.

“The hotter the object is, the whiter it’s going to be on the screen,” Crahan said.

It takes rapt concentration to be able to act quickly and efficiently inside a burning building, Crahan said.

But sometimes basic instincts kick in.

“You’re focusing on your breathing and just making it through (the smoke),” he said.

All of this is done while wearing 75 pounds of special clothing and equipment, including a compressed-air pack.

DAILY TRAINING

The officer in charge usually has a schedule in mind for each shift, Crahan said.

“That rarely goes as planned,” for obvious reasons, he said, but the department participates in some kind of training every shift.

First, we drove the pumper to Yando’s Big M Supermarket parking lot, where Zylstra and Ackerman practiced “dressing” the fire hydrant, which means attaching the hose and equipment.

They both stood behind me, and all three of us held the 1 3/4-inch hose together as water under 150 pounds of pressure shot out across the tarmac.

LaFlesh manned the truck, keeping an eye on the water pressure.

Later, the firefighters practiced tool hoisting.

Ackerman climbed a ladder to the top of the firehouse and he, LaFlesh and Zylstra practiced hoisting sledgehammers and “closet hooks” up using a rope. A closet hook is used to tear down the ceiling of a structure so firefighters can better attack the blaze.

‘YOU NEVER KNOW’

After they had finished training, the firefighters gathered for dinner in the break room.

Crahan recalled a Christmas where everyone pitched in to cook a nice dinner. But then the fire alarm went off.

“That roast sat there for an hour,” Crahan said.

And there’s a superstition in the firehouse: Fires come in threes.

“That’s pretty accurate,” Crahan said, smiling. “You never know.”

Email Felicia Krieg:fkrieg@pressrepublican.comTwitter: @FeliciaKrieg