Editor’s note: Enterprise staff photographer, Michael Koff, a volunteer with the Westmere Fire Department for a year and a half, has made many calls for routine tasks like pumping out basements or helping at the scene of a car accident. But last Thursday, he answered his first call for a fire that destroyed a home. Koff wrote this first-person account of the experience.
By Michael Koff
GUILDERLAND –– At 5 degrees below zero, last Thursday morning was the coldest this season as members of the Westmere Fire Department were toned out for a structure fire at 4:20 a.m.
My first thought on hearing the tone was, “It’s probably just an oven fire or something simple.”
Before I could even put my right contact lens in my eye, I heard over the pager Westmere’s assistant chief saying he was en route as the dispatcher said, “Per PD on scene, house is fully involved.”
After I heard that, I woke up in a matter of seconds and raced out the door, to drive to the station. Not even the temperature was on my mind.
After arriving on scene, the assistant chief called a Signal 30, which means more apparatus is needed to assist.
When I got to Westmere, I knew this was going to be my first “big” fire after completing my Firefighter 1 course back in March.
The first fire I ever helped fight was in January a year ago but at the time I was an exterior firefighter. That means helping the men inside, handing them tools, changing their air bottles, and helping track their whereabouts.
The crew that I went with last Thursday was the second apparatus in, Truck 99. I was glad to be aerial qualified — that is, able to work with the truck’s tall ladder — so I could really help. And, being a “newbie,” I was glad to have five other guys in the truck with a ton of experience — two of them, past chiefs (and one of those past chiefs who is now a captain).
So yeah, I definitely felt safe with their knowledge of this business. But, while riding in the aerial truck, heading down Johnston Road to the call, the past chief who was riding next to me looked to his right and saw the fire ripping — you could see it from about a mile away. I can’t repeat in a family newspaper what he said when he saw the size and intensity of the fire, but I will say I uttered something similar right after him.
Once on the fire scene, we all had the same problem: Equipment froze. Even the fire hydrant was frozen. A fellow Westmere firefighter and I had to open it to hook up a five-inch hose from our truck.
The outside little cap would be easy to take off, so we were confident water would soon be flowing.
But, boy, were we wrong. After we tried to take the main cap off with both of us cranking the wrench with all of our weight, even using a metal pole to assist us, it wouldn’t budge.
Thankfully, one of Westmere’s experienced guys came over to help us and gave us two flares to melt the cap off, and then the water got to where it had to go.
The cold continued to plague us. After we got the bucket, which is attached to the big ladder and has two deck guns, in the air, we could start dousing the fire. But, when water started hitting the road, it formed ice.
We had to get Speedy Dry and Ice Melt off the trucks to help everyone stay upright and avoid injuries.
The water that kept running off the fire and down the driveway didn’t help either. Ladders were to be placed on the townhouse next-door but the request was cancelled because the ice on the roof would jeopardize the safety of the crew.
Getting the ladders off the trucks and bringing them to where they were needed was a challenge with the snow banks and all the ice and snow on the ground — an adventure!
The temperature took its toll on the fire-hose lines, too, freezing one of the lines we had to use. When we didn’t use a line for some time, it took a while to run the water to use it again, so we left the nozzle open a tad to keep it unfrozen.
The below-zero temperature also did a number on our truck. Once, when we put down the aerial and had it sit for some time and then raised it again, all of a sudden, we heard a loud clank. Most of the experienced guys told us it was fine, because they thought the aerial was just cold.
Not the case: Once the bucket called for water, the water made it only halfway before it fell like a waterfall from the middle of the main line; the line broke.
The backside of the townhouse had to be attacked with pike poles — long poles with hooks on top for grabbing and pulling stuff down. We used the poles to take out the vent under the roof as well as the other side of the firewall.
I went up on the roof with a past chief and found that it was very icy. This was a problem created by the snowstorm the week before.
One ladder was on the roof but, to be on the safe side, even though I was on the roof, rather than sitting on the ladder, I followed the captain’s orders and waited in the snow on the roof to help out from there.
A member from another department was at the top of the ground ladder to help insure our safety and to hand any more equipment if it were needed.
After grabbing a second roof ladder to hook to the bottom of the first one to be sure we both were up there safely, we began ripping off the aluminum siding and some of the material underneath.
We had to douse some water above the firewall since there was a tiny bit of fire there.
As I looked at the row of a half-dozen connected townhouses, I was thinking, “Thank God this firewall is here or we would be here much longer.”
The whole experience lasted four-and-a-half hours, so everyone saw the sunrise, ha! At nine in the morning, we were exhausted and frozen and eager to return to our warm homes.
After all was said and done, every department (Westmere, Fort Hunter, Guilderland, North Bethlehem and McKownville) worked hand in hand to battle both the fire and the elements. It was a job well done.