Heroes?

Raph al Guul

The following story is based on true events that happened on the 21st of September this year (but it goes without saying that I have fictionalized it considerably). You can find more information about the actual thing here. The report, which has been created by the fire department that I belong to, is in German, though.

Ten at night. I’ve gone over this like 20 times now. I have to get up early tomorrow, so I will go to bed now, read for about an hour, then go to sleep. There’s a lot of things I have to read. The fate of every college student, I guess. And that of students of literature in particular. Just as I want to turn off my computer that has been playing music for the last two hours, the phone rings. What the hell? Who’s calling at this time? It only takes me a second to realize who that is. What that is. I leave my room, the music keeps playing. Just when I get to the stationary phone in the living room, it stops ringing. Did I miss it? Nope. For some reason my mother decided to pick up the phone. I know that reason. It’s because my dad and sisters had gone to bed already and I usually never pick up the phone. It’s really only her left. And if someone calls at this time, you know you have to get it. Problem is: My dad and I are firemen. My mother is not. So I’m standing there, expecting her to hand over the phone. But she decides to hold on to it and repeat whatever it is that the alarm is saying. She is annoying like this. I try to understand what she is saying. Not much getting through. Fire, visible flames, the name of a small town quite a bit away. Apparently they are calling on us for backup. And that is nothing special, we have the heavy equipment and are supposed to support smaller fire departments nearby.

I get excited. This is my first time of a real case of firefighting. Though I know I will probably not really do much of the fighting itself, I wanna see how the whole thing is gonna go down. For some reason I feel like I need to bring my cell phone with me. I will never figure out why I thought that, even though it will come in handy. My father has gotten up, thrown on some clothes and is now running down the stairs. I do the same. On the way out, I grab my shoes and my hat. The hat is important. I don’t leave the house without it, fire or not, emergency or not. I don’t put on the shoes but run in my socks and my hat to the car, jump in, and only then put on the shoes. I will take them off again at the fire station anyway. My father drives pretty fast. Apparently they don’t check your speed when firemen are racing to the station. Seems like we get heroic privileges in situations like these.

We arrive at the fire station which is basically just a huge garage with huge cars in it and back rooms with lockers and protective clothes. Though for some reason, there are also some lockers in the back of the garage itself. I always found that kinda funny; people changing in the back of a garage. I get out of the car and start hastily walking towards the building. I see other people – some of them I know – arriving, jumping out of their cars, and running to their lockers. I hardly ever run. Probably because I do not believe that I would be in situations serious enough to force me to run. My old man passes me, running like a crazy person. Me not running is somewhat of a matter of dignity and appreciation. But I realize that right now, my situation is indeed serious enough. Someone’s home is burning down. And I am the one responsible for being there. I pick up the pace. While my dad is certainly much stronger than me, I’m pretty sure that when it comes to raw speed, everything he does, I can do faster. There is a short section of narrow stairs in front of us, so I adjust my speed to that of my old man. After that, I pass him, run to my locker. I no longer see my dad because his is one of those lockers in the actual garage while mine is in one of the back rooms. I’m damn excited and hope I can somehow manage to end up in the same vehicle as my dad. I need someone I know, to not feel out of place. And if you have ever met me, you will know that I am not lying. When surrounded by unknown people, my slightly xenophobic tendencies cause me to first shut down communication and then panic.

I finally got all my gear on. I like to call it a uniform, even though uniforms tend to be shiny and cool. These clothes are designed to get burned, wet, and dirty. Apart from the reflection of the white and yellow stripes on the sides, there is not much that’s shiny about this. Maybe cool. Depending on your conception of the word. I forget that I decided that it is okay for me to run and once again walk hastily. Ten steps out of the locker room, I realize I forgot my helmet. I try to make a funny remark to not seem like such a fool. Obviously that doesn’t work. In order to be funny, one should never try to be. That just kills it. But luckily, no one even takes notice of all this. People around me are running like apes, changing clothes, a few of the higher ranking officers are screaming stuff. I turn around, get my helmet and now I remember and I charge back into the garage. I lost time. I need to catch up with my alternative self. I see the leader of the squad that I belong to. There are three troops and each one is led by an officer. I know the guy. Naturally I run to the car that he is standing next to. While I’m closing in, he screams: “I need one more!” Now I’m at the car door and I suddenly feel insecure. Am I qualified? Is he screaming because he wants one more experienced firefighter? Am I even supposed to get in that car? “Get in the car!” He yells at me, while I try to somehow come up with an adequately formulated question that expresses my insecurity. I drop it and get in.

I sit down, the officer slams the door and gets to ride shotgun. The driver has been there for a while and the vehicle starts moving. I look around and see my old man standing right in front of me. I try to locate my gloves. Firefighters have rough gloves that they are required to wear at all times. In German, we call them “Handschuhe” which literally translates to “hand-shoes”. A brilliant term to describe the things that I am trying to find. It’s dark and I better get them out before I actually have to do things. The driver turns on the alarm. I have never actually been in a speeding firefighter truck with the sirens going and the blue lights flashing. It’s exciting. Of course, speeding remains relative. The bigger a vehicle is, the slower it moves, even in an emergency. But if you’re inside the car, you feel how the machine is testing its limits and you can’t help but feel empowered. We close in on the location. An orange sheen lies on the horizon made up of roofs and a few trees. An impressive amount of smoke slowly and steadily ascends from behind the first houses of the small town that we’re moving towards. And then we see it.

It’s disastrous. A small barn next to a house has been reduced to a skeleton, contours of construction, gaps filled with flames and fire. The house itself seems to be on fire, too. But apart from the flickering sheen somewhere on the roof, and the huge pillar of smoke, we don’t see much of the actual fire. Even I, inexperienced firefighter that I am, know that both of these buildings are not to be saved. What we’re trying to do here is not stopping the fire before it destroys the house: it’s just damage control. Prevent the fire from spreading. It’s much more important to protect the town from an individual’s problem than solve that problem. Gotta be a tough realization for the individual.

Now our van has stopped. We are waiting for orders. The officer calls out to the leader camp but he does not get an answer. Eventually, he decides to go to the camp himself, telling the driver to wait until he receives further orders. We sit and wait. Meanwhile a guy’s house is burning down next to us. I think they will need more water. Finally the speakers of the radio crackle and we hear our officer calling the driver, telling him to move up. He does so and we all look for our uniformed officer in the crowd of firefighters. He spots us, we spot him, he gets back in the car and tells us what is going to happen next. We’re supposed to deploy a motorized pump at a creek nearby. Get them more water. We move to the designated position, get out of the truck and realize that there is no pump to be deployed here. I am confused. Don’t we have one attached to the back of our truck? Why do we have to ask the leading officers if we are supposed to use that one, if there’s clearly no other pump around? Maybe it’s organizational crap – the firefighter equivalent of bureaucracy.

We eventually get cleared to deploy our pump and get going. It’s pretty easy and we are two too many. So I mainly stand there and try to participate by reaching out for stuff that someone else is already taking care of. We run into some trouble, though. That creek is not deep enough. The pump pumps air. We don’t want air. Some guys from the local fire department show up. They weren’t able to do a damn thing about this fire. They have just two trucks, one motorized pump, and 15 firefighters. Good thing we are here now – and pumping up air. The big TLF, which is a German acronym for “Tanklöschfahrzeug” only has a limited capacity. If we don’t find a way to deliver more soon, it will run out of water and there will be no way for the guys upfront to prevent the fire from spreading. One of the local guys tells the other two to bring large wooden planks to dam up the creek. It takes us quite a while to effectively raise the water level. But now that we have done it, my dad turns on the pump again and we can finally provide the TLF with more water.

From this point on, it gets pretty boring. I get sent to the gathering place where I will be standing for the rest of the event. I meet a couple of guys that I know and we hang around, chatting. Sometimes I feel like it’s incredibly offensive having some poor guy’s house burn down while the firefighters stay next to it, cracking jokes and laughing. But the problem is that some of us simply don’t have the training, and others are just physically incapable to work right next to the flames. So when the water transport is set up, our job is basically done until we get to pack it all up again.

At some point, they start shooting water through the roof of the building. The result is that foggy smoke is pressed out of the lower parts and, because of the cold water that’s above it, it starts creeping along the ground. The gathering place gets completely fogged and we are ordered to change both our own position, and the position of the leader camp. And while they are setting up again, we get to stand around without a purpose all over again. I grab a smoke. I always thought it was ironic that almost all firefighters smoke. As if we weren’t getting to inhale enough smoke already. The fire seems to have started fading out; the guys at the front line have done – are still doing – a good job. There are quite a lot of people around us now. We are all just waiting for this to be over. I sit down on the ground, sucking on my Constellation Sweet.

I remember that I had put my phone into my pocket and I grab it. No one cares what I am doing right now, I might as well be doing whatever the hell I want. My phone is scanning the environment for wireless network connections and miraculously finds an unprotected one. I wonder who, in this day and age, is still confident enough to not secure their network. But I don’t actually care. I connect to the network and do what every bored nerd of my generation would do: I log on to facebook. It’s late, so there isn’t really anyone around. I update my status with something like “there’s a fire here and I’m just kinda standing around”. Then I take a picture of the scene. It’s a terrible picture, but I upload it to my wall, anyway.

Around 00:30, we are called for the final report. It seems like it’s been an eternity, but actually, it was only a bit more than two hours. The commander of the local fire department thanks us for our support, our commander explains further steps. Most of us will be able to pack up most of the material and go home. Nice! We are many firefighters and we all want to go home, so the packing up doesn’t take that much time. We then get into randomly chosen trucks to go back to the fire department. I don’t see my dad anymore, but that doesn’t matter. He will eventually show up at his locker. In the garage, there is a list that one apparently has to put a cross beside his or her name in order to get paid for all of this. I obviously do that. Then I wait for my dad. Just when I see him, another officer tells me to help restocking the TLF with hoses. I have never done that, but I just look at what the other guys are doing and do the same.

We then finally get to take off and go home. I am pretty beat. At 1:13, I get home and into my room. Goddammit, now I am considerably behind with my elaborate plan for this semester! But hey, I helped prevent a town from burning down – what is more important? We are not heroes because we do extraordinary things, but because we do what we can whenever it is needed, regardless of our own preferences and plans.

Picture courtesy of Stützpunkt Feuerwehr Münchwilen TG

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5 responses to “Heroes?

  1. Fighting fire is always a big deal. I sign up to the title – firemen are heroes, because they are there day or night when one needs them.

    • I see the reasoning behind this. My concern is, though, that when I tell people that I work at the fire department, then it sounds slightly less heroic when I say that in the last year, I only participated in one single deployment and that 80% of that time I spent hanging around, cracking jokes and smoking 😉 Many firefighters don’t actually “do” much.

  2. Still…I agree with Natalia, you’re doing a really important job.

  3. There was fire once in the house where my husband and I live. Although it did not look very dangerous at first (balcony and roof area), it took the firemen about 2 hours to secure the building. They came really fast and stayed till everything was under control. I was impressed how well things were organized.

    • I guess that’s because we do so much practice all year long. I know that most firefighers, including myself, get really excited once a serious case of a fire actually comes up. And that’s why even lazy people like me start to run 😉

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