Russell Koharchick, 10/1/2012
No, I Don’t Get Paid Enough For That
Most people assume calling 911 is only for emergencies; while I admire their integrity, there are many others with a less discerning dial finger. In five years as a professional firefighter I’ve been called to a parrot “stuck” in a tree he flew into, rescued ducklings from a storm drain three separate times, responded to a “parachutist drowning in a river” that was a kite boarder, and moved a couch at a retirement home. And while calls as ridiculous as these are few and far between, there’s one specific type just as non-emergent, and far more common.
Whether a sprinkler pipe bursts in a warehouse, a kid pulls the alarm handle in a store, or a residential fire alarm is activated by burnt pop-tarts, it’s safe to count on at least one false alarm per shift. You show up prepared for the world to be on fire, half expecting to see a blushing mother and her toddler at an alarm pull station, walk around looking serious, and try not to knock anything over with your air-pack or look winded carrying 100 pounds of gear. In the end you reset the alarm that started blaring before you got there and give everyone an understanding smile as you leave. These are some of the most benign calls we respond to, so of course, it had to be a false alarm that became the self-effacing career moment I can never decide to laugh at, or blush over.
The setting was perfect to the point of cliché: middle of October, thick cloud cover, dim moon; I feel like there may have been a black cat walking past the station. I was curled up (literally, because it’s not possible to sprawl out on a twin bed) in Station 84 after a long day of nonsense when the tones sounded around 2:30 am. I clicked on along with the lights, stumbled into the bays and slipped into my gear. We were soon out the door and heading to an alarm in a residence, reported by a neighbor, and from the moment the officer hit the on scene button, the house before us terrified me.
This was the house where Saw was filmed, where Charles Manson lived, and where the Masons performed their annual blood sacrifice. I can’t support any of that, but those were the vibes; something was very wrong with this structure. For one thing, it was literally the creepy old house on the block. This house stood decades before the introduction of subdivisions, and years before modern builders attempted to integrate it into their cookie-cutter community. Their attempt didn’t work so well, and the whitewashed plantation style structure puffed its clapboard chest out in defiance against the new construction. The lawn was untrimmed, of course, and the few trees in the yard waved their arms in warning. I don’t want to say the apple tree by the front gate was laden with poison apples, but at the same time; I think the apple tree out front grew poison apples.
The house was abandoned, classic, and not in the “someone packed up and moved on to the next stage of life” sort of way. This house was abandoned in the “oh shit, let’s get outta here, forget the dresser” kind of way. Still in the engine, I could see rotting furniture on the porch, tipped over and broken, and debris in the backyard. I could also hear the smoke detectors sounding, and not the normal polite yet stern kind of alarm, these alarms had a piercing quality that made my nasal cavity hurt. Right now you’re thinking, “I didn’t know smoke detectors made different noises.” Well, neither did I.
Because I was getting paid to do a job, I tried to go about business as usual. I gathered my tools and met the officer at his door with feigned composure. The good news was the lack of obvious fire meant Hell was still being suppressed by the floorboards. The bad news was, because the alarm was sounding, someone would have to go inside to investigate.
We shined our flashlights into the windows, seeing nothing more than abandoned furniture, peeling wallpaper, and broken light fixtures, and tried all the doors. Each one was locked, and the hair on my neck stood up as we walked through the back yard. When we reached the fourth side of the house I saw the object that sealed my fate, sent my heart to my throat, and the pit of my stomach to my toes; on the second story was an ajar single window. Did it have thin white lacy curtains, eerily floating in the wind with fraying edges? Of course it did.
I knew what was coming before the officer said a word, and a minute later I was putting my tools away and grabbing a ladder so I alone could climb through the window, walk through the house, and open the front door so we could investigate and reset the alarm. And no, I don’t get paid nearly enough for that.
I want to say I didn’t dawdle, or fumble with the ladder hoping someone else would volunteer, but I can’t. I imagine they were both breathing sighs of relief knowing they were off the hook, and I cursed them for being cowards (under my breath) as I placed my boots on the metal rungs.
I got my first unobstructed view inside at the top of the ladder, but because this was the concentrated darkness of all the world’s evil, the beam of my flashlight was little help. All I could make out was a long hallway of peeling wallpaper with three rooms on either side, ending in a spiral staircase. This is when I realized the likelihood of Jack Nicholson popping out of a doorway and axe murdering me, either that or a zombie; and to think I left my axe in the engine.
The piercing alarm stung the back of my teeth and magnified the pulse in my temples as I leaned into the window, feet still firm on the ladder. Then, with a final deep breath, maybe a quick prayer, I climbed in. And in the modified pushup position that resulted from entering headfirst, I learned that terror smells like cat piss and wet carpet. I tried to push the smell to the back of my mind, stood up, and descended the hallway in slow steps of false composure, throat dry, heart thumping, and legs shivering inside sweaty turnouts. In the darkness, as the floorboards creaked under my boots, the smell of rancid stagnance consumed my nostrils, and the stinging noise of the detector grew, I may have started to whistle.
I passed the first room, and looked in to see a moldy twin bed with no sheets next to some dismembered furniture. I walked a little quicker.
I passed the second room, and it was empty except for some broken wood and a shattered closet mirror. The pieces threw my flashlight’s beam across the room at a thousand untrue angles, and I walked a little quicker.
The alarm grew louder, it’s sting filling the empty space between decaying walls, and the third doorway revealed another vacant room, in which the offending detector hung by its wires, swinging in the emptiness.
A broken smoke detector moving for an unknown reason must be exactly what it takes to break my tough guy façade. I quit whistling, pointed my flashlight forward, and ran, fully anticipating something lethal, or at least horrible, to jump out of the remaining rooms. I grabbed the stairway’s center banister, half swung half jumped to the first floor, found the entrance, fumbled with the lock, and pushed out on the inward swinging door. I stumbled into the cool air flushed, sweaty, and never happier to see the lights of my engine. My crew met me on the porch with, “Wow that was fast,” and “Why the hell are you sweating?”
We stomped around the house for the next few minutes looking for signs of smoke or fire, and I stayed closest to the door making sure it didn’t spontaneously combust, or even worse, close. The standard procedure for alarms is to look for any signs of fire, smoldering or extinguished, and check the walls, floor space, and attic space for concealed heat with a thermal imaging camera (TIC).
After the TIC yielded no heat, and there were no signs of smoke, we pulled the wires and batteries from the alarm and prepared to exit. With a deep exhale I slammed the door a little too hard, maybe to show the house who was boss, and made a comment about how creepy it was, my voice full of masculine composure now that I was out and we were leaving. The officer stopped me.
“What are you doing?”
I looked around.
“Uhh, taking my gear off so we can get out of here and never come back?”
“Someone has to lock the door.”
This was the second time my stomach dropped.
“We can’t leave the door unlocked. You gotta’ go lock it from the inside and climb out the window.”
I protested once on the grounds that it was abandoned and B shift could lock it in the daylight, but they don’t pay hosers like me to protest. The officer said they would wait for me to butt the ladder, and as I dropped my helmet in a microtantrum, I realized how much I hated his big stupid firefighter mustache.
Alone at the front door, I strategized as my crew walked to the ladder side of the building. I felt my pulse pounding in my wrists and the plan became simple: forget being a tough guy and run as fast as I could. Still standing on the porch with the door open, I reached in and put a hand on the deadbolt, practicing turning it a few times to maximize efficiency. By my calculations, I could be halfway up the stairs within four seconds of the lock clicking, and out the window (if I made it out) in another fifteen. With a final deep breath, and a glance over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching: the race began. I slid past the door and turned the lock as my feet hit the first steps. My boots clomping filled the house and halfway up I started talking to myself. It sounded something like this: “Shit, shit, shit, shit!”
At the top of the stairway I swung around the bannister and saw the vacant hallway; my voice rose. If I was gonna’ get axe murdered, captured by a bad guy, or eaten by that thing from Alien Vs. Predator, it would happen in the hallway. My eyes set on the nearest doorway as I ran, once I had passed it they focused on the next. The window on the end wall shrank, moving further away with each step, and the light from my flashlight bounced and threw shadows onto every surface.
I reached the window as a blur of gear, and using the rapid evacuation technique reserved for emergencies, dove out headfirst, grabbing a rung with each hand and swinging my legs down until my feet found lower rungs. When the training officer had said “emergencies” he had meant backdraft, structural collapse, and flashover. In this instance, I used my own interpretation to include probable monster attacks and didn’t think twice.
I slammed the window shut with the same zealous I shut the front door with, and made it to the bottom of the ladder, sweaty, flushed, and out of breath. The officer stared at me, squinted, started to ask “Wh-,” but then just shook his head and started to the engine. Resuming my façade, as though it wasn’t a bit late in the game for that, I unzipped my coat and returned the ladder to its rack on the engine. At the station, I took a shower to wash away the smell of fear and body odor, and watched TV with the light on until it was time to go home at 6 am.
A few weeks later I found myself giving a tour to a group of six year olds visiting our station. An important element of such a tour is to teach them what firefighters in full gear look like, the rationale being if they recognize us, they won’t hide or run deeper into a burning building when we search for them. The gear adds substantial bulk, and the mask creates breath sounds similar to Darth Vader. A few of them are inevitably terrified.
In past tours I’d never spared much empathy on this fear-based reaction, accepting it as a routine part of the tour, and I’m sure my consolations were formal and empty. But since the night of the fire alarm, the night I found myself running from nothing and yelling in an empty hallway, I had a more appreciative perspective. I knew there was fresh validity in my tone as I told them: “It’s ok guys, firefighters get scared too sometimes.”