The room was filled with smoke. Before crawling into the room, my fellow firefighter and I set down a new ‘hallway runner’ made of a red vinyl material to protect the hallway floor from damage.
Hose in hand, I opened the door and crawled into the room to escape the 800-degree attic fire above. Although I was familiar with the room I had just entered, the smoke had an immediate memory-erasing effect.
I couldn’t see more than six inches in front of my face, which was covered by a breathing mask hooked up to a heavy oxygen tank strapped to my back.
The mask and oxygen tank were part of the 70 pounds of gear which I had to assemble and secure in less than a minute.
Back in the room, my flashlight proved to be completely useless. I continued to pull the hose forward and used my remaining hand to get a feel for the space. Together, our three-person crew was on a rescue mission.
San Marino Fire Department Captain Nick Maza was his team’s eyes and ears. With a sleek new yellow thermal camera in hand, he directed us to the downed man.
Once we identified our target, a firefighter and I began pulling the downed man out of the room. “3, 2, 1, pull,” I yelled over the noise of the loud alarms and sirens as we pulled the man.
The temperature at floor level held at a sweltering 150-degrees throughout.
I’m not a firefighter. There was no fire. It took me well over a minute to don my gear. And having to pull an immobilized person out of a burning room with only two people is not easy. In fact, none of this was.
Firefighters have a lot to manage in the event of a building fire and they’ve practiced a great deal to manage it best. The work begins when the first engine arrives on scene and identifies a victim trapped inside the burning building.
“The engineer is at the pump panel pumping, me and my two firefighters—me in the back on the radio, safety, looking at what’s going on, paying attention to the environment and being the eyes—while the guys are…pulling the hose, forcing doors and doing searches,” Maza explained.
As his team’s eyes, Maza is in charge of the thermal camera. The San Marino Fire Department received two thermal cameras last week, which Maza demonstrated in the above-described simulated fire last Wednesday in the break room of the SMFD.
The “super-functional” cameras, he noted, cost the City of San Marino $4,200 each and replaced one bulkier thermal camera.
“Instead of opting for the bigger one with more features, we got two smaller [cameras]. So now the ambulance will have one assigned to it and the engine will have one assigned,” said Maza.
Maza explained that despite the few features, the two cameras will prove to be better than the one.
As an example, he said, “a house is on fire, the ambulance gets there first and we know someone’s inside. We can go in without water or anything to perform a rescue.”
The cameras only read surface temperatures and can’t read the temperature of a fire, which makes knowing how to use the cameras a crucial skill for a captain.
“This will see through smoke [and] gases as if it’s not there,” stated Maza, who later demonstrated that capability. “You’re in a house with a lot of smoke and gases, you can’t see. But you can use this tool and still see with clarity the walls and everything else.”
‘Everything else,’ Maza noted, includes the fire hose, which firefighters use to not only suppress a fire, but to find their way out of a smoke-filled room.
The cameras help to ensure the safety of firefighters in other ways, too.
“I won’t know exactly how hot the room is, but surface temperatures will tell me how hot [the firefighters] are. When they start getting [too] hot, I know I need to get people out,” he stated.
The thermal cameras play a vital role in salvage operations after a fire has been extinguished.
“We start checking temperatures of walls, ceilings to see if there’s any heat anywhere else so sometimes you can do that instead of poke holes in drywall and create more damage,” Maza added.
After protecting life, firefighters’ next priority is the protection of property, which, Maza said, is “in conjunction with firefighting, crews are starting to do salvage operations.”
“Salvage is really important in the fire service, especially in the homes in San Marino. We’ve got a lot of nice things. Any of us, we wouldn’t want to lose our pictures or any of our valuables,” he said.
“Most people don’t think about anything other than directing water on a fire. But what we’re doing: second engine in comes, firefighting operations are started, if they’re not needed to assist with that part, they’re dragging salvage covers and hallway runners, they’re laying them out on the floors so the floors aren’t getting ruined,” Maza continued.
In addition to protecting the floors, firefighters deploy a special technique to protect all valuable items in a room.
“Where we use beds or tables and we start grabbing all your valuables and we start putting them on that bed or table,” Maza explained. Then two firefighters parachute a large red vinyl salvage cover on top of the bed or table.
The cover protects the items from the thick smoke and water damage.
“So your pictures that are on your walls, your clothes that are in your closet, your laptop, that smoke starts making its way down and just staining it and ruining it. Water on the second floor is being applied, now its leaking to the first floor, that water is now going to start ruining everything,” Maza vividly described, pointing to some of clean firefighter helmets nearby.
“I mean, look at our helmets. You see how some of the helmets have black all over it. Those are cleaned, you can’t get it off,” he said.
Another property protection technique converts a salvage cover into a small pool that collects water from sprinklers, a burst pipe or a fire hose. The pool, or “catch-all,” can hold up to 300 gallons of water until firefighters figure out how to shut off the source of the water.
“I think that’s something most residents would say they didn’t expect would happen,” Maza said of the department’s salvaging efforts.
All things considered, Maza added, firefighting has not changed a great deal over the last century. However, with the technology available today, firefighters, residents and their property are much safer than ever before.
Reporter’s Note: SMFD firefighters invited this reporter to gear up and join them in a demonstration of the department’s new equipment.