As Firehouse Sees It: Above and Beyond

Every year across all 50 states, there are many strong and powerful storms, hurricanes, flash floods, tornados, mudslides, earthquakes and wildfires that threaten the public, wreak havoc and cause tremendous damage. The U.S. Fire Service and all of its varied components must rise to the occasion time and time again. Many of these operations are routine, but the dangers first responders face remain constant. Members put themselves in harm’s way when removing residents from flooded areas, searching debris fields and helping the elderly, handicapped and injured. Whatever needs to be done, firefighters are very smart and usually figure out a way to accomplish a task that looks impossible.

On Oct. 29-30, 2012, the eastern United States endured Hurricane Sandy. A Category 1 storm, it smashed into New Jersey and New York. As previously predicted, flood-prone areas were hit hard. Storm damage was severe in many low-lying beach communities. Orders to evacuate before the storm were unheeded by many who felt nothing had happened before so they refused to leave this time. The storm coincided with high tide. Combined with the storm surge, many residents were left pleading for help when the water rose rapidly, trapping them in their homes.

Fire departments around the region responded to trees and wires down before they started receiving calls for people trapped. Many first responders risked their lives many times to reach those they protect, but who failed to heed the warnings and placed first responders in even more dangerous conditions. Places that normally flood lived up to their expectations. Areas that had never flooded before did so with the high tide, winds and storm surge. Rescuers had to use boats and that was even tough with the currents, debris and obstacles. Fires ignited buildings, power lines arced and trees came down. The storm surge destroyed those structures closest to the major waterways.

Thousands of calls from frightened and trapped residents inundated communications centers. All dispatchers could do was to make lists of calls in a priority basis until units became available. Responders I interviewed said the heroism shown during the storm as members operated to rescue, remove and calm residents was in the highest traditions in the history of the fire service. Members went above and beyond the call of duty.

Attention was also called to note the actions of hundreds of firefighters who worked to save their families and neighbors because they were off duty and lived in many of those flooded areas in several states. Because of the volume of incoming emergency calls, many companies operated by themselves and in many cases had to overcome and adapt to their situation and find ways to alleviate a situation.

Numbers are still being tabulated, but well over 1,000 active and retired firefighters, dispatchers and EMS personnel had their homes damaged or destroyed during the storm. Numerous fire stations and fire apparatus were damaged or destroyed by flood waters, not to mention gear that had to be decontaminated and communications and rescue equipment that must be replaced after being affected by saltwater. The storm killed more than 100 people. Fortunately, no on-duty first responders were killed in the rescue effort. Buildings can be replaced, but not the people.

On a personal note, I live in New Jersey and was without power for six days; Associate Publisher Jeff Barrington, on Long Island, NY, for 12 days. No electricity, no heat, no hot water, no gasoline and limited food supplies…very quickly you feel like you are back in the 1800s. It makes you appreciate how far we’ve come technologically from our ancestors.