Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

June 5, 2014

Local firefighters and EMS personnel are deserving of our support

— — I keep much of what I need — paper, pens, digital recorder, camera, spare batteries — in a satchel so I’ll be less likely to forget something if I have to leave the newsroom quickly. That’s always a possibility if our police scanner suddenly announces a potential story like a fire or a crash. When an alarm sounds, you don’t want to lose time gathering up everything you need.

Last week an alarm about a possible structure fire near the Coca Cola plant in Bluewell came over the scanner. It was first thing in the morning, but I had my satchel ready and I headed out.

Finding a structure fire isn’t always easy. Sometimes you’re following a column of black smoke, and other times thanks to our terrain, the fires are harder to find. Sometimes it takes a few wrong turns to reach the scene, but once you get in sight of the fire trucks, they’ll guide you right in.

This fire report was typical. I didn’t see any smoke, so I pulled into a vacant house’s driveway. I was about to call the newsroom to see if there were any new reports, but at that moment three fire engines hurried past me and up a nearby hill. I followed and found one of them parked at an intersection. Two others were combing the neighborhood.

I found a place to park and soon found myself in the middle of fire engines and firefighters from the Bluewell, Montcalm and Bramwell Volunteer Fire Departments. There was one problem — nobody could find a structure fire.

Some firefighters were looking around in their own vehicles while others contacted Mercer County 911 to see if the person who called in the alarm had any more information. After about 20 minutes, they determined that the alarm was unfounded. The caller had seen what he or she thought was smoke coming from a structure.

I had seen similar instances over the years. Somebody mistakes smoke from burned food or a controlled burn of brush for a structure fire. It’s an honest mistake.

Fellow reporter Anne Elgin was working on a story about fire fees in Mercer County, so I took the opportunity to shoot a few pictures of the fire engines. The firefighters were all volunteers, and they had taken time out of their day to rush to their fire stations, collect their fire engines and hurry to a fire alarm.

I stand back with other reporters when we are at a fire scene. There are times when you feel the heat radiating from the fire and see siding on neighboring structures start to melt. Burning wood, plastics, household chemicals and all the other ingredients found in a building create an acrid smell that gets into everything. I return to the newsroom smelling of smoke. And the ashes fall like snow. There is usually a gray powder on my car when I get back to the office.

All of this is experienced on the sidelines, so it’s easy to imagine what the firefighters endure. They get up close and personal with burning structures while wearing heavy uniforms and breathing apparatus. The way they look after spending any amount of time fighting a fire tells you it’s exhausting work. And it’s dangerous. That’s why arson is such as serious crime: arsonists are endangering firefighters as well as civilians and their property.

Fire departments are often first on the scene when there is a crash, too. Sometimes the crash is minor and all the firefighters have to do is provide traffic control.

In other instances, they work with rescue squad personnel to free crash victims from wreckage. Leaked fuel and anti freeze are often underfoot, so those chemicals have to be cleaned up.

All of this is often done while traffic is passing only a few feet away. There’s always the danger that a “rubbernecking” driver will cause another accident. Then there are the times when traffic is shut down until the scene can be cleared. Everyone at the Telegraph has had to go hiking to reach a crash. The weather is either wet and miserable or hot and miserable.

First responders in any profession — firefighting, emergency medical and law enforcement — deserve respect because they’re willing to be in professions that put them in uncomfortable and often dangerous situations. Reporters who go to fires and crashes take some risks and share discomfort, too, but ultimately we’re observers who later share the story with the people who could not be at the scene.

When you see these people in action, you learn to respect the complexity of their jobs and realize that not just anyone can do those jobs.

Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com

 

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