In the winter of 1980, nearly four years after passing the exam, Steve Parlick, EMT (emergency medical technician), became a firefighter for the Chicago Fire Department. The department was shorthanded at the time because of a potential firefighter strike, so they hired quite a few. For more than a decade, Parlick served as a firefighter before becoming an engineer at Engine 99 (located on Chicago’s West side) in 1991. This year marks 16 years serving in that capacity.
His engineering responsibilities entail operating any apparatus that has pumps, primarily the fire engine. Parlick also is responsible for driving and maintaining it. Maintenance involves checking things that may or may not have broken between shifts (such as fluids and lights) to make sure everything is operating properly.
Working the traditional 24 hours on, 48 hours off allowed Parlick the chance to sit down and talk with fire protection columnist and specialist Mark Bromann, SET, CFPS, about Parlick’s work and his important role in fire protection of the public.
MB: How do the duties of the first responding firefighters differ when responding to a high-rise fire as opposed to a one-story commercial building fire?
SP: The threat to life is a lot different in a high-rise. Having worked downtown, you have to isolate and find out where the fire is and then consider evacuation as well as rescue and fire attack, in which case there’s going to be a lot more personnel to consider all those situations, so you have a fire investigation team. Whereas, when you have a residential fire, and it’s a one or two story building, depending on the time of the day - during the day, you know, a lot of people may or may not be home, they may be in school or might be working, at nighttime, people are sleeping - those are the situations you realize and that’s the biggest threat. But, it’s minimal compared to that of a high-rise.
How often are fire escapes used by firefighters?
When I was a fireman downtown, which is more than 20 years ago, they were used a little more frequently - especially from the second, third or fourth floor. People would use them as a means to get out; they would maybe transfer from floor to floor, you know, almost like an exterior stairwell. But, they were used for firefighting as well because it was a positive means to get somewhere without raising a ladder.
What precautions need to be taken prior to using an elevator?
Well, first of all, you need to bring the elevators down by using elevator recall so you can maintain control of the elevator. And now, from what I understand, certain size buildings are required to have a PA system so that they can let people know which elevators are going to be maintained for use by the Fire Department, because others still may or may not be able to be used. If they are not able to be used, they can let people know which stairwell to use or which elevators they can use. So the one thing they need to stay on track with is informing the residents of any building, whether it’s an office building or a condominium. That’s one thing they always do is maintain control of at least one bank of elevators.
How difficult is it for firefighters to locate the standpipe systems in those buildings?
Usually not very difficult. It’s usually in most stairwells. If it’s not in every stairwell, it’s at least in the main use stairwell.
How evident is it to the Engine Company upon arriving at a fire that the building is not a sprinklered building?
Usually the assumption is based on its size, and then we will look for a sprinkler connection on the building exterior. It’s usually not the first company’s responsibility to feed that sprinkler system; that’s the job of one of the later arriving companies. Usually, based on its size, you’ll know if it complies and is required by code for that type of building, and you will look for it. It’s usually visible on the outside. You should be able to see the fire department connection somewhere along the length of one of the sides of the building that you are on or past. Our standard operating procedures have us charge and supply water to those connections on confirmed fires.
Under what conditions do you have to charge that Fire Department connection by more than one pumper?
I’m not aware of any conditions. You should be able to maintain the pressure needed for the sprinkler connection with one pumper, but should the source of water be far enough away, you might need an in-line situation. In other words, if the fire is bad enough and the water is being depleted or being used from nearby hydrants, if they have to go far enough away, then, depending on the grid, they would have to go in an in-line where one fire engine feeds another. Chances are they are not going to have more than one fire engine hooking up to a connection on the side of the building like that.
What happens to old apparatus? Is it put in reserve for emergency use?
Sometimes they are sold, sometimes they are kept for parts, and, if it’s good enough, they may keep it as a spare, keep it in good operating conditions. They’ll keep it as a spare so that when another one goes into the shop for mechanical work, they have something to replace it with for a day or two, or longer.
Are there any different firefighting techniques and situations where there are very high winds?
What you are going to want to do is take precautions on raising ladders, and you want to be up wind from anything that is going to be blowing at you because any fumes of any kind that might be burning inside of a building, depending on the type of occupancy and the building contents. But you want, for the most part, as far as firefighting goes, to stay upwind from it, if you can. Obviously, if it’s a structure, you are going to have to attack by the best means possible, and you need to be upwind from it. We also protect exposures from fire traveling to another structure.
At what stage of fire does venting become critical?
I don’t know if it would be the incipient stage or free-burning stage, but to control the fire, you ventilate to control the extinguishment of it because the heated gases and the steam have to go somewhere and that’s why it’s a critical means…we help to control the burning to aid its extinguishment.
How prevalent are vehicle or bus fires in your district?
Vehicle and truck fires are fairly prevalent with the amount of traffic that’s in this area with the expressways and the residential streets. Many stolen autos are often set on fire. There are almost no bus fires.
Who is generally responsible for interviewing witnesses to a fire?
We have an area called the Office of Fire Investigation (OFI), and they determine the cause of a fire, a lot of times, when it’s beyond the scope of the chief. If there is any situation beyond an accident, they are called in just to make sure the official cause is listed, and they may do the investigating. Also, the police, with bomb and arson, they may have some reason to interview witnesses as well.
How often is the cause of a fire never actually determined?
They are not always determined, some information of appropriate cause needs to be put into the chief’s report. We have those niffer forms (NFIRS)¹ that are turned in to the state of Illinois for every incident.
What procedures are followed by the Lieutenant and Command responding to a bomb threat?
As far as a bomb threat goes, I think the one thing we are all taught, because terrorism is a big thing now, is “isolation”: Keep everybody at a safe distance until whoever gets there knows how to treat the situation. Once a senior officer, like a chief is on the scene, he will then take over and re-examine the safety of a situation, probably coordinate it with the police.
How often is an arson investigator called in on fires around this jurisdiction or in Chicago?
Well, our arson investigation would be our OFI, but the police actually have one called “Bomb and Arson.” That’s their job, to help determine the cause, because the chief has a lot more to do than just that. If it is a simple one, they may not require OFI to be there. But if they are not sure in any respect, they just want to be there to correctly label the cause instead of guessing.
If the fire departments were more heavily funded, what do you think would be the first couple of changes that would come into play?
I’m going to say maybe re-evaluate the facilities where the fire houses are kept, because a lot of them are older and they need upkeep, and it is not always in the budget to maintain them as much as some of the older buildings need. Maybe re-evaluate the equipment on a more recent basis. Our fire engine here is a ’92 and it operates just fine, it is maintained well.
In terms of residential fires, how often are kitchen or cooking fires the probable cause?
Not knowing the exact statistics, but I would say probably half.²
If there is a home and there are two fire extinguishers, where would you recommend that the people place these?
One near the kitchen and probably one near the heating source.
If your personnel are talking about a life safety plan for people living in a home, what key factors are stressed?
Smoke detectors and communication so that whoever notices the problem lets everybody know, and the best they need to do is just get out and then worry about calling 911. Get out and worry about the problem, once everyone is safe.
What measures are taken to protect firefighters from the risk of smoke inhalation?
They have a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that is required when they enter the building. Whether they are doing search-and-rescue or ventilation, anyone inside the building is required to have it on, and they are told when they can remove their SCBA. That is usually done during salvage and overhaul once the fire has been extinguished.
Who gives them that directive?
Usually, one of the chiefs. That’s part of their responsibility, to oversee the situation and determine when it is safe to remove the SCBA.
In terms of firefighter injuries, what’s more prevalent - smoke inhalation or minor burns?
How often does it occur when the fire department is first notified of a fire by a phone call from a passerby or neighbor?
People will come by and they will tell us, “There’s an auto (or garage, or a garbage can, or even a house) on fire.” It might happen a couple times in one month and then maybe two months later it might happen a couple of times again. Other people will notice something before somebody in the burning house or the one next door calls us. They stop in here and notify us, we let the alarm office know, and then they dispatch us.
¹ National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS)
²Cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the United States. Arson is the second leading cause of residential fires and heating is the third leading cause.