'V' is for Vertical Ventilation

Dear Billy,

Got your letter last week. It was great to hear from you! I'm glad Colorado is agreeing with you and your family. I'll definitely be taking you up on your offer to come and stay for a while, once things calm down around here for a while. Lord knows I could use a few lungfuls of clean mountain air. I've been pretty busy lately, but in the fall, I should be able to take some of the vacation time that I've been building up.

I don't usually pull a lot of overtime, but I put myself on the list for a few shifts this month to pick up some extra dough. My parents' thirty-fifth wedding anniversary is coming up, which happens to be on the same day as the thirtieth anniversary of the day they became U.S. citizens, so some celebration is definitely in order. My sisters and I have been planning for weeks now. They told me to say "hi" to you and Becky, by the way. (I kind of think Rosita still has a bit of a thing for you, even all these years after high school.)

Okay, I'll be honest—they've been planning, and I've been agreeing. Because if I've learned nothing else in my almost thirty years on this planet, I do know that it's just a whole lot easier not to try to stop a Lopez woman with an idea.

At this time of year, it's pretty much a guarantee that if you want some OT, you'll get it. It's hot, kids are out of school, and guys with families like to take vacations in the summer. So I wasn't surprised when I got a call from the Battalion Chief asking if I wanted to pick up some shifts to cover a vacation for a fellow who's assigned to the ladder truck company at 10s. I agreed, with the understanding that since I'd be coming straight from 51s for both the shifts I was covering, someone from A-shift at 10s would stay until I could get there.

I was glad to get a truck company assignment, because it's different enough from my usual assignment with 51's engine company that I'd be on my toes. Here's the funny thing about the truck company duties: they don't usually involve actually putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. You heard me right; there are lots of firefighters whose jobs don't involve using a hose and putting out the fire. With the truck company, I'd be doing forcible entry, search and rescue, ladder placement, and ventilation, at least until the fire was out. Once it was out, salvage and overhaul would be the name of the game. Not that it's a game in the slightest.

I should really change my statement that I was glad to get a truck company assignment. Mostly glad, because I know it's good for my 'professional development,' as they say these days. But also a little nervous.

I don't love being up high.

There. Now you know.

Well, actually, you're probably one of the few people that knew that already. Remember that time in tenth grade when we went hiking, and there was that cliff, and—yeah, I'm sure you remember.

I wouldn't say I'm afraid of heights. People who are truly afraid of heights don't make it through the academy. There was one guy in Chet's and my class who was really afraid of heights, and only went to the academy because every other man in in his family had. No pressure, right? I felt really bad for this guy. All he had to do was look at an extension ladder and he literally started to shake. Chet and I did some extra practice with him, just because he wanted to see if he could conquer his demon. There was one time it took both of us to foot the ladder, the kid was shaking so hard.

Stu finally quit before he got washed out. He's in the LAPD now, and just made Sergeant. I saw him a couple weeks ago. He said his two sons are lucky—they have two extremely dangerous careers they can choose from.

I'm not nearly as bad as Sergeant Stu Gibson. Don't get me wrong—I'm nothing like some of these mountain goat guys who literally bound up a ladder like it was solid, flat ground. I'm not like that. But I also don't shake on the ladder, and I don't dawdle, either. I just pay attention to what I'm doing, and don't look down, and don't think about how high I am, and I do fine. And I'd rather be on a ladder any time than doing rooftop operations.

Naturally, since that was the one thing I really hoped I wouldn't have to do during my sub shifts, that's exactly what ended up happening.

It was probably the hottest day of the summer—it must've been in the high nineties in the shade. Which of course means that in the sun, on an asphalt roof, which, oh yeah, has a fire somewhere below it, it would be about … let me think … a hundred-and-hell degrees. That's about right. And I really, really hate being hot.

I question my sanity sometimes. I hate being hot, and I'm not a fan of heights. So what did I choose for my career? The fire department, of course. I've never been able to explain exactly why that was my path in life; I just always knew that was what I wanted to do. I mean, we've known each other since we were eleven, so you know that.

My parents think I'm insane, since I could've gotten into any of the major trades with all the family connections we have in the area. But carpentry, plumbing, electrical work—not for me. It's not that I'm a thrill seeker, or as they're saying these days, an adrenaline junkie. It's just that—I don't know. There's something about the power of fire, and the power of mastering it, quenching it, that grabbed me from an early age.

Anyhow, yeah, sure enough, I ended up on the roof of that three-story building, cutting a hole to let the heat and smoke find their way out. Both those things like to go up, so cutting a hole in the roof lets the heat and smoke follow the path of least resistance. Getting rid of the heat and smoke makes it easier to do search and rescue operations, and helps the engine company guys to put the fire out.

I knew, somehow, as soon as we pulled up to the structure, what I was going to end up doing. I listened to the list of assignments the incident commander was handing out, and of course "vertical ventilation" was assigned to us. As soon as I heard that, I had a premonition that it'd be me up there on the roof.

Yep. The lieutenant in charge of the truck company put me and Horace Ballard up on the roof.

We checked it out from the ground. It was a pretty good roof, actually, to be doing vertical ventilation on. It was sloped, but not too steeply, and, more importantly, it was a gable roof, meaning there was a horizontal line across the top of the structure that was the peak of the roof. That meant we were able to take a roof ladder up the aerial with us, and hook the roof ladder over the peak, and stand on the roof ladder rather than on the roof itself. That way, our weight was spread out over the width and length of the roof ladder, which lessened the chances of one of us falling through, which is something you really don't want to do.

I don't love going up a really tall ladder, but even more than that, I don't love having to haul a bunch of equipment up along with me. But luckily, the basic equipment we needed for vertical ventilation was secured near the tip of the ladder. Of course, it has nothing to do with luck, but decades of experience. So we had a 16-foot roof ladder, a couple of pike poles, and a specialized chainsaw ready and waiting for us. Which was a really good thing, because we were pretty sure we were dealing with a lightweight truss roof, so we didn't want to be up there for very long, because those puppies can burn through faster than you really want to think about.

Now, I've already mentioned how I don't love heights, and I hate being hot. But running a chainsaw? Love it!

In fact, I love it enough that I almost—not quite, but almost—forgot how hot it was up there. Ballard handed me the running saw, and I cut a lovely (if I do say so myself) rectangular hole, just in the right place, and Ballard pulled the sheathing away. Move over, and repeat. Watch out for the structural elements that hold the roof up, because you for sure don't want to end up being like the guy who wanted to cut a branch off a tree, so he sat on the end of the branch, and started sawing between himself and the trunk. Enough said. I won't bore you with the details of exactly how we decided where to put the vent holes, and all that junk, but suffice it to say we got the job done.

By the time Ballard and I had gotten our job done up there on the roof, the search and rescue teams had pulled out all the people that were known to be inside. Luckily, nobody was in the part of the building where the fire was most fully developed, because they probably wouldn't have made it. As far as we knew, all the civilians were out.

When Ballard and I came down from the roof, there were still two interior teams from the engine company working on actually putting the fire out. It's kind of amazing, sometimes, how the actual extinguishing of the fire is often a lot less work than everything else that happens.

Nearly everyone loves being the nozzle man. It's a dumb-ass fireman, though, who thinks he somehow deserves more credit just because he happened to be the guy on the nozzle, and had the pleasure of actually putting the fire out. For every guy in charge of a knob, there's a whole bunch of other guys who make his job easier. Or possible. Or who do other things that are even more important—like, say, getting the people out.

Before we knew it, we heard the incident commander say those magic words: "This fire is under control."

Sure, there's still a lot of work to do after that turning point. But that's when you know you've saved the people, kept your own crew safe, and saved as much of the property as you could. Everyone does their part. I didn't love vertical ventilation, but I did it, and once again, we conquered the beast.

Anyhow—that's what I've been "up" to lately. Ha ha. Not nearly as interesting as your job (and how in the world does a boy from East L.A. end up running a ski resort, anyhow?) but I love it. I'll drop you a line soon about when I might be able to come out in the fall. And of course, any time you're in L.A., mi apartamento es tu apartamento. Seriously. I can clear out and stay with my buddy Chet, and you guys can have the whole place. Because I know you'd slit your own throat with a rusty butter knife before staying at your mother's.

Oh, and speaking of slitting throats, don't ever tell Rosita what I wrote about her still having a thing for you, or I'm a dead man.

Love to Becky and the kids.