… you scream a muffled declaration through your facemask to the fire team clustered around you! This is the ‘GET READY!’ signal to the team, that you’re set to open the door. Your pressed hard up against a steel hatch, with one gloved hand clenched firmly around the ‘last dog’ – one of several cast-steel handles that latch closed pressure-doors and emergency hatches throughout many a ship that serves at sea.
Under your arm is a fully charged ‘Attack’ hose. It’s as rigid as the steel you’re braced against, and it thrums with a barely constrained power that can blast you clean off your feet! This hose won’t be turned on until the door is open and ready for entry. It does two things, it floods the compartment with ‘AFFF’ Foam, and it blasts the fire apart whilst doing so. An ‘attack hose’ is a useful thing to have around you when you have to fight a fire at sea and there’s a definite knack to it. An ‘Attack’ team is made up of one attack-hose and operator, one water-wall hose and operator, and a team leader – complete with thermal imaging camera (TIC). You might have hose-handlers behind you, and perhaps a second water-wall if you’re going down a hatch to the floor below.
You’re braced against the hatch. The remainder of your Attack team crouches low on the steel deck, preparing to go through an entrance hatch into the smoked-out dark, of the burning compartment behind the steel door. Your job is to provide a ‘controlled opening’ of that hatch – bracing against it to prevent it flying open as the flames within get a sudden onrush of fresh air and oxygen. Your team needs to enter through it securely, they need for the ‘door’ to be cracked safely first, so the ‘water-wall’ nozzle can be jammed through the gap and trap the flames and heat inside. You can feel the heat of the door as you press against it – through the soggy fearnought suit and your overalls under it. It’s a fierce fire inside that space – and there’s no way to put it out passively.
A ‘water-wall’ hose sprays a water ‘shield’ out in front of you and the team. It’s exactly like that – a shimmering, fluid shield – and you hold it out before you with the absolute certainty that everything on your side of the water-wall, is perfectly safe from the blazing heat on the other side! In order to assess the fire on the other side of this wall of water, you have to push the TIC through the rushing surface of this ‘wall’. Water sprays everywhere and as long as the water flows, you feel a sense of security – you’re safe behind it – you’re untouchable! You’re on your knees and you’re held together by the hands of the team leader as he directs you where he wants you to go. You push the nozzle of the attack hose through the water wall and directed by tugs and muffled screams in your ear – you begin to blast the fire apart – directed by a big thermal detecting ‘eye’ – twice removed from you.
All of this has to happen with the absolute certainty that your whole team will enter the space and fight the fire with nothing but deliberate intent! You never once entertain the idea that you can’t. At no time is there room for hesitation. At no time is there the time for second guesses or indecision. Once you step over that threshold, it’s on! As surely as you know that living means breathing, surviving this fire means fighting it with a ferociousness that belies most of the team members present. We’re committed to each other in ways you might never believe. A few of us don’t even like each other. In fact – there was one person in the fire-fighting team that I really didn’t like! I have to tell you though, I’d have never stepped through a hatch into such situations if I didn’t have him there – beside me! Our ships survival – OUR survival – meant counting on people 150% and this had to happen consistently, each and every time. We mightn’t have liked each other personally – but we trusted each other with our lives!
On our backs are what are ‘affectionately’ called OCCABA‘s. It’s a BA set – a bloody heavy breathing apparatus system – with twin tanks and a harness that in other worlds would have been strapping you into a racing car, or had you dangling from a parachute. The cylinders meet at the bottom where they were joined together through a steel fitting that would survive an explosion! Their machined faces could then marry up with their corresponding baseplate and o-rings – which rigidly locked it together. Everything relies on high air pressure and sound seals. Air escaping your set before it get’s to your face-mask means the obvious – a leak!
A fully charged set sat at 280 to 300 bar. In a fire – depending on how your body’s reacting to the stress and trauma of the moment – this could last you 20 minutes at the fire front (if you’re bloody lucky). During exercises, I could make a fully charged set last for 4o plus minutes, but in the real thing, we’d rarely see that time. I have no way to describe to you what I must have looked like sucking down air simply because my body was screaming for it! Your body needs its oxygen… you, need that air! You have no bloody time to be thinking about that fact when your in a pitch-black compartment, fighting a fire front that you can’t even see, but you can sure as hell feel it – in every single rasping breath!
And herein lies the clencher. You can’t step through to that fire without taking into account one really important factor. For all of that – all of the GO GO GO of the moment – all the certainty; all of the determination and precision; the perfection in which we developed our skill; the pace at which we could get our job done; the way in which we attacked a fire as if it was a cancer in our body – none of that mattered! Not one single part of what we were able to do worked, without one key person watching our backs: the board-controller!
At every one of our fire fronts, there was one person who’s sole responsibility was to track those of us going into the fire and, those of us leaving it. this person recorded all of the firefighting teams air pressures – writing each OCCABAs contents down with a china-graph (grease) pencil and putting an estimated ‘use’ time against it – worked out with a related table, that was attached to the board. This person would then apply a safety factor – a ‘fudge’ factor – whereby they key task was to make sure you’re cycled out by a corresponding relief fire-fighter, well before the point where you would actually run out of air!
This person is your only safety umbilical to the outside world! They know you intimately. They take one look at you and know exactly how you’re traveling! This person is tracking all activity in the fire, they’re in the ear of the fire scene supervisor and the XO, and they’re helping to set others up in their OCCABA, so that they end up relieving you well before you reach ‘Empty’. This person main task is to always have our backs! Putting it simply, this person kept us alive!
So, why tell you all this? Well – I’m mindful of how we generally treat life sometimes. I’m as guilty as the next man in thinking that I’m in control of my life. I’m in fact in a place where I’ve been taught to react to things in a particular fashion – one that often put’s me at an advantage to others sometimes, because this means I don’t have to think on the ‘How’ involved in what I then do. It’s conditioning – and it suits some situations, much better than others. My life now – doesn’t always need such a level of conditioning – or ability to react. I need to remember this. I need to realise that my circumstances and situation now – is on most levels – very different to that time – way back then.
But I have to tell you mob – we ALL need a good ‘board controller’ and we all need to acknowledge their presence. They come in all shapes and sizes and you’ll find them in your home and mine. To look at them – you might just miss the fact that they play such an important and constant role in your life, but maybe – just maybe – they’re a lot closer to us, than we would actually like to admit…
Belongum – Out!