Strict protocol helps firefighters keep cool in heat of moment

SAN ANTONIO – It has been a hectic year for the San Antonio Fire Department. Apartment fires are up 20%, and three people have already died in fires this year.

A firefighter's job is dangerous and complicated.

Every San Antonio firefighter is required to train for every type of fire and every possible situation.

The rush of crews during a fire may seem chaotic to the public, but in reality, they are following a strict protocol they know by heart, even in the heat of the moment.

KSAT got the rare opportunity to shadow a San Antonio fire crew. The Rescue 11 team led us step by step through different scenarios on the ground and in the air showing how they stay safe while saving buildings and lives.

Whether the fire is at a house, a commercial building or a high-rise, firefighters are the end of the line.

"When the alarm goes off and we leave, you have to be prepared for just about everything because there's no one else coming," said firefighter Eric Schultz, with SAFD's Rescue 11 crew.

Training is crucial, and Schultz let KSAT tag along as part of the crew to get a firsthand view of that training.

Here's what would happen during a fire at a two-story commercial building:

"Tailboards, they ride on the back of the firetruck. They're going to hop off with ladders," Schultz said.

Schultz pointed to a crew member running and placing the ladder up to a window.

"The reason he's placing that ladder there, one, would be to vent that window, so break the window to let hot gas out, smoke or fire. He may be looking to go up and go in that window because we suspect that there's life there," he explained.

The engine crew mans the truck that pumps water, and they decide where to enter the building. Those firefighters do a 360-degree walkaround as they assess the situation.

"Meanwhile we're bringing up the aerial so we can go to the roof to get a roof profile," Schultz said.

By the aerial, he means the ladder truck, which he explained is called out to every fire just in case.

"They also place the apparatus on a corner. If this building becomes well-involved and it's winning, there lies the risk of catastrophic building collapse. We're thinking ahead, so we place the ladder there in case this building comes down," Schultz said as the ladder rose to the top of the two-story building.

Once fire crews get to the top of the roof, they do one thing first.

"We sound the roof," he said showing long metal poles that firefighters forcefully drive at the roof.

"We check to make sure that we're not going to fall through. It gives us an idea of what the roof is supposed to sound like, and if that changes as we walk along the roof, if it sounds different, that's a clue that maybe something's going on under me," Schultz continued.

Once they make sure the roof will support them, they're on the lookout for ways to vent, or open up parts of the roof to let smoke or fire out.

"Sometimes there's going to be easy, natural ways to ventilate," he said, pointing at a plumbing fixture sticking out of the roof.

Every roof is different, so the assessment has to be quick.

Schultz pointed out the neighboring commercial roof.

"You see those skylights? All over. Perfect ventilation openings already created for you. Couldn't get any easier. On top of that, you have some hazards. You have air conditioners on the top, air-handling units. You have a huge duct over there. Those are adding weight to the roof," he said.

The next building over was a four-story apartment complex with a pitched roof. He said that type of roof comes with its own set of hazards.

"You have more of a risk of making a mistake and falling off. Asphalt shingles are great for keeping water out, but they add weight to the roof decking," he said.

Schultz says there are times when the fire is too fierce to get on the roof, but that doesn't render firefighters helpless.

Even when the fire is so intense crews can't go on the roof, they can stay in the bucket on top of the high ladder, positioned above the roof. From there, they are still able to sound, and they can even use the chainsaw from there.

These dedicated first responders go to great lengths to save lives. They follow their protocols, but they're still risking everything.

"Sometimes things happen, and it's inevitable, and we accept that risk," Schultz said.

That selflessness cannot be taught in training.

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