Chasing Fire: Nick Martin
By: Nicholas Martin – for www.runtothecurb.com
Firefighter – Washington DC Fire & EMS and Run-to-the-Curb type kid
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Run To The Curb-NickMartin
I started as a volunteer when I was 14 years old in my hometown of Swarthmore, PA (just outside Philadelphia). My older brother was a volunteer and I used to hang-out at the firehouse all the time from when I was as young as I can remember. Before I could even join, I used to run up to the firehouse to open the doors when they got a run. We lived minutes from the city and my Dad would take me into Philly on the weekends to buff fires.
A few years before I joined, my older brother left the house to respond to an apartment fire at 52 South Morton Road. From listening on my crystal-based scanner I could tell it was a “good” fire. My mother was curious too and she came to my room to see what was going on. Learning it was a serious fire, she drove us to watch the fire (and check-up on my brother).
While rescuing several civilians, my brother and his best friend got trapped on the top floor in that apartment building – cut off by the fire and falling through the floor. Fortunately they both escaped and survived. My mother and I stood outside as it unfolded. The dramatic audio from this incident was later (and may still be) used by one of today’s popular fire service figures in a national program on such incidents.
I joined Swarthmore in 1994 and came up through the fire service in the Philly suburbs. I was fortunate enough to catch the “tail end” of tailboards. I can remember holding tightly on to what we called the “man-saver” bars – for us a metal bar that came down and sat at your lower back as you held on to the hose bed.
I remember being “pissed” that my first set of gear was an old Philadelphia-style helmet, three-quarter length rubber boots and a turnout coat with a flannel lining. I have vivid memories of my first working fire interior attack, wearing that now-substandard gear. I went in with my boots pulled up, but they came down as I crawled and I tore my knee up pretty good. Now I’d love to still have that stuff today. My original flannel-lined coat and helmet still hang on the wall in my home office.
Eventually I moved up through the volunteer ranks to the office of Deputy Fire Chief. The first real fire I was in command of was a three-story middle of the row (houses) with a good fire on the top two floors and heading to the exposure. I arrived first in the buggy with the homeowner yelling at me in the yard. This fire taught me a lot about the gap between when you ASK someone to do something and when it actually occurs, but things went well and the fire was held to where we found it.
I had started working as a paid firefighter in the Philly suburbs and one of the volunteers where I worked began telling me all about “PG County, Maryland”. My interest was peaked and he set me up with a ride-along at Seat Pleasant (Prince Georges County Company 8) where he had volunteered previously. I was hooked.
Things in PG were very different from what I was used to. Certainly I’ll never forget my first fatal fire while riding Rescue Squad 8 in PG County. Coming back from a car accident on the Capital Beltway at 3am, we were dispatched for “smoke in the apartment” in District Heights – it sounded like nothing.
It all seemed uneventful until we arrived with fire rolling out every window on the second floor of a three-story garden apartment. As I ran in, another firefighter carrying two lifeless infants bumped into me as he ran out. Assigned to search the floor above, I almost got beat up when I forced the door to the apartment above the fire. The occupants were naked and in the middle of an “intimate act” when I broke down their door. They were surprised to see me. I was equally surprised to see them.
Three people died in that fire and I realized I had a lot of changes to make to adapt to this new world. I would later transfer from Seat Pleasant to Kentland, where I serve presently.
Wanting to spend more time in the PG/DC area, I applied for and was hired by the Fairfax City Fire Department where I worked until I was offered my current job in DC.
After graduating from the DCFD Fire Academy in 2004, I was first appointed to Tower Ladder 3 and then spent a couple years on Engine 11 before going to Truck 6, where I serve today.
My experiences going through the academy were memorable. I and a very good friend of mine, Tony Kelleher (now the chief of Kentland) lived at the firehouse together and we were hired by DC at the same time. We drove to and from class everyday together and went home and fought fires together at night.
We got some entertaining memories out of what turned out to be a “non-traditional” recruit academy – from trips to Ben’s Chili Bowl to “sludgehammers”. But we also had some great instructors – like the one who first imparted on me the importance of, and the skills to be able to “mask up” in 10 seconds.
One night while still in the academy, I was riding the “irons” position on Kentland Tower 33 when we were dispatched for “smoke coming from the house in the block”. It was right behind the firehouse and we were sure it was a job – we got into the block and couldn’t find anything. Just before we headed home, one of the guys spotted some smoke coming from a side window of a house. We went to work.
The house had an odd layout, as there was no access to the second floor from the first. “Collier’s mansion” conditions prevented the hose line from getting in the door and as they went to find another way in, I squeezed in to search. Stumbling over piles of junk I felt the rapidly increasing heat in tar-black smoke, and saw flashes at the ceiling. As I decided to exit, I felt the head of a victim. As I pushed him out the window on to the porch roof I could feel the heat bearing down on me and I went out right behind him. I turned around to see fire coming out of every window on the second floor. And to think, when I first went in it was just light smoke out of one window. This fire taught me how fast conditions can change and the importance of using EVERY PIECE of my PPE.
There have been several other fires in my career that have a direct impact on how I approach the job today. While operating in a tenth floor fire apartment, with nowhere to go, I took a breath out of my SCBA – only to feel the mask suck to my face. As I attempted to suck every last lick of fresh oxygen from the corner of a window 100 feet in the air, I thought about the importance of air management and thanked God for the presence of a skilled engine company.
Later on, after arriving at a four-story brick apartment building with “nothing evident” and hours later it would be the largest fire in DC history in 30-years, it cemented in my mind that “nothing evident” means NOTHING – act like it’s a fire until you’re headed home. And at my first fire with a “firefighter down” I learned about truly taking it to the limit as we fought through a hellacious basement fire going after one of our brothers, not giving up until we KNEW he was out.
Every fireman goes to fires and we all work with other firefighters. What my career has taught me so far is to learn everything you can from both. Every fire has a lesson to teach you and every firefighter knows at least one thing you don’t. Unless you take action, this knowledge is lost forever. There are mentors in my career who have passed away and that has taught me to GET IT WHILE YOU CAN.
Take advantage of every moment at the fire scene and the firehouse. Learn what you can and share everything you learn.
Run to the curb! Tell your story!