The Man Behind The Helmet


In France, cases of houses fires are much less frequent than in the United States. You have to understand that there is a big difference between those two countries. In France, almost all the constructions have a concrete structure, whereas in the United States, except for the buildings of the greatest cities, most houses are made of wood.

Like the French firefighters (and undoubtedly those of many countries), the American firefighters use burn buildings to practise and prepare for such events. I had the opportunity to follow the men of the fire station of Oyster Bay, a little town located on Long Island, New York, during one of those exercises. An entire neighborhood has been built there, for the purpose of simulation, even if the term “simulation” is not entirely correct, since they work with very real (but controlled) fires.

This night, many men from several fire stations were on site, to practise different exercises. After positioning myself in a place where I was in no danger, I could witness two of these drills: first, a blazing warehouse, where the men had to tackle the flames from the roof, while trying to see what they were doing through the thick smoke, and second, a fire at the base of a big natural gas storage tank.

This second exercise was very interesting to watch. The problem was quite simple: the tank had a leak and it had caught fire. The goal was to extinguish it before the tank exploded. Considering that it is impossible to seal off a gas leak with a fire hose, the only solution, or the only one that they chose to work on, was to find a way to cut the gas inflow by closing the valve. The additional difficulty was that the valve was in the blaze perimeter. So they began to drench the tank and the valve, thus more or less controlling the rise in temperature and delaying the moment where the tank would explode, to allow one of them to approach and shut the valve. This exercise was repeated several times this evening.

I have had the occasion to discuss about gas leaks with many firefighters, French or American, and they all show the same cautiousness. They describe it as a sly adversary, invisible and easily angered, an enemy you must always treat with the utmost vigilance.

I must extend my thanks to the men of Oyster Bay station for welcoming me during this drill and the kindness with which they answered all my questions.