Fla. Firefighters Respond to Backlog of Calls After Irma Winds Die Down

Fla. Firefighters Respond to Backlog of Calls After Irma Winds Die Down

News Sep 11, 2017

Sept. 11—The Orlando Fire Department started taking calls again at 5 a.m. this morning after about an eight-hour lockdown during the worst of Hurricane Irma.

Dispatchers called firefighters out to a succession of medical calls that stacked up overnight while the Fire Department was on lockdown as winds were higher than 50 mph.

A firefighter who went to one of the first calls of the morning reported a tree was down on Washington Street blocking the road. On Sunday night, Lt. Brian Hiler said it wouldn't "take much to bring down these trees on houses."

When the Orlando Fire Department locked down about 9 p.m. Sunday as winds from Hurricane Irma climbed past 50 mph, firefighters at Station 1 huddled around TV screens watching weather reports.

By 9:45 p.m., there were more than 20 calls on standby. Dispatchers are taking calls while the fire stations are locked down, and firefighters will respond in order of emergency once the winds die down Monday morning.

"It's very difficult for us, but it's just not safe," Hiler said. "We're going to be very busy [after the lockdown is lifted.]"

In the hours before the lockdown, OFD firefighters responded to several calls. A car was smashed by a downed tree about 7 p.m., and reports of fires and medical calls had the first responders braving increasing winds and rain.

Fire Engine 1 rocked back and forth as it cruised down Interstate 4 about 8:30 p.m. on the way back from a call. The highway had been shut down to all traffic hours earlier, but a few cars -- including one driving the wrong way -- joined the emergency vehicles on the road.

At 10 p.m., it's still unknown what Irma will do to the city, but firefighters are prepared for the worst. They've been getting ready for weeks, filling up large fuel tanks and keeping generators on hand to keep operations going in case of power outages and gas shortages, said District Chief Bryan Davis.

"We try to take a proactive approach," Davis said.

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Additional equipment—such as specially designed chainsaws to cut through debris -- is on hand to clear the way through damage on Monday. The Fire Department will also be at maximum staff Monday to help with the aftermath, Davis said.

"The work for us really begins when they lift [the lockdown,]" Davis said.

Hunkered down at the station, the tough firefighters showed their humanity. Some worried about their loved ones weathering the storm back at their homes -- others learned they'd lost power or their property suffered damage.

The shift of firefighters on duty at Station 1 are the same who helped with Hurricane Matthew response, Davis said.

"Matthew was a good test run for some of the operations in place," Davis said. "It better prepared us on how to handle this one, should we be hit harder."

Emanuel "Manny" Washington Jr. just got back Thursday from helping with search and rescue efforts in Beaumont, Texas after Hurricane Harvey. Washington recalled boating up to tops of houses flooded by the rains.

"Never say it could never happen here," Washington said. "I would have never thought I'd walk onto a roof from a boat."

cdoornbos@orlandosentinel.com, 407-650-6931 or @CaitlinDoornbos

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