Monday, September 17, 2007

Fire destroys Larsen grain mill...

Just when I thought it would be a relaxing Saturday afternoon, inputting my pictures from the morning's assignments... the words "grain mill" and "fully engulfed" came over the police/fire radio.

Our newsroom regularly monitors police, fire, sheriff, medflight, and airport emergency frequencies. It's impractical to respond to every call. Even in peaceful towns like the Fox Cities, there's tons of activity on these radio bands. It's a constant chatter. There's an art to monitoring or "scanning," and it involves listening for keywords.

When I lived in Columbus, Ohio, that art involved knowing the 10-codes like the back of your hand. You needed to know the difference between a 10-5 (auto accident with injury) and a 10-4a (hit and run). You needed to know that you don't respond to a 10-10 (bomb threat)... you listen until it's a 10-10a (bomb threat- suspicious package found). You needed to get your butt in gear right away whenever you heard 10-3 (officer in trouble). You knew that you could sit tight if you heard "Code 4" (no arrest) or 10-16B (mental disturbance). There was also a lot to be said for being able to pick up on people's tone of voice... you could tell the difference between a very serious 10-5 and a minor 10-5 depending on how the officer spoke.

Things are a little different here. There are no alpha or numeric codes per se. Officials use plain-talk here with some abbreviations. They aren't the most uplifting things to hear about... PNB = pulse, not breathing. DOA = dead on arrival... but it's a reality of daily life, even in our happy little valley here.

When it comes to fires, we usually sit tight until we hear that there is an actual fire. You would be amazed at how many times on a daily basis fire departments go out on calls and there is no fire. When we hear something's going on somewhere, we start listening to the scanner more closely. A dispatcher repeats the specific information several times on different channels. Because of the repetition, we have a couple chances to write down a locator (address or intersection). We also get an idea of how many trucks are being sent. The first responders notify dispatch when they arrive on scene, and shortly thereafter they let them know what they see. If smoke or flames are visible as they approach the general area, they'll say so.

The key phrase we usually listen for is "working fire." This means just that... there's a fire and the firefighters are going to be there for a while. Firefighters use the phrase "fully engulfed" when things are really looking bad.

When the call came over the radio on Saturday about the Larsen grain mill, I sat tight for five minutes. Any time there's any sort of business that processes or manufactures something, people sometimes mistake steam or natural smoke for the presence of fire. But, the first engine on scene declared the building fully engulfed. Shortly after, 16 departments were dispatched to the scene. This was no small fire.

I quickly grabbed a big, long lens (you never know how close you'll actually be able to get) and hopped into my car for the half-hour drive to Larsen. While I knew that there would be plenty of action when I got there, I knew that grain mills have the potential for explosion. The earlier I got there the better. That's why I left as immediately as I did.

When I arrived, townspeople had already gathered in the vicinity. The mill was somewhat the center of the unincorporated Town of Larsen. People were understandably taken back by this.

Althought the structure was fully engulfed, you couldn't tell from the outside. It seemed to be smoldering. As fire crews worked to battle the flames, I continued to listen to the chatter on the radio. I keep a portable scanner radio with me while I cover breaking news like this... it keeps me informed of anything noteworthy that I should know about as a journalist. It also lets me know as early as possible of any safety concerns I should be aware of.

As the temperature of the flames increased, the structure became unstable. Unable to control the flames, the firefighters backed-off. And soon, the whole building came crashing down in a ball of fire...

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