Sitting Down with Joe Pizzarello of the Harrison Fire Department

So have you actually had a cat stuck up in a tree? 
Yes, a couple. We even had a dog stuck in a drainage pipe. That was intense—we had to dig him out. 

What was the most unusual call you responded to?
A bird in a tree—a pet cockatiel that doesn’t fly well got out of a house. We used a ladder truck to get it.

What’s the most challenging part of what you do?
You are putting yourself at risk for your neighbor. And it’s strenuous—putting the gear on and moving around in it—and then you add fire temperatures of hundreds and hundreds of degrees. And sometimes the smoke is so heavy you’re crawling around going by feel. 

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Aren’t you scared sometimes?
I wouldn’t say scared—I’m more cautious than scared. You have to have a plan when you go in to get as much information about the safest way to operate so you don’t become another casualty.

So if not the scariest, what’s the stickiest situation you’ve found yourself in?
I’ve never been in a situation where I worried that I would not survive. The stickiest was when we were inside a building and had opened up the ladder pipe and the water caused part of the ceiling to collapse down on us, but we were able to get to an open area.

What changes have you noticed in the past 30 years you’ve been doing this? 
We don’t have as many big fires as we used to, thanks to increased use of smoke detectors that go directly into a central station. So because we get to things earlier, what might have become a major fire becomes a more minor problem. Now, if you’re not home and leave a pot on the stove, it will send an alarm out, firefighters will be dispatched, and we’ll clear a little smoke out before anything gets too big. Before, the pot melted, the drapes caught on fire, and it became a much bigger fire. 

Is smoke actually more dangerous than the fire?
Smoke will often kill someone before the flames even touch them. That’s because the synthetic carpeting and wallcoverings used in the past are more toxic, making the smoke more dangerous and causing the fires to burn faster.  Fortunately, the trend now is toward using safer materials.

What kinds of non-fire calls do you respond to?
A common kind of public assistance call is responding to water leaks—broken pipes, a toilet overflowing, the ceiling of the house caving—because these are potential electrical problems or fire hazards, as when water gets into an overhead lighting fixture. We also respond to all car accidents, too.

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I didn’t realize that.  Why?
If someone can’t get their door open or is trapped in the car and pinned within the wreckage, we have the Jaws of Life tool to get them out. 

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Extricating people from car accidents—they’re panicking and looking to you for help. Their thanks means the world to you.

And the toughest?
Dealing with fatalities, especially when there are children.

What do you think happened in the Arizona wildfires?
Wildfires are very unpredictable and change directions very quickly. That seems to be what happened to them—they were overtaken by a sudden change of wind, like a tornado. You can imagine thousands and thousands of acres with flames hundreds of feet in the air.

What’s your take on the movie Backdraft? 
You can’t really portray the way it actually is because there are not a lot of scenes you could film where you could see something—the smoke would be too thick. And I love it when these guys walk into the fire with their coats open.

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