10 Minutes with NYC firefighter John Ceriello: Why standing on your fire escape is legal but dumb
John Ceriello has been a NYC firefighter for 23 years. He is currently a lieutenant in Squad 252 in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
When you're called to investigate an alarm from a carbon monoxide detector, about what percentage of the time is there really a problem?
Only a very small percentage. The vast majority of calls result from noises made by a malfunctioning battery. People don’t understand what the CO detector is telling them. All the units have information on the back of them or one can go online to the manufacturer’s information site. In general one beep every 30 seconds means the battery must be changed. Four beeps in succession mean carbon monoxide has been detected.
What are the three most frequent reasons besides fires that you are called to an apartment building?
Gas odor is the number one reason we are called; I have shut down a lot of malfunctioning stoves. The next is EMS calls. When someone in NYC calls 911 with chest pains in addition to an ambulance being sent, a fire unit is dispatched because we can get there quicker and carry all the basic life support equipment. The third reason is food left burning on the stove.
When someone calls to report the smell of gas in an apartment building, what does it usually turn out to be?
Most often it is a defective stove. Rarer is a break in the pipe which is dangerous because gas displaces oxygen and can be flammable.
Is it legal to stand on a fire escape if it's right outside your window? What about putting flowers and stuff out there?
It is legal to stand on the fire escape. You cannot put things out there that could obstruct the exit path. Every building has to have two means of egress. Air conditioners, potted plants, or clothes lines should be prohibited because they can prevent people from exiting a burning building. Also important to note is that most fire escapes are extremely old and in disrepair. It is common to have banisters and treads breaking. They can be very dangerous and are not to be treated as balconies.
What was the oddest call to which you responded?
The oddest involves the removal of obese individuals. Because I am in Special Operations, I have been in this situation at least ten times where I am called in to help move a 400, 500, or 600lb person. It is extremely dangerous work. We have to take enormous care not to injure the person. We have a cargo net for this purpose and rope systems. We put the individual in the net and may have to cut open doorways and remove banisters to lower the person downstairs. Sometimes we need to go to the roof and create a rope system to lower the person.
Funnier ones occur when we encounter intoxicated people.
What is the most serious event you’ve been part of?
Bar none, 911. I was with Squad 18 in Lower Manhattan at the time and my entire unit was lost. I was off duty at the time so they responded before me. When I got to the firehouse both towers were still standing and I was assigned to work with other two companies.
The Blackout was another grueling event for the FDNY. I worked 24-hours straight because numerous people were trapped in elevators and subway tunnels. In addition it was so hot and without electricity air conditions weren't working so people were more apt to have heat issues and panic leading to medical emergencies. Candle usage was also up that day and candles can cause fires.
I just worked a 24 hour tour with two major fires--one was a duct fire in Williamsburg and the other was a fire in a Bushwick rooming house caused by someone smoking in bed.
What's it like living part time in the firehouse? How's the food?
We are extremely lucky and I work with a magnificent group of people who are so very dedicated. Most of us work a 24-hour tour and a large portion of that is running drills. We don’t always cook a meal because we are too busy so we order out something simple like deli sandwiches. We do have good cooks and it is great to sit and eat a meal together---even if it does get interrupted most of the time.
What are some good fire safety tips?
Every time you move clocks back you should also change the batteries in your alarms. This is also a good time to run a drill in your home. Something to practice is how to get out of the house safely and meet at a designated location a block from the house. During these times it is important to explore alternative exits. Little kids often do not know what an alarm even sounds like so it is important to demonstrate.
It is also key to remember to close doors at night. A room with a closed door has a much greater chance of keeping a fire out should one break out at night while you are sleeping.
Also, make sure smoke detectors have working batteries and that detectors are no more than seven years old. In rentals buildings landlords must supply them so you can alert your landlord if they are very old or have an issue. Also, smoking and candles can be very dangerous; be cautious.
What’s the one thing you’d change about the job?
The only thing I’d like is for City Hall to understand the true worth that fire service brings to a city. Bloomberg is looking to close 20 companies throughout NYC and while it is a cost cutting measure and we understand the economy is poor, it will cost civilian lives. This is critical and supersedes cost-savings needs.
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