The air was cool and crisp, the temperature just right. It was the perfect type of night for patrolling the streets of Chicago. You need to have your windows rolled down to hear what the city is saying. Your eyes can only take in so much so you depend on your other senses to get a feel for the streets. You listen for breaking glass, that escalating argument or screeching tires. You can smell a rain storm coming before the first drops hit your windshield.
Tonight the smell was unmistakable. It was smoke. And it wasn’t the good kind of smoke. This wasn’t the smell of charcoal and lighter fluid from that late night barbeque or the smell of a hickory log burning in a backyard fire pit. This was dirty smoke. Something big was burning. In this densely populated neighborhood it could be coming from anywhere. It could be a stolen car set on fire in an alley, a graffiti covered garage or a house fire. I stop my squad car in the middle of the street to try and determine which direction the light breeze is blowing from. Just then I hear it. The sound of sirens begins to whirl from the direction of the firehouse nearby. They know where the smoke is coming from. My silent radio comes to life as the dispatcher tells me to ride with the fire department. There’s a three flat on fire just two blocks over.
I pull onto the congested one way street and see the fire engine heading my way. People in pajamas are waiving us over towards the brown brick three flat. I park my squad car up on the lawn three doors down from the fire. My first responsibility when responding to assist the fire department is to stay out of their way. Instinct makes officers want to park right in front of the burning building, kick in the front door and start searching for victims. In reality, one improperly parked police car can cause havoc at a fire scene. In the police academy they try to drill into your head that you’re never to block a fire hydrant or street when responding to a fire. It can cause big delays in getting the properly equipped firefighters with oxygen masks and hoses into a burning building. To my knowledge, no officer has ever gotten in trouble for parking on the lawn of a neighboring house at the scene of a fire.
The firefighters start pulling hoses off their truck and donning their air masks. As I run down the gangway to the back of the building I see an ambulance pull up in the alley and park. In the rear yard I find a slightly built middle-aged man of Indian decent sitting in the grass with his arms gently resting on his knees looking up at the burning building. As I starting yelling at him to get out of the yard he starts yelling back. We both quickly realize that he doesn’t speak my language and I don’t speak his. I grab him by his bicep and try to direct him to his feet. He pulls back and starts yelling back at me. At this point firefighters are bringing ladders down the gangway to set up in the yard. They yell for me to get him away from the building. I scoop up the angry little man under his arms and drag him kicking and screaming towards the ambulance in the alley. As I prop him up against the garage I call to the paramedics.
“This one isn’t cooperating. I’ll be right back. If he gives you any problems let me know.”
Back to the front of the building I go. Other officers are arriving on scene and we begin corralling bystanders away from the building. Street closures are made and the Red Cross is notified about displaced victims from the fire. Our dispatcher chimes in over the air to let us know that the fire department has cleared the building, no victims are inside.
I make my way back to the rear of the building to check on my little friend. He’s not where I left him so I peeked my head into the back of the ambulance to see if he gave the paramedics any problems before he left. There he is, strapped to the stretcher.
“What’s with this guy?” I ask.
“He jumped from the third floor and broke both ankles,” said the paramedic. “I don’t think he’s too happy with you.”
With this, my little friend starts shaking his clinched fist at me and yelling in his native tongue. How was I supposed to know he jumped?