TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) After 31 years on the job, Shift Commander Andy Hales is calling it quits.
With more than three decades of service, all with the Topeka Fire Department, Hales has seen it all -- including his fair share of tragedy and close calls, including one hair-raising moment early on that taught this firefighter to never second guess his gut.
It was a blaze at the Seymore Foods Building on October 13, 1988, that could have cut Hales' budding career drastically short.
“We were in a real high-density smoke, creeping along looking for people. There was no fire yet, we were not even spraying water. My partner and I both stopped at the same time — it was like somebody stuck their hand out and stopped us — we turned and looked at each other and said something isn’t right. We got down on our bellies and started a swimming search, with our hands out in front of us. We had almost walked into an open elevator shaft and we were on the fifth floor, so…. The good Lord was looking after us I guess,” said Hales.
Now a Shift Commander, it’s Hales’ job to decide when to send firefighters into potentially hazardous situations. It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly.
“My biggest fear as a commanding officer is losing a crew member to a disaster. It would be nobody’s fault but mine at that point because if I didn’t make the right decision, they wouldn’t have been there,” according to Hales.
In 1999, the Seaman High and Washburn University grad joined the Topeka Fire Department’s newly formed “Tactical Rescue Team,” a unit created to assist in situations outside of the department’s norm. It was there, where one of his biggest allies in fighting fires turned into a formidable foe: Water.
“We did training in the floodgates of Perry Lake. If I was ever going to die on the job, I swore to God I was going to do it then. That was the scariest and most intense thing I’ve done in my life — try to swim in that water,” said Hales.
Even the most extensive, intense training can only go so far, especially when talking about the Kansas River weir.
“Surviving in that is minutes,” said Hales.
And the minutes feel like hours to those in the water rescue unit stationed not far away. Hales says by the time Rescue Team 11 can get the boat in the water, it’s pretty much too late for anyone trapped in the Weir.
“The teachers that were in the Kayak, we ran. Actually, my daughter’s teacher so that hit close to home. The second call we got for somebody missing in the water. We did some searching right along the weir there and came up empty, we kept moving down river and we finally found the body up against the construction barges that were in the water to do work on the Topeka Boulevard bridge,” recalled Hales.
Hales was the Tactical Rescue Team’s apparatus operator in August 2000 when a trench collapsed on a construction worker near 27th and Berkshire, burying the man up to his neck. He lived.
Sadly, the team didn’t have the same outcome when they responded to a similar incident just over a year later.
“Out in the Clarion Lakes project, three men passed away in a confined space deal…we were used heavily that year, which justified the department setting up a tactical rescue team for the City of Topeka."
That investment continued to stay busy. In 2002, Hales was there when a painter fell 45 feet while working inside a water tower. He was airlifted away in serious, yet stable condition after Hales and the team lowered him another 80 feet to safety.
Hales’ unique ability to work under pressure didn’t go unnoticed. Soon, the Topeka native found himself being deployed as part of strike teams sent to help in the gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina, to Greensburg, Kansas after a tornado demolished most of their town.
Hales was at Cargill in September of 2003 after an accident left a man buried under tons of grain. It was one of two similar incidents at Cargill around that time, which caused the company to make safety adjustments.
“We worked with Cargill very hard and their safety team, and it changed the way they do business," said Hales.
More recently, Hales was on the job April 23, 2016 when fugitive Orlando Collins barricaded himself inside a room at the Country Club Motel. After a shootout with police, Collins set fire to the room he was in, and Hales was responsible for determining how to fight it.
“We had crews on scene when there was still gunfire. We were at a safe distance -- trying to hold them back was more work than letting them go,” said Hales.
Friday, September 22nd will be the last date significant in Hales’ time with TFD -- it’s his last day on the job. The man who has just about seen everything says he’s looking forward to seeing a little bit more of his family and pillow.