Crawling on his knees often, prone on his stomach sometimes, and typically blinded in near-zero visibility, the nozzle man is the firefighter who personally wrangles a blaze into submission. He’s the first one in.
On Thursday, the nozzle man at a fire in upper Manhattan, beneath a shuttered jazz club being used for an Edward Norton movie, was Michael Davidson — a 15-year FDNY veteran and Floral Park father of four young children.
Davidson died fighting the blaze.
The fire laid bare the perils of firefighting and the nozzle men, one of an engine company’s most envied roles: closest to the action — but also to the flames.
“They’re the guys that put the fire out,” said FDNY Deputy Chief Chris Boyle. “Without them up front taking a beating, we don’t put a fire out.”
Of some 10,000 firefighters employed by the FDNY, about 2,500 are working at any given time, of whom about 220 — one at each engine company — are assigned on a rotation to be the nozzle firefighter, according to Battalion Chief Jake LeMonda, president of the FDNY’s Uniformed Fire Officers Association, the labor union that represents about 2,700 fire officers at the rank of lieutenant and up.
“It’s almost like a running back in a sense,” LeMonda said. “You have a play, the play comes off, and you run down the field, you score the touchdown. There are a lot of people that enabled you to make the play, but you are the guy that got the ball across the line.”
Said Lt. Ray McCormack, who trained Davidson and works at his firehouse: “The nozzle firefighter basically runs that show.”
On Thursday, Davidson, 37, in the cellar of 773 St. Nicholas Ave., was the assigned nozzle man of Harlem’s Engine Company 69. He couldn’t escape from the heavy fire he was fighting after being called to retreat because the situation was too dangerous. Fellow firefighters who soon realized Davidson was missing went back in and found him unconscious; he died at Harlem Hospital.
The nozzle man’s duties go beyond just pointing a hose tip: Together with an officer, a backup, a man at the door and the rest of the team, the nozzle man must help stretch the hose from the street, test the flow, open the line, and direct the water — but not too soon, because steam heats up and makes an already-scorching room even hotter and more untenable.
Interior firefighting in a dense urban environment like New York City needs to be done as close to the ground as possible, because heat rises and, “it’s hottest at the ceiling, coolest at the floor level,” LeMonda said.
Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the 8,400-member Uniformed Firefighters Association union, said the nozzle man is the first to face danger: the heated gases, the flames, the smoke.
“It’s like a flue,” he said. “All of that’s coming at you as you go down into the cellar.”
Davidson displayed “tremendous courage” going into a 1,200- to 1,500-degree cellar, which typically has few if any windows and limited ventilation, LeMonda said. All the heat and smoke escape up the staircase that the nozzle man is the first to descend.
“You’re blinded in zero visibility, and you’re really putting yourself into a flue to make it down,” he said. “It’s like hell down there.”
Being on the front line can pose special dangers for the nozzle man, who can be scalded by water that splashes back, suddenly hot and airborne, despite heat-resistant gear that only protects against heat up to 1,200 degrees for about a minute.
Frank C. Montagna, a retired battalion chief, said standing up puts firefighters in jeopardy of being burned, and “very few fires do we fight standing up inside a building. It’d be a crazy thing to do.”
“When they go into there they’re on zero visibility. They’re going by sound and by the feel of heat and feeling their way with their hands for the most part,” he said.
Davidson had survived past close calls, though not unscathed.
In a 2005 fire for which Davidson’s unit received a citation, McCormack said, Davidson was badly burned as he extinguished a blaze in a living room of a fully occupied home.
“When you spray water on things that are hot, hot water returns and hot water got past his protective barrier and burned him,” he said.
Injured, Davidson kept on and snuffed out fires in another two rooms.
“That’s heart,” McCormack said. “Here’s a firefighter with a tough job, already and sustains an injury, that most people would just stop.”
Despite the dangers, Boyle said of the coveted post: “They fight for the nozzle.”
On Thursday, Davidson was again assigned nozzle man, but unlike in 2005, the conditions stopped him.
“This experienced firefighter had the job of putting out this fire, which he was bravely doing,” FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said Friday at the hospital in announcing Davidson’s death. “And sometimes, the volume of fire is just so overwhelming that it can’t be accomplished that simply.”