Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Some firefighters love working on December 31 because the shift is almost guaranteed to be chock-full of alarms. Some do not enjoy working New Year's Eve, because a) they'd rather ring in the new year with loved ones, and/or b) running on people being drunk and stupid is only entertaining for so long. And "for so long" becomes a very short timespan at three in the morning...

I was always in the latter category. Don't get me wrong - there's a great deal of satisfaction in helping people who truly need assistance at any time of day or night. After all, that's what firefighters do. But once I gained enough seniority, I tried my best to be on vacation on New Year's Eve if our shift worked that day.

Whatever your celebratory plans, be safe out there, and I'll see you in 2014.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Holiday Cheer

Found floating around the Internet, original source undetermined:

Friday, December 13, 2013

Firefighters Saving Animals

Do firefighters rescue cats stuck in trees? As a general rule, no (but there are always exceptions to any rule). Based on the lack of cat skeletons found in trees, it's widely assumed that cats find their own way down when they get hungry or cold enough.

Recently some Arizona firefighters helped out a kitty with its head stuck in a dog food can. According to ABC15.com, a couple of women found the cat blindly wandering into traffic. They brought it to the fire station, where firefighters cut off the can. Read the full story here.

This is not an unusual occurrence. When people need help of any kind, they usually call on the fire department. Firefighters regularly save animals of all species from fires, traffic accidents, and other hazardous situations. Kittens, mice and rats, a dog, a horse, a squirrel, and a hamster are among my personal career saves. The Colorado Springs Fire Department has even been called a few times to assist the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo with injured large animals such as giraffes. 

Being a firefighter may not always be exciting, but it's always interesting.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cold Weather Firefighting Ain’t for Sissies

Here in Colorado, we spent nearly a week in arctic temperatures - below zero, single digits, temps in the low teens on a good day. As brutal as it has been for the general population, these kinds of conditions are even more challenging for firefighters.

The folks behind the Irons and Ladders LLC Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/IRONSandLADDERS) posted about the difficulties faced at working fires in Colorado Springs during this frigid weather. Some of their followers also chimed in with their own experiences. Here’s a summary to give you some insight about what firefighters face during extreme cold.

Ice. Fighting fires means pumping water, and that water freezes on everything – the street, where fire engine pumps and hose connections often leak, and water from the scene drains to; all equipment exposed to water or water spray; and the firefighters themselves.

Chicago firefighter, January 2013.
Photo from www.dailyoftheday.com
Freezing hose lines. See above. Sometimes hose freezes solid to street surfaces. Commercial deicer is one method used to free them. Of course, the next challenge is getting frozen sections of fire hose back to the station or some other facility so they can thaw. Hose generally comes in 50-foot long sections, and when frozen solid that hose is no different than steel pipe. No flexibility means you can’t just toss it in the back of a pickup or utility truck. My dad once described loading frozen hose onto a flatbed 18-wheeler for transport.

SCBA malfunctions. In extreme cold, air regulators will freeze, as will exhalation valves on the mask itself. The I & L guys say it’s similar to breathing into a straw that’s plugged.

Difficulty keeping chainsaws running. Chainsaws are primarily used during ventilation efforts, but it’s hard to cut a hole in a roof when the bar oil solidifies.

Extension ladders frozen in place. In other words, what went up is not coming down…

Apparatus frozen in place. If there’s water on the street and it’s cold enough, vehicle tires can freeze to the asphalt. Sometimes it’s just a light freeze, and the tires will break loose under power with no damage done to the tire or the vehicle. More severe cases require more extreme efforts to get the apparatus back on the road.

And just think: There are places in this country and around the world where this kind of extreme firefighting is the norm, not the exception!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hook and Ladder

On December 3rd, the popular game show Jeopardy! aired this clue:

“A hook & ladder is another way of referring to this type of conveyance”

The contestant correctly answered, “What is a fire truck?”

As I noted in my post “Fire Apparatus 101,” “fire truck” is an acceptable generic term for most fire service apparatus. But my initial knee-jerk response to that clue was “aerial” or “aerial ladder truck,” because that’s what I’ve long called them. I had to wonder if Alex Trebek would have accepted my response, asked me to “please be more specific,” or if the judges would have needed to research either of those answers to credit me with a correct response.

The New Oxford American Dictionary on my computer defines “hook and ladder” as:

“A fire engine that carries extension ladders and other firefighting and rescue equipment.”

This is not quite correct, at least from a fire service perspective, because to firefighters a fire engine is technically a vehicle equipped with a pump, water tank, and hose as well as an assortment of ground ladders and other tools.

Merriam-Webster online does a little better with its definition of “hook and ladder truck”:

“A piece of mobile fire apparatus carrying ladders and usually other firefighting and rescue equipment —called also hook and ladder, ladder truck.

Different departments and regions of the country may use “hook and ladder” in reference to slightly different types of apparatus. A few folks use the term to refer to a modern aerial ladder truck of any variety, perhaps out of tradition. (An aerial ladder truck (aka ladder truck or simply truck) is one that has a large, hydraulically-operated extension ladder mounted to a turntable on the truck.)

One common use of “hook and ladder” applies to a present-day tiller truck or tiller ladder truck. Tillers are a type of aerial ladder truck that resembles a semi-tractor and trailer. Two drivers are required - one up front who drives the rig, and one on the back who steers the ladder portion. These types of apparatus are used in big cities like New York because they can navigate narrow streets more easily than a standard ladder truck.

Photo by Matthew Field, http://www.photography.mattfield.com
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Here’s a video shot from the rear driver’s seat of a Kansas City 100” tiller ladder truck:

The term “hook and ladder” has a myriad of origins, depending on the person explaining it. It can refer to:

  • The pike poles (which resemble hooks) and ladders carried on turn-of-the-century fire apparatus.
  • Hooks used to pull down burning buildings to minimize the spread of fire (a huge concern when cities were largely constructed of wood).
  • Scaling ladders that firefighters once used to use to climb up the sides of buildings to gain access.
The standard caveat applies: If you're going to drop the phrase "hook and ladder" into your story, make sure it's appropriate to the time and place.

One note of caution: There is a lot of information available online. However, if you’re not careful with your Internet search terms when researching “hook and ladder,” your results will include:

  • The title of a 1932 skit by the Little Rascals
  • Restaurants in Hartford, CT; Hollister, MO; and Sacramento, CA
  • A realty in Sarasota, FL
  • A CrossFit training facility in Kent, WA
  • A fire buff group in the Denver area that seems to have gone dormant

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving at the Firehouse

It’s tough to be away from home during holidays that are traditionally spent with family and friends. But firefighters are a kind of family unto themselves, and they make the best of it because they know their work is important to the communities they serve.

Firefighters will usually attempt to prepare traditional Thanksgiving meals – a challenging task for busier crews whose cooking duties can be frequently interrupted by alarms. Sometimes a local hotel, restaurant, organization or grateful citizen will provide the meal.  Many departments allow firefighters to invite family to their fire stations for Thanksgiving. Not only is this a pleasant break in routine, it allows someone to keep an eye on the turkey so it doesn’t burn. Dried out poultry is bad enough; it’s really embarrassing when firefighters get called for smoke coming out of their own station!

But along with food, family, and camaraderie comes house fires, traffic accidents, serious medical situations, and other emergencies. Firefighters leave their families and turkey dinners to help others in need, and all too often witness the loss of homes and loved ones during a time that should be full of joy.

A quick Internet search led me to this video posted in 2009 that gives a glimpse into firehouse life on Thanksgiving in New York City:

I like this video because it captures the spirit of firefighters and the good-natured ribbing that goes on in the station. It even includes a quick tutorial on some firefighting equipment. It also shows a classic phenomenon: the alarm going off right as the crew sits down to eat. One firefighter rises from his seat as he continues to shovel food into his mouth until the very last moment when he has to leave the table. Most firefighters have used this time-tested maneuver at some point in their careers (and for some it’s a regular habit!) because they never know just how long they’ll be gone.

Have a safe and pleasant Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

They’re Not Oxygen Masks!

In the past year, I have run across at least three instances in which a writer incorrectly called the air masks firefighters wear into fires “oxygen” masks. One was in a news report, the other two appeared in novels; all were incorrect. Here’s the latest occurrence from a novel:

“Only then did he remove his [firefighting] helmet, and then the oxygen mask.”

Firefighters use Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) which are similar to the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) many people are familiar with. SCUBA gear is designed specifically for underwater use. Firefighting SCBAs are designed for hazardous environments such as fires. They can withstand high temperatures and a certain amount of day-to-day abuse, but are not suitable for use underwater.

Here’s what SCBAs look like on a couple of firefighters preparing for search and rescue training:

Photo by Robin Widmar. Copyright 2012.
SCBAs utilize air cylinders that are filled with filtered compressed air – regular old air, just like we breathe every day – not pure oxygen. Normal air consists of 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, and 1% other gases.

The air passes from the cylinder, which is clipped into a frame outfitted with shoulder straps and belt, through a regulator to reduce the high-pressure air from the cylinder to a breathable level. Air moves from the regulator to a full-face mask, which seals to the firefighter’s face and keeps the good air in while keeping the bad air out. Most of today’s SCBAs use positive pressure, meaning the pressure of the constant air flow also helps to keep contaminants at bay if the mask seal happens to leak.

SCBAs are equipped with alarms that sound when air runs low, allowing firefighters time to exit the hazardous environment. Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS) are integrated into newer models of SCBA. PASS devices sound a piercing alarm when a firefighter is motionless for a short period of time, alerting others that a firefighter is down and needs help.

That’s the long way to simply say firefighters do not wear oxygen tanks/masks into fires. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fire Apparatus 101

Last year I ran across this account of a traffic accident involving a fire engine that was posted on the website of a local news station:

“Officials say the truck from Engine 9 was enoroute to a call with lights and sirens active, when they were hit.”

For the sake of this post we’re going to overlook the misspelling of “en route” and other grammatical/punctuation errors, and focus instead on basic fire department lingo.

Considering that many people outside of the fire service simply don't know the differences in fire apparatus, I generally don't get my knickers in a twist when people call them “fire trucks.” But there are differences in fire apparatus, and it’s important to understand those differences if you’re going to write about firefighting in any detail. Please note that the terms I provide here are basic and may differ from terminology used in other parts of the country.

“Fire truck” is a generic term frequently used by the public (and sometimes by firefighters) when referring to vehicles such as fire engines (which are also called pumpers) and ladder trucks (also known as aerial ladder trucks, aerials, or simply trucks). There are different types of ladder trucks, including tower ladders and tiller trucks, but for now we’ll stick with the basics.

Fire departments also have specialized apparatus such as tankers/tenders that haul large amounts of water to fire scenes (common in rural areas); heavy rescue units that respond to building collapses, trench rescues, and the like; and brush trucks or wildland trucks used in fighting grass, brush, and forest fires. Some coastal departments have fireboats (which are very cool in my opinion!) and a few larger departments with hefty budgets even have their own helicopters.

Fire departments typically use specific identifiers for their apparatus. A common structure is to identify the vehicle by type and the fire station to which it’s assigned. In Colorado Springs, Engine 9 is a fire engine operating out of Fire Station 9; Truck 4 is a ladder truck operating out of Station 4; and so on.

Thus “The truck from Engine 9” in the sentence above just makes no sense whatsoever. 

Again, keep in mind that each fire department is different and may use different terminology. If you want to see the kinds of apparatus fire departments use, just go online and search by the department name. You’ll see fire apparatus of every kind, shape, size, and even in a variety of colors because not all fire trucks are red!

Falcon (CO) Fire Protection District Engine 311
staged at a roadblock during the June 2013 Black Forest Fire.
Photo by Robin Widmar. Copyright 2013.