Saturday, December 31, 2011

Strong Enough to Ask for Help?


Yesterday, I began writing a post about firefighter “mayday” calls.  Sadly there is a tendency to delay making a “Mayday” call, assuming that a call for assistance is a sign of weakness or failure.  The truth is…sometimes delaying the call for aide is the difference between living and dying.  I suspect I will have more commentary about “Mayday” signaling in the future, but as usual, current events steer my thinking toward another concern. 

I was fortunate enough to be in another state on Friday, while my comrades were dealing with a horrific crash on the main thoroughfare through our first due.  The Tractor Trailer vs. car vs. SUV with fire and entrapment had the expected fatal results, and the lives of the responders will forever be altered.  It was a long, agonizing event that involved 8 hours of activities, including; response, extinguishment, patient care, investigation and clean up.

These are the calls that worry me.  Not the strategy and tactics…we all train to deal with the emergencies we respond to. I worry for the responders who now need to deal with the emotions that will be altering their character for the next hours, days, weeks, or perhaps longer.  Sadly, the machismo developed by people in the emergency services prevents us from understanding the impact of these stressful responses.  Helplessness can erode the soul, witnessed death can haunt the mind, and the sights, sounds and smells of scenes like these can rot your gut.  Sometimes these effects are immediate and sometimes they manifest over time. 

We don’t ever think about calling “Mayday” for our feelings, but truthfully, it is the perfect word.  It comes from the French phrase “m’aidez”, which means “help me”.  As brothers, we need to be aware of the signs of someone needing our help, and reach out to offer that help.  If we are not comfortable with the role of “shoulder to cry on”, we have the duty to report our concerns to a company officer, or trusted friend.  This problem may not be an immediate case of “life or death”, but it certainly has an affect on the quality of life. 

I have personally been involved in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing 4 times.  In all four cases, I swore I did not feel any ill effects from the incident I was exposed to, and refused additional intervention.  Much to my surprise, I found myself telling these stories to a therapist 15 years later, after several personal life-altering events occurred in my life.  I have to wonder what damage was really done by all that grief that I chose to bury deep inside me.  

So, brothers and sisters, when you find yourself exposed to the horrors of your job…speak up.  Seek a sympathetic ear from a trusted colleague, or if you prefer, consider professional help.  Keep an eye and ear open for signs and symptoms of stress in yourself and your peers.  Changes in personality, attentiveness, sleep patterns, mood, and spirit are just a few of the signs that may be present.  Consider these symptoms as a Mayday call, and respond accordingly.  It may not be quite as flashy as a grab by a RIT team, but is every bit heroic!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Best Gifts Come in Small Packages


As I watched my family opening their gifts on Christmas day, it got me thinking about the suspense of the unknown.  Often times, we may have a pretty good idea what is inside the brightly decorated gift boxes.  After all, we all made our lists, shared our wishes, and answered the over-asked question “What do you want for Christmas?”

If that doesn’t work, we immediately call upon our other senses to help us guess what is inside the package.  How big is the box?  How much does it weigh?  Does it rattle or shift?  Who is it from?  Are they generous or stingy?  Why do we have this fascination of finding out what is in the package before unwrapping it? 

Then, as I usually do, I compared that little part of life to the emergency services.  In many ways, we do the same thing every time we are dispatched to a call.  We do a mental reconnaissance, based on the information we get from dispatch.  We consider the words of the dispatcher carefully.  The word “possible” always raises doubt, while “multiple calls received”, or “across from…” raise the pucker factor a notch or two.  We also consider the time of day, the neighborhood, the specific location, and the pitch of the dispatchers’ voice; much like we consider the size and shape of the “gift”.

Occasionally, the info is very clear; as easy as guessing a football that is “shrink-wrapped in foil paper.  Other times, the information is vague, like a shirt box from Grandma.  The truth, however, is that we never really know what we are getting until we arrive at the scene, or “unwrap the gift! 

We can easily make the comparison between the “big one” under the tree and the “big one” we get dispatched to.  But how do we define a “valuable” call?  With gifts, it is not always the dollar amount that makes a gift valuable.  We must consider sentimental value, personal need, sacrifice by the gift-giver, timing, and thoughtfulness when we “value” a gift.  But with emergency calls, things are a bit different. 

Obviously, calls that result in saving a life are the most valuable of all, and we can certainly stick a feather in our hats if we do an exceptional job saving property.  But sometimes, the most rewarding calls are the most innocent ones… like an engagement ring in a shoebox full of packing peanuts. 

One that comes to mind was a “possible structure fire” call I ran on Christmas night.  Dispatch received only one call from the resident, reporting a “pop” and a smell of something hot from the microwave. You kind of knew right away that this was going to be like getting a pair of tube socks from your aunt, but manners dictate that you smile and say thank you either way. As expected, it was quickly determined to be a malfunction in the appliance, and no fire.  The units packed up their gear and cleared the scene, thankful for the “socks”, unaware that there was a diamond to be found in the toe. 

The resident was a sixty-something widow, who lived alone, and was clearly feeling lonely on this holiday evening.  The panic and excitement clearly added to this poor woman’s stress.  As I collected the necessary information for the fire report, I took an extra 15 minutes to listen to her story.  She was frightened, lonely, and sad.  But by giving her my time and attention, I relieved her tension, soothed her anxiety, and had her looking forward to the new microwave she would soon have.  While driving back to the station, I had a warm fuzzy feeling.  I am not sure if this sensation was from giving or receiving.  All I know is that this gift cost me nothing and meant the world to her.

Merry Christmas Margaret! 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Holidays, Brothers and Sisters


'Twas the night before Christmas, and everything was still.
A night without sirens would sure be a thrill.
The station was quiet, the TV was off,
Just an occasional fart or sniffle or cough.

The night shift was nestled all snug in their beds,
With the CPAP manifold strapped to their heads.
The chief wore his boxers that matched his red cap.
At least it wasn't his jammies with the rear access flap,

When out of the speakers toned up such a clatter,
They sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
The lights flickered on with a blinding white flash,
As they staggered to the engine room in a blurry-eyed dash.

The glow of the lamp near the dalmation’s litter
Lit their sleepy little eyes that sparkled like glitter ,
They were all still too young to be running the calls,
Eight wee little, squeaky little, squirmy fur balls,

The Chief was so cheery, so lively and slick,
He ran to the kennel and grabbed them up quick.
It was time for these puppies to build up their fame,
He scooped up those cuties, and dispatched them by name;

"Now Freckles; now Dotty; now Ashes and Spotty!
On Cinder; on Inky; on Bootsie and Blotty!
Now get in the buggy, it’s time for your first call!
Now bounce along, bounce along, bounce along all!"

As they rounded the corner they widened there eyes,
When they spotted the header, shooting up in the sky,
So up to the house fire the engines they flew,
The ladder, the rescue and the puppy dogs, too.

And then, all the truckies, went up on the roof
The “saw man”, the “axe man” and that squirrelly little goof.
They opened the vent hole, and were headed back down,
When out came the probie, looking just like a clown.

He was dressed in his turnouts, from his head to his foot,
And his gear finally tarnished with ashes and soot;
The wet, grimy hose he had flung on his back,
Means maybe the vets will stop giving him flack

His eyes -- how they twinkled, his dimples -- how merry!
You could tell right away that he just “broke his cherry”!
The puppies looked on, just enjoying the show,
The chief let them out to make some yellow snow;

The bitter cold air made them chatter their teeth,
As the smoke it encircled the block like a wreath;
The crews tired muscles were feeling like jelly,
And they dream about getting some food in their belly.

When out came the neighbors with cookies and milk,
And coffee and cocoa brewed up smooth as silk.
A package of meat snacks made the puppy tails wag,
In just a few minutes they emptied the bag.

So, please, as you celebrate this holiday season,
Give thought to the heroes that are the big reason
That you are alive and your house is intact,
And the crooks are in jail for illegal acts;

So, to all my brothers and sisters who serve,
I extend all the thanks and praise you deserve.
May your pagers stay quiet, and your call load light.
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

You Gotta Be "All In"


There seems to be some people that believe the notion that you can be a “part-time” firefighter.  I am not talking about the volunteer who has two-jobs and a family, and needs to budget his time wisely.  I like that guy.  You know that when he is there, he is there with a purpose.  I am also not referring to the volley that belongs to multiple fire departments and flips his alliance based on where the glory is and where the work is.  I have an entire post about clowns like that.  I am talking about the guy that thinks he can serve as a firefighter part of the time, but “turn it off” when he finds it convenient.  Have I confused you?  Please allow me to explain.

Becoming a firefighter is a commitment.  Whether you are career, or volunteer, when you join the brotherhood of firefighters, you have made a life choice.  On duty or off duty you are always a firefighter.  There is an expectation of behavior that is laid upon every new department member that includes a degree of decorum that extends well beyond the boundaries of the fire station.  Once you are known as a “firefighter”, everything you do will be a reflection on firefighters everywhere.  If you sport a blue whacker light, three scanner antennas and a dozen fireman stickers on your car and you drive like an ass, guess what everyone’s perception of firefighters is.  Act like a slobbering jack-wagon at a bar room in your FD t-shirt, and what would you suppose everyone in the place will think of the fire service?  And my new recent favorite is the knuckleheads who use the internet and their 1st Amendment to spew garbage from their pie hole without any consideration to the embarrassment they are causing to the rest of the “brotherhood”.  They insult brothers (or their brother’s mother), threaten retaliation through violence, or flex their cyber-muscles against the very authority they are too cowardly to confront face-to-face. 

The way I see it, you ALWAYS carry “the banner”.  Often I have heard the excuse, “But I am a volunteer, you can’t make me…(fill in your favorite complaint here)”  Really??  Your volunteer act occurred when you walked into the fire station and joined.  From that point forward, you have enlisted yourself to behave in a manner that fits a rigid expectation of the department you joined. When you get in your car and drive away from the station, the department leadership still considers you to be an ambassador of their organization. But do you respect that honor?

Do you wave at passing vehicles with firefighter plates, or do you check to see what department it is from first, then decide if you are going to salute that brother?  Do you hold doors for strangers while you are sporting your fire company job shirt, because that old lady just might be your Lieutenant’s grandma.  Do you Tweet with dignity and respect, knowing the world is reading, and judging?

This “being a firefighter” is a full-time responsibility.  Thinking it is anything less is simply “irresponsible” 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

All I Want For Christmas


The Christmas holiday is right around the corner.  Along with the joy of the season comes the tension of tragedy that is likely to occur.  Every emergency responder remembers that one call that rots at their gut, not only because of the circumstances, but because the time of the year makes it extraordinarily memorable. 

As a kid, I remember my father’s haunting was a double fatal house fire, while the parents were away and the kids were left in the care of a babysitter.  He never really talked about the emotions that plagued him and his colleagues.  Perhaps he thought I was too young. As the years wore on, and the stories continued, I began to understand the impact that call had on all the people who responded that tragic night.

The EMS veterans certainly have memories of the cardiac arrest call at a holiday dinner party, or the dreadful “unresponsive person” calls on Christmas morning that end up with a call for a coroner.  Surely, every cop remembers taking mommy or daddy away from crying kids during the holiday season, as well.  Bless them all for dealing so closely with the humanity of the holiday.   

One of my first bad memories was a crash with entrapment a week after Christmas.  Imagine my horror when I discovered the girl we were extricating was a friend of mine.  I think of her every year around this time when I hear a crash along that road, or whenever I see one of her friends during the holidays.  We really don’t talk about her any more, and I wonder if they remember her the way I do…battered and struggling for her life.  No matter how hard I try to remember her smiling face and her endless giggle, I can’t shake the image of her on that cold icy highway.

It seems like every year, there is some memorable fire in the days leading up to Christmas; fires that route people from their homes or apartments, destroying gifts, and memories and replacing them with nightmares that will last for decades.  In 32 years, I have seen more scorched Christmas decorations, and burned up Christmas trees than I care to see.  

So PLEASE, everybody, blow out your candles, check those old holiday lights, don’t overload your circuits, watch what you are cooking, be careful with your fireplace ashes, keep your tree watered daily.  Furthermore, celebrate wisely, and don’t drive if you have been drinking.  Keep your head cool, even if you don’t get the gift you wanted from Santa. 

All I want for Christmas is for every law enforcement officer, firefighter, and EMS provider to have a pleasant, quiet holiday.  I am hoping Christmas 2011 is the season that is remembered for having nothing notable happen.  A little snow would be nice, as well.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Trust Sandwich

In the fire service, no personal quality is quite as important as trust. It is built up from many different ingredients.  As individuals, we all have different taste and much like sandwiches, everyone’s is different.
On the surface, you can easily think of trust as the relationship between you and your partners.  That alone is one of the most important layers of the “trust sandwich” that we need to eat every day.  Trusting that they will have your back if you get in a “jam” helps us develop the level of courage to accomplish the extraordinary tasks we do as firefighters.  We trust the pump operator to get the water to us when we need it.  We trust that the vent team will open up properly to keep the cool air at our tail so we can make an aggressive push to the seat of the fire.  We trust the team mate holding the hydraulic spreader to trigger the device in the correct direction when our extremities are nearby.  We also must trust they won’t do the wrong thing, like opening up a fog pattern in a compartment we occupy, move the ladder we were counting on as our escape route, or light a flare in a gas cloud. 
Another area of trust that is important is the trust we have in our physical capabilities.  Are we as “fresh” as we should be?  Do we fully trust our cardio-vascular system to perform flawlessly under the stress of battle?  Do we have faith that our muscular-skeletal system will endure the brutal challenge of the firefight?  Do we count on our emotional and cognitive levels to remain in balance so we do not put ourselves in jeopardy? 
We also place great trust on our equipment.  We trust our equipment to keep us alive, and failure is not an acceptable option.  A great deal of time is spent assuring that our equipment is “combat ready”, which means it is functioning perfectly, has been maintained and serviced regularly, and we are intimately familiar with the operation of the equipment.  Whether it is a Halligan bar, an SCBA, or a million dollar ladder truck, we trust, or shall I say EXPECT that equipment to function exactly as expected. Much like the meat, if any slice is spoiled, the entire sandwich is ruined
How about our leadership structure?  It is clearly the bread and butter of our process to trust our leaders.  Do we fully trust the judgment of the people who lead us on the fireground?  Better yet, if you are a leader, do your personnel trust you to make the right calls?  I am willing to bet that this is an area of concern in many volunteer, career, AND combination departments.  Stagnant leaders go stale quickly.  Too often we allow personalities to interfere with our perception of capability.  “If I don’t like you, I don’t trust you!”  This is a sad, but true likelihood.  It is human nature.  Many knowledgeable and experienced leaders lose their leadership capability because of the way they treat, and interact with, people.    Some may also be thinking, “If I don’t trust you, I don’t like you”, and it is hard to argue with that logic.  Trust builds relationships… always did, always will.
The most important “cheese” in this trust sandwich comes from the trusting smile of our customers.  The public, our residents and business owners, open their homes and businesses to us at a time of crisis.  They trust us to save lives and property, to protect their belongings, and their history, and their way of life.  Their expectation of trust should never be taken for granted…ever!  Once we lose the trust of the people we serve, we lose our purpose. 
We need to TRUST: each other, ourselves, our equipment, our leaders, and our customers support.  And from now on, I will try to avoid posting to my blog when I am hungry … Trust me!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Melting Pot


The volunteer fire service is the ultimate melting pot of humanity. 

When you hear “melting pot” your first thought is likely thoughts of race or nationality.  Truth is that is just part of what gets melted into the fire service.  Many decades ago, nationalities clustered into neighborhoods, and each neighborhood had their own fire company.  Today, some of these localized departments still have very strong roots based on a single nationality.  A quick look at the roster sheet or a glance at the names on the gear provides quick clues about the nationality make up of the department.

Race lines have also melted over the years.  In what was once a white, Anglo-Saxon dominated “profession”, minority numbers have been increasing steadily.  As ethnic lines blur due to greater tolerance and lower prejudices, black and white are becoming gray and Spanglish is gaining popularity as a second language.

Religious boundaries are virtually non-existent; the most important belief required is in each other.  Individuals may pray, believe, worship, or follow any organized religion, provided those beliefs do not contradict the mission of the department.  Organizationally, departments tend to be somewhat non-denominational.

Sex is also a non-issue in most departments.  While the fire service is still a predominately male industry, more females have been helping boost the manpower (pardon the pun) of local volunteer departments, and in many places have climbed the ranks into leadership rolls.

Age is another area where there are few limits.  Volunteer positions begin at ages as low as 14 years, and some volunteers well past traditional retirement age are still serving actively as firefighters, drivers, officers or as fire police. 

The fire service also blends people from every socio-economic group, from varying levels of education, and from virtually every occupation from student to licensed professional. 

Such a wide range of social profiles may seem like a challenge to an outsider.  However, it is that diversity that helps make an organization like a volunteer fire department operate so well.  The perfect blend of wise, seasoned veterans and fresh young minds and every stage in between keep the membership in a stage of dynamic growth.  The blend of occupations assures a “specialist” in a specific field will have unique place in the organization.  As a chief officer, knowing that I have an electrician, a carpenter, a mechanic, an engineer, a computer technician, a law enforcement officer, and a plumber responding on a call gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.  It is a virtual toolbox of specialists in all shapes, colors, and sizes.  Now if I could just figure out how to mount them all on a pegboard organizer…

Monday, December 12, 2011

Not St. Elmo's Fire, But Close

It was a warm spring night along route 1, and the work shift crew was perched on the picnic bench in front of the station watching the stream of college punks stagger “home” from a night of elbow-titty at the Vous.  It was the highlight of every weekend shift, and one of the best reasons we had the Alarm Unit to run bells calls on the campus; we didn’t want to miss our weekly show.  The steady stream of budding young adults with their pickled brains and overcharged libidos slurred past us toward the dorms as we rated their appearance on a scale from one to ten.  One lad in particular caught our eye.  He was walking alone (although walking may be an exaggeration) and we were convinced he had NO IDEA where he was going to be sleeping in about 20 minutes.  We would likely find out his name when we ran the medic local for the unconscious person laid out in the “M” of flowers in the traffic circle on Campus Drive.

A few minutes after he passed us, he returned, lumbering back toward downtown.  We wondered if he unknowingly spun a 180 or if he was getting a head start on tomorrow’s drunk fest.  Then he started drifting off the sidewalk in our directions…this was going be fun.  We loved taking every advantage of opportunity to taunt these travelers.  There was no way this guy was going to remember any of this anyway.  He struck up a conversation with our Captain, the least tolerant of the local college population:

Hey, are, are, are, are yoos guysh firemen?
            Yeah, you got a problem with that?
Well yous better get on yer firetrucksh, quick, kuz this building back here iz got FAR coming out all over the place.
            Right, pal, how about you move along…
Nooo, doood, im sooo sherious, yous better hurry, cause ders fire and smoke everywhere…

We poked fun at this guy for a while, and finally agreed to humor him with an “investigation”.  The five of us walked up the sidewalk, with this clown leading the way, to check out his hallucination.  The pace quickened a bit when we saw the ominous orange glow reflecting off the trees.

Then as we cleared the back of the station, there it was…14 Fraternity Row, with heavy fire showing from the third floor window!  The sprint back to the apparatus bay seemed like running of the bulls in Pamplona, and as we were donning our gear, the FART van was getting dispatched for the automatic alarm.  Needless to say, we got first water on the fire, and saved NONE for the other units on the box.

We looked for our Good Samaritan to thank him, but he was no where to be found.  We considered thanking him next weekend, but he would likely have no recollection of the event.       

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On Any Given Sunday

As I relaxed by my fireplace watching football games today, I started thinking about how much football and firefighting have in common.  In fact, I will describe one, and let you decide which one I am describing:

The most notable thing is the personal protective gear.  Before heading into “battle”, the team members don an ensemble of equipment to protect their bodies from damage.  Helmets, eye shields, gloves, padded clothing, and special footwear; all designed for efficiency and comfort.  This equipment is so important, that there are penalties that are assessed if you do not wear your gear properly.  Members of each team wear the same uniform, which shows unity and togetherness, but personal preferences may slightly alter an individuals equipment styles.  It doesn’t matter whether you are a well paid “starter”, or a part-timer working for next-to-nothing, you wear the same insignia as everyone else on the team and are expected to excel to your potential on every event.  Almost everyone wears their names on the backs of their apparel, and part of what they wear indicates the roll they serve during the period of activity. 

Every group has a specific “game plan” they like to follow, but when circumstances are dictated by the enemy, plans B and C sometime need to be put into action.  Sometimes it takes an aggressive offense to take control of the event, and there are times when a defensive posture will make you the winner of the day.  When all else fails, you can always “punt”.  Watching the clock is a must, time is very important.  If you don’t do enough things right in a timely fashion, you get beat.

Not everyone participates at the same time.  There are capable back-ups ready to step in when called upon, and there are specialists for almost every specific situation.  There is a hierarchy of leadership that makes split second personnel and strategic decisions based on the problem they are facing at that moment.  Some of these leaders do not engage directly with the “enemy”.  Only one is ultimately in charge, while the subordinates may direct operations in a specific task or sector.  From the captains on down is where the dirty work gets done, and the guys in the “trenches” seldom get the credit they deserve. Rosters are often changing.  Leaders who are ineffective get replaced, members retire, and some simply choose to take a different career path.  Free agency has caused “players” to change teams; loyalty isn’t what it used to be. 

Once underway, rehab areas become active with members cooling off in front of misting fans or warming their limbs in front of portable heaters when the weather is cold.  Hydration is important to keep everyone from cramping up, and the event doesn’t stop if someone gets hurt.  The injured are helped out of the action circle, and their role is replaced by another team member by medical specialists.

Groups that practice often, study the opponent carefully, and stick with the game plan go home happy.  Organizations that make mistakes, are improperly prepared, and do not give their best effort every time, often have lots of trouble in the locker room. 

Only one thing appears certain…If your fire department shows up with fans wearing cheese on their heads, you can pretty much expect perfection.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

After Rights, What’s Left?

Two great things about being an American are the Bill of Rights, and the Internet.  One gives us the right to say or write anything we want, and the other gives us a platform for the entire world to view it.  That is a powerful tool, or a power weapon, depending on how it is used.  I am a big fan of both!  I love to babble, and love when someone is listening.  It is my long monologues at home alone that never give me any satisfaction. The truth is, I don’t think the fish English; they just stare at me, then turn their backs and swim away.    

I am tickled that technology has given me the opportunity to blog my thoughts and have some fire officer in England send me an e-mail saying, “Same here, Chap!”  It also reminds me that if I threaten someone, crack an ethnic joke, or insult someone in a foreign country, I am very likely to end up facing uncomfortable consequences, from someone close by or on the other side of the globe.  Sure I can SAY anything I want, but that is where the protection from the first amendment ends.  There is no language in any law that says that the object of my written poison must be loyally swallowed without opposition.  I could SAY that I am going to blow up a grade school, but I am smart enough to expect that federal agents will be following my every move before I even log off. 

These communication tools are like any ordinary tool.  Misuse will cause problems.  As I love to do, I will draw a rather grotesque analogy to explain my point.  I can own a table saw and I am permitted to sever my arm with that table saw if I really, really want to.  That is my right!  But obviously, the result of exercising my right to sever an appendage will create lasting results that I may not wish to endure.  Push-ups are hard enough with both arms, and since I do not have the financial backing of the Def Leppard drummer to trick out my kit the way he did, I would likely need to give up my monster set, and kiss the dream of drumming on stage for Van Halen good-bye!

So, what is the point to all of this?  If you speak, plan to stand by your words.  You OWN everything you say.  If what you say causes anger or hostility toward you, do not be surprised if someone gets angry or hostile toward you.  If what you say is illegal, expect to be arrested.  If what you say is libelous, expect to be named in a lawsuit.  If you saw off your arm with a table saw, expect a nickname like “Stumpy”.  Do you understand my point?

Rights do not shield us from harm.  In fact, in many cases, our rights give us just enough rope to hang ourselves.  Of course, hanging yourself is your right, too.  Just don’t expect your life insurance to pay your next of kin.  That is THEIR right!

Turn Your Head and Cough.

Today is the annual physical examination day at the fire station.  For about twelve hours, we will have a steady stream of members scratching out their profile paperwork, peeing in cups, and sticking out their tongues to say "Ahhh".  We are fortunate that our department provides this service.  In spite of what some of the grumblers say, screening for existing conditions that may trigger catastrophic events is a valuable asset for our members.  In the past, these physicals have uncovered some health issues for members that could be attended to and treated before they became debilitating problems.  This keeps the members "in the game" and provides a level of comfort that their bodies can stand up to the stresses of firefighting.

Despite your level of healthiness, there is always a cloud of angst as you begin the physical exam process.  You start thinking about what your doctor told you to do during your last visit.  We all know we should eat healthier, exercise more, lose excess weight, and avoid unhealthy activities.  On the morning of the exam, the "fasting" requirement reminds you how habitual eating is.  The anxiousness of the exam suddenly feels like cardiac problems, which raises your blood pressure (no matter how hard you try to stay relaxed). 

If you completed your lifestyle paperwork early (and not the morning of the exam like me) the questions made you think of your aches and pains.  If those thoughts made you act, and you surfed WebMD with your symptoms in mind, you are convinced you have some rare tropical disease that will soon cause your skin to fall off and your intestines to explode!  Then there is the fear that you are getting old, and the technicians are going to notice your gradual decomposition. 

OK, your name is called, and you carry your tube of urine, and your stack of completed bubble forms into the trailer which honestly looks like it is less healthy than you are.  Hearing test, eye test, blood pressure, blood test, lung capacity test (my least favorite), height, weight, EKG, chest x-ray, "Hey doc, you missed a spot!".  Not to worry, you haven't seen the doc yet.  Off to the next room for eyes and ears and mouth and nose...oh, and testicles...first time they have been fondled in awhile. 

Then it comes, the amazing euphoria that follows the words "OK, you are all finished"  I felt better immediately!  I asked the doctor how I did, and my results were impressive.  The brain scan was negative, I passed my urine test (didn't spill a drop), and I aced my hepatitis tests with an A, two B's, and a C. 

Next stop, the bagel joint for a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich and a chocolate milk.  They can yell at me for that next year!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Look is lost.

Remember the good old days in the fire service?  Life was simple back then.  I'm not talking about riding the tailboard in hip books or leading off with booster lines and Hardie guns, I am talking about the way people used to respond to leadership.

One thing that was seldom an issue was the respect for authority.  The chain of command was "Queen Mary anchor" chain.  It was strong , solid, and unchallenged.  The Fire Chief, Assistant Chiefs, Captains and Lieutenants maintained a hierarchy of leadership that was well defined, and not to be questioned.  We followed orders from those above you in rank whether they wore your company number, or that of a mutual aid company.  Colonel Jessup said it best in "A Few Good Men", "We follow orders or people die!"

The Chief wasn't always right, but he was always the Chief!  His plan was the only plan that was followed, and his officers carried that message through to the troops.  We did not fear the man in charge, we feared DISOBEYING the man in charge.  Disobedience led to consequence.  That consequence may have been as simple as "the look".  You may have gotten one in the past that you recall.  That straight stare, crooked eyebrow, flared nostril look of disapproval that sank your heart into your gut.  You never wanted to be on the receiving end of that...or worse.  You especially didn't want to have your peers to see you get "the look". 

The shame of letting the team down was more than enough to keep us in line.  We all knew we were in the same boat as well.  NO ONE was immune from "the look".  If we screwed up and deserved to have one cast upon us from an officer, we hung our heads in shame, and accepted the (imaginary) scarlet letters that we would wear for awhile.  Unlike the novel, however, this "A" stood for ASS, instead of Adulterer.  You usually "wore it" until someone else deserved it more than you, relieving you of its heavy burden. 

Today, it seems like everything is questioned.  Not directly, mind you, but by social and organizational manipulation.  People can hide under their covers with a laptop and instantly rally up a posse of support against a directive without ever fearing "the look".  Authority is losing its, well, AUTHORITY!  There is a virtual arsenal of liberal movements that protect people from "the look".  Think about it... you can always find a support group, organization, union, club, "lawyer", parent, or block bully to tell you that you don't deserve "the look", you should not fear "the look", and if someone ever tries to give you "the look", whether you deserve it or not, will fight on your side. 

Please don't misinterpret what I am saying.  There are some leaders that barely deserve to be respected, particularly those that do not respect the people they lead.  There are also many people in the fire service that understand the value and importance of the chain of command.  Lets be honest, a blog about the obedient and deserving ones would be a yawner, and they wouldn't expect to be stroked constantly to keep them dedicated to the commitment they make to the fire service.  It's the toxic, disrespectful cowards that need to be stroked repeatedly ... with a rusty wire brush dipped in kerosene! 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rest Easy Brother, We Will Take it From Here!

Sad news has spread throughout the fire service community again, as we begin to react to facts about a tragic firefighter line-of duty death in Worcester, Massachusetts.  Firefighter Jon Davies, a 17-year veteran, searched the three story apartment after twelve occupants had already fled or been rescued by the emergency responders.  Then the building collapsed, trapping firefighters under the burning rubble of this dilapidated tenement building.  Several yards away stood the boarded up, charred remnants of an identical apartment house that burned a few months ago. 
This event comes just days after the anniversary of the horrible catastrophe in a cold storage warehouse fire that killed 6 Worcester firefighters in 1999. 
It is real easy to ask, “Why?”  To look at the building, you’d think, “what a dump”!  Firefighter Davies and his crew re-entered the building without hesitation due to a report of a tenant still trapped in a rear bedroom. Firefighter Davies saw someone’s home being consumed by fire, but more importantly, he believed there was a life to be saved.  This was not someone he loved, not someone he even knew; but firefighters don’t think that way.  Firefighters believe that there are very few risks that trump the reward of someone’s life being saved.  Ironically, there was no longer anyone trapped in the building, until of course, the structure failed.  It took over an hour for crews to reach the trapped firefighters, and for Jon, that was just too much time.
This is what bonds firefighters.  This is why we use terms like “family”, and “brotherhood”.  We use these terms in reference to people we have never met, and will likely never know.  It is not likely that we will ever meet his three sons, or anyone else in his family.  I doubt we will ever speak with Firefighter Brian Carroll, his partner, who is suffering from critical injuries sustained in the collapse, or any of his friends and family either.  Chances are we may never even shake the hand of a Worcester firefighter, yet we stand as one, filled with great sorrow.
We know our kids, and our families, and our friends who would be directly impacted our untimely passing.  Those of us, who have known a lost hero personally, fully understand the overwhelming grief and sense of emptiness that will dig away in the guts of the ones we love for years.
We know that he made the correct decision.  We understand the risk he took to save the life of another human being.  We know he had precious little time to ponder his choice, and acted instinctively, as we all would in that situation.  That is what scares the Hell out of us.  We may be faced with the exact same decision tonight … and we may not be as brave as Firefighter Jon Davies was. 
Rest easy brother, we will take it from here!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

You're Holding WHAT?

It was about 2:30 in the morning when the three alert tones echoed through the fire station; "7600 Mowatt Lane, for a house on fire".  We scrambled a crew of six, all college students saving cash by living in a fire station on campus.  Oh, who am I kidding, we LOVED living in a fire station, and a slew of those stories will likely make their way onto this blog.  This one was a classic...

With the Powercall wailing, and the Mack's tranny banging through the gears, we made our way toward the outer edges of the campus.  The duty chief tapped into his vast knowledge of our first due and while en route, advised "If this is the abandoned house, advise all units that this house is in extremely poor condition".  Now, it was rumored that he had a crystal ball on his nightstand, but how in the world did he know that?  I must admit, he really had this one pegged.  This place was well off!  Not well off like the snobs that drive Italian sports cars in a snowstorm, well off, as in fire belching from every opening.  As we crested the hill in Little Asia (an area known for fire alarms caused by food on the wok), there it was; a ball of fire with a glowing header of smoke soaring straight up into the sky...  It sure was in poor condition, and it was getting poorer by the minute.

The Lieutenant grabbed for the mic, and I grabbed his arm to stop him.  We were both pretty jacked up with adrenaline, and I didn't want him to shriek unprofessionally on the radio like the clowns we always mocked mercilessly.  I looked over from the driver's seat and said, "Take a breath, let's see how cool YOU can be".  He knew exactly what I meant.  He slowly raised the mic to his mouth, "Communications, Engine 122, be advised, we are approaching the scene with heavy fire evident."  It was the deepest, calmest, most emotionless radio transmission I had ever heard.  I was immediately overcome with a wave of relaxed confidence, despite the inferno we were racing toward.  I began by mental checklist of needs: water supply, apparatus positioning, pump operation... these lads were gonna want water, and lots of it. 

The dual supply lines played off the hose bed as I wheeled the wagon back the narrow stone lane toward what looked to be the gates of Hell.  The pumper had gotten out of the station when they heard the magic words, "heavy fire".  Ahh, the joys of 12 action-hungry live-ins in a fire station!  They picked up my split lay and fed me from a near-by hydrant, then the Indians all came looking for another line to pull off my engine. 

In the midst of all the waterworks, Chief 'Crystal Ball' delivered the most cavalier size-up I have ever heard ... "We have a 2 1/2 story, abandoned wood frame dwelling, fully involved, I'm gonna hold Engine Company 12, return the rest of the assignment."  Did I hear him correctly?  We got this entire place to ourselves?  Outstanding!  I have never seen my roommates so happy, I have never seen so many lines pulled off of one engine, and I have never seen so much fire handled with a two-piece engine company.

As for our classes the next day ... well ... lets just say they were something none of us have ever seen either.

Comments Now Enabled

OK, I have decided to relinquish some of my selfishness, and have reluctantly turned on the "comments" capability on my blog.  I have surfed enough firefighter forums to know that there is an endless supply of people who have good intentions but no tact, and think the right to free speech gives them the right to be complete asshats with no regard of who they offend. 

Please know that this is MY blog, and I have two rules...
  1. No Asshats!
  2. See rule #1
That's about it.  I welcome differing opinions, and it is OK if we disagree.  However, I will not tolerate this blog becoming a venue to bash, berate, insult, or embarrass anyone.  For this reason, I have activated the 'moderator' function.  In other words, I must approve what you post on my wall.  If you don't like my censorship, create your own blog.  Its easy, even I figured out how to do it. 

I can't imaging that anything I post here will create significant controversy, but people do like whine with their cheese.  So comment away, but please stick to the topic as I have authored it. And PLEASE be bold enough to sign your post.  This blog is all about being open and honest.  I want this site to be a pleasurable experience for all who visit it. 

So join in; let me know what you think, what you like, what you remember...ask me a question, suggest a topic, pat me on the back.  I like compliments, they make me purr.  Enjoy your visit!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Taking Out the Windows

I know of a certain career firefighter and volunteer deputy chief that probably cringed when he read this title.  I also know that he has shoulders broad enough to man up and admit the error of his ways.  In his defense, he was young and dumb, very new to the fire service, and not quite up to speed with the lingo.  It was a warm afternoon when we responded to a reported basement fire in a two story cape cod style single family dwelling.  Gray smoke drifted out of the open first floor windows as the initial attack line was stretched to the rear basement entrance. 

Trying to coordinate the perfect timing of hose advancement and ventilation, the incident commander ordered this newbie to "take out the basement windows!"  He then turned his attention to the water supply set-up, issued radio commands to incoming units, tried to keep the homeowners from re-entering the house, and the dozen or more things that need to be done simultaneously by one person.

Turning to check on the progress of the attack team, the chief noticed the basement windows were still intact, and the crew in the basement was taking a beating from the steam.  Thats when he saw him...the newbie... dropping to his knees with a screwdriver in his hand, trying to figure out how to "take the windows out".  The verbal exchange went something like this (F-bombs sanitized for the purpose of internet decency):
          Chief:  What are you doing?
          Greenie:  Taking out the windows like you asked!
          Chief:  Not like that, like THIS!...

Imagine the look on this new guys face, as the chief drop-kicked the first window pane like he was kicking a 30-yard field goal and smokey steam billowed out. Needless to say, the screwdriver plan got scuttled, and a pike pole was used to scuttle the rest of the basement windows.  (No, readers, that was no typo, it was an intended use of the same word with very different meanings.  Get your Websters out if you don't believe me.)

So, thank you, Rich.  Your literal interpretation of an order has been a lasting lesson for me.  I always try make sure that new guys understand our lingo so what I am asking for is what I am gonna get.  Otherwise, imagine the circus that would occur when we give orders like "hit the hydrant, stretch the line, take the front door, lay out, throw a ladder, make the stairway, cover the connections", or the scariest of all, "TERMINATE COMMAND".   

When you leave the room...

In the "brotherhood" of the fire service, there sure seems to be a lot of backstabbing.  I like to think that most of is is cowardous, and not vindictive.  If you are not sure what I mean, you either don't spend enough time in the firestation, or you are not very tuned in to what is transpiring.  Try this experiment the next time you find yourself engaged in unstructured conversation at the station:

Take note of who the conversation is about.  Chances are is it about someone who is not in the room.  Whether it is poor personal hygiene, unhealthy habits, questionable romantic history, or training committment, people love to talk ABOUT other people.  Seldom, however, do they have the balls to talk TO the other people.  My guess is that they simple don't know how. 

Being honest with people...particularly those you aren't intimately close to, can be difficult.  We fear alienation, retribution, or retaliation.  So instead, we talk about them to others, because it is safe, right?  Others won't be offended, because it is not about THEM... In fact, they will likely agree or concur your beefs, because they too fear alienation, retribution, or retaliation.  What these flamethrowers don't realize is that the way they treat others is what gets talked about when THEY leave the room. 

Personally, I will take someone with bad breath over a backstabber.  I will partner with a know-it-all as long as he has my back.  I don't mind the guy that only comes around when it is convenient, as long as he has the integrity of the department on his mind when he does.  The guy that calls another member a "poison" after they leave the lounge is certainly no "antidote"; and many times is even more "toxic" than person he bashes. 

I truly want to believe that these backstabbers point out the shortfalls of other members because deep down inside, they wish for them to be freed of their shortfalls.  Sadly, they either do not have the know-how or the willingness to take the person aside and speak with them as a concerned peer.  I would like to think that someone would have the stones to come talk to me about the things that are said about me after I leave the room.  I am smart enough to know that I have issues... who doesn't. 

I know I am overweight and out of shape, I know I am unpleasantly moody and sarcastic at times, I know I often stop at the fire station when I am in need a shower, I know I have a chip on my shoulder about aspects of my life that didn't go as planned.  But you know what?  I know things about YOU too.  Would you prefer I talk with you about them and see if I can help you improve, or should I wait until you leave the room to discuss your issues with others while we laugh at you?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Little fire, little firefighter

Sometimes fate just works.  Over the weekend, a fire occurred in a two-story garden apartment.  The fire was in the tiny little utility closet located just off the balcony of the 2nd floor apartment.  As luck would have it, a voluntary shift swap of the career staff of the engine company positioned our smallest firefighter in the engine's "thinking seat".  This ended up being a perfect collaberation between the problem (fire) and the solution (firefighter).  You see, this elf-like firefighter is 5-foot- nothing, weighs a hundred and nothing.  Often saved for jobs as a tunnel rat, or to speak eye-to-eye with the children during fire prevention week, this little gnome was the perfect fit for the job. They always say, choose the right tool for the job. Well we did that one better.  No one else could have articulated inside this closet like him.

Additionally, this fire proved the value of fire sprinklers.  Was this complex protected by sprinklers... well, no, not exactly.  The fire in the closet managed to get hot enough to melt the solder of one of the pipe joints of the water heater.  This discharge of water slowed the progress of the fire enough to minimize extension to the attic space, thus saving the building (and a days worth of hard work for the companies on the scene).  This is certainly not the first time I have witnessed "inadvertent fire sprinkler coverage", and like the others, the words, "we were lucky" could be heard repeatedly.  Makes me wonder how we can convince the construction industry how easy it would be to install "LUCK" into everything they build.  Of course, when they rebuild, they get paid a second time.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Getting started

I have finally decided to start blogging.  I am not sure if anyone is interested in what I have to write, but I am interested in writing.  I suspect this will become a place where I share stories about life the fire service, both from the past and the present.  I also imagine that I will offend, embarrass, and berate people from time to time.  To balance that, I hope to give credit and acknowledgement as it is warranted, as well.

I have been involved in the fire service since 1980, and have enjoyed most of my time in the "business".  I hope to share some gems from the events that have made me "seasoned".  First, allow me to get this blog thing going.  Please be patient, I am learning as I go!