When 5 One-hundredths Matter

* Image from the BBC

Five one-hundredths of a second doesn’t even exist to me. I really have no comprehension of what that measure of time even means. But try telling that to Michael Phelps. Better yet, try telling that to South Africa’s Chad le Clos. Because that was the exact amount of time it took to out-touch the world’s most decorated swimmer and win Gold in the Men’s 200 Meter Butterfly. An imperceptible amount of time to most was the difference as big as the Grand Canyon to a man who had just beaten his self-admited idol. But that’s not really what this particular story is all about. Although I love a good underdog story. It’s about what Michael Phelps said later about the race.

In an interview with NBC’s Bob Costas after the race Phelps said; “It’s probably the finishes I’ve done in work-out that ended up coming out here. You know, there were times where I’d go kinda slow into the wall in work-out or kinda touch kinda lazy, and it showed.” If you’re interested the entire interview can be seen here. I give kudos to Phelps to taking ownership of what he classifies himself as a lazy performance or perhaps taking something for granted. Something that he had done hundreds, probably thousands of times in practice, came out on the biggest stage in the world and cost him, for the moment anyway, his record-breaking 19th Olympic medal. If you’ve read my rants for any length of time you may know where I’m heading with this.

Pulling hose is pretty boring. I get it. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember when you were a kid and you’d make up scenarios? Like 2 out, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded and you’re up to bat with your team down by three? Why can’t you do that with your hose drill? You’re first-due, on the knob, it’s three A.M. and the fire’s on the second floor with no one standing outside. The truck is right behind you and you have to secure the stairway and get into the hall. GO! Would five one-hundredths matter? Realistically? Probably not. Would five seconds? Ten? A minute? Anything that you can do now, on the training ground to make yourself more proficient, more smooth, more complete will pay off on the bigger stage. Like Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s house at 3 A.M.

Around the Chicago suburbs we do a drill called the “Paxton Drill.” It is in honor of the Paxton Hotel fire that occurred in Chicago, Illinois on March 16, 1993. The Paxton Hotel was a four story single room occupancy hotel in which most residents made their homes on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. When the Still Alarm was dispatched for light smoke it took initial arriving companies less than one minute after arrival to begin screaming for a Still and Box Alarm and an EMS Plan 1 for a heavy fire with numerous people trapped. The late Chief Ray Hoff was then Captain of Truck 10 and was the first-arriving Truck officer. He and his crew immediately began throwing ladders to as many windows as possible rescuing the people trapped by smoke and the advancing fire. Once those rescues were made they would roll the ladders into new positions or strip the other on scene apparatus of their ladders. Most firefighters on scene that night operated on their own, at least initially. The “Paxton Drill” times a crew to see how fast every ladder on the rig can be deployed to designated windows on a building or training tower. Can it be kind of boring? Maybe. Can it be monotonous? Perhaps. Did it pay off for the members of Truck 10 and the other units that operated at 1432 N. LaSalle that night? Ask the 100 people that were rescued by the CFD, most over ground ladders. Did time matter? The next time you do a ladder drill wait for a crew who is motivationally challenged and hold your breath as soon as they begin the task of removing the ladder and see if you can hold it until it would be in a position to actually effect a rescue. Then you tell me.

In many ways the world of sports is parallel to the profession of firefighting. I think Michael Phelps’ words are very apropos to us. We cannot expect to continuously practice at half-speed with no sense of purpose and then think that we will just be able to “turn it on” when it really counts. It just doesn’t work that way. Five one-hundredths of a second. About the amount of time of the last agonal breath of a victim in a smoke filled bedroom at 3 A.M.

Train with purpose.

Be safe.


Free Agency

I have been very honored to hear from some young brothers and sisters that are just starting their careers in the fire service via both this blog and the Facebook page. I always like hearing from these younger members who are eager to soak up anything fire service related. It reminds me why I continue to be involved in training and why I m so passionate about it. It also reminds me that there is an opportunity to mold these young firefighters. Not into mini-me’s or anything but into good, solid young firefighters who will grow into excellent firefighters as their knowledge and experience increases. So it is with these young lumps of clay in mind that I write this post. Some of you older lumps of something or others may find it helpful too…

So why is this post titled “Free Agency” and why is there a picture of a guy wearing a free agent t-shirt? Remember something, my rookie phenoms. You are the Michael Jordan’s; the Patrick Kane’s and Jonathan Toews; the Ben Roethlisberger’s; and the Hope Solo’s. You’ve picked your team, er, your department. You’ve been assigned your teammates, the guys and girls you’ll take field with. But guess what? In something that is very unique to our job you get to pick your coach. You may have been assigned a Lieutenant, Captain or a mentor by your department who is officially responsible to oversee your probationary period and make sure you get all of your required items checked-off in your first year, but they don’t have to be your career-long mentor. Your true coach. You are a free agent. You, and only you, get to decide who gets that honor. The honor of having you as someone who looks up to them. Someone who goes to them for knowledge and experience and guidance. Choose wisely and it will serve you well for your entire career.

One of my past part-time jobs was as a flight-paramedic on a helicopter out of a local trauma center. This trauma center was also a teaching hospital for both future doctors and nurses. It gave ample opportunity to teach not only for formal educators i.e. the Doctors and Nurses that actually taught in the programs but also the Doctors, Nurses, Techs and guys like me who worked there as well. Anyway, one day a local ground ALS unit was inbound with a gunshot wound to the chest. I was working the helicopter that day and happened to be in the ER at the time. We were allowed to assist in the ER with codes and traumas and such so I thought I’d stick around and see if this turned out to be anything good. Soon, the attending trauma surgeon entered the trauma bay followed by his gaggle of doctors-in-training. He started shooting questions at them; what are things to be looking for; what could complications be; what should our interventions for those complications be etc. The medics rolled through the door soon after and it was immediately clear that the situation was critical. CPR was in progress, blood was everywhere, two large-bore IV’s that were almost empty etc. etc. The patient was transferred over to the ER bed and the assessment was begun. The patient had been shot once in the left upper chest with an unknown caliber gun. Never conscious at the scene. CPR in progress the whole time. Weak pulses with CPR, nothing without. The trauma surgeon went right to work but was still shouting out questions and listening for answers the whole time he was working. The pt wasn’t intubated so he looked at me and asked if I mined helping one of his “kids” with the intubation. After that, and purely for the teaching aspect I think, the decision was made to crack the patient’s chest right there in the ER. Even the ER staff was like, “holy crap.” So after the chest was open we saw the problem. That problem was a very large hole in the patient’s left ventricle of his heart. The trauma surgeon didn’t get excited, he didn’t back away and declare the patient dead. He calmly asked for a foley catheter. One of those catheters that goes in the end of a penis to drain urine from the bladder into a bag. The nurse he asked did a double-take and he calmly repeated his request. She went and got the foley and handed it to him. He took it out of the packaging, inserted the end that would normally go into the penis and then up into the bladder into the hole in the heart, inflated the balloon on the end of the catheter that normally would hold the catheter in place in the bladder, asked one of his students to hold the tubing and collection bag and “make sure this doesn’t fall out”, and then told the nurse in charge of the trauma bay to call the operating room and let them know they were on their way. Everyone, myself included, looked around stunned. Where the hell had he learned that?! For the non-medical type peeps out there, the balloon on the end of the catheter plugged the bullet hole in the heart, the catheter drained the blood into the collection bag to be transfused back into him later. He hadn’t learned that in medical school, he learned it while serving in Vietnam. If you want to look at it in our terms, he didn’t learn it in the academy or in his probie year, he learned it after. When it counted. From people who had been there and done that. Get where I’m going with this? Medical school, the fire academy, high school, it’s all the same. It’s the basic preparation for what you will need to perform in your job or in life where most of the real learning will come from doing and experiencing. But you can’t just hope to stumble upon things on your own. You can’t just hope for “a-ha” moments to happen throughout your career. You need someone to help and guide you with the things that don’t ordinarily get taught as part of a regular curriculum. You need a Yoda.

Now, as fair warning, not every guy in the firehouse wants to be Yoda. Not every guy in the firehouse should be Yoda. There’s no reason to rush picking your sensei. Your probationary year should be a year of learning the things your department wants you to learn in the manner they want them to be done. As long as you have someone assigned to you who is half-way competent at their job and can teach you those things you’ll be ok. Picking your Yoda, your career coach, is something else. It doesn’t need to be done in that first 12-months. Make sure you have a job first. Take that time to look around and see who really has a passion for the job, not just who comes in and does the job. Who’s the guy or girl who’s still out on the apparatus floor doing a little extra spit and polish on the rigs or tools after everyone else is sitting having a cup of coffee? Who can seemingly answer almost any question with a reasonable answer but if they don’t know something then takes the time to find out and share the knowledge? Who might join in on the inevitable kitchen table airing of the grievances but then actually offers solutions to the problems and tries to mediate what’s going on instead of simply fanning the flames? Who is the guy or gal that loves this job? Maybe that’s who you should be thinking about to be your tour guide through fire service life.

Not everyone picks a coach. Some guys, most guys maybe, don’t. They make it through their probie year and figure they’ve got it made. They figure they learned what they needed to learn and that they’ll get what else they need in drills and whatever future classes they’ll take for certifications. But there are so many more things to learn about this job than just what you’ll learn in drill or at those classes. Maybe that’s why you’re reading this website in the first place. Obviously a mentor, a coach, doesn’t have to be just one person. You can pick up as many things from as many people as you can in this career. And we all know that you can learn just as much from people that you don’t want to emulate as those that you do. But you should find a couple people on this job whom you can consistently go to for solid advice. For good direction. For answers to questions that other people seem to be guessing at. But take the time to evaluate who you want those people to be. You are the free agent. You are the rising star and you don’t want to sign with just anyone. So take a look around and see who’s making the best offer to help you and career. And then go play your heart out, kid!

Until next time,

Be Safe!


Hallway Sledge’s Hinge Hooks

A lot of times I haven’t shared things on this site because I’ve felt that they are too simple, too basic or that everyone should already know the information. Being able to attend the H.O.T. classes this year at FDIC gave me a bit of a reality check and reminded me what training is all about. While I was there I saw firefighters of all skill and exposure levels. Some were obviously well trained and had ample opportunity to practice their skills. Some were well trained but were rusty. Some had nothing. I started thinking about it and remembered that even though something may be common place to me or any number of you reading out there, there may be one or two who read this website which find the same information I present as brand new. And I guess you really never know who those one or two are. So, without further ado, I present to you; Hallway Sledge’s Hinge Hooks.

I was frustrated with the limitations of typical wooden door wedges; being kicked or knocked out of place, sliding on smooth surfaces, being too short in certain instances etc. I began messing around in the shop one day with whatever was on-hand and this is what I eventually came up with. My system is cheap, is fast to make, can be made out of almost any kind of scrap wood, is mostly universal to man-doors, resists being accidentally displaced and can also be used on most garage doors as well. Here is a step-by-step guide to making my hinge hook.

The first step is to gather your materials. I use scraps of wood from random projects or scavenged from dumpster diving, houses donated for training, wherever. 2-inch x 2-inch or 2-inch diameter nominal is fantastic but that usually means we get 1 1/2 inch for everything. Just don’t go over 2-inches nominal or you won’t get the wood between the door edge and the stop on the hinge side. I say this because when a standard residential door is open and a door stop is in place (the ones that are screwed into the trim around the base of the wall) you have about a 2-inch opening between the door edge and the door stop on the frame. Anything larger used as a chock will not sit in this space and prevent the door from being closed. If a door stop is not in place and the door is allowed to open all the way to the wall then obviously the size of the wood doesn’t matter so much and the hinge hook will still function as intended.

The next step is too secure your hardware and tools. You will need; screw eyes, s-hooks, corner braces with pre-drilled holes, a 1/16″ drill bit, drill, two pair pliers/channel locks. I use the #212 eyes, 1″ s-hooks and 1 1/2″ corner braces depicted in the picture. The bulk screw eyes and s-hooks come in 100 count packages and run about $4.50 at the local home improvement center. The corner braces don’t come in bulk that I have found and are, admittedly, the most expensive part of the whole thing. For the 4 piece package it’s also right around $4.50. Maybe that’s where someone out there can improve on my idea and find a cheaper alternative to this part of the hinge hook. So next grab your tools. Pretty simple. Preferably a cordless drill. Couple pair of pliers or channel locks. And a 1/16″ drill bit if using the #212 acre eyes. If you choose to use a different size screw eye you will need to use a drill bit slightly smaller than the screw portion to drill the pilot hole.

You are now ready to actually start building the hinge hook. Take the piece of wood you are going to use and place it on a stable surface with the flat surface down (I have to remember my audience IS firefighters). Place the drill bit in the center and drill a pilot hole. Try not to go too deep. You want to leave some virgin wood for the screw threads to bite into.

Next, take your screw eye and place it into the pilot hole. Tightening it down until the base of the screw eye is flush with the piece of wood.

Now take your S-hook and place one of the ends through the screw eye. Once placed take a pair of your pliers or channel locks and pinch the S-hook closed.

Next Take the corner brace and a pair of pliers or channel locks. Hold the corner brace with the pliers on hole closest to the bend in the brace. Next, place the other set of pliers over the other hole from the opposing direction. This makes it easier to bend the metal without getting in the way of the other tool.  

Using the second set of pliers, or the ones to the outside of the corner brace, bend downwards while holding steady on the inside set of pliers. This will form a hook shape.   Now you can attach the bottom hole of the straight leg of the corner brace to the open end of the S-hook and pinch closed as you did before.

This is what the hinge hook looks like in place on a standard residential door. 

And in the track of a residential garage door.

Congratulations! You’ve made your first HHH! Now pass it on to someone else. Just don’t go out and try to make money off it or I’ll use that hallway sledge and offer’s tool you saw in the background for something other than their intended purpose. Capiche? This is about helping each other and making things better, not about the Benjamins, yo.

I made a short video of how I make these and posted it to YouTube and it can be found here. I also posted a short video of testing the hinge hook against a garage door because I had some guys voice concerns that it wouldn’t hold up. That video can be found on YouTube here. Give them both a look and see what you think. And as Andy Fredericks would say, “Research, research, research.” If you think you can improve upon this I’d love to see your ideas. If you think you have something better, send them in and I’ll try and post them. It’s about sharing, folks, so everyone benefits.

Until next time. Happy researching.

Be safe!


I Will Be My Brother’s Keeper

* Image from Brodin Studios, Inc.

“You’re an a$$hole,” he seethed at me from behind his mask. “Sorry,” I replied as he made his way back out the window and onto the ladder he had just come off a minute before. I followed and held onto his SCBA straps as a safety. We didn’t need to hurt anyone for real during training. He went down a couple rungs and then looked back up at me again through his mask. Our eyes met. “You’re a dick!” I just waved, sighed and pulled back into the room waiting for the replacement crew to come rescue the victim that this now-burned firefighter could not. “Not my fault you took your gloves off,” I thought.

“This is stupid. This is going to get someone hurt,” was one of the first complaints I heard regarding a floor collapse prop I had built. “So how do we realistically prepare you for going through a floor and what to do to get out?” was my reply. “I’ve been here 26 years and haven’t come close to going through a floor yet! Be smart about it,” was the answer. “Congratulations,” I said. “I’m glad you’ve made it that long and haven’t had  any issues but you might five minutes from now. Or one of these new kids might in a day or a week and we need to train them as best we can to be ready to handle it.” The other firefighter took a long pull from his cigarette (don’t get me going on that dichotomy), shook his head and said, “It’s a bad idea.” We used the prop and did the training anyway.

“What would you do ‘Professor’?”

“Hey! Super-fireman! We need your expertise over here.”

“It’s easy to set up a sh*&$y drill when you don’t have to do it, huh?” (I’ve always done a drill I’ve set up, just for the record.)

It goes on and on. So why do those of us that stick our necks out in the training realms, be it at our department or in print, video or digital media, subject ourselves to the potential for conflict, frustration and occasional abuse? Because we have committed to being our brother’s keeper. And so should you, training staff or not.

I could have over-looked my brother taking off his gloves in drill. There was no fire in the room, no heat. But would I just be reinforcing bad behavior by doing so? Would I be letting him down in the future when he did it in a real fire without thinking and actually burned his hands? I would not be acting as his keeper if I hadn’t “burned” him and then followed up with a discussion later.

I could have just put another PowerPoint together talking about case studies where firefighters have been injured or killed in collapse situations and then gone over mayday procedures. But would that have been as effective as actually subjecting my brothers to a realistic drop; that moment of panic; in full gear; that disorientation and then making them call the mayday and manipulate their PASS and get out of the situation? If I did I wouldn’t be as good a keeper of my brother as I could be.

What if I just shied away from any sort of uncomfortable confrontation or corrective action? What if I just took the easy way out of every situation that required an instructor to stand up and say, “Stop! We need to talk about this.” Would I be acting as an advocate and protector of my brothers and sisters? Or would I simply be acting as a chump who wants some extra pay to do training, or some brownie points or whatever other selfish reasons people find to get involved not just with training but with other “extra” jobs around work?

This does not pertain just to me, however. Or to any of you who are training officers or instructors. It should pertain to all of us. Each and every one of us should be our brother and sister’s keeper when it comes to training and knowing our jobs. We should be holding each other accountable for our actions and knowledge. If you see a brother or sister that may not know the correct operation of a particular tool, offer to go over it with them. If you have a particular “thing”; EMS, pumping, ropes and knots, SCBA, whatever, pass on your knowledge every chance you see to those that are weaker in those areas. It is not just up to your training divisions and its staff. It’s up to each of us. We are all each other’s keeper’s. Or at least we should be.

I’ve said it in other posts and I’ll say it again. This job is too important to be taken casually. We need to be as absolutely proficient in every aspect of this job that our individual departments are responsible for. If we are not, we will be letting Mr. or Mrs. Smith down when we do not have the knowledge, cannot use a tool or perform a skill that is required in a given situation. Worse yet, we may not be able to do so when one of our Brothers or Sisters needs us to perform for them. And to me, that is unacceptable. That is why I continue to stick my neck out. That is why I continue to take the ribbings, good natured or not. That is why I continue to take the scrutiny that this blog is subjected to. Because maybe, just maybe, someone picks something up that makes them a better firefighter and may help them or someone else on the job one day. I am committed to being my Brother’s, and my Sister’s, keeper. It’s the way it is supposed to be. It’s what this job was based on.

Are you in?

Be safe!


The Tower of Bad Habits

* Image from the Boca Raton Fire Department website

So, back to business as normal. Obviously given the title of this post and the picture above we’re going to be talking about training towers today. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of training tower you have, the fancy state-of-the-art one, the on-a-budget-one, or the re-purposed con-ex container type. Any kind of permanent structure that your organization uses for on-going training can actually have some unintended consequences if you as a trainee or a trainer are not careful. The training tower can turn into a <key spooky music> Tower of Bad Habits.

If you didn’t think I had lost my mind after the last post maybe you are thinking I have now. But stick with me for a minute. How can something that is intended to give us a readily accessible, relatively safe and hopefully realistic training experience create bad habits in us? Well, it’s simple really. Its because of those things that we kind of get lulled into a sense of security when we head down (or up, or over) to the tower to do some training. After a while we know it’s so many steps to the second floor. So many to the third. We know it is so many crawling movements to the corner and then a right turn, then so many more crawls and another right turn. We know the floor is concrete or steel or whatever and suddenly sounding for stability drops by the wayside. We just know a fourteen foot roof will make the second floor window for rescue with a bit to spare, a twenty-eight will make the third for ventilation. We find ways to cheat that are specific to our tower that may be a detriment to us at an actual incident. Instructors are just as guilty. We don’t allow the guys and gals to use their flashlights because we’re not using real smoke today and we can’t get it dark enough in there. The steel floor has been tearing up the knees of the bunker pants so we let the troops walk around more than we should. Or we loose or imagination and start falling into the same-‘ole same-‘ole and as soon as the members hear what the drill topic is they already know what the drill will be, what the benchmarks will be, how they must accomplish them and have a pretty good idea of what the scenario will be.  Trainee and trainer alike must challenge themselves to treat each training evolution as the learning experience it is meant to be and to push outside the comfort zone.

Obviously the benefits of having your own, or shared, facility at which to conduct training far outweigh the negatives. Departments don’t need to worry about the availability of acquired structures, making them 1401 compliant, acquiring permits, etc. etc., and they are generally available whenever the department would like to utilize them. Unless you are extremely lucky your department is not going to be able to afford to build a structure that is representative of every type of occupancy in your response district. Therefor the structures that are built are either pretty generic or maybe representative of the worst target hazard in your town i.e. the biggest building is a 5 story apartment building so the tower was built to be five stories high. Look at the brand new facility built in Boca Raton. Is every structure in Boca Raton a five story perfect rectangle with exterior stairwells? Of course not. How about Vienna, North Carolina? Is every structure there  three stories with only one solid wall? Odds are probably not. So that means the respective departments have to get creative. They must find a way to practice the lead-outs from the standpipe down the hallway to the fire apartment. They must find a way to simulate a garage fire. How about basement fires? I don’t think that in my travels thus far that I have seen a tower that has an underground component to it. That would be cool though. To actually be able to go in on the ground floor, make the stairs, fight your way down, maybe practice shielding yourself with a wide pattern fog (smooth-bore guys don’t hang me), practice exterior vent in a coordinated manner to give an exhaust point. Adds a lot to the cost, though. Shame, that. So, we have to make do. We have to get creative. There are plenty of ways to mix-up the every day training in the same tower you’ve been going to for years. Maybe we go all the way up to the roof and put the fire on the top interior floor and fight our way down. Or use an exterior entrance like on the Boca tower to do the same and fight down a level. Think outside the square or rectangular con-ex box. Be careful though! Just because those steps are cast concrete or steel grate doesn’t mean we don’t have to sound. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to practice staying near the walls, over the stringers, because that’s the strongest area. We need to keep our basic firemanship alive in the tower of bad habits too.

I’ve seen the advertisements for the new, clean burning propane buildings that come with stainless steel mock-ups of beds, kitchens, living rooms, just about anything you want. It’s great because there’s no mess to clean-up like using traditional hay and other Class A combustibles. Propane is better for the environment when it burns. The structure can be easily cleaned and the props can be used again and again. The down side is those props are immobile. They weigh several hundred pounds or more and are generally bolted in place and pre-piped for the gas feed. So once they are down they aren’t going anywhere. After the first few “reported bedroom fires” you’re going to have a real good idea of where the fire is, how to get there, what the lay-out of the building is, how much hose you’ll need, primary areas for search and that about two seconds worth of nozzle work is all that will be required once you reach the seat of the fire. All while done in nearly clear visibility or through clean theatrical smoke. Talk about building bad habits! Now, again, I’m not really knocking the manufacturers of these systems. They saw a niche and they built a product to fill it. I think they have their place and are pretty good but they come with limitations and unintended consequences also. Just keep it in mind and take some personal initiative to keep yourself sharp even though you have a pretty good idea what’s coming.

Being a Parrothead I am reminded of Jimmy Buffett’s song, Bank of Bad Habits. In it one of the choruses goes as follows;

Bank of bad habits
The price of vice fortold
One by one they’ll do you in
They’re bound to take their toll
The wrong thing is the right thing until you lose control
I’ve got this bank of bad habits in a corner of my soul.

Now, any of you fellow Parrotheads out there knows that the song isn’t exactly talking about training towers, but I think it draws a nice parallel. The price of your vices that are continuously repeated on the training ground may well foretell your undoing on the emergency scene. They are certain to take their toll on your skills and your preparedness if you’re not careful. The wrong thing in the tower is the right thing until control is lost on the scene. And we all have that little bank of bad habits in the corner of our souls. Ahhh, yes. Words of wisdom from Jimmy.

Now. Fins up!

And be safe until next time.