Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Arming Firefighters Would be a Mistake

Following the sniper attack on four firefighters in the Rochester NY area, it was no surprise to read calls from some within the fire service to arm fire and EMS first responders. As it happens, it's not as rare an occurrence as some may think. Though not covered as intensely, assaults on responding firefighters is not a new phenomenon.  Ask any veteran from any major city such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and others.

One of the first thing we learned in training -- for me way back in the early 70’s -- was to watch out for thin paneling or carpet sections placed intentionally over holes in the floor meant only for first responders, whether armed with guns or hose nozzles. Urban firefighters learn to not stand too close to buildings in certain fire conditions, in order to avoid being pummeled by bricks or other objects dropped from the roof or windows. 

Arming fire and EMS personnel would be a mistake. Not because they couldn’t be adequately trained in firearms use and tactics, but because police and fire/EMS types enter a room immediately scanning for different priorities.  Where the cop scans for weapons, hand positions, posturing, or other potential threats, the firefighter or paramedic is looking for fire, smoke, structural damage or blood, signs of breathing difficulties, abnormal physical positioning, or other physical properties that may lead to injuries.  An cross-trained responder just can’t efficiently and accurately split their brains and do a simultaneous double scan.

Firefighters under attack is nothing new, so no new knee jerk reaction is necessary. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Ringing the Salvation Army bell in fire gear helps

   The sight of a firefighter in full firefighting gear, sans helmet that is, standing next to a red Salvation Army pot and ringing a bell certainly wasn’t new to K-Mart shoppers one evening during holiday shopping season several years ago. Each year volunteers including citizens and other civic club representatives lent a hand manning one of several such collection sites throughout Des Plaines, IL.

   Our Fire Chief stepped up that year to help out, and was mid-shift doing his part for the needy and as part of his own holiday tradition of helping others, when a late model Lexus pulled up at the front of the store – in a spot clearly marked “No Parking” and “Fire Zone”. The driver, obviously in a hurry and planning to just ‘run in and out’, left the car running with a passenger riding shotgun as he gingerly trotted around the rear of the car and stepped up on the sidewalk.

   The Fire Chief stood there in full gear ringing his bell dutifully with his left hand and quickly raised his right hand and said in a loud fireground voice, “Hey! Don't you see me standing right here?” The driver, who by that time had already passed him and was approaching the door, said “Hah?” and quickly stopped and spun around to see the Chief ringing and pointing.

   “Oh, sorry about that,” he added as he turned and quickly moved toward the Chief and deposited a few dollars into the Salvation Army bucket, then turned and bolted into the store.

   I’m not sure if the same thing happened again or not that evening, but reports are that the Chief DID end up with an uncharacteristically successful shift.

Friday, November 16, 2012

World Trade Center Segment:

(Originally posted on earlier blog 4/30/11)

As a retired firefighter, I took a short road trip back to my old firehouse in Des Plaines, IL to check out a new arrival at the kind invitation of Deputy Chief Ron Eilken. (Gee, I remember when he was an exceptional rookie. Now he's the Administrative Deputy Chief!)
   There, I had a chance to see a small section of a support I-beam from the World Trade Center. Scheduled to be part of a permanent 9/11 memorial at city hall, I felt a bittersweet combination of excitement and reverence touching this artifact of a tragic event on 9/11/01.
   It was good to see that the Des Plaines Fire Department, like others across the country, are committed to making sure that everyone remembers Sept. 11, 2001, and accord the date the reverence and attention it deserves.  
   The section is now part of a completed memorial resting in front of City Hall in downtown Des Plaines, IL.

9/11 - Remember the Blood of Heroes


As a retired career firefighter I do the same thing each year as September 11th approaches. Recalling the horrors of September 11, 2001 and the loss of so many firefighters and first responders among the nearly 3,000 who perished, I see how the event itself seems to have dimmed in the collective memories of many in this country. Just within the past week, one TV pundit went as far as saying we all “over-reacted” to the event.

   I finally had the opportunity to visit Ground Zero in New York in 2011. For many firefighters, including the retired members like myself, such a visit is our own “pilgrimage to Mecca” -- forgive the ironic metaphor -- to show respect for the fallen. I was as surprised as my grown son who was with me was when I was unexpectedly moved to tears at one point viewing a display case showing the hundreds of patches from Police and Fire units from around the world. It epitomized and drove home the sense of brotherhood and family that first responders share, and how the survivors continue to honor their memory and ultimate sacrifice.

   Each year I share a link to a 9/11 memorial site that contains a moving video, “Remember the Blood of Heroes”, offering a powerful visual and audio reminder to all of us of how we felt that day. It begins with a series of applicable quotes that lead to a moving and powerful payoff, one that I believe many Americans need to revisit from time to time.

   For me, every day after September 11, 2001 has become September 12th. I hope that instead of allowing the date to diminish in importance, dissolve through historical revisions, or depreciate in patriotic value, that we will continue to honor those who responded and those who perished during this attack on America and modern civilization as we know it.

   Please view the video, and share the link with others as well.


The Flammable Fireproof Christmas Trees

   One of the first duties a new firefighter recruit in 1971 was assigned, along with cleaning the toilets and other "character-building" tasks, was dipping Christmas Trees in December. (That's me in the photo above way back when dipping a small tree.)
   Each year Des Plaines, IL firefighters would bring out the old galvanized steel horse trough, clean it up and fill it with water. Then, a few bags of powdered borax and boric acid was added and dissolved into solution. For 2 to 3 weeks in early December, local residents were invited to bring their newly purchased Christmas Trees to the fire station where the tree would be dipped, rendering it more fire resistant and safe enough to set up at home. 
   For years the tree dipping became a tradition for hundreds of families in the area,  even spanning generations as the cycle continued with new parents bringing in their own trees and kids with the often heard nostalgic  "I remember coming here when I was a kid!"  Though frowned upon by the Chief and discouraged by shift commanders, firefighters sometimes set up a small "tip jar" primed with a buck or two for the occasional donation to our firehouse pantry kitty.  
   One Chicago TV station would even send a reporter out each year to do an annual spot.  Each year she'd show up, ask to use a private washroom to put in her contact lenses and make sure her makeup and hair were OK, and each year we'd help her by demonstrating the process.  For a few years, we'd even ignite a non-dipped branch and then try to ignite a dipped branch to show how safe the tree was after dipping. (The dipped branch was always still damp, of course, and it would take a blowtorch to ignite it but hey, that's show biz.)  One year we played a practical joke by "pre-dipping" the second branch in gasoline instead.  Needless to say they needed to do a retake, and the reporter was not very happy about it and did not return for a couple of years.
   I have no idea how long the department had been providing this holiday service each year, but it continued on through the mid-1980's. That's during the time I was assigned to the Fire Prevention Bureau in charge of Fire and Burn Prevention Education. Much of that involved PR and publicity, and I had the brilliant idea of contacting a major manufacturer of the chemicals used to see if they'd donate the borax for our annual dipping and do some cross-publicity as well.
   "You're doing what?" was the incredulous reply when I finally spoke to a company rep and explained my idea.  I explained in greater detail about our local tradition, as he repeatedly muttered in muted whispers as I spoke, "Oh no," or "Oh my God," or "You're kidding, right?"
   The rep explained that while the practice of spraying trees with a borax solution may have been recommended several decades ago, it was intended to provide a porous coating for tree needles that would allow them to breathe while at the same time help retain moisture.  A moist tree was less likely to ignite than an old dry tree, he explained, so it was intended only for short needle trees and then only for trees that had been freshly cut. 
   "That practice hasn't been recommended for decades, and was never meant to 'fireproof' a tree, just help it retain moisture" he continued. "These days so many holiday tree lots are filled with trees that may have been harvested 2 to 3 months prior and already drying out."
   I informed the Chief of what I had learned, and advised that the service be discontinued.  In it's place, we increased emphasis on keeping live trees well watered and away from furnace vents, etc.

   That was the last year I allowed a live tree in our home, as we've opted for a variety of artificial trees in the years that followed.

  And I was assigned the duty of answering all of the complaint calls from the public. Safety and popularity don't always go hand in hand I guess.
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(Check out my book, "10-24: A Firefighter Looks Back" as a great holiday gift this year!)