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Cantankerous Wisdom: Another Stupid Willie Question

By Bill Adams

Every fire company has a member its hierarchy characterizes as not the sharpest tool in the crib; or whose elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor; or is a couple french fries short of a Happy Meal. Such descriptions are rude, cruel, and not politically correct, but they’re said or openly inferred all the time—usually behind the recipient’s back. It’s not right. In the below fictious rendering, I’ll call the unlucky soul Willie.

What is ironic, Willie is probably one of the best “grunt” firefighters in the company. And when allowed to drive the apparatus, he’s just as capable as the next person. There’s no job too hard for him and none he’s not willing to do. He is a very literal person. Tell him to put out the fire in the next room and he will. He may go through the wall instead of the door, but he’ll get there and he’ll put it out. You tell him something and he remembers it—forever. He may repeat a question to you because he doesn’t understand the answer not because he didn’t like the answer. He may not be invited to all the parties and functions. Some consider him to be a social outcast, however, he’s the person everyone wants backing them up on the fireground. He’s dependable, punctual, and honest.


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What is nonintentional, but a justifiable payback and absolutely hilarious, is when Willie asks his detractors what he considers a serious question and they can’t answer it. To save face, they either dodge it, make something up (lie), or attack Willie for asking such a “stupid” question. If the answer doesn’t make sense to him and the question is reasked, he is further ostracized. Some examples follow.

Willie: “In last night’s class, the instructor was teaching the friction losses for various flows in our attack lines. When I asked what the friction loss is in our 5-inch supply line he said not to worry about it because it’s insignificant. Is that true?”

Willie: “Our ladder truck has them truss ground ladders with the hand holes on the sides, and our pumpers don’t. Is there a reason we buy different kinds?”

One of the officers was teaching a drill explaining the difference between fixed gallonage and variable gallonage nozzles. It was in “technospeak,” and Willie really didn’t understand it. Willie: “If the rig is pumping 125 gallons a minute into the variable gallonage nozzle and the firefighter on the tip dials the gallonage down to 60 gallons a minute, where’s the other 65 gallons of water going?”

Then he asked, “If they’re pumping 60 gallons a minute into the same variable gallonage nozzle and the nozzleman dials the setting up to 125 gallons a minute, how does the extra 65 gallons of water come out of it?”  The officer told Willie that’s what the pump pressure governor is for. Willie: “Only the new rig has a governor; the other three have relief valves.” After the drill, Willie was chastised for making the officer “look bad” in front of the department.

The pumper responded to a report of a car fire. Upon arrival, there was a decent amount of smoke coming from under the hood. One firefighter grabbed an extinguisher, another grabbed the irons and a set of wheel chocks for the car’s tires, and Willie pulled and flaked out the foam-capable preconnect—per department procedure for vehicle fires. The pump operator, an older very vocal past chief, berated Willie in front of the crew for doing so saying the booster line would have sufficed. Back at the barn, Willie privately told the captain what happened and asked what should he do in a future scenario. The captain, obviously intimidated by the past chief, told Willie to “Do whatever you think is best.”

A year later a new pumper was delivered and loaded up with new equipment. It had two 1¾-inch crosslays with a combination nozzle on one and a new straight tip on the other. Willie stood there starting at them for a while and finally asked a new lieutenant, “How do we know which one to pull?” The officer told him not to worry about it because the officer on the rig would tell him. “What if there isn’t an officer on the rig?” The lieutenant said ask the pump operator. Willie: “What if he doesn’t know, or what if we’re pulling it off the other side of the rig?” The lieutenant muttered something about a stupid question and walked away.

A couple days later Willie was looking at the new combination deck gun/portable deluge set mounted on top of the pumper. It had three stacked straight tips on it instead of the usual fog nozzle. The same lieutenant walked by and asked Willie what was wrong. Willie: “Out of curiosity, how do we know which one to use?” The lieutenant remembered their last conversation, so he just blew him off telling him it was up to the pump operator. Willie said, “If we take it off the rig and put around the rear of the building, how will the pump operator know which one we should be using?” The officer told him just to do what he is told and stop asking stupid questions.

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.