Cantankerous Wisdom: Getting Aggravated

By Bill Adams

One advantage of being a fire service old timer is that when you get aggravated you can get away with a lot of BS (not balogna sandwiches) by blaming it on things like age, dementia, lack of sleep, and forgetting to take your medication. I collect Social Security, can’t remember what was for supper three nights ago, missed my nap, and forgot to take my pills. Then somebody foolishly asked me what aggravates me about fire trucks and the fire service today. What a mistake that was. Not necessarily in order of importance, some of them are:

  • The new generations of firefighters lack the same level of enthusiasm I experienced when I got to wear turnout gear (aka rubber goods) for the first time—a knee length five-buckle rubber coat with integral fleece liner made by Midwestern, pull-up boots by Beacon Falls without the optional steel insoles and toes, a Cairns aluminum “Senator” helmet individually sized to fit somebody else’s head, and a pair of bright orange rubber Fireball gloves with stretched-out cotton wristlets. Thank the Good Lord they don’t issue that crap anymore.
  • Hearing about the apparatus purchasing committee that was told it cost the same price to chrome plate the front bumper as it was to add another much needed preconnect. They now have a shiny place to mount their bell. Brilliant. They let them sign checks too.
  • Looking at a photograph of a basement fire in a 2½-story wood frame with obvious extension to the first floor. Smoke is puffing out of every window, the eaves, and attic vents. There are a half dozen rigs on scene and the only raised ladder is the aerial. What ever happened to the golden rule that you throw at least one ladder to the second floor on all four sides plus one for a second means of egress from the roof? If you rode on the ladder truck, you threw ladders until a white coat told you to stop. And if you ran out of ladders, you’d take them off the pumpers. It was nonnegotiable. Times have changed. What some people call ladder or truck companies today hardly ever carry four extension ladders. And if you are not already drawing a pension, you probably think an auditorium raise with a tormentor pole only occurs during a good date night at the movie house. By the way, besides being a city in Maine, a Bangor is also a ladder.
  • Seeing new apparatus delivered with the familiar 2½-inch discharges on each side pump panel that are never used. “Well, they come standard.” So? Did you ever consider relocating them where you can use them—say for preconnects, crosslays, or a deck gun—or just ask for a credit?
  • Looking at a photograph of an easily recognized “I should have called a second alarm upon arrival” fire in a decent sized commercial structure and seeing that the first line off the rig was an 1¾-inch. It’s the one in the picture at the bottom of the pile of spaghetti. An 1¾-inch is what’s stretched for a residential room-and-contents job. On residential jobs “way back when,” if fire was coming out one window, you pulled the booster; from two windows meant the 1½-inch was pulled; and if it was more than two windows, you pulled the deuce and a half. Big fire equals big water. And if it was an occupied two story, the deuce-and-a half’s job was to “make the stairwell.” Some probies today don’t understand why.
  • Hearing a firefighter say, “Why” when an officer gives an order on the fireground. Worse yet, if an officer questions one of the troops about why he didn’t do what he was told and the firefighter starts off with “Well, I thought it would be better if…” Unbelievable. What’s this world coming to?
  • Watching a full assignment of volunteer staffed apparatus pull up and only two or three firefighters are riding in each of the ten-man cabs. “Well, we need the big cabs in case we get a call on drill night or meeting night.” Living with a longer wheelbase, an increased turning radius and spending more money for the mere possibility of having a full crew on two or three nights a month—just in case you have a call—doesn’t make sense to this old geezer. If you’ve got six rigs in your barn, each with a seating capacity for six, and you regularly have forty people show up at the station to ride the apparatus, then maybe the big cabs are justified. Otherwise, you are just…ah, never mind.
  • Newbies that don’t understand “real” fire service lingo and, in particular, nozzle terminology. Some get a confused or dazed look when you call the nozzle a tip or the knob. Grab what? Calling it a playpipe could send some over the top. They don’t realize Santa Rosa is not only a city in California; it’s also a fog nozzle. A “navy nozzle” is a Rockwood. A cellar pipe is not something that’s only used in a dark basement with a five leafed tobacco lookalike. It works well for fires in cocklofts too. John Bean should not be confused with Jim Beam. Bean made the No. 29 high-pressure fog nozzle; Beam makes 80 proof happy juice. A Hardie gun is not a semi-automatic, it’s another high pressure fog nozzle—sometimes called the Blaze Buster. And a Black Widow is not a hooker from Dayton, it’s a nozzle from Wooster. There’s so much to learn and so little time to remember it.
  • Listening to stories about fire truck salesmen being verbally abused—being beaten up—by prospective customers. Sometimes, vendors have to have a sense of humor, although it does have consequences. I know. A few years back, I was invited to meet with a purchasing committee looking for a new pumper. It was a courtesy call to me and a courtesy visit to them—each of us knew full well they were going to buy another manufacturer’s rig. They were friends and were just looking for free help in writing specs. They knew and I knew it. But I figured if I could help them now, they might remember it the next time.

    However, one of the newer and younger committee members was openly hostile, almost to the point of being belligerent. He acted really snotty and became real uppity in stating he wanted a 1,250 gpm automatic nozzle and a set of quad stacked tips for the proposed rig’s combination truck-mounted/portable monitor. No problem. I knew what they carried on their other rigs, but he got me aggravated. It was time to have some fun. I asked him if he had specific dimensionally sized tips in mind. He snapped, “I just want the standard ones.” OK, I thought. If you want to play, I’ll play.

    I inquired if he had certain flows he wanted to achieve for each tip size. He couldn’t answer the question and he got really upset. Then I asked if his department’s SOP called for a 50- or 80-psi nozzle tip pressure on straight bores. He went from upset to mad. It was obvious he could be tweaked a little more. So, I mentioned directly to him that there are different friction losses for different flows in monitors and asked which he wanted to use—just to make sure the proper size valve and piping for the truck mount was specified. He got madder. I just couldn’t resist myself.

    I told him the flow from the largest straight tip he wanted exceeded the rating for the monitor he specified when it was used in the portable mode. He started foaming at the mouth. It was working. Then, the devil made me say the maximum flow from the automatic nozzle he wanted also exceeded the monitor’s rating in the portable mode. He went over the edge. I knew I wouldn’t get the sale so I ended the monitor conversation with, “There’s no problem supplying what you are specifying. However if we are awarded the bid, we’ll have to ask you to personally sign a waiver absolving the apparatus builder from all liability because you intend to use the equipment in an unsafe manner in direct violation of the manufacturer’s written instructions.” It worked—he stormed out the door. I learn something new every day. He could have. I got aggravated and lost the sale, but it was worth it. It’s great to be old.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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