By Bill Adams
Have you seen the glove holders that snap onto a D-ring on the front of a turnout coat? The gloves dangle in front of you. Be careful if you’re driving a rig. Junior wheeled the quint off the apron and started to make a hard right. He lurched forward. I thought he was seizing up. His hanging gloves got caught in a steering wheel spoke and he couldn’t turn the wheel. The harder he cranked on it, the further it pulled him into the steering column. I heard a “What the…?” as he hit the binders just before reaching the parked cars across the street. I’m not a religious person, but I can vouch that there are no rosary beads in the quint’s glove box.
The fire service is a quasi-military organization. Whatever an officer says on the fireground is and should be gospel—not subject to negotiation. Officers have the responsibility to give precise and accurate directions that have no possibility for individual interpretation. But, it doesn’t always happen like that. Usually it’s an honest misunderstanding or a misinterpretation. Not all firefighters, including officers, are as literal as others. Being literal means one is very exact in what is said. It also means firefighters may only “hear” exactly what is said. Some officers find it difficult to understand or appreciate that all firefighters are not necessarily on the same page when it comes to the King’s English. Literalism can also be used as an excuse.
The old timers told a story that happened long before my time. They had the big one on Main Street in a three-story mixed occupancy. There was a lot of hooting and hollering going on when it looked like it they were going to lose it. Back then, the rigs didn’t have preconnected 2½-inch handlines. The chief, wanting one, told Earl—an older fellow who wasn’t the sharpest tool in the crib—to “pull the deuce and a half.” He did. I’ve heard two versions of the ending. One was he had 500 feet yanked off into a big pile before he was stopped. The other was he dumped the entire bed.
After I joined, we caught a run one night, and Earl happened to be the driver. The deskman told him “there’s a car fire on such-and-such a street at the tracks”. Earl drove with a bunch of us juniors on the back step. We got there and didn’t see any car on fire. There was a train blocking the tracks, so Earl radioed back to send another engine the opposite way—but didn’t tell the dispatcher (deskman) why. The other engine couldn’t find anything either. We were ready to go back in service when one of the train’s crew came running up out of breath, reeking of smoke, and not too happy. There was a railroad boxcar on fire down the tracks a piece. Later, Earl said he was looking for an automobile on fire because the deskman didn’t say it was a railroad car.
My old department was drilling on the bay, practicing body recovery. One of the newer guys, a definite landlubber, was told to throw a marker buoy over the side. He did. That’s done to mark the last sighting of a victim so a search pattern could be laid out. They didn’t tell him it had to be weighted with an anchor. The buoy drifted away with the tide and was pushed all over by the prop wash of the boat. The officer, who worked the water as a fisherman, went tilt. He assumed everyone knew as much about working the water as he did. The member said “You didn’t say it had to be weighted with an anchor. You just said throw it over the side.”
Another time, we were dispatched for a possible house fire and I ended up driving the last engine out. I was alone and there was a new member (rookie) standing in the station so I told him to hop in the passenger’s seat. I pulled out, pointed at the radio microphone and said let them know we’re coming. His reply was, “What should I say?” Halfway there I told him if they want us to lay in, he’d be hitting the plug. He said, “With what?” The rig was a double clutcher and traffic was heavy so I told him to blow the siren. He said, “Where is it?” That was too much to handle. I glared at him, swore to myself and said just sit there, shut up and don’t touch anything. So much for on-the-job training.
I was a brand new white coat when we were dispatched late one night for a vehicle fire behind a gas station. The first engine and I got there at the same time with an obvious fire behind building. I told the crew to “pull a line” as I went in back to size it up. We had an automobile going good with an exposure problem. One of the troops pulled the “trash line,” a preconnected hoseline half as long the regular preconnects. It was about 50 feet short. I was aggravated but didn’t let on. Under my breath I muttered, “damn, not long enough” and turned to another member saying “we need a longer line.” He came back with a 50-foot section. That put me over the top. Afterwards, I angrily questioned why the trash line was pulled. The first member said, “We’ve always called the trash line a line and we’ve always called the preconnect a preconnect. You know that.” Technically, he was right so I let it go. The second member, also looking for redemption—or a way out—said he heard me say it wasn’t long enough and I didn’t tell him to specifically pull a preconnect. It was a no-win argument not worth having and a mistake never to be made again.
BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment 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.