Cantankerous Wisdom: Mailboxes, Charlie, and Vomiting

By Bill Adams

On the way back from chauffeuring a new lieutenant to an automatic alarm at an apartment house, I asked him how many mailboxes he had counted. I got a blank stare. I tried to explain years ago in many villages and towns, when you pulled up to a “residential” there was a 99 percent chance it was a single-family dwelling. As times changed and larger homes were converted into apartments, the key was to count the electric meters. Nowadays electricity may be provided, shared, or stolen, but seldom, if ever, are mailboxes shared. So, the best way to guesstimate occupancy is to “count the mailboxes.” The major dilemma today is guessing how many people occupy each “residence.” It’s possible to have more people living in one room than there are firefighters on the entire first alarm assignment. Good luck.

When I first joined, we had an unofficial photographer—an old-timer named Charlie. He had one of those big cameras like you see in old movies where negatives were on plates that slid in the back and the flash had screw-in bulbs. Charlie was the old grandfatherly type, the kind you were polite to but didn’t sit next to because he had horrible breath and used aftershave instead of soap. But, he showed up at every call of significance. We thought he was a pain, but, in retrospect, his photographs were invaluable training aides.

Caution: photographs don’t lie. They tell the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s embarrassing being photographed with four guys struggling to raise a 35-foot extension ladder that’s upside down. How could you say your boots were pulled up all the way and your earflaps were down when Charlie’s photo showed the opposite. He proved you didn’t chock the wheels on the pumper, or didn’t properly position the aerial ladder, or were mistaken when you radioed smoke was showing from just one window, or your mask wasn’t on when opening the roof. The chief had Charlie’s pictures at the critiques we’d have after fires. It was fun to watch a junior member stuttering and saying he didn’t remember being on the roof when the chief was angrily waving a picture showing he was. We all can learn from past mistakes as well as past experiences. Charlie indoctrinated new members into the real world by showing them photographs of bodies from fatal fires and auto accidents.

Back then, driver education was taught in high school, and every year they had Charlie provide photos of gory accidents. To prove they really saw them, the students had to write their names on each picture. That ended when some bleeding heart parents complained to the school board the fire department was frightening their little babies.

On one night call in another jurisdiction, a couple firefighters helped the medical examiner place the burned body of a woman into a body bag. A few days later, several detectives visited the fire station, intensely questioning who was on the run, what did they see, and who did what. At the funeral home, the woman’s family had noticed the deceased woman’s large diamond ring was missing. Fortunately, one of the members just happened to take a photo as the medical examiner’s hand was on the zipper closing the bag. Her body was charred, but you could see a bright sparkle on her ring finger when the flash went off. The fire department was exonerated. Every department should have a Charlie.

Today’s firefighters are quick to ridicule, criticize, and second guess photographs of fireground operations and even the apparatus used. Bobby Halton, Editor in Chief of Fire Engineering and Editorial Director of Fire Rescue and Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment said the issue of fireground photographs at Fire Engineering has been contentious for years. He said Bill Manning, the previous editor, was equally frustrated for the constant complaints he received, especially regarding cover photos. Halton does not have a policy per se in writing regarding whether to select or not select a particular photograph. He tries to avoid photographs showing blatantly unsafe or dangerous activities but may overlook minor things like gear issues, as one could never know what a particular firefighter’s assignment might actually be on the fireground. He said he looks for scenes of firefighters actually working, performing a task or function or technique that can be described in greater detail in the story or caption. He added, “Every cover for me is a training opportunity whether it is apparatus placement, forcible entry, building construction, fire behavior or any of the other significant considerations we have to make at working fires.”

Weak Stomachs
Ever wonder why some firefighters’ main purpose in life is to make probies throw up? We had a weak-stomached new member who would hurl lunch at the mere mention of a blood rare steak or the smell of an unflushed toilet. On one inside “recovery drill,” the training was how to set up and deploy “grappling hooks” for body recovery after a drowning. The hooks, chains, and piping sections holding everything together were kept in a nasty smelling box that made the room smell like low tide. The lieutenant started off by giving the usual spiel about throwing a buoy where a victim was last scene, gridding the search area, operating the boat at a speed so the hooks wouldn’t drag on the bottom, and what to expect if you hooked a body. He said you had to think of it as just another piece of meat. Obviously for the new guy’s benefit, he reached in the box and pulled out a grappling hook with a piece of seaweed and what looked like a chunk of torn flesh on it. It actually was a fatty piece he ripped off a boiled ham he had for dinner the night before. He bit into it and said, “Yep, that’s from the stiff we found last week.” He spit it out. When it hit the floor, everything the new guy ate and drank for the previous day was right behind it. The drill ended.

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.

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