Cantankerous Wisdom: Rubber Goods, PC, and Firehouse Speak

By Bill Adams

A conversation at morning coffee with the firehouse Raisin Squad regressed back to the good ole days and how “things” used to be. Our idea of the natural order of life in the firehouse is not the way it is today. Progress strikes again. One of the newer guys wandered through the kitchen when the discussion was centered around rubber goods. This kid had no clue as to what we were talking about. He thought rubber goods was an accessory you purchased for your automobile or for date night at the drive-in. The Squad agreed that if you’ve never ridden the back step of a pumper in the pouring rain, you probably don’t know what rubber goods are. They consist of a heavy knee-length fleece-lined rubber coat by Midwestern Safety Company, a pair of Beacon Falls hip-length rubber boots—usually without the optional steel toes—and a one-size-fits-all Cairns & Brother Model 350 Senator aluminum helmet. Wearing rubber goods in the 1960s was optional. One reason was there weren’t enough sets to go around. First come, first served. Another reason was old-timers didn’t think it was necessary. Thermal burns were a badge of honor. It was no different than using self-contained breathing apparatus. You only considered using them after you tired of regularly vomiting green stomach bile, hacking up globs of purplish phlegm every morning, and felt like you were only running with half of one lung. The newbie said the term “PPE” is used today. One raisin said “Pee Pee where? What the hell are you talking about? What’s urinating got to do with it?”

The newbie went on to say it is not proper to use the term fireman and the correct terminology is firefighter. That started a two-day diatribe about political correctness, proper terminology, gender equality, lack of manpower, and firehouse etiquette. One old geezer suggested the lack of manpower is probably because the chiefs today make them wear rubber goods.

Before any social warriors out there get their bunker pants in a twist, they should realize there are two distinct languages used by some in the fire service, by some in the industries serving it, and by some in the media. Note I said by some and not all.

The first is what I call “safe speak,” which means there shouldn’t be anybody alive in the Western Hemisphere who could possibly be offended by what is said or written. Most editors and politically correct (PC) people like it. It is politically, ethically, religiously, and morally neutral. I don’t know if it has a place in a fire station. Unfortunately, “safe speak” makes it impossible to tell if a person being referred to is a male, female, or any combination thereof. Maybe the PC police don’t want to infer members of the fire service are capable of or would even think of procreation.

The second type of language used is “firehouse speak,” which I believe is the most accurate, albeit sometimes salty, portrayal of the real fire service world. It is a traditional and nonintentionally demeaning way of communicating. It is the way firemen speak. It wasn’t invented, well thought-out, or taken to a college professor for approval. It just happens. The Squad believes “firehouse speak” should be the only language allowed in any fire station. If you don’t like it, stay out of the kitchen when the Squad is holding court.

I think those people who are not too sure what, why, or who they are use the terminology staffing rather than manpower. Yeah right, “Interior to command: send me additional staffing to the second floor.” Imagine a small child being admonished by his teacher during fire prevention week if a child mistakenly calls a fireman a fireman. “Johnny, we must call him a firefighter.” But why?

Gung-ho aggressive members of engine companies are affectionately called hose humpers. How does the PC crowd want to handle that one? There are some departments that still run dual beds of supply hose. Is it illegal for them to ask for a double lay? I bet there are some people out there who want to eliminate, “Engine 1 on scene laying a double.” I wonder if “hitting a plug” is too aggressive. Yeah, right again, “Car 1 to Engine 2; attach two supply hoselines to the fire hydrant and proceed to the rear of the building unloading the hose as the apparatus proceeds.”

Is the hydrantman now the hydrant technician? The nozzleman may soon become a water application engineer. Imagine the hell to pay if a male firefighter on a responding engine turns to a self-proclaimed and obvious female water application engineer and says, “I’ll grab the knob and you get the tools.” Or the older white coat, “Chief 3 on location with a two-and-half wood frame. She’s going good.” You might hear this reply someday: “Fire alarm to Chief 3. Chief, where is she going?” Most white hairs who rode the rear step and now collect social security know which bathroom to use. They understand firehouse speak and some even lament that some of the older sayings are gone. How many people today know what a “triple” is? Some of today’s water application engineers may think it is a three-base hit. Cloistered ultra-progressive water application engineers might think it’s better than a double lay. If the Navy can call a vessel “she” and get away with it, the fire department should be able to describe its new rig by saying “She’s a beauty.”

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.

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