Cantankerous Wisdom: Stupid Stuff and following SOPs

By Bill Adams

I recall an old-time chief saying he wasn’t always right, but he was never wrong. Talk about being arrogant and conceited. But if you really think about it, you don’t often hear white coats admitting they stepped on one of their private body parts. The subject was kicked around the coffee table the other morning. One geezer who always defends white coats said you seldom hear any fireman (a gender-neutral term) saying he made a mistake, and you’ll never hear of one admitting they really did something stupid.

Looking back at 50 years in three different departments, I vaguely recall some of the guys doing some stupid stuff. Do not believe there is, or could be, a resemblance to this writer in any of the following examples.

  • The new driver, who had not yet driven to a call, excitedly raced to the station when he heard the air horn blowing (before pagers). He was a ways out, and most of the apparatus had already responded. The dispatcher told him they had a small kitchen fire up on Highland Street and he’d better take the rescue truck because it sounds like they’ll need its fans. He did. When he got up to Hyland Avenue, his was the only rig there. Ooops.
  • Not being a life-long native of a community can be challenging when historic and generic terms and locations are used. Another time, a driver who just happened to look like me, ran into the station to answer a call. The dispatcher said there was a small grass fire down behind the Hornbeam Hollow Farm. Where the hell is the Hornbeam Hollow farm? The dispatcher calmly got up from the watch desk and put his arm around the young driver’s shoulder and said, “You know where you and your parents live? Well, step out your front door and look at the old farmhouse across the road. That’s the Hornbeam Hollow farm.” That’s what it was called during the Civil War.
  • In another company, a driver who recently moved to a rural district from suburbia, responded on a rig by himself. He radioed back asking to confirm the location. The old guy on the base radio read him the instructions off the run card: “Go west out of the station. Then go west on Route —-.  Then east on ——– Road. The street you want is the 2nd left past the cemetery.”  Not knowing east from west, the driver radioed back saying it was cloudy and he couldn’t see the sun and to repeat the directions with lefts and rights. 
  • *In yet another department, the officer riding in a rig with an open cab stood up and threw a stiff-arm at “some old lady” who was running a red light almost hitting the truck. She was the mayor’s secretary. The officer’s actions did not sit well with him.
  • A story was told about an incident that occurred before I joined the department. The dispatcher kept calling one of the responding apparatus to relay instructions from the chief on scene. There was no reply. The frustrated dispatcher finally radioed: “Fire alarm to Engine 2. Turn your radio on!”
  • A long time ago, the village’s department turned out very quickly for an attic fire located on a real steep hill off the main drag. The first engine had to stop when pulling the hill, and the driver stalled it. The second engine, following SOPs, went the opposite way—a couple blocks longer. The ladder made it around the stalled engine and got there just ahead of the second engine. The engine crew was stretching 1½-inch hose when the driver suddenly took off down the street heading for a plug—towing the 1½-inch hose and two of the guys trying to hold it. He thought the crew had stretched a 2½ inch supply line to the ladder. After the fire was eventually extinguished, the chief berated the driver of the second engine. The driver, not the sharpest tool in the crib, replied: “I was the second engine out, and the SOPs say I’m supposed to reverse lay to a hydrant. I did.” Now, that was stupid. He followed the SOP, but it was stupid.


I hate to beat an old subject to death, but the devil’s making me do it. The purchasing specification read: “The front directional lights shall be arrow type.” That sounds reasonable, but which of the arrow type directional lights on these three photos will meet your requirements? Is one better than the other? Ask your friendly light vendor if you can really see which way the arrow is pointing.

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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