Turnout Pocket Tools Are Personal Choices

Firefighters are a lot like little boys – they carry lots of cool stuff in their pockets and love showing it off. When I was little, I carried colored marbles, foreign money, matches, firecrackers, cool looking rocks, a pocketknife and a rabbit’s foot for luck.

I recently wrote about what I have in my turnout coat pockets, and I thought you might like to see what other firefighters carry.

First up is Capt. Mike Harrison of the Cedar Hill (Texas) Fire Department. He’s assigned to Quint 212 and known as “Mr. Gadget.”

Harrison’s helmet has a large rubber band holding two wedges and a homemade door stop which he says the most unique tool he has. It was made by fellow firefighter Danny Smith using a 1.25-inch dowel and a screw hook in one end. It hangs on the inside hinge and does a great job holding the door open.

In his coat is a 7-inch tool pouch containing trauma scissors, a seat belt cutter, a window punch, a shove knife and a cylinder lock tool. In the left breast exterior coat pocket he has a knife with flat and Phillips head screwdrivers. A Gear Keeper retractable cord holds his portable’s microphone at the ready.

His bunker pants contain more tools than many shop boxes. In a 10-inch pouch he keeps large cable cutters, needle nose pliers, wire snips, adjustable pliers and a screwdriver with interchangeable heads. There’s also a National Fire Protection Association compliant 24-foot daisy-chained 1-inch webbing with a carabineer. His truck belt is rated as a Class 1 harness.

In that harness, you’ll find a 19-inch Truckman axe that Harrison said is perfect for opening walls, pulling locks, breaking windows and pulling trim and cabinets during overhaul.

An LED spotlight is also secured to the belt with a large aluminum utility carabineer.

Carrying A Camera

Lonnie Ballenger, a firefighter at Station 8 with the Arlington (Texas) Fire Department, carries a lot of the same stuff Harrison does, including a flashlight, door and sprinkler wedges secured on his helmet with a large rubber band.

In Ballenger’s coat, you’ll find a hose strap and cotton work gloves, as well as medical latex gloves, and a 35mm camera.

He also carries 1-inch webbing, six feet of it, in his pants along with two 8-mm cords tied in loops and many of the same standard tools as Harrison.

“My favorite tool is the screwdriver with multiple bits stored in the handle,” Ballenger said. “It comes in very handy when checking appliances or mechanical equipment which have cover plates that need to be removed. It also helps with resetting automatic fire alarm pull stations.”

Ballenger said his camera not only captures the incident, but also records the things firefighters do, which is good for training purposes.

Lightening The Load

One of the more recent tools Ballenger added to his arsenal is a Fat Max Xtreme, a tool made by Stanley, which looks like an ARFF crash axe and is most definitely capable of doing damage.

“It’s a very good, multi-use tool that’s easy to carry,” Ballenger said. “We’ve discovered it can be used as a gas shut off wrench, as a hydrant wrench, a Sheetrock stripper and a striking tool.” It’s light and short, costs about $40 and can be purchased a most hardware stores.

Way up in Washington, Firefighter Travis Stanley of Ladder Company Nov. 4 with the Seattle Fire Department, a truckman for nearly 10 years, has lightened his load.

“The extra weight was getting ridiculous,” he said. “I had all sorts of screwdrivers, Allen wrenches, pliers, various electrical outlet and light socket adaptors – just a bunch of stuff I carried but never used.”

After reducing his burden, Stanley carries only a chem-light, a body loop of 1-inch webbing, a couple of wedges and his gloves in coat pockets.

In his radio pocket, he carries a modified paint scraper for catching door latches in forcible entry. He also carries a window punch and a seatbelt cutting tool.

Stanley says he’s done carrying all the “goofy stuff” he sees in the magazines. In his pants, he’s got a hood, a folding knife and some lightweight leather gloves for rope rescues.

“I carry so little because the rest of the stuff is on the truck,” he said. “If I need it, I’ll get it off the truck. I only carry stuff I use, not what makes me look cool or tough. If you’ve got stuff in your pockets and you haven’t used it ever, get rid of it.”

Another brother, Branon Snyder, a fellow truckman with the Seattle Fire Department is just the opposite. He’s a walking Home Depot with two of everything that everybody else carries and more.

Some of the most unusual stuff Snyder carries includes a large yellow grease crayon for marking doors (as tape takes too long and doesn’t always stick to smoked up door panels), three-prong to two-prong cord adapters, an electrical circuit tester and a small lock pick set. He’s even found room to carry a small bag with a change of socks, T-shirt and some personal items for extended operations in inclement weather. You’ll find photos of his wife and two kids tucked in his helmet.

The Fireman’s Prayer

“I also carry a good luck charm,” Snyder said. “A little old lady stopped me in a grocery store and gave me a card she made. It had The Fireman’s Prayer on it. She told me as long as I have this with me, I would always be safe. I have carried it in my gear for over 10 years now.”

Al Hom, an apparatus operator for Truck 7 with the San Francisco Fire Department is the only guy I interviewed who carried hearing protection inside his helmet. His ear plugs have a thin, arched plastic band and look like mini headphones.

“Many of the newer apparatus have in-cab radio headsets which also act as ear protectors,” Hom said. “However, when you arrive at a scene with alarm bells ringing, it could be a while before you can track down the source and silence the alarm. In the meantime, your ears and hearing take a beating.”

Overhaul Filter Mask

Another unique tool Al carries in his pocket is a Whiffs Brush Pro filter mask (www.xcape.com), which he uses during overhaul. This mask is not for oxygen deficient atmospheres, but the manufacturer’s literature claims it protects firefighters by absorbing hazardous toxins such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide and 100 percent of particulate matter commonly found in smoke.

Tyson Yee, also a firefighter with the San Francisco Fire Department, is assigned to Rescue 2. Of the people I spoke to, he’s the only one who carries a Mark I antidote kit intended for first responders exposed to nerve agents.

Each kit has two spring loaded auto-injectors, one with 2.0 mg of Atropine and the other with 600 mg of Pralodoxime Chloride (2-PAM). Nerve agents are the most toxic of all classic chemical warfare agents.

In addition to the Mark I kit, Yee carries 50 feet of escape rope, a carbineer, a figure-8 descender and a hook which works well with SFFD rescue members’ assigned harnesses, which are built into the turnout pants.

For opening doors, Yee also carries a flat hook made from sturdy but flexible plastic. Finally, he keeps a bottle of eye drops in his coat pocket because he wears contact lens.

Matt Brown, a firefighter on Engine 15 with the Atlanta Fire Department has most of the tools commonly found in turnout coats – wedges, rope, webbing, gloves and hand tools.

He also carries a Gerber LMF II Aircrew Survival and Egress Knife (ASEK). The sheath comes with a separate emergency seatbelt cutter.

“It’s capable of slashing through aircraft fuselage, busting through chopper canopies, cutting through wood and even spearing fish and small game,” Brown said.

The bottom line is he’s got one tough survival knife.

We’ll wind up with two firefighters from New York. First up, Dan Brown, a member of Fire Department of New York (FDNY) who is assigned to Rescue 5.

In his coat, you’ll find a usual assortment of nails and chocks for propping open doors, a knife, cutters, gloves, ropes and webbing.

He also has an emergency medical service pocket mask in his coat pocket, primarily for use on downed firefighters, a roll of electrical tape for taping door latches – and golf tees. He’s not going a couple of rounds after the fire, rather they’re good for plugging fuel lines and other small holes.

“I always carry at least two hand tools from the rig,” Brown said. “Keep in mind that as a rescue firefighter, I am not often tasked with the typical car battery/gas shut off/ stuck elevator alarm. I also do not carry a spanner wrench or a hose strap. Rescue crews carry different tools than engine crews.”

Also on FDNY is Lt. Gary Van Pelt who is assigned to Battalion 40. After many years experience in a rescue company, his outlook is very interesting.

“Although I agree there are a few essential tools to keep in your pockets, I don’t keep many, and here’s why. I carry EMS rescue shears. It’s my cutting tool of choice. It can cut through many types of material and the large open handles allow me to do so with gloved hands. If these shears can’t cut it, large diameter rope or BX cable, then I will have to remove it by hand or call for help.”

When FDNY issued Canberra dosimeters, carbon monoxide detectors and other personal safety equipment, Van Pelt decided he’d have to reduce the load somewhere and that’s when he decided to jettison something.

“For me, it was a couple of pocket tools,” he said.

While talking to firefighters all over the country, I was surprised to learn not a single one mentioned carrying a multi-tool and pliers like a “Leatherman-type” gadget. I was also surprised how many firefighters carry an extra set of light-weight leather gloves for rope rescue and other functions outside of direct fire fighting.

Caution On Gloves

Although I understand firefighters have better dexterity and grip using these gloves, I caution company officers to ensure their crews are wearing NFPA-rated structural firefighting gloves when actively engaged in firefighting operations. This includes raising ground extension ladders and operating power saws.

Should a member become injured or burned while wearing lightweight, leather gloves, in essence, they are not wearing their personal protective equipment. That can become problematic when medical claims are filed and liability becomes an issue.

While what you have in your pockets is a matter of personal choice, wearing NFPA-compliant gear is not. Don’t shortchange your personal safety. It isn’t worth it.

As you can see, while there are commonalities in the kinds of tools firefighters carry, there’s also diversity. Tools are relative to training, preparedness, preference, experience, staffing and geography.

Throughout your career, you will carry new tools and discard others. Don’t be embarrassed or intimidated from experimenting. Your pockets can only hold so much. Consider benefit versus weight, and make choices. The rabbit’s foot may have to go.

If a tool is simple and safe to use and gets the job done, then it’s the right tool for you.

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Angulo is a 27-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6. He is on the Educational Advisory Board for the Fire Department Instructors Conference and is on the Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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