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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Call Grumpy

I'm the only seriously active firefighter in my part of the district, and living so close to Station 51 means when either rig rolls out of there, my voice is pretty much always the one on the other end of the radio.

When you've served this long in one place, the people in your neighborhood get to know you either by direct contact or word of mouth for both good and bad moves. Still, it surprises me sometimes how it comes about.

My father-in-law works in fleet management for a large transportation outfit a few hours from here, and was hundreds of miles from home at a business function, chatting casually with the regional safety manager for his company. Somehow they got to talking about home, and the safety guy mentioned that he lived in the same county that we do.

"Oh really," my father-in-law said, "my daughter lives around there, on Lower Valley Road."

"You don't say," said the safety guy, "I live right about there, too."

"Yeah, her husband is a firefighter there and usually runs out of the station up the road from you."

"Oh, you mean Grumpy and Mrs. Grumpy? You're telling me he's your son-in-law??"

The way it was told to me, the conversation went on with the safety guy saying nice things about us and how he and his neighbors appreciate both that I run so many calls for the neighborhood and that Mrs. Grumpy helps that effort by being awesomely supportive.

I've actually never heard of the guy. Never responded to his house. Point taken, though, that your reputation precedes you one way or another. It was a really nice thing to hear about.


So last week I took in a middle of the night call for a medical emergency. The address was familiar, as the guy has had a few medical issues in the past, but I hadn't been there since 2009. I walked in and said "Hey Barry, it's Grumpy from the fire department, been a while since I've seen you, what's going on this morning?"

I heard the wife's voice in the dawning of comprehension as she said "You're Grumpy??"

Seems Barry was suffering stroke symptoms, and while he seemed to be bouncing back from what I assume ended up being a TIA, he was at that moment still struggling to speak clearly. As I put him on a high flow NRB and collected vitals while awaiting Medic 97, his wife explained that she woke up when he was acting strangely. The only thing she was able to make out before deciding to call 911 was "Call Grumpy." She had no recollection of my name, and was thoroughly perplexed. Now it made sense.

When Barry was fearfully struggling against the fog of a stroke, of all the things he might have wanted to say, it was my name that he punched out in his plea for help.

I am seriously and substantially honored and humbled at how that played out. I'm just a small cog in the big machine, but point taken that when the chips are down and the people call us, our arrival leaves a powerful impression for good or bad.

Reputations and impressions last a long time. Carefully ensure that you are investing in making the right ones.

Barry's home again and made a full recovery according to what I heard. I'll have to go by and see him this week. I am, after all, the neighborhood beat fireman, and should know my people.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Charlie Foxtrot

Engine 54, Engine 21, Engine 51, Medic 97, traffic accident.....

This is in the middle of 54's area. 21 will come from the north and I will come from the south in 51, to meet at the scene if 54 still needs us.

The next update has a chilling effect.

Rollover and over an embankment, six patients, some ejected. However, dispatch does not actually know where the scene is. The call came through Hazzard County 911, and Mayberry FD is already looking for it on their side of the line along with the Mayberry ambulance service.

The place they dispatched us to is associated with info that Hazzard County gave our dispatchers regarding a cell phone ping. But then our dispatchers mention a road name that was in the conversation that is nowhere remotely near where we've been sent. In addition, the caller is apparently one of the patients, and is describing terrain in no-man's land way down south that fits with the alternate possible location.

54, 21 and the medic will continue to the original scene to check, but the new spot is now behind me and closer to Mayberry. I divert to the new location, which will make me drive back right past Station 51, and flop from our TAC channel over to the Hazzard County channel to see what they know. Not much, except that the Hazzard County ambulance is already on scene asking for assistance yet no one seems to quite know where they are or how to interpret their directions. Units are scrambling to communicate on our TAC channel, Hazzard County's dispatch channel, and a shared inter-op channel that we should all be using but not everyone has access to. This in addition to the fact that we're on the fringe of radio coverage for any of these channels.

54 and 21 arrive, UTL. 21 returns, and 54 starts my way with Medic 97 right behind them.

I arrive at the end of the world, where roads stop having reliable names. A couple of Mayberry units are there. The Mayberry Chief hustles up to me to let me know a second Hazzard County ambulance just went by them a few minutes before, but they don't know where it went.

Seriously? You didn't think of following the medic if it seemed to know where it was going? Oh well, this is their call, we are the mutual aid, so I tell the MFD Chief that we have another engine on the way and ask how we can help.

He gives me a blank stare for a half second, and then as if he didn't hear me, he asks me where the call is at and what we want them to do.

We have thus descended into Charlie Foxtrot status.

We thought it was their call, and they apparently thought it was our call. No one has Command, no one knows where the ambulances are, and everyone is scattered on three radio channels.

Cue the Southwest Airlines catchphrase: Wanna get away?

We are - in our present literal location - technically in our district by about 15 feet, though the roads into no-man's land head mostly into Mayberry territory. This could be anyone's call. But OK, I can take it.

Now with a reliable starting place to work from, I managed to get enough information from the ambulance to guess where they are, and with that, we're off into darkness.

After about five miles of that we come over a rise and find an ambulance coming toward us. Great, are we ALL lost?

No, as it turns out, this medic has two patients aboard. The other Hazzard medic has one patient aboard and is coming up behind them. There were never more than three patients, they are all loaded, and there is nothing left to do. They thank us for showing up, and off they go to the hospital.

You could just sense the deflation of everyone's adrenaline when I got on the radio and told everyone to just go home.

So, what happened?

True to past performance, massive communication breakdowns between 911 agencies. Hazzard County 911 gave our dispatchers an address near a cell phone tower in our area, and the other road names out of our area carried no meaning and were ignored. We got sent to the tower. The tower.

Too many radio channels, with too many people talking on them. The Command vacuum empowered everyone to chatter until confusion reigned.

The first unit on scene failed to initiate Command. The first officer on scene also failed, as did the first Chief. It should never have fallen to me as first-arriving M/A representative to recognize that and try to fill it.

We're not perfect, I make plenty of mistakes, but this Charlie Foxtrot was worse than usual, and oh-so-preventable with basic communication skills.

It could have been worse, I guess. Argh.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tutorial 10: System Protection, Part III

OK, we're back for another rare installment of the tutorials that make up "Grid 101: Introduction to How The Power Grid Works", or "What Is This Confounded Sorcery?"

You don't have to re-read all the tutorials for this to make sense, but I would suggest you at least go over Tutorial 9: System Protection, Part II.

First is the detection relays. I explained that the relays watch for faults and decide what to do about them, but did not expand on how this magic works.

Remember that electricity flows can be compared to water flows that you fireman-types can relate to. Voltage is equal to water pressure, Amperage is equal to flow rate, and Resistance (Ohms) is equal to friction loss.

Resistance is hard-calculated much like water friction loss. We know the more-or-less fixed value of water psi loss for a given section of 1.75" hose and associated appliances. Similarly, power system engineers can calculate the resistance that a given power line of x distance and y conductor size will create. So file that away for a moment.

Voltage (pressure) is measured by potential transformers (PT). These are everywhere, nearly always attached to any buses as well as on the line-side of any breakers at the station. They serve to detect the presence of voltage as well as its strength. Their output is fed to the relays.

Amperage (flow) is measured by current transformers (CT). These are located anywhere an overload flow condition could arise that would need to be cleared, such as above and below every substation transformer and also on the line-side of any breakers at the station.

The differential protection mentioned in Tutorial 9 is made possible by the CTs on both (or all) sides of a given section, providing the measurements that should sum to zero indicating that everything going in is also going out, which is a good thing.

For each line out of the station, the values from the PT and CT are fed to the relays. For decades, relays were electromechanical solid-state devices, and specific electrical signals from the CT/PT would cause one or more contacts in the relay to close, enabling a trip signal to be sent to the necessary circuit breaker(s). In the past fifteen years or so, digital relays have arrived, and they have uber-fast computers that analyze the CT/PT inputs and decide what to do about it.

In all cases, electromechanical and digital relays have to be programmed or tuned by relay technician engineers who input tolerable levels of flow and voltage based on engineering system studies. Being a relay tech is fascinating work. Not only does each sold state relay need to be set up to do its thing, it also needs to be able to detect that its requested action happened or not and be able to send a trip signal to the next thing upstream if necessary. Digital relays too, but it is much easier to program that aspect than fine-tune the mechanicals.

The reclosing ability of lines and feeders relies on PT inputs to help the relay decide whether it should try or not. If a line trips and a reclose is permitted, the relay will first check the upstream PT for the presence of voltage. If no voltage upstream (bus is dead), there is no benefit to reclosing, and it won't happen.

Often, transmission line reclosing is staged so that the test is performed from the strongest side, so that a repeated fault doesn't disrupt a larger area or a generation plant. For an "auto-first" recloser, the automatic recloser will reclose into a dead line if the bus behind it is hot (PT senses voltage). An "auto-second" recloser waits for both the line and bus to be hot, meaning that the line was successfully tested OK by the other side. Auto-second is found at all power plants, and at weaker substations. A third variety, less common, is where a recloser sees a hot line and a dead bus. If the bus was merely de-energized by a large scale outage and never suffered a clearing fault, the breaker will close to pick up the bus, at which point any auto-first reclosers will see the bus pick up and try their lines. Of course, reclosers can be set up to operate at the direction of the relays in multiple or all of these situations.

Random amusing unrelated picture, to interrupt the long post.

Seriously, it's OK if you want to go refill your coffee at this point.

OK, all rested up? Onward.

So, we know that relays process input from PTs and CTs to decide if there is a fault, and how bad it is. Take it back to fire flows and it makes sense. If you have high water flow but water pressure is good, that is probably OK. Likewise, if water pressure is a little low and water flows are also low, it isn't ideal but doesn't indicate a major problem either. Conversely, if your water flow suddenly surges while water pressure plummets, you have a pretty clear indication of a burst hose. Translated to the PT/CT inputs, high amps and volts are OK, as are low amps and volts, relatively speaking, but sudden high flows with plummeting voltage is a clear indication of a line fault.

Within the transmission protection zones, relays watch the line from both ends, and can use the PT/CT inputs to not only detect a fault but also figure out with fairly good accuracy how far out the fault is from the station. The location of the fault is important, and influences the behavior of the relay.

A relay looking out into a line for a fault typically has three zone of protection in regard to the line. Zone 1 watches for faults from the breaker on out to cover 80-90% of the line. Zone 2 over-reaches Zone 1 by 10-25% and can see faults in or near the remote bus of the next station past the far breaker of the monitored line. Zone 3 looks backwards from the breaker into its own local buswork. See the illustration below for the protection zones watched by the relays assigned to circuit breaker "A" at West Substation (in blue), and the zones for circuit breaker "B" at East Substation (in green).

A fault in Zone 1 is indisputably on the protected line and will be cleared without delay by the breaker that sees it, usually within about 3 cycles (0.05 seconds). Most of the line is covered by both Zone 1's, so generally both breakers will independently see it and trip. Both Zone 2's also saw it in their area, but have a time delay to prevent false tripping and let the Zone 1's handle it.

If a fault occurs right outside the station, let's say right outside the fence from East Substation, things are different. "B" Zone 1 picks it up and trips immediately, but "A" Zone 1 doesn't see it. "A" Zone 2 knows about it, though and trips "A" after perhaps 6 or 10 cycles (up to 0.15 seconds). The delay is important, because Zone 2 can see into and probably slightly beyond the next station. In this case, if a fault occurred just outside of East Substation on some other line, "A" Zone 2 probably sees it, but it would not be appropriate to knock off this line when the fault is somewhere else. The time delay allows the local Zone 1's for that other line to take care of business. If they don't, "A" Zone 2 trips after its delay.

From here, things get more complicated. For advanced protection arrangements, there is equipment to block or force tripping independently of what a relay is seeing for itself. Relays at different substations can communicate with each other in a variety of ways, such as fiber optic networking, microwave radio, or a carrier tone through the actual power line itself.

If false tripping is a problem or seriously needs to be avoided, is where Zone 3 comes into play with blocking schemes. Zone 3 generally looks backwards as far as the remote Zone 2 looks through it. In the previous case of an unrelated fault elsewhere right outside of East Substation, West "A" Zone 2 sees it, but so does East "B" Zone 3, and it knows that the fault is not on this line. It will communicate to West "A"s relay scheme that a trip would be bad, telling that relay to ignore any Zone 2 trip it might want to try (at least for a bit, it will eventually allow it if the fault persists). Thus, no false tripping and better stability of the grid.

Cool, huh? It gets better.

For lines where relay techs have determined that a potential Zone 2 clearing duration of up to 0.15 seconds is too long and the disturbance too great, the permissive transfer-trip scheme is used. Sensitive transmission lines and very high voltage lines at or above 230kV is where you'll see these. In these cases if either Zone 1 picks up, it automatically tells the other side to trip without waiting for the remote side to go through its Zone 2 time delay. This ensures that a fault on either end that falls outside of the dual Zone 1 coverage still gets cleared as if both relays saw it as Zone 1.

Think about that. A fault occurs. The PT/CT inputs are picked up by the relay. The relay concludes it is a Zone 1 fault and must trip. It sends a signal to its local circuit breaker to trip, and also sends a signal to the relay at the other end of the line. The local circuit breaker trips. The remote relay gets the "trip now!" message from the local relay that detected the fault, and tells its own circuit breaker to trip, and it does. From fault to cleared, with all that communication and mechanical response from the circuit breakers, probably no more than 4 cycles - 0.066 seconds - elapsed.

Once you have these fundamental ideas about zones of protection and calculating fault locations and intensities, you can imagine that some relay techs can dream up some amazingly elaborate protection schemes. When they work, it is pure beauty. Even when the special schemes fail for some reason, the fallback default Zone 1-2-3 systems still work.

What we learned: (1) Power lines act a lot like fire hoses in some ways, but we already sort of knew that. (2) Pressure and flow rates (volts and amps) measured at the right places can provide a lot of information about what's going on if analyzed the right way. (3) Protection zones back each other up, which we also sort of knew. (4) Special schemes that cost a lot of money to engineer and build can shave fractions of a second off a trip time, and that fast action can be very important to save the grid.

Whew. See what happens after such a long hiatus of tutorials? Blah blah blah blah... I talk too much. I see your coffee cup is empty again. Go fill it up and hide in a quiet place to absorb what you've learned today. Stay safe out there.

(Click this link to see all posts tagged "tutorial")

Monday, November 21, 2011

Checking in

This new boss gig is taking a lot of my time! But it is a good gig. This is evidenced by the dropoff in posts, as this blog was started for the same reason many are: to rant. I'm just not pressed to rant since starting the new job, because it is really agreeing with me and I am surrounded by good people and an intelligent leadership structure that more or less has a plan. It is AMAZING.

I am very lucky.

Also, not too many exciting fire or power grid stories to tell, but the rough season is approaching. Of course, there was the guy who complained when we fixed a streetlight in his area. He told the customer service rep that the light was damaging his DNA. We offered to shield his house from the light, and he insisted that he provide the shielding. I expected something wrapped in foil, but it turned out to be a flap of rubber from an inner-tube when they brought it to Dispatch so we could see it. OK, whatever floats your boat. Timo went out to install it, and we had a deputy along by request, just in case.

The blog got some pings from a discussion about wind power, leading me to realize that I have really dropped the ball on talking about future power grid trends as well as the tutorial series. Some new stuff is up with wind which I actually find encouraging. I still need to finish talking about circuit protection schemes and the relays that make them go. And the so-called "smart grid" you hear about from time to time? I'll fill you in on what it is supposed to look like, since no one in the media seems to have a clue except to use buzzwords like "demand management" and "smart supply", or some other useless catchphrase of the week.

And as my parting shot, check this out. While on the road this summer, putting a few thousand miles on the family transport to see the in-laws, I ran across this very creative way to recycle an old power pole. The Grumpy Dispatcher approves.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The New Guy

As I arrived in Tanker 54 as the second piece on scene, the smoke was rolling pretty good. The fire had self-vented in back and was starting to really roll. Engine 54 was just getting set at the front door, their officer awaiting my passenger to pack up so they could have their two outside and go in.

Engine 54's engineer, Trev, was one of our newer part-time guys, but he had advanced well enough through the academy sessions and had passed his engineer stuff. We're not a huge department, so it is possible to get up to engineer within a year or two if you apply yourself, and he was one of these guys. Still, Trev didn't always come off as especially confident.

I set my pump into gear, and pulled the short section of 3" out of the far side pump panel's sideboard tray, laying it down at E54's panel. By the time I was ready to give Trev water and went back to verify he was ready, he had hooked up my supply line to one of his discharge ports. Nothing to make a scene over, I just told him where to move it. It was not the time for a learning discussion. Trev swore at himself and moved it. Guess we might need some more training for familiarity with the equipment, right?


Trev was at the live fire and pump ops drill, with a handful of new guys and recent volunteer recruits also in attendance. For several of them, this would be their first live-fire exercise.

I was standing next to the instructor as he barked at the fresh faces. He wasn't being mean, he was just being true. I was sure my BS meter was broken, because when I turned it on, the needle didn't budge. Is this thing on? That's what kind of instructor was in charge that day. He told them that this was practice time, and not learning time. If you think you know what you're doing, do it and be evaluated. If not, stand back... watch... learn, and we'll get to you later. All business.

You see, Trev is in his fifth year with us now, and was hired full-time a year ago. He has turned out to be an excellent beginner instructor, and a fairly proficient engineer. I love watching him with the recruits because he takes ownership of them, and I like seeing how he has changed. He barks, but with passion and love. I wanted to give him a big hug and smooch because he turned out so well, but it would have ruined the mood.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bad News

Truck 579 has been parked or occasionally borrowed by other servicemen as a reserve rig since I got here. But 579 is not a reserve rig. It is Howie's ride. Or rather, it was.

Howie announced his retirement yesterday. He has been off work since shortly before I started here. I actually have never met him, because he has not stopped by when I happened to be on duty. Howie has been fighting cancer since mid-summer. He had a major surgery at the beginning of September, and when he went home to recuperate, pretty much all of our servicemen - on and off duty - were at his house to greet him. They had arranged a couple of trucks to have the buckets raised and crossed over his driveway, a "welcome home" banner stretched between them.

As an aside...what a great company this is. That would never have happened at the old place.

Anyway, yesterday we got word that he was putting in his papers. He found out on Monday that new cancer spots were found in many places, including on his lungs. The doctors prescribed pain meds and told him to go home and get his house in order. All I hear is how he isn't at all concerned for himself. All his worries are about his wife and parents and children. That is character.

The gloom in the control center is palpable. Howie is very well-liked and well-respected across the board. Although I never got to meet him, I am sad by association because my guys are all down about it.

His name has been on the board by 579 for months awaiting his return, but with the papers filed he isn't coming back. I haven't found the courage to remove it, but sooner or later another name will be assigned to Truck 579 and I won't be able to avoid it any longer.

If you are willing, send positive thoughts in whatever way you choose to do so to Howie and his family.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bucket List Calls

None of us really wants bad things to happen to anyone, but we all like being the ones to go take care of it when it happens. This is especially true when those rare and interesting calls come in that will get talked about for a long time. I call them "bucket list" calls, things that will be checked off as noteworthy after retirement and seem to happen to all of us eventually at least once.

One of those items recently got checked off my list. The dispatcher's voice had "the edge" when listing assigned units, and he was naming a lot of rigs, so we knew it was a "good" one right away. Then the words came out: Aircraft incident.

Wooooo. Well OK, then.

Engine 51 was fourth due, so at least I didn't have to take command. Whew.

Engine 77 arrived first and reported a small private plane on the ground in a clearing, with no fire. Then they reported three patients requiring extrication.

Patients? Not bodies? Well OK, then.

Medic 98 requested a second and third medic. Not anticipating survivors, we weren't hammering it much, but I expect all of us not yet on scene pressed a little more after that tidbit.

Cut to E51's arrival. Stuff is now under control for the most part, so a late one-man engine is nearly irrelevant here. But what an interesting sight. There's a plane, upright, broken in half and roof torn off, wings collapsed. Hoses are stretched, charged, and laying on the ground. OK, that's all normal, but here is where it got strange. The pilot is still sitting in his seat, his head in a c-spine hold by the passenger in back (!?), and the third is sitting on the wing cross-legged, all surrounded by yellow and black-clad firefighters.

I'm still not clear on what went wrong, but these guys were waaaaaay lucky. The plane lost power for whatever reason, clipped some random tree and went sideways, bounced off its nose into a cartwheel and somehow landed right side up. Pilot had two broken ankles, while the other guys were treated for cuts and bruises and merely transported as a precaution.

Wow. Well OK, then.

That turned out pretty great for everyone. The patients have a great survival story and all of us fire guys checked off a bucket list line item: Plane crash.

Sorry I haven't made it on here as much lately. Not that I figure anyone is really losing sleep over my slow posts (ha!), but the new job is keeping me plenty busy.

Stay safe out there, so that your career can run long enough for your bucket list to get filled in.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Loving It, Not Loving It

Being part of a smaller utility is going to suit me very well for the most part.

I've been riding with service crews every other or third day or so since starting here. It is so refreshing to put on the old FR clothes and work boots, and get some sun. Got a new hardhat, decorated it with a little bling, and it's been all business since.

My new company has a good reputation, and works hard to maintain it. Last week on Truck 586 with Timo, we got called off the job we were en route to for a report of flickering lights. It happened to be that we were really close. The guy who answered the door and met the two power company guys in denim and hardhats was impressed. "I only had time to take the garbage out after calling, and here you are!" Nice. Ninety minutes and a spliced neutral wire later, we moved on. Sun, air, happy customers, lunch at the park sitting on the tailboard. I'm loving it.

On Monday I was running with Pete on 577. Pete has been around since Hector was a pup, as Mom likes to say. We were getting run back and forth via the state highway from one end of the service area to the other and back, over and over for petty little things. At one point we drove right past the lovely Mrs. Grumpy Dispatcher as she was picking kids up from school. Working the system where I live. I'm loving it.

Near the end of the day, Pete's MDT chirped with three more jobs. All credit shutoffs. If you don't pay your bill, you eventually get to this point. Now, it doesn't come to this unless you've missed your bill for about three months, have ignored calls from the company to set up a plan, or failed to meet the terms of your payback. The company does not want to shut people off, but electricity is not free. Finally, the day before the shutoff visit, a final phone call is made, and a door-hanger left at the property. So there are no plausible surprises on the customer's part when the service truck arrives.

We arrived at the first home, and the middle-aged woman who answered the door remained mostly hidden behind it. It was a rather nice upper middle class home in a quiet neighborhood. Pete advised why we were there and asked if she could make any kind of payment by phone to make the credit people happy. She said she'd try, and Pete said we'd give her 10 minutes. We waited in the truck, and just about the time we figured the jig was up, the dispatchers called to report that the credit people were happy, and waved us off. We left without talking to her again.

The second home was in a trailer park. In front was a pretty nice Jeep Grand Cherokee, and in the carport was a Lexus. To their credit, the Lexus was marked as for sale. The tatooed and pierced young man who answered the door claimed he had met the terms of the credit people, but that is not an argument we can engage in. Pete called the credit people himself to check, and they disagreed. Pete let the young man know what was what and gave him ten minutes. Once again, the call came to wave off.

Finally we arrived at a well-worn small apartment building. This ticket was marked that meter access was difficult, we would need to go through the apartment to the rear, or climb some fences if no one was home. A quiet young lady answered the door, holding a child perhaps a year old. She was alone. She didn't even argue, she just waved us through, seeming resigned. As we stood on the back deck and Pete opened the meter box, I looked into the sparsely-appointed apartment and saw the small stack of children's movie DVDs on the TV. For a single parent, sometimes you need a DVD distraction to get a few things done, and that option was about to go away. I wondered if she had family or friends, where she would go, if there was a man away at work or not, what would happen to the food in the fridge - if there was any.

Damn. This absolutely sucks.

I was feeling pretty low in the truck after we left. Pete told me how some people game the system by changing to relatives names to escape the bills, or string credit along, or ask for help over and over knowing they'll get it and then planning to use it as a permanent help instead of a crutch. He told me how at first he wanted to throw down the occasional $100 for those who seemed to really need it, but how the crusty guys when he started told of how people learned to look needy and played them for help. Anyway, it has been against company policy to do that for a long time, now.

I'm used to "macro" operations - that is, a very high view where I deal with dropped feeders and stations affecting a minimum of a few hundred up to several thousand customers at a time. Now, I am in charge of a group dealing with "micro" operations, where along with the usual feeder and station trips, I will regularly be meeting with customers face-to-face for special situations. For the guy who barely got his garbage taken out, that's cool, but for the lonely single mother resigned to getting her power shut off.... I'm not loving it. And in my position there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.

I'll like it here. It isn't perfect, but it's pretty close. Thanks for reading and stay safe out there.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Checking in - New Job

Sorry for the post drought.

Got the new job. Went on a two-week vacation before starting it. Been very, very busy.

I was a shift supervisor at my old job, at the monster-sized utility company.

Now I am over all of the dispatchers at my new company, a smaller and more intimate local utility company. Sometimes I will also have to watch out for the service guys on the trucks, too.

It's like going from Division Chief at a large FD where you drive a desk all the time, to Assistant Chief at a small career FD where you end up running a lot of calls simply because you need all hands sometimes.

Anyway, the training curve to get up to speed here will occupy a lot of my time for a while, but the blog is not dead. Thanks for your patience, I'll be back when I can. And now that I'll sometimes be out in the field and face-to-face with some of the excitement instead of hiding aboard the mothership, there should be some good power company tales to tell, to go with the fire department stuff.

Stay safe out there.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Little Time Off

Getting hard to think of good stuff to write that I think anyone wants to read. Part of the ebb and flow of blogging I guess.

I just wanted to check in and verify that I am still alive.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bloomberg: Sacrilegious Mutt or Sacrificial Lamb?

Reference article:

First responders decry exclusion from 9/11 ceremony.

I suspect I might lose some readers over this, but hear me out.

It's just a theory.

First, some back story.

After September 11, 2001, I am reasonably sure I was not the only one who noticed being treated differently by security personnel, particularly at airports. In 2001, I was working at a software company dealing with electric utility companies, and traveled all over the U.S. frequently.

Post 9/11 I noticed that it seemed like I was getting pulled out of the security line, or the line to board the plane, for a comprehensive search pretty much constantly. My name is old-country British in origin, and my ethnicity is similar to Wonder Bread, so I was being profile-captured by something else.

On one trip, I arrived early as usual, anticipating the usual extra-check delay, but did not get yanked. When I got to the hotel to retire for the night, I figured it out. You see, ever since September 11, I always wore an FD uniform T-shirt when traveling. But on this day, for whatever reason, I did not.

Was it the shirts that were attracting scrutiny? I tested the theory by not wearing an FD shirt for the next few flights. Smooth sailing. Tried it out again, and got yanked. Bingo.

Now, this post is not about the merits of the security analysis that terrorists could try to stage an attack disguised as emergency workers, although I have experienced several events that have made it clear that this would be an effective avenue to get past trusting or complacent security people (unless you're dealing with the TSA, of course).

So, the theory.

It is no secret that Al Qaeda would like to stage a 10th anniversary attack, they've said as much themselves. So suppose CIA/DHS/NYPD, whoever, gets a serious credible lead that the bad guys are seriously considering using this kind of attack? Let's be real, it would not be functionally difficult to bring an old Seagrave into New York City and stuff it in some windowless warehouse. You can buy old rigs on eBay for a few grand as it is, imagine what you could do with a big budget?

So, you end up with an engine or ladder truck externally a perfect replica of an FDNY rig, but packed with explosives. Even if you get caught on the perimeter of the ceremony and have to trigger early, a big boom like that would be devastating. Not just in loss of property and life. The psychological and emotional impact would be incalculable. Suddenly, the citizens of New York experience PTSD fear of every FDNY rig. The association with the 10th anniversary attack would be tied to fire apparatus nationwide. The safest refuge a shaken nation has, trust of the heroes in the Big Red Trucks, is obliterated.

No way can this be allowed to happen.

So what do you do? You have the intel, and less than a month to plan.

Plan 1: Reveal the intel to the public. The bad guys know they've been ratted out, quickly dispose of the bomb rig(s), and skip town.

Plan 2: Say nothing. Try to catch the bad guys by trying to weed out the bomb rig(s) as people converge on the ceremony, including a LOT of emergency services people. Risk a periphery detonation and all its consequences, but hope for a psychological victory if they nab the bad guys.

Plan 3: Announce that emergency services people are not invited. The bad guys probably read between the lines and leave, but if they choose to try the attack anyway, there will be far less people and apparatus to sort through. So you have either an automatic Plan 1 win, or hugely improved chances of a Plan 2 win. Tactically, this is far better than trying to run either Plan 1 or Plan 2 alone.

I think Plan 3, as unpalatable as it is, would be the best choice under the circumstances. I hate it and am offended at the concept that firefighters are not invited, but is this a decision for the greater good. Bloomberg is not an idiot. True idiots don't get that far, and he's the Mayor of NYC. I bet when this decision crossed his desk he knew the reaction that would come. But for the greater good, what choice would he have? Haven't you ever taken heat for an unpopular decision that you couldn't explain, but knew it served a greater purpose for the people who were angry about it? Yeah, you've taken one for the team before, it isn't all that uncommon.

So, watch for snipers on rooftops all around Manhattan and elsewhere, analyzing every fire truck, and preparing to take out everyone on the rig simultaneously. And maybe even watch for word to be passed to the FDNY line troops the morning of, so they know to put a predetermined and very subtle "invasion stripe" of some innocuous variety on each piece to ward off the snipers.

That's my theory. It is the only plausible and understandable reason for the decision that I can think of, and until I learn more I am sticking to it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Us and Them

Had a kid take a dip in a local lake, seems he and his brother and some friends managed to slip the childcare provider.

Engine 56, Engine 53, Engine 54, Medic 98, near-drowning at Lost Lake.....

I just happened to be at Station 53 on an unrelated chore and made the scene. We responded with purpose, anticipating someone maybe needing to be plucked from a rock in the middle of the water, with respiratory and/or thermal issues.

We didn't know it was a kid.

We also didn't know that he'd been missing for over half an hour before the call ever came out.

A not-very-cheerful recovery project followed. But, that's what we do. Can't always have fun and games and saves, right?

Damn it.

- - - - - -

Sorry for the lag in posts. Was off on a road trip family vacation. In fact, speaking of water rescue, several of my children and those of a family friend, with the other Mom, went tubing on the river. I was tasked to wait at the meeting point.

When they were almost an hour overdue, I started getting concerned. Started nosing around. Turns out they had made a massive situational awareness fail - that I also failed to catch - where they tubed down a different waterway and never passed me.

A quick check of the map showed them on a river with no realistic road access, deep in no man's land. There were perhaps three hours of daylight left, no phone coverage, and no idea in the world where they were, if they had gotten out or just went on, looking for civilization.

Drove a ways to a hill to get phone coverage and reached the Sheriff's Office. Turns out they were on a path to a couple of dicey river canyons. The Search and Rescue coordinator from the SO had a tone in his voice that induced a notable pucker factor. The SO started to scrounge up aircraft resources.


Long story shirt, they figured out the mistake, landed and scrabbled up a steep slope to the dirt road, where we stumbled on them by sheer dumb chance/luck, a good three miles from camp. A quick drive back to coverage and a call back to the SO to call off the help. And he didn't even taunt me for being a fireman and letting this happen. I had it coming, though.

Many lessons (re)learned which I won't burden you with, and our day blessedly did not end up like that of the family of the first bit above. A thin line separates "us" from "them" at all times, and a reminder to avoid complacency is in order once in a while.

- - - - - -

Going back to a second interview for a new power company dispatch job this week. Looks promising, but not a for-sure deal. I debated even bringing it up, but if I get the job it will likely mean a return to interesting power company stories of craziness experienced by the line and substation crews and the dispatchers, as it will place back me closer to the trenches, so to speak. Way more fun there. A pay cut, if necessary, will be worth it.

Stay tuned, and stay safe.

Friday, July 22, 2011

THWS: Full-featured Online Image Editor

The latest Totally Handy Web Site is one I frequent regularly. I run a few web sites and do a lot of projects that require image editing. Sometimes I do some of the work at the power company when it is slow, or at the FD in off hours, or at home. It was problematic to use different types of software depending on where I was at and what was (or was not) installed in each place.

Introducing Pixlr (, a FREE full-featured image editing application that is entirely web-based. If your web browser's Adobe Flash plug-in is up to date, you're all set to go.

You can upload images from your own computer, make your edits, and re-save them to your computer. You can also designate the URL of an image online to load into Pixlr, and then save your modified version locally. And that's for anonymous users. If you choose to create a free account with them, you gain access to their "cloud", allowing you to store your images online and access them from anywhere.

To create an account, go to the editor and choose to open an image from the library. The pop-up window will ask you to log in, but there is a link just below the password field labeled "sign up for pixlr". Username, email, password, you're in, no other info required.

There are a few tutorial paths you can take if you're not familiar with image editing, and it won't be long until you can navigate the application with relative ease.

Unless you are in need of industrial strength super image editing software and just must install PhotoShop or similar stuff on your PC, Pixlr is your answer, is totally free, and accessible from anywhere you can get online.

Check out their FAQ, which addresses privacy and operational concerns. Also, here are straight links to sample tutorials for "creating an intense portrait", and working with "selective coloring". There are also a lot of video tutorials made by a variety of users that can be found on YouTube to help you through certain tasks.

Very slick. Very cool. Very totally handy.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I Swear I Am Not Making This Up

Actual narrative from an actual call in the district. Dave Barry would be proud.

It is seven times more amusing when you know the Captain who wrote this.


Location: XXXXXXXX
Incident Run Number: XXXXXXXX
Incident Type: 541 - Animal problem
Action Taken: 86 - Investigate


The homeowner called Station 52 several times, today, seeking assistance with a cat in a tree.

During the first call, around noon, the caller was told to put food at the bottom of the tree, and "wait out" the cat. He did so.

About 4 PM, the caller was now at work and requested a personal visit to re-assure the wife and family that the cat would be OK. His fear was that the family might try to climb the tree.

Upon arrival, the cat was, indeed, about 30 feet up a very large and very tall tree. The tree was in the neighbor's yard. That neighbor's house was under construction and no one was on-site.

The cat was moving and appeared healthy. The family confirmed that there was no health problem that they knew of. They were told that the fire department could not get involved because:
* Someone else's property
* Cat higher than our ladders
* Would have to cut limbs on tree
* Did not have proper climbing gear

The family, was, again, advised to leave the cat alone, it would come down when it was ready.

The phone number for a cat retrieval service was provided to them, the next morning, in case the cat was still in the tree.

The family advised that the cat did, indeed, come down the tree before bedtime.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Brad's Pre-911 Checklist

The first time I ran a call to Brad's house, it was a pretty big deal. Dispatched to a person not breathing, I had grabbed Equad 51 and showed up first. To a locked gate.

I figured that what with whatever drama was going on inside, it was hardly a surprise that no one came down to unlock it. I fumbled over the gate and hustled to the front door, airway kit and AED at the ready, and tried the door. Locked.

Now those of you who have ever responded to the wrong house know the dark wave that washes over you at this point. Crap, am I at the wrong address? There are lights on, but no sign of activity. I eyed the numbers next to the door as I swallowed my pride and radioed in for confirmation. Turns out, I am in the right place.

I banged on the door, announcing "fire department!", as Engine 53 pulled in. Finally, a shadow moved across a window. But still, no action at the door despite continued severe knocking attempts. Engine 53's duty crew joined me and I tried to explain, but the Captain didn't even give me a chance to really start before sending a couple guys to look for another access.

And then we heard a muffled voice. Hang on, it said. Then click... click... chain rattle.... and the door opened. Immediately, I know this guy is a strange fish, and he had unlocked a lot of locks.

He calmly led us to a bedroom where he identified the patient as his mother. An elderly female was lying neatly in bed on her back, with perfect unrumpled blankets pulled up to her shoulders. And she was dead dead dead. Gray/blue, cold, with lividity present in strange places that did not match her supine position. This was just getting weirder and weirder.

She had apparently passed earlier in the day, and when he came home and found her, he decided she needed to be cleaned up. I don't know exactly how he went about doing it, but she was clean, had clean sheets and everything. He dolled her up as best he could, and then placed the 911 call to report that Mom wasn't breathing. Despite expecting us, he had not unlocked the door and gate.

E53's Captain was unfazed. He already knew Brad from other calls.  I've been to Brad's two more times for other things since, and it's never boring.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hanging Out

Got this news item in the company email a few days ago. I suspect it is making the industry rounds.

Typical to most media sources, the verbiage of the articles makes it clear that the writers know little to nothing about power lines, telecom lines, procedures, etc. You've seen this before when they write crazy things about a fire or other incident you were involved in.

The short version of verifiable events is that a fire somehow started in or on the bucket that a power company lineman was working on, involving the elevating bucket's hydraulic system. With the bucket both on fire and inoperative, the lineman escaped by climbing out onto relatively benign telecom cables (as opposed to actual power lines with serious electricity).

A second bucket truck was nearby and quickly responded to the scene. As the second bucket was getting into position to retrieve the stranded lineman, burning debris and hydraulic fluid dropped to the ground below, igniting the second bucket truck as well as a parked car. The rescue was completed successfully despite the second truck catching fire.

I love in this first picture how the first lineman is just casually sitting and holding onto the telecom/cable lines. Under normal conditions there is no serious potential for injury from these cables. Now, if any of the service drops or especially the high side primary had taken damage and fallen onto what he was holding onto, there would have been trouble.

More pictures:

Aside from a successful, if not pretty, rescue, the other main thing I see in these pictures is a LOT of paperwork. I also kind of want to know who got the first picture, and how. Nearby upstairs apartment? Great angle.

Here are some news article links:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How Time Flies

I won't be around the internet on Sunday the 10th, the Big Day, so here's a little something up front.

Unbelievable. Thanks for the reads and the comments and the many lurkers. And please remember to not take this blog too seriously.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


The new junior cadets are usually amusing to observe. They fall into a few different categories. I won't try to identify all of them, but some of the major names I use are "whacker", "zealot", "trooper", "student", and "roadkill".

Sometimes they move from one to the other over time. I try to move as many as I can into the "student" category, but some never escape where they started, and it is all you can do sometimes to simply keep them alive after they've been cleared for whatever reason to run calls with the duty crews. But we do manage to create an adequate number of decent contributors from them to make the effort worthwhile.

I used to just let them come along on whatever came up. When it was up to me, there were various unofficial loose limits that I would impose on their proximity to the subjects of the call, depending on what was up. That all changed on an otherwise fine late October evening when trooper cadet Sean was hanging out at the station.

Engine 61, Medic 61, car vs. pedestrian on the State Highway.....

That is never, ever good.

Sean was immediately excited, because he knew immediately that it was going to be a good call. As Jody, the senior medic, strode to the pole, Sean asked if he could ride the box. Jody didn't even pause, just nodded. I don't think Jody was thinking about Sean, he was already thinking about the good call, or rather how it wasn't going to be all that good.

I didn't think much of it either at the time, except for the aw crap sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you pretty much know exceptionally bad things have happened leading to this 911 call. I just joined the procession to the apparatus floor to take my place on the engine.

Medic 61 got a pretty good jump on us, but we could see them way up ahead of us as they turned onto the onramp, with a deputy coming from the other way and following them onto the highway. We were just approaching the scene when Medic 61 cleared us. There was nothing for us to do. There were two deputies on the scene, blocking the highway, just a couple of cars stopped. Traffic was light. The Captain didn't argue, and likely was as relieved as I was that we were let go. Conveniently, there was a median turnaround just before the scene, and we took it.

It wasn't more than 20 minutes or so when Medic 61 was cleared. After we got back, someone said something about Sean being on there. Well, it is what it is.

Sean got out of the ambulance as soon as it stopped backing up, stone faced. Gave a few half-hearted grins with empty eyes, and went to the bathroom. He waved absently as he went home shortly thereafter.

We never saw him at the station again.

Jody told us that the victim was missing a leg, and they asked Sean to stay in the safe zone behind the blocking squad cars while they helped look for it. Doing as he was told, Sean did. Morbid curiosity probably drove him to examine the striking vehicle, a full-size pickup. And very bad luck led to Sean finding the missing leg, embedded deeply in the smashed front of the truck.

Not a good welcome to the job for young eyes. Just that fast, Sean went from trooper cadet, one with some promise, to roadkill. Violently.

Sean might have eventually been a valued contributing member to the service, but the trauma of what he'd seen snipped him before he could grow into the role.

I don't know where Sean is today, but I think about him from time to time. And I have tried very hard to not let another cadet or probie get snipped. Some still leave for whatever reason, but we don't have to help them out the door by unnecessarily throwing them in to the proverbial fire either. Now, I evaluate most every call before I let the cadets come along.

Go easy on the new kids and give them time to grow into the bleak tragedy we sometimes face. Don't snip them.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Odds and Ends

A bit of a writing block lately. I just don't have much to say. I could open my mouth bang away on the keyboard, but making words appear does not automatically bestow value. I've already said too much.


I freaking love this blog: The Adaptive Curmudgeon's Blog. Absolutely outstanding.


If you happen to figure out who I am and perhaps work with me, you'll notice some familiarity in some some tales but that you don't remember it the way I do, nor some details the way I relate them. Fact is, brother, this is a blog, not a work of historical biographical nonfiction. I blend elements of different events into single tales, sometimes I can generate multiple tales from a single event without drawing a relationship between them. What it boils down to is that I would like to keep my anonymity as long as I can, and obfuscating some unimportant facts helps maintain that. The spirit of the event, the emotion, the essential outcomes, and the people involved, is all intact.


In looking over old posts, I realized that I have dropped the ball on the Tutorial series. Those were kind of fun. I don't know why they slipped my mind. If you're a relatively new reader and have no idea what I am talking about, you should go read this post: Tutorial 9: System Protection, Part II. If there is a specific subject in that series you want more of, let me know.


There have been many noteworthy/newsworthy events around me lately. Some I have been involved in, and some I have merely observed. Some involving the power company, others the fire department, and a handful where both were tangled up in it. It is kind of a drag, because I have a lot I would like to say about some of these things, but bringing them up would blow my cover. Lame.


I was deeply flattered to make this list: You Are What You Read - Fire Engineering Training Community. I have no business being in the same auditorium with those other authors, let alone singled out on stage with them. I am entirely unworthy. Putting me in that group drags the entire group's cumulative value down about 34%. Rescue them. Kick me off the stage, quick!


As Firegeezer pointed out this morning, today is the 4th anniversary of the Charleston sofa store fire that claimed nine firefighters, the single largest loss of firefighters at a single incident since September 11, 2001. He also pointed out something lost in the noise of relatively current events, which was yesterday's anniversary of the loss of another nine firefighters at the 1972 Hotel Vendome fire in Boston.

They all went to work that day just like you did today, with various marital struggles, unfinished hobby projects, financial planning doubts, vacation plans, teenager management problems, and put-off doctor's visits, just like you, and more or less expected to make it home the next day just like you do tomorrow.

They were us. We are them.

Stay safe, think of your families first, take care of the children. Do today what you'll wish tomorrow had been done before you lost the chance. All that.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cliché Slaves

As I walked up and looked over the kid who had wrecked his bike, and the two bystanders who had stopped to help him, I could see pretty clearly why 911 got involved. One of the helpers was doing a fairly good job of elevating and immobilizing his broken tib/fib. He'd had a helmet on, and had no other obvious injuries. Not really sure how he did this, but here we are.

With nary a scuff on the helmet and not even so much as an abrasion found anywhere else on the head-to-toe, we could focus on the leg. Engine 52 arrived with a couple of guys, and we got a vacuum splint on the kid. The E52 captain prepped the kid to start a line, as the medics would surely offer him something for the pain when they got here.

Bah. When did I start calling guys in their late 20's "kid"?

Based on the relatively benign mechanism of injury evidence, it looking like he just tipped over and the catching leg somehow landed badly, I think we can skip the C-spine routine. (Thank MotorCop for the link.)

However, this is not my call, as I am outranked by the E52 captain, who follows protocol in ordering us to get the board and attach our patient to it. So be it. It is, after all, protocol.

Then a voice pops up behind me, asking why we're bothering with the neck brace and the board and trimmings.

"He's moving around fine. He took his shirt off after you got here. He doesn't need the board, why are you bothering him with that?"

I was on the same page a minute ago, but now I am in line with the captain, who is a good one at that. I turn around and give the guy a raised eyebrow, who are you kind of look.

Turns out he's a nurse. Claims ER rotations.

Really, are we doing a cliché on purpose or is it just happening because clichés happen?

I want to tell him he knows full well as we do what medical control and establish standing orders tell us to do in this case. We all "know" he doesn't need the board, but that is not entirely our call, nor his.

I wonder how often he hates when people tell him how to do his job when he knows how it is supposed to be done. Assuming he does it the right way and legitimately should not be second guessed.

I run through all the witty things that I could say to shut him down. But it just isn't worth it. Just because a cliché happens doesn't mean it has to be followed to the end of its natural progression. I will not be a cliché slave. I bite my tongue and ignore the guy, and the cliché dies peacefully.

Much better that way.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Apparatus Placement

 Three important considerations: Location, location, location.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

So That's How it Ends

Engine 56, Squad 56, Medic 98, possible cardiac arrest...

I was close to Station 56 and made the squad, responding behind the duty crew in E56.

The dispatcher advised us that the elderly female patient was found caught between the bed and a wall, and that her daughter couldn't detect a pulse and couldn't get her freed. Not a good setup for the patient.

As the Engine arrived, the dispatcher further reported that the patient's 96-year-old husband was also present in the room in an adjacent bed, and that the daughter couldn't remove him from the room, either.

E56 reported a probable code and then went radio-silent. Busy. But by the time we arrived and were entering the home, they came back on the air to amend their situation to DOA.

It seemed like it would still be prudent to move the husband away from the sight, so we set about trying to do that. He was not cooperative at all, and kept asking questions. He knew there was trouble, but not precisely what it was. Awkward. EMT classes don't teach that part. But then his daughter stepped in and told him the full truth.

He calmed immediately. He rested his head on his pillow. His eyes focused on nothing in particular. Then he whispered the words. "So that's how it ends." He slowly turned his head to look out the window, and sighed.

We gathered our equipment and left the room without a word. There was nothing we could give him nor anything he wanted from us. He remained turned away from us the entire time.

As we walked through the modest home, without the focus of an emergency, there was time to observe. They had apparently lived there for a very long time. Everywhere, pictures of family, the couple, portraits, vacation shots. The story of two lives as one, of a long marriage.

We see this all the time, but it still wears on you. And it makes me reflect on how the story of my marriage to the most amazing woman in the world will end. It will have to eventually, one way or another.

Fill your days with love and life. The sadness of the final parting may not be avoidable, but you should take the initiative to make the story worth telling and worth experiencing, with no regrets.

With no regrets. That was the piece I hadn't processed. He was sad, no doubt about it, but his peaceful acceptance told me he had no regrets.

There's your reminder. Do with it what you will.

Friday, May 13, 2011


The weather radio chirped to life with a storm warning, possibility of hail, winds, tornadoes, all that cool stuff.

The skies were clear above, but ominous dark green to the west where the cloudy front was advancing from.

The family was out of town, just me around for work, so I headed up to the station to wait for something interesting to develop. A few other guys also appeared there.

We were standing outside on the apron, bay doors open, watching the gloom overtake us, listening to the distant constant dull roar of thunder. And then flash-BANG! That was a close strike! We were all sort of whoa, that was cool. We were being pretty dumb about it, though, and didn't go in. There was no rain or even any wind to speak of. Yet. Less than a minute went by, and flash-BANG! again. OK, time to find shelter.

Medic 61 was just clearing the hospital as we regrouped under cover. And then it started. Pow. Pow. Pow pow. pow-pow pow pow-pow-pow... the hail! And this wasn't regular storm hail. It didn't start small like pea gravel and just make a bunch of noise. No, we skipped the preliminaries showers and rain and little hail, and went straight to golf ball hail.

That was my first experience with a good oh-crap hailstorm. It was deafening. It was beating the absolute crap out of everything in sight. Medic 61 rounded the corner and we scattered as they dived into the bay head first to escape the beating. The windshield was starred in two places, and the light bar housing was cracked, not to mention the pockmarks on the hood. Holy crap!

The captain did not wait for word from the NWS, he just went over and activated the tornado sirens anyway. Hail this size comes from a specific pattern of moisture and thermal air currents, and is fairly good indicator of tornado risk.

The hail lasted just a few more minutes, but it came down so heavy that the ground was completely covered. It looked like a couple inches of snow at first glance. A layer of ice chunks entirely covering the ground is a sight to behold.

After it quit and we were outside marveling at the debris, and bemoaning the punishment dealt our personal vehicles (my windshield was utterly destroyed while others completely lost tempered side and rear windows here and there), unsurprisingly the 911 calls started coming in. As we pulled out in Engine 61 to investigate the cause behind an automatic alarm (hmmm, I wonder what set that off?), it was surreal to watch Medic 61 back out of station, lights flashing, to check out someone who had been caught outside in the hail. Never before or since have I seen a fire rig come out of the station backwards to answer a call.

Summer hailstorms. They'll mess up your town and destroy your cars. Been there. Done that. Didn't bother with the T shirt.

(images from similar storms kyped from the internet)

Monday, May 9, 2011

When Murphy Smites You

Worst winter storm of the year to date in full effect. A few feet of snow on the ground in a few short hours. High winds. Ice-inducing temperatures in the lower teens.

What winter storm would be complete without a structure fire?

I was out of position from home (why I was out in that weather is another story by itself). I drove straight to Station 54 to pick up Tanker 54, to follow the duty crew of first-due Engine 54.

When I next saw 54 was not on the scene of the fire, but about two miles from the station, where the pumper had decided is was not going to go any farther up the gentle hill.

Tanker 54 can go 4WD, and I was already in that mode. You know how on some calls you learn really unexpected useful things unrelated to the nature of the incident? Well, we learned that day that Tanker 54 can push Engine 54 bumper-to-bumper without so much as a blemish to either truck's bumpers.

Over the crest and down the hill, approaching the scene, E54 now had an opposite problem. It didn't want to stop. The engineer made a split-second decision. The choice was to pass the driveway, turn around and try to come back if you can make it up the hill, or ditch it right there and make do. He chose Plan B, and I won't second-guess that. I still doubt E54 would have made it back up the hill.

So there's E54, nosed into a snowbank in the ditch at the end of the driveway, tail end blocking half of the road. I was able to stop the tanker short, and we went to work.

We were humping a lot of hose in, and hauling equipment up the driveway. Other rigs were coming, but so far we had just four guys working the scene, with flames showing from the rear. The homeowner advised everyone was out, which was a relief.

Putting down a porta-tank was not a really practical plan at this point with me on the high side and opposite from where other units would be arriving from, so I set up to pump the tanker's water to the engine and get set up as a backup pumper. I switched the tanker into pump gear, and it quit.

WTF. You're joking.

Started it up, shifted to pump, quit.

Son. Of. A.

So porta-tank it was. I dropped it on the uphill side of E54 next to the E54 pump panel, but below me so I could gravity drain into it through a hose. And this whole call is going to crap.

Then we heard on the radio. Next-due Engine 56 was in the ditch, too. Lost it some miles away from us. But a snow removal crew was right there and was hooking them up to chains and heavy equipment to get them out.

Can you say defensive mode?

Engine 57 made it in, followed by Tankers 57 and 53, and finally we were getting somewhere, but it was mostly a spectacular Charlie Foxtrot despite all efforts to reign in the bad luck. There's only so much you can do in these cases, you know.

As luck would have it, and there was plenty of luck to spread around, the closest fill hydrant was a ways off on the downhill side of E54, so T53 and T57 were having to pump off their tanks uphill into the porta-tank, which is quite less than an ideal configuration. I would have preferred a downhill-side relay pumper by another porta-tank but it just wasn't happening.

On Tanker 57's second return, we found the pump panel compartment frozen closed. Are you freaking serious? Someone was a little over excited and didn't take enough care to completely close one of the outlet valves. It dribbled inside the compartment all the way back to the scene, caking ice along the bottom of the compartment door. A kind neighbor who came out with a thermos of coffee for the guys instead donated it to us so we could use it to melt off the ice and get to T57's water.

Engine 56 did eventually get extracted from their ditch and made an appearance, but this was a loser before the tones dropped. Sometimes that just happens. Sucks to come off like keystone kops to the neighborhood, but these were extreme circumstances and Murphy certainly brought a big stick to adjust some attitudes that day.

Hours later, as E54 was being extracted, I noted that the driver's window and mirror were smashed out. Seriously? What happened? The engineer related that, just prior to when we first met and pushed their engine up the hill, a chunk of the front left tire chain had come loose. It came around, tore the axe right off the side of the cab and launched it off the road into an anonymous snow bank (it wasn't recovered for days, until some snow melted), hardly paused on its way by while tearing off the shoreline cover, smacked into the mirror, and then deflected into the driver's window. Of course, that narrative summed up something that happened in about a quarter-second.

It was not a happy day for the E54 engineer. Or really for any of us. I learned a valuable lesson myself, something I had absolutely ZERO excuse for not already knowing: Tanker 54 will not pump when it is in 4WD.

Murphy enforced his law, just in case we were inclined to forget that it happens sometimes.

The homeowners were unhurt, and we all made it home as well, and that's what matters when you can't have it all.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Sadly, it is a fact that there are a handful of spoiled apples in the barrel with us firefighters. Cops and medics have the same problem. Some douche steals something or leverages their position into an abusive action, egregiously violates ethics, or just plain exhibits bad behavior. Thanks for the bad publicity on the rest of us. Not.

Unsurprisingly, the power company is no exception to this rule.

One of the more noteworthy characters was a substation operator, "Martin". Martin was assigned to a region in a remote part of the system, prone to troublesome outages and hard-to-reach infrastructure, with long drives between stations.

Martin had lots of alone time.

Now, it isn't unreasonable for guys to do a little personal business on the side, as long as it does not waste resources or put them out of position to respond as needed. My dad, the Smooth Substation Operator, frequently did a little shopping or other errands, but he always participated in the side action by using shops and businesses along the paths he needed to drive anyway, and during time periods where no emergency or urgency was in effect. And to be sure, when the rounds were complete and it was standby time, it was routine to park at a big unstaffed substation, bust out the hot dogs, and watch baseball on the portable black and white TV. Ready and in position to respond, of course.

Anyway, back to Martin.

With little to no normal oversight, Martin was a senior guy who had been around a long time, with a proven ability to be able to resolve problems without help, a prerequisite for remote postings. But he torqued off the wrong person, and the office got a little phone call.

A few days later, Martin was met at one of his major substations, by an unannounced entourage consisting of his boss, his boss' boss, and an HR rep. Bad news. In his shop truck, they found numerous (illegal) animal traps, fresh pelts, and similar sundry items wholly unrelated to the delivery of electricity.

The things you can do in a lawless area without a supervisor, when you have lots of time.

See ya, Martin. He was a couple years away from retirement, and blew it all away. Nice move. That was several years ago.

We recently had someone pop Martin out of his position of notoriety. Multiple someones, in fact, all at once.

Three linemen, best friends of course because they work together and drink beer together after work pretty much every day, were out on a two-week fishing vacation with their families.

The campground was fairly nice, and had very secluded individual sites. It was a popular place, requiring reservations in advance, and they secured three adjacent spots relatively near the road that ran outside the park.

Not content to just rough it, or live with a generator, or use kerosene and batteries like the rest of us, these guys got resourceful. They brought with them - I swear am not making this up (thanks Dave Barry) - a small 15kVA poletop transformer and associated hardware, a few hundred feet of secomdary cable, and a small pre-wired "portable" circuit breaker panel with attached electrical outlets. It was a fantastic kludge, actually.

As these guys were pros, it was no trouble at all for them to wait for cover of darkness, lug their gear to the road, and install the transformer on a pole at the road which carried the local 8kV distribution feeder.

Think about it. This required extensive and intelligent planning. The right transformer, enough cargo space to move it and the wires and related stuff. And of course the equipment necessary to hoist the transformer. After all that, it was no trick at all to hook it up to a live feeder and tack the service drop cable to the pole. These guys could have done it blindfolded, it was a very routine task. With some leaves and branches and debris as cover, who's going to notice the secondary cable on the ground going into the woods?

They were living it up pretty good, but got dumb and left too many lights on, ran too many music players, and conspicuously did not produce any generator noise. How exactly are they doing that, someone apparently wondered, and checked it out.

It's too bad, because they were excellent linemen. A little shenanigan here and there, or an honest minor oops, can usually be survived. A full-blown caper like that, not so much.

See ya, boys.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

This video explains my job in 30 seconds

I swear Sprint must have interviewed some actual power dispatchers before making this commercial, because this is EXACTLY how we roll. Arguing about the dumbest petty crap while simultaneously saving the world as an aside. And then continuing the argument uninterrupted.

Our priorities can be so screwed up sometimes. This is so perfect, I can't believe it. This was aired a few years ago and I just stumbled onto it. Watch this, and you will know everything you need to know about power dispatchers. AWESOME!

Monday, April 25, 2011


Yet another drunk driver, yet another one-car wreck, yet another person who abandoned the scene. This time they somehow managed to take their car with them, though not before several bystanders noted not just the intoxicated status of the driver but also his license plate number.

I arrived on scene second, and was prevented from two-hatting by the Engine 56 officer, who noted that the power lines were in the road and that with no patient there was nothing for us to do but close it down and wait for the local power company guys. Thus I never made the scene, but stopped short a few hundred yards back at the point of a perfect turnaround. Seriously, it was a paved parking lot with two entrances. It was ready-made just for this situation.

I parked Engine 51 a little past the second entrance and put down cones indicating that drivers should turn into the parking lot. A gift-wrapped traffic redirection solution if there ever was one.

For the next few hours, none, not any, not a single car used the full turnaround. Every single driver without exception abandoned the perfect turnaround opportunity in order to do a three-point turnaround at the other entrance, or did a three-point turnaround in the parking lot and went back out the way they went in. I triple-checked how my cones were down, that I was not too close to the second entrance to scare people off, that the intuitive curve of the cones was visible to approaching traffic. Check, check, check... all good. What gives? I never figured it out, but the theme of abandonment continued unabated as the perfect traffic control solution was left utterly unused.

But this was not the worst abandonment of all.

My oldest teenager was with me on an approved ride-along with liability waivers on file and all that. Once it became clear that we were going to be parked for quite a while, she sweetly asked for permission to join the mixed crew of third-due Engine 53, who was being released for lack of anything else to do. E53 stood a better chance of seeing action than E51 was going to get on boring old traffic control. Thus, my daughter abandoned me with a wave, a blown kiss, and twinkle in her eye!

Lonely broken power poles, lonely perfect turnarounds, lonely grumpy dispatchers. All of us abandoned. Sigh.

Friday, April 15, 2011


The internet is a strange thing. It is a great equalizer even while providing opportunities never before possible.

Michael Morse recently spoke of Blog Snobbery over at Rescuing Providence. It allowed me to reflect on why any of us blog about anything at all.

This blog is not all that popular in the world of Fire and EMS blogs, and I'd be the first to acknowledge that I'm not much of an expert, nor do I have years and years of inner-city or busy suburban fire and EMS experience from which to form my views.

As an aside, I am killing the top ratings of power dispatcher blogs. Woo hoo! Perhaps this is because, as far as I know, this is the only one out there.

It amazes me that I get any love at all, really. Most of my favorite blogs have added this one to their blogrolls. This astounds and humbles me. I am not worthy. When the blogs run by the Happy Medic and MotorCop were on the rise, I was inspired by their examples to start this one, from a mutual desire to vent a little on the side.

So I am sitting here tonight, thinking about my very young days. Even as a teenager when I realized firefighting was something I'd like to do, I remember visiting the fire station in my neighborhood to learn more and absorb from the guys. I remember their stories. Mostly laughs, a lot of rants, a few holy-crap-how-did-we-do-that moments, and every once in a great while someone would open up a little on bad calls.

I reflect on those guys, now all retired, part of a great generation of the fire service in the 70s and 80s. Bigger than life, and I know I can never measure up to that standard.

But somehow, thanks to the internet, I write a little blog. And I get readers who I esteem highly, that I would probably be afraid to approach at FDIC or Emmitsburg or wherever. I will never be able to accept that anything I write is ever going to measure up to how I look up to those guys from back in the day. Yet I continue to be - for lack of a better word, astonished - that I ever get quoted or commented on by so many whom I hold in high esteem.

Really, one day I am sure you guys will figure out that I really am a nobody. A dedicated and occasionally humorous one sometimes, but not otherwise a contributor of note.

This service is filled with nobodies. To those we serve, none of us are nobodies, though. While we are rarely recognized for what we do, I know that we make a huge difference. We are nobodies who work hard, train hard, live right, operate with integrity and honor.

Few of us will have our names written on anything that will see the light of day after five or so years of our retirements. But here we are.

I still can't comprehend that I am a card-carrying part of this brotherhood even after almost 20 years of membership. It means something, and is an exclusive group.

So I am forced to conclude that I am not a nobody, that none of us are. That we all are capable of contributing without going down in history.

And my part is to write a silly little whiny blog. A few laughs good for the heart, and maybe a couple of brothers who learn something about power lines enough to save their own lives or others.

That's worth it, I guess.

I'm not sure I ever made the point that I vaguely had in mind when I started rambling, but this seems like a good place for me to shut up and reflect some more.

Update late 4/15: Per the comment added by Chicken Little, see also this post at Firehouse Zen.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Don't Be Owned

Originally posted 9/12/2009, removed during a spate of paranoid content cleanup 5/26/2010, and now re-posted after some review and editing.

My company isn't unlike most electric utilities in North America, belt-tightening and cutting back everywhere in the 15 or so years following deregulation. Maintenance deferred, projects dropped, upgrades delayed, and my personal pet peeve... strict adherence to lowest bidder crap instead of paying a bit more for something of exponentially more value.

C'mon... in real life, if you have a choice between a truly great product at a certain cost, or a lousy crappy one for a little less, you put out a little extra and get the job done right the first time, else you pay for the savings later. Usually you pay more than you saved.

Some of us know that.

The company does not. Lowest bidder. Least cost. Period. And we continually pay for it through all available orifices as well as some new ones created for the situation. Overtime, emergency outages, repairs, lost time from dealing with crap. You get the idea.

That wasn't really the rant I meant to share when I started, though.

So, due to this lowest bidder - least cost - maintenance deferred frame of mind, One of my guys gets yet another routine alarm on a high voltage circuit breaker that is low on its arc-extinguishing internal gas (SF6).

He refers to the callout list. It's after-hours, you see. And these breakers can't be allowed to run out of SF6 gas while in service. They will either automatically trip before the gas gets too low, degrading the grid slightly, or they will "block closed", meaning if something happens that would normally trip this breaker, the trip signal will instead be sent to every adjacent breaker. It puts a big dent in your grid when you get a breaker fail operation like that.

So, (once again) due to this lowest bidder - least cost - maintenance deferred frame of mind, there are not very many guys assigned to this area any more. They're not being replaced as they retire or quit or move on. Three guys (including the designated on-call guy) don't answer calls to their home or cell numbers. The one guy that does answer is with his wife at the hospital. Bless his heart, he volunteers to go if we really need it. To hell with that, I'll see a substation burn violently to the ground on my watch to teach this company a lesson before I pull a guy from his sick wife's hospital bedside.

And let me not harp too much on the good old days, when we didn't have an "on-call" guy, we had an on-duty guy assigned exclusively to a trouble truck and waiting for action, fire department-style.


So, anyway, I call the field supervisor for that area.

Field Supervisor: Hello?

Grumpy Dispatcher: Hey, this is Grumpy, Shift Supervisor at the ECC, We've got a critical low gas alarm at Outback Sub, and my dispatcher can't raise any of your area guys. You have anyone else available or know how we can reach your crews?

FS: Really, you couldn't get Tom or Dick?

GD: No answer on home or cell. we got Harry, but he's with his wife at the hospital and can't go.

I didn't reveal that Harry offered to go anyway, lest this guy glom onto that idea.

FS: Low gas, huh? Well, I don't have anyone around here, I'd have to call someone on OT from Far Away Service Center, that's three hours away. It'll probably be fine until morning.

An aside: I love that our phones are recorded.

GD: All right then, I understand you're assuming responsibility for this incident, and are choosing to defer work on the critical gas alarm until tomorrow. If anything worsens, can I call you?

Silence ensues.... field boss just remembered that our calls are recorded.

FS: Well. ........ You know ..... you know, let me make some calls and see if I can reach anyone.

Uh-huh. Go team.

GD: Sounds good, I'll wait to hear back from you when when you've assigned a crew.

Don't be owned.

If I had let this guy put off the work and something blew up or got someone killed, you know where responsibility lies? The Dispatcher is In Charge. And as the Dispatcher's Supervisor, I am In Charge-In Charge.

When stuff has to get done, make it clear where responsibility lies. I took that burden off and placed in unequivocally in his lap. He knew it, and he knew why. He didn't want to bear that liability. Guess what Captain Cavalier, I don't either. They pay you field supervisor pay. Go earn it. Find your guys, and get it fixed.

I'm sorry about the cutbacks and all, but no part of the cutbacks includes the requirement that I retain the liability for getting people killed or blowing stuff up simply because you couldn't/wouldn't do your job. You see, despite the clear transfer of the burden to the field boss, I would still be held at least partially accountable for not pushing harder and finding someone somehow to get it done. Frankly, spending 45 minutes on the phone and playing voice mail tag is not my job. We are running critical national infrastructure. When I want help, I want it right now. If I can't get it, I will make the boss of that area assume that burden. If he doesn't like that, maybe he'll ensure his guys aren't impossible to reach in the future, huh?

Captain Cavalier shouldn't tolerate being owned by me, either, He should be using the same approach to his bosses to put responsibility where it belongs: Sorry boss, I can't help the OT costs, because you won't hire help and we're behind on scheduled maintenance, so stuff is breaking all around our ears. If we fall behind, and especially if something big breaks because of it, we get fined big bucks.

Push responsibility where it belongs. And deal with it if it is truly yours.

Don't be owned.