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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hydrant Map

Damned out of date map…. says it’s supposed to be right here.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

It All Flashed Before My Eyes

Driving Engine 51 alone after a snow/ice event, on an errand to swap out O/S equipment before the weather goes super nasty again. Coming down a grade, with a bend to the right, and a guardrail on the outside of the curve between the road and the gully. I've been creeping along and have disabled the jake brakes. And then, despite my efforts, 51 breaks free and I am sliding. Was this errand really a good idea? Cars are struggling up the hill and I will probably meet them at the curve and take them through the rail with me. I check the snugness of the seatbelt and try to assume I will survive.

I see 51 in the bottom of the gully, bruised, bent, and broken. I see hoses scattered out of the hosebed, tools out of the crows nest. I see guys trying to climb around in the brush to put down absorbent to catch as much of the leaking fuel as possible. I see the cab's US flag bent funny, and lots of the engine's exterior accessories smashed or missing.

OK, all four tires are sliding, I can't steer at all, so this isn't going to improve. I release the brakes and steer to the right, where there is a narrow ditch in front of the hill. Moving slowly to the right despite continuing side-slippage, the front right tire bites in.

I see a black-and-white picture of the smashed engine in the newspaper, and my name in the caption as the taxpayers are informed of just how expensive it will be to replace a piece of their fire protection fleet. I see the guys giving me crap about it months and years down the road. My new nickname, "Crash". Dubious comments of thanks for "arranging" for us to get a new engine. Stories told to the probies when I am not around, of what not to do. Told even after I'm gone.

With a tire in the ditch, I test for traction by tapping the brakes, and I feel the front right tire dragging in the ditch, marginally effective. I keep steering to the right, hoping the tire will bite into the hill some more. Not too much, or I'll go sideways, but enough to give me some more drag and slow me down. I'll take what I can get.

I see me filling out the accident report form, and sitting in an office with the Ops BC trying to explain how it happened. The Chief comes in and listens for a while, without talking, and then leaves without a word before we're through. I see my promotional opportunities being erased in his mind. Not that I ever wanted a promotion, but still....

I'm arriving at the bend, not moving very fast, but nowhere near slow enough to get all tires in agreement with having traction again. I pray the front right tire is deep enough in the ditch to hold the engine as we go around the corner, like when you were a kid on the little playground merry-go-round. The big kids would spin it so fast and you were holding on for dear life so it didn't throw you off. C'mon front right tire, I'm counting on you.

I see having to run with Engine 58 out of 51's for a long while, the POS reserve rig that should have been recycled years ago. It was a nice Seagrave in the late 70's, but it didn't age well. Its electrical stuff is possessed, sometimes the lights and siren don't work, sometimes it won't shift into pump gear, the compartments leak, seems like nuts and bolts are falling off of it even when it is not moving. But I run the most out of 51's and I will have to pay the price for smashing up "my" engine. Rolling up in the rattle cage E58 is just embarrassing.

The engine starts to make the corner. The cars coming up the hill are of course blissfully unaware of the drama taking place just ahead. Holy crap, I think I'm going to make it. Then the rear tires start to swing out, and I figure I am going to swat a couple of little cars over the railing with the back of the engine. I'm almost around the corner. Moment of truth. I release the brakes completely and turn into the slide. 51 goes about 20 degrees off straight, sliding to the left about halfway into the other lane, and then regains a hold of the road and I get back in my own lane. I leave a couple of wide-eyed drivers behind.

And one wide-eyed driver in the driver's seat of E51. Mother of God, I can't believe I saved it.

I see the Ops chief sitting in Engine 58, sternly looking at me through the windshield with a fistful of accident paperwork in one hand, newspaper in the other, lecturing me about the reckless foolishness of earning a nickname, and the POS engine with the fritzy light bar is backing into an anonymous darkened truck bay as his lecturing rant fades away into silence.

I've had two moments in life where my family, wife, friends, memories, all flashed through my mind when I had a really close call (neither were on this job). This time, as I looked into the barrel of doom on the job, all that went through my mind besides saving the rig was all the undesired paperwork and headache it was going to cause.

When I see bad things about to happen and the first thing I think about is the report I'll have to make, have I been doing this too long?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Creative Time Bomb

A long time ago....

Some of the large, stage theater-style lights mounted way above the static board had been acting up. The building was over 30 years old, and the warranties on these lights just seemed to be up. Some burned out bulbs over and over, some just wouldn't work. It was time to replace them.

They picked a quiet Saturday night to start the project, and brought some scaffolding in to assemble over and around the consoles. The new lighting system to be installed required some sort of structural or cosmetic work up there to shield the lights from shining peripherally straight down on us, so they had to completely remove all of the old lights, build whatever it was they were building, and then install the new system. It was going to be an unusually noisy and dusty time in the control center for a while.

As soon as they were ready to start removing the lights, they had to kill the circuit. We had backup lighting set up already so we could continue to work around the project. Construction-style halogen floodlights on tripods.

Several hours later, for whatever reason any particular time is chosen for random things to happen, the panel circuit breaker carrying the backup lights had had enough and tripped. Darkness settled in, except for the slight ambient light from our computer monitors, desk lamps, and the fluorescent lights that were still on behind the static board, bleeding around the sides.

Well, crap. Small-scale outage, eh? The two guys on the scaffolding pulled out their flashlights and starting working their way down. Rich unplugged the tripods and then went to reset the panel, left the rest of us to disconnect some of the tripod lights so we could try it again. The construction grunts basically took that over, so Shawn and I just got to stand there and absorb the unusual situation of a darkened control room.

I looked at the static board to see how much I could make out without walking up closer to it. Not much. Then I noticed lots of points of light on the board. No, I had not been smoking anything.

The static board, you see, is a magnet-based board. However, once upon a time it was a pin-based board, so the entire surface area of the painted sheet metal was covered with a grid of pinholes spaced at 1/4". But the back of the board had some sort of protective gunk slathered on it, so you couldn't see the holes from the back.

Except I could see some. A lot. In a pattern. Of words. Someone had meticulously and carefully punched discreetly through the board to pierce the back cover material so light could come through certain pinholes, not obvious from the back (who ever looked there anyway?), and visible from the front only in this very unusual lighting configuration. It was two lines of words, and several feet wide. You had to move around to get the backlight lined up to see all of it.

"What the hell.... who is Fletch?" I asked Shawn, pointing to the board. It took him a second before he saw it. Shawn snickered as he read the board, but "Fletch" was a mystery.

Rich came back in, and we pointed out the extremely rudely-phrased claim made about Fletch's sexual preferences. Despite his constant joyless grumpy exterior, Rich just started to laugh and laugh and laugh. I thought he was going to get to tears.

Rich told us that a guy who somehow got nicknamed "Fletch", after the character portrayed by Chevy Chase, was frequently a buffoonish pain in the ass. He had retired from operations about five years prior, before Shawn and I arrived. A lot of people didn't like Fletch, he said.

Yeah, what was revealed was pretty strong evidence of that.

Rich was going to take a picture and mail it anonymously to Fletch, but we couldn't get the digital camera to see the pinholes, even when we tried for closeups so we could piece a collage together.

No one ever took credit for it among the crusties or the retirees.

Creative time bomb. FTW.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Usually a problem in the fire station, right?

Many years ago, when I was just a power dispatch grunt....

Shawn was dispatching central division, and I was on the western division desk, with supervisor Rich on the east side and merely tolerating our presence.

Shawn and I had a goofy game for long slow night shifts where we would lightly toss a racquetball up about 12' to try to get it to settle on a narrow ledge formed by a support beam in the control room. If the ball bounced or rolled at all, it came back down. The trick was for the ball to make it just high enough, and land with no bounce. The competition was to see who could get the ball to stay up there in as few throws as possible.

Once it got parked up there, the contest continued to see who could get it down first by using another racquetball to bump it.

So I am futzing around on nothing in particular, and Shawn decides its time for a match. I stand up and he tosses the ball at me, calling for me to catch it. I am slow to react, and turn with perfect timing as the ball hits me perfectly square in the face, on the bridge of my nose right between the eyes. No harm done, it was rather hilarious, actually.

My brilliant revenge? Pick it up and chuck it back at him. With quite a bit more force. This turned out to be a situational awareness fail, as I did not consider what was behind Shawn when I threw the ball.

No, it was not Rich, the crusty supervisor. He was not remotely in the line of fire. It was the static display board, the large, painted sheet metal wall schematic of the transmission and distribution system, with colored magnets identifying opened switches, closed switches that are normally open, and switches locked and tagged out for jobs.

Things moved in slow motion as Shawn ducked, and the ball blasted into the static board, knocking every magnet and tag within four or five feet of the impact point off the board. They fell like Monopoly game pieces dropped when someone knocks the board off the table. A big mess.

Oh. Crap.

Shawn gave me the 'sucks to be you' grin.

Rich looked up. Sighed. Went back to his book.

It took Shawn and I just a little over half an hour to account for the proper locations of all the fallen magnets and tags from the midnight system conditions, log, and clearance ledger, and then re-check our work. No room for errors.

Rich never said anything about it, because he knew it wouldn't happen again. It didn't.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Good Prank

Engine 54, Squad 54, Engine 51, Battalion 56, respond to 4145 Fallen Tree Lane for standby request from sheriff's office.

Now that is a strange-sounding dispatch. One of those where there is more to the story not repeated on the scanner-happy VHF dispatch frequency. The details await our inquiry on the 800MHz radio channels not so easily scanned, once we come online. But I have my suspicions, based on the address.

And sure enough, we are responding to stand by outside a meth lab house that has just been taken over by the brothers in blue. We kind of knew about it for a while, but a hairy domestic disturbance call has forced the hand of the deputies without the luxury of getting haz mat crews and all the bells and whistles in place. Ready or not, let's deal with it.

I go and grab Engine 51 to follow up the duty crew staffing 54's, and am a distant second-due. Upon arrival there are now three BRTs on the street, and a handful of POV responder cars. This on top of the significant law enforcement response. A total cluster.

Nothing is on fire, everyone is out, no one is going to try to go back in for the time being, so the decision is made to stage all the fire guys off-scene. Really, we're not actually needed anyway, right?  We drive in a cute parade several hundred yards to the next intersection and assemble in the dirt parking lot of the neighborhood rural bar and grille.

The minutes drag on. An hour goes by. We are standing in our small mini-cliques and shooting the breeze, cooling our heels.

I hear one of the rigs start up again behind me, and for some reason don't think much of it. Until I hear the roar of a floored throttle, and observe the surprise on the face of the guy in front of me, who can see over my shoulder.

"Hey, who is that? HEY!"

Several firefighters are now shouting and moving towards Engine 51, which is wailing in protest under maxed RPMs. The first guy to get there yanks open the driver's door and grabs the guy in the seat. Yanks him out and throws him down, where he clumsily falls with a thud onto the gravel, and Engine 51 immediately falls back into normal idle.

Dude was trying to steal my fire engine! And I stood rooted to the spot in disbelief through the entire event.

He came out of the bar, a bit buzzed and feeling like a good prank was on order. At least that was his version. No harm done, he just wanted to drive it across the lot. So he said. He didn't understand why we weren't taking it so well.

So, he knew how to turn on the battery, and knew where the starter buttons were. But for whatever reason, he failed to shift it into gear or release the brake. The wheel chocks would have been no serious defense, either.

That could have been bad.

Can't trust anyone. I've got enough dubious "titles" and "accomplishments" on my record, having my fire engine stolen out from under my nose is not something I want to add to the list.

Last I saw of the prankster, he was sitting in the back of a patrol car and getting an earful from a deputy. I don't know what they did with him.

That could have been really bad. I am still shaking my head at how little one has to imbibe to think that kind of stunt is EVER a good idea. Scary.