Fire Chief Tim Butler

Fire Chief Tim Butler
Thanks for checking out my web log! My radio call sign in Saint Paul is "Car 1." Join me as we go "On Scene" to the fire stations, training evolutions, emergency incidents, and community events in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Let's share perspectives on the issues facing our Department, our community, and the American Fire Service!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Up again at 3:00 AM to study for today’s “Week 7” Quiz on Auto Extrication, Firefighter Survival, and Response to Terrorism. Today is “Hump Day” – we have completed exactly 6 ½ weeks of training, and we have 6 ½ weeks left – we be over “the hump” today (although I recall Chief Morehead’s previous warning that EVERY remaining day will be a challenging “hump” to get over). We have covered most of the textbook subjects, and next week we take our Firefighter I certification test and complete the Second Quarter Practical Exam.

The Recruit Academy has been an extremely rewarding experience so far! It has broaden my perspective of what “firefighting” is all about – the extremely wide range of services provided by the American Fire Service and specifically, the Saint Paul Fire Department. I am far more familiar with the operational aspects of our department, the tools and equipment we use, and the personalities and talents of many of the crews and instructors that have assisted our class. My appreciation for the members of our department has been significantly deepened by this experience as well. We have many, many extremely talented and knowledgeable men and women on this Department – freely sharing their experience, time, and talents with us! I am privileged to have been taught by them, and honored to serve with them!

For me, the time commitment and extra strain on both “my real job” and my family life has been extensive, but an unbelievably valuable investment overall. The extra time and effort to go through this academy has been worth every minute and every sacrifice so far! Attaining that broadened perspective, that deeper appreciation, and a more thorough knowledge of field operations were some of my primary personal objectives when I set out on this journey. I am achieving the things I had hoped to accomplish by attending Recruit Training. I’m having a great time bonding with the newest talent in the Department, and I’m learning so much from some of the wisest and most experienced people in the Department. I am very much looking forward to the next 6 ½ weeks and (fingers crossed) graduation!

Well, enough writing for now – I’ve got 2 hours to study and review my notes before Quiz #7 !!

Thanks for following along on this journey with me!



Up again at 3:00 AM this morning to go into my office. I had to pack and move the final couple of boxes from our old headquarters building to our new headquarters. I finished up about 6:00, and drove to the Training Facility for an hour of studying while parked under the street light near the drill tower. It was a cold, dark morning, and I enjoyed the solitude of a quiet study hour and the satisfaction of a (moving) finally completed. I also was eagerly anticipating today's class - I had been looking forward to it for over a week.

The syllabus listed today’s topic as “Firefighter Survival,” and our guest instructor was well known around the department and the region as a talented trainer and a very experienced firefighter: Ken Gilliam, from St. Paul Rescue Squad 1. Ken was also the chief author on a number of Department grant applications, including grants that provided the Holmatro hydraulic powered extrication equipment, the SCBAs and bunker gear we are wearing (in the field and in training), and the SAFER grant (which provided jobs for 18 members of this rookie class!).

Ken’s lecture covered a wide spectrum of firefighter safety, survival, rescue, and rapid intervention history, tools and techniques. Ken used a wide variety of videos, case studies, and after action reports from various Line of Duty Deaths and “near miss” incidents to introduce us to the history of firefighter safety and survival, individual and team survival techniques, and Rapid Intervention Teams (RIT – a specially trained and equipped team of firefighters assigned at each structure fire, and dedicated solely for rescuing lost, trapped, or injured firefighters). Ken challenges convention and pulls no punches, aiming keen, insightful, and critical comments at fire chiefs, firefighters, and fire culture to make his point and drive home the lessons that have been so painfully taught by the deaths and injuries of our fellow brothers and sisters in the fire service.

Ken’s presentation covered both the morning and afternoon classroom sessions - plus the PT hour – as he compressed several days of training into 7 short hours. We will get to practice some techniques for firefighter survival and rescue tomorrow. I cannot wait!



Today we had an excellent “guest” instructor, Firefighter Joe Blank, from Saint Paul Fire’s Rescue Squad 2. Joe delivered a very informative lecture on various types of automobiles (conventional, hybrid, electric, alternative fuels, etc), how to safely extricate a person trapped inside a vehicle, and the wide variety of tools and techniques for cutting open a car to rescue trapped occupants.

Joe is an expert on auto extrication, and recently led a department team in researching, comparing, and selecting new powered extrication equipment. He also performed several hundred auto extrications during the training sessions with all Saint Paul Fire crews as they learned to use the new equipment. There is no question that Joe is an expert on the latest equipment available from a variety of manufacturers AND the wide variety of hazards and vehicle types found on the road today. It was a blessing having him teach extrication to our class! As Chief Morehead summed it up: it was the best extrication class ever conducted during a Recruit Academy!

It’s ironic that many of the features on modern cars that are designed to keep the driver and passenger safe pose a significant hazard for firefighters. Airbags, shock-absorbing bumpers, gas-assisted hood and trunk lifts, and high-strength construction all pose additional hazards for responders working to free occupants trapped inside their cars as a result of an accident. The modern propulsion systems – electric, hybrid, and alternative fuels – also pose significant challenges or dangers to firefighters responding to a crash or a vehicle fire. Joe did an exceptional job during the morning classroom presentation!

In the afternoon, we donned our bunker gear and split into four groups. Outside on the perimeter road surrounding the Training Center sat 4 cars, 4 sets of extrication tools and equipment (including the Department’s new Holmatro hydraulic powered rescue tools), and 4 other exceptional instructors from “the field:” the talented crew of Ladder 8 “A-Shift.” Along with Joe, and our Training Instructors Vrona, Deno, and Hawkins, the crew of Ladder 8 assisted each of the four groups as we practiced a variety of extrication techniques. For 3 hours we crawled all over and inside “our car” and got comfortable with the hazards, the tools, and the techniques. We:

• Stabilized the vehicle using cribbing

• We removed all the glass (using our new Res-Q-Rench center punches on the side windows and chopping out the windshield with an axe)

• Cut open the hood and cut the battery cables

• Forced open and cut off all four doors

• Cut open and removed the roof

• Cut and removed the front seat backs

• Forced open the trunk using “through the lock” techniques (forcibly remove the lock cylinder, then use a screwdriver to manipulate the locking mechanism)

• Cut off the truck lid and tunneled through the trunk into the back seat

• Forced the dashboard up and forward using a hydraulic powered ram

When we got done, our car was a pile of parts sitting on top of a “convertible” chassis! The work was physically demanding. The Holmatro hydraulic rescue tools – the Department’s latest version of the venerable “jaws of life” – did an outstanding job cutting through metal door posts and forcing open doors, but they are heavy! It was difficult at times to “get the right angle” without significant twisting and stretching and lifting. I really enjoyed the hands on extrication practice!

When we finished, we had 45 minutes left for physical training, so we ran up and down the six floors of the drill tower non-stop wearing our full PPE and SCBAs! It was a great workout, and a wonderful way to finish off a very enjoyable day of interesting classroom work AND exceptional hands on practical training!


Sunday, December 20, 2009


This was a very long and tedious week of predominantly classroom work devoted primarily to Hazardous Materials Operations. For me, the classroom work was punctuated by a variety of “Fire Chief” activities that took me away from the classroom on several of the days. The week also was a bit unusual because I missed several days of physical training and the typical Friday written test was held in the afternoon, not the morning. So, the whole week felt a bit disjointed for me…..

The hazardous materials operations classroom work was – well…..LONG! There is a lot of material to cover (spills, identification and recognition, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, decontamination processes, etc.). The material itself was interesting, but we had to push through a lot in a week, so it was nearly all conducted in the classroom via lectures. Imaging pushing a brick through wet sand………slow, slow, SLOW going!!

Our instructors, however, did a good job of trying to hold our interest. Bernie injected “ropes and knots” practical challenges into some classes. He had some exceptional videos to highlight various topics. He used the excellent online databases and resources available from the publisher of our textbook (Jones and Bartlett) to break up the lectures and test our knowledge. We also:

• Received a visit from the Fire Department’s Medical Director, Dr. R.J. Frascone

• Practiced extinguishing simulated kitchen and bedroom fires and practiced roof ventilation techniques (axes and chainsaws) using another of the Mobile Simulation Trailer Units from Hennepin Technical College – the Live Burn Trailer. See the link here for a description and picture: Live Burn Trailer

• Donned and doffed various chemical protective clothing ensembles

• Conducted a simulated hazardous materials incident

• Completed an online course in the Incident Command System – a standardized way of managing the resources and priorities of an emergency response.

My classmates were also issued their second paycheck, received vaccinations for the H1N1 virus, and were issued department email addresses and computer accounts.

I had to balance classroom work with several key administrative meetings this week, attend a truly inspirational graduation ceremony of the Fall Class of the Saint Paul EMS Academy (more on this in a later blog entry), and move my office into a new fire headquarters building (more on this later also). There were some awfully early mornings this week, and several nights where I almost made it to midnight before crashing. This week I definitely burned the candle on both ends! That also is the reason I haven’t posted as frequently on this blog, and I’ll try to get back onto a more regular schedule this coming week.

This coming Wednesday will also be our Fire Academy’s “hump day” – we’ll be exactly halfway through the academy, with 6 ½ weeks remaining until graduation!

If you are in the fire service and want access to a wide variety of training and instructor information (weekly drills, daily training topics, and excellent reference materials), you can check out the excellent resources available from Jones and Bartlett (like the tests and videos we used this week in class). You can find them at:

I hope you all are enjoying the peace and happiness of the Christmas and Holiday season! Stay safe and warm, and I hope you can spend time enjoying the blessings of the holidays with family and friends!


DAY 22 - December 11, 2009

I completed my Flat chop test in 1 minute, 9 seconds!!! Everyone in the class eventually passed this milestone, and some of the times were VERY impressive: 37 seconds, 39 seconds, and several others in the 40’s and 50’s!!

The ladders and salvage tarp practical exams took several days to complete, owing to the large number of testing stations, the limited instructor staff, and the bone-chilling weather. Temperatures were in the single-digits for nearly a week. I had no problems passing the tarps and ladders, and my written scores continue to be in the “A” range.

In the afternoon, the Hennepin Technical College Forcible Entry “Mobile Simulation Trailer Unit” was on scene for the practical portion of training in the afternoon. This trailer is specially designed and constructed so students can practice specific forcible entry skills. “Forcible entry” is the function of overcoming locks, barriers, and obstacles keeping us from gaining entry into a building or an interior room. In many situations we need to conduct this “legal breaking and entry” in order to get inside to rescue people and save property. The Forcible Entry Trailer had a variety of “stations” on the exterior and interior of the trailer that challenged the students’ ability to force open locked doors and to cut metal locks, bars, and siding. To quote the Hennepin Technical College literature on the trailer:

"The Forcible Entry Simulator is self contained and provides students with the ability to force open and breach through a variety of residential and commercial doors and windows without damaging the equipment. The ability to reuse the facility will maximize the instructor ability to provide students with repeatable scenarios found in actual on-scene conditions with minimal time between evolutions."

We used rotating saws to cut through metal siding and security bars. We used a variety of hand tools to pry open locked doors or to remove the lock cylinder from the door. There was even a station where we used a variety of hand tools to “pick the locks” on a variety of doors. The Forcible Entry Trailer was – for me – a really effective way of reinforcing the knowledge we had gained in the classroom AND because of the wide variety of forcible entry situations it presented us, it was a very “efficient” way to teach this functional area as well.

After the flat chop test, the rest of the day was really enjoyable and educational!

For more information on the Hennepin Technical College "fleet" of Mobile Simulation Trailer Units, follow this link to their website: Training Trailers.

Stay safe!

Thursday, December 10, 2009


I just got in from the backyard, where Jack and I ran through another test of the Flat Chop prop. 1 minute, 36 seconds! YES!!!!

Key lessons learned tonight boil down to just 2: DIG IT IN (the ax tip) and DIG IT OUT (guts, determination, grit, etc)!!

I am as ready as I'll be for tomorrow's test, and at least I know I have the right technique and can do it in less than 2 minutes. Now for some restful, restorative sleep.....after I review seven chapters from the textbook and a half-dozen SOPs before tomorrow morning's test!! :)

The written test tomorrow morning will be followed by practical exams on one- and two-person ladder carries and raises, salvage tarp folding and tossing, and then...the FLAT CHOP practical!

Command, this is Car One on the Roof Division: send in the attack team - I'll have this roof open in 90 seconds!!!!

Good night, all! I hope it's safe and restful.



It’s 9:30 PM on Wednesday evening. It’s 3 degrees outside. The only light – and warmth – comes from the single 500 watt floodlight that is casting long shadows across my darkened back yard. I’m dressed in full turn out gear and SCBA, and standing with an 8 pound pick ax in my hand; my son, Jack, is dressed in pajamas and full winter regalia with a stopwatch in his. He says, “GO!” and I start to CHOP!!

My homemade “Flat Chop” prop is the scene of this extracurricular activity. I’m practicing for the timed practical exam scheduled for Friday morning. The Flat Chop prop is a ventilation simulator – essentially a mock up of a roof, consisting of two half-inch thick plywood panels placed together to provide a full 1 inch thick “roof deck.” This deck is placed across “rafters” that are placed 16 inches apart. The goal: using an 8 pound pick ax, cut 2 parallel lines – each 4 feet long - through the 1 inch thick plywood, and then bash downward with the head of the ax on the plywood area between the cuts to “clear” the resulting 16 inch x 4 foot “hole” in the roof. The exercise must be complete in less than two minutes. I have performed this chopping exercise just 3 times before: in 2:29, 2:08, and an untimed trial earlier this evening that I am sure was under 2 minutes…but I didn’t have the stopwatch going!

Some of my classmates and I are struggling on this one….and several of my classmates are doing exceptionally well at it. One young buck – a talk, lanky former Fire Explorer for St. Paul Fire – got it down to 42 seconds! He claims it’s all technique, but – for me at least – there seems to be a lot of muscle strength and endurance involved as well….At least that’s what my forearms and shoulders are telling me when I finish the exercise!

The key areas of concentration – for me at least – are:
1) ensure that the first and last strokes on each “edge” really penetrate well
2) make each stroke of the ax really “count” (every stroke having power and accuracy)
3) ensuring each subsequent stroke in the wood lines up and connects with the last one (“stitch” the cuts together so they form an unbroken line in the wood)
4) ensure the very tip of the ax is getting down through the top plywood layer and well into the lower piece (this penetration is vital to ensuring a quick “clean out” during the “bashing stage.” Correct body position is vital, and after each stroke, “scoot” back on your feet before the next stroke to maintain a consistent stroke with the very tip of the ax);
5) don’t stop for anything until the job is completely done, and
6) focus on the job at hand (don’t worry about the clock, the flying chips, and the blowing snow – just “stitch” together powerful, uninterrupted strokes until the bashing reveals a clean hole in the “roof.”

Of course, I have to do all of that a bit faster also!

The clock is ticking, and I am chopping straight and true…..Good, my first side is complete!! I’ve cut a clean line through the wood, and the piece breaks away from the rest of the plywood! SUCCCESS!! Now, on to the other 4 foot cut… arms are tiring…the stitches are not lining up so well….FOCUS! Almost done now…..Jack calls out the 30 second marks, but I cannot hear him…..Breathing is going well – I am not hyperventilating, but breathing deeply of the cold air…..I am done chopping now!!!....a couple of places are not all the way through, and the bashing action reveals the hang ups (it also is stirring up snow, which is making it hard to see where I need to chop some more). THERE – done! – STOP THE CLOCK!!! 2:02!? Drats! I’m getting the hang of it, but I want 20 seconds to spare – not 2 seconds over!

But, that’s enough for today. I practiced the Flat Chop during class this afternoon once, and now I've done it twice here at home, so I need to give my arms a break. I have the technique down better, but I’ll need more work before Friday morning.

The Flat Chop is a vital practical skill. Two weeks ago, as I sat at my table listening to the Grand Avenue fire, I marveled at the strength and endurance of the ladder companies cutting ventilation holes in the roof. Later, I spoke to the two firefighters who did the cutting, and was surprised that they could not use their power saws to make the holes. They used axes – just like the ones on the Flat Chop test – and they had to cut down through several inches of gravel, a heavy duty rubber roof membrane, and then through the roofing material. The ventilation holes were vital for removing superheated smoke and fumes from the rooms where fire crews were operating inside the apartment building. The roof crew has to be quick, accurate, and untiring! I have some work to do before I can hang with those big dogs!

Thanks for joining me “On Scene” at the Flat Chop simulator! ‘Til next time, stay safe and enjoy a blessed and happy Holiday Season!


Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Day 18 started with daily clean up duties, and a discussion of 4 department SOPs: drug testing and pre-employment drug testing, vacations, and duty trades. Each day following “house duties” (clean ups) we start with a quick discussion of pertinent SOPs. These are included – along with our textbook – as the reference material we are required to read before attending class. This past weekend I was able to catch up and work ahead a little on the large amount of written reference material we’ll be discussing in class this week.

Following this brief SOP discussion (always limited to 15-30 minutes), our Training Chief, Keith Morehead, usually provides us with a bit of wisdom or philosophy from his extensive experience in the field. These short sessions provide a good vision of the model public servant he would like each of the recruits to become, and a gives him a chance to provide us motivation for our progress through training. Today his message was particularly reassuring after the anxiety most of us faced last week. He told us to stop thinking about “I’m going to fail out of this place” and start thinking “I CAN do this.” The classes and practical sessions are – no doubt – going to get more difficult, but the attitude of the training staff is that they are here to help us succeed, not to try to “wash us out.” I know that it is much more difficult – and much more work – to adopt an attitude that helps recruits succeed. Mentoring, coaching, feedback, and counseling are always more time and labor intensive then curt dismissal. I applaud the training staff’s approach to doing all they can to mentor and encourage success.

Chief Morehead also read another chapter in Alan Brunicini’s seminal work: “Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service” – how exceptional public service should look to the citizens we serve. These discussions of “how it should be” are an excellent addition to class – they help shape the attitude I personally want our crews to demonstrate when they are out there, delivering service to citizens. Brunicini goes a bit over the top at times, but he’s on target with the idea that we should treat each citizen as we would one of our loved ones….Chief Morehead’s “revised” Golden Rule! There is also no denying the success that Chief Brunicini built in the Phoenix Fire Department – he has undeniable support from citizens and policy makers – and for good reason: he provides the exceptional service that his citizens are paying an exceptional price for!

The morning lecture session today covered hand and power tools used in the fire service. I love firefighting tools because they are tough and practical – built to do heavy work dependably. They are straightforward in design and purpose, yet reflect the creativity and the need for adaptation that characterizes firefighting itself. Firefighters are often called to handle situations when “there is no one else to call.” We are masters at finding creative, efficient ways of handling all sorts of life’s problems. Some of the tools of our trade were developed to overcome specific fireground or rescue challenges. Others were brought over from another specialty field and improved or modified for the challenges faced on the fireground. In short, the tools we discussed are a lot like the firefighters who use them: tough, practical, efficient, creative, and straightforward.

Once again our instructor, Bernie Vrona, used a great instructional method to ensure everyone in the class participated in the lecture, while covering the material from the textbook in a thorough but efficient manner: he had every student present one of the tools to the class. Each of us were required to discuss: what the tool is, how it’s used, when it’s used, maintenance issues and highlights associated with our specific tool, and problems associated with using the tool. Our mini presentations were supplemented by pictures of the tools from Bernie’s collection, or by demonstrating the actual tool itself if we had one on hand in the Training Division’s collection. Everyone was involved, interested, and we covered the material quickly and thoroughly.

Then we went outside and started 2 of the main power tools carried by the Saint Paul Fire Department: the Homelite Super XL chainsaw and the Stihl rotating saw.

We spent the afternoon working with our instructors and the exceptional crew of Saint Paul Ladder 18 – C Shift on salvage operations (how to protect and save undamaged property at a fire scene). We constructed water chutes and catch basins, and practiced tarp folding and balloon tosses (a specific way to spread a tarp to efficiently cover personal belongings of a citizen, protecting them from water damage at a fire). We also cleaned a lubricated a number of extrication tools and equipment recently used by Saint Paul Fire crews at automobile extrictation class. The equipment will be used by our class briefly before being distributed to front line Fire Department companies.

The physical training session today was something I personally, was looking forward to. We had been told that we might use the Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum for some “indoor” workouts during the cold winter months. The Coliseum is located on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, just a few blocks north of the Saint Paul Fire Training Facility. The Coliseum (many of us still call it the “Hippodrome”) is a center for hockey and livestock shows, and features indoor seating for over 5,000 people. It is the seating – specifically the 28 sections of seating, 45 rows of seats/stairs in each section – that I had heard would provide us unending agony as we ran up and down the rows of seating for our physical training. Interspersed with all that running would be sit ups, push ups, weight lifing, and other exercises – again designed to boost our elevated heart rates for short periods of more intense work. Really, I was looking forward to the experience….really!

I was not disappointed. The stairs, the exercises, and the running (part of the hour was involved running laps around the concourse surrounding the areana), provided a superb workout! It was warm and dry inside, and I was glad that we would not be slipping and sliding around in the snow outside (not a factor today, but this week they are calling for 4-6 inches of snow, and I guess I was looking forward to the Coliseum to help prevent some injuries to me and my classmates). The workout was very challenging, and my legs felt pretty good during the workout.….I look forward to doing more of that in the future…..really!

Day 18 finished off as many of the previous days had….I was tired, coughing and breathing deeply from pushing myself physically and mentally. More importantly, I was pushing into that interior place where I faced my fears of failing….where I knew I was building proficiency and self confidence….where I was surprised to find that – when I thought I was burning all the energy I had available – I actually had some “left in the tank.” I wanted to keep going to see how deep that reserve was…yet I knew that Captain Deno was likely to help me answer that question very, very soon! (Captain Deno runs every workout right along with us – he is an exceptional coach and in incredible shape!).

As I drove home after class, I found myself reflecting on Chief Morehead’s encouraging words, and started thinking that I CAN do this…in fact, I was really enjoying “doing this!” But somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard evil laughter and saw a comical fluorescent orange smiley face lurking….I knew that Captain Deno would be there tomorrow and the next day ensuring that any self-confidence I might have today would evaporate all too quickly in the future challenges that lay ahead. He had warned us just today: “Last Friday’s First Quarter Practical Exam was the easiest one we’ll be doing.” YIKES!

But, today I felt good nonetheless, and I am confident that my classmates and I will rise to the challenges of weeks 5-13. The Fire Academy has been an exceptional experience so far! Like everything else about my job as Fire Chief: if it all ended tomorrow, I would consider it an honor and a blessing to have had the experience of being here and working in the most challenging, most enjoyable profession ever invented!

Take care.


Saturday, December 5, 2009



It has been a long, busy, and anxiety-filled week! I am glad that it’s over.

This week we prepared for several challenging tests. Our classroom time last week was shortened by the 2-day Thanksgiving holiday break, so we carried over last week’s tests to this week, and it dramatically increased the workload on my classmates and me.

The morning session yesterday (Friday, Day 17 of the academy) was 5 hours of non-stop testing. The first of our 5 exams (FIVE!) was a 75 question written test covering 5 chapters in the book and 14 department SOPs. The chapters included detailed discussions about: building construction, water supplies, hoses and appliances (nozzles, adapters, and other equipment used in conjunction with hose lines), ventilation, and ladders. The reading assignments necessary for preparing for this test were extensive. These 5 chapters from our textbook averaged 40 pages in length.

I don’t know how my classmates fared, but I had a tough time just finding time to read through all the material. The “academic” side of this academy is intense, and one is well advised to devote several hours of class preparation time every day to be really successful. I got up at 3:00 AM to complete my reading assignments and finish my preparations for the test. It worked out just fine – I did very well on the written test.

The second exam of the morning was a timed, practical test: donning all Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and our air packs in less than 90 seconds. This test (like many of the practical exams we’re preparing to take) has certain critical steps that – if missed – result in an “automatic fail.” This one also had a time factor: all steps must be complete in less than 90 seconds. This exam is all about proficiency under pressure and “muscle memory.” Practice involves doing the steps over and over again to build speed, proficiency, and finding the best way to shave off all unnecessary time. Captain Jerry Deno, one of our outstanding Training Officers, had the best advice: focus on taking one deliberate action at a time and doing it right, then move to the next deliberate action, and so on (focus on getting the buckle snapped, then the Velcro flap closed, then the air bottle turned on, etc.). It’s way too easy to worry about the 90 second time limit, start rushing, get flustered, and then miss a critical step. If just one SCBA strap gets twisted the wrong way, or one piece of Velcro isn’t closed up, you can easily fail this exam.

My son, Jack, and I practiced in our driveway the other night, and I felt confident that I could don all my gear correctly in semi-darkness, meet all the pass/fail criteria, and do it in about 75 seconds. My personal best in all my practice sessions so far was 68 seconds. I watched one of my classmates do it the other day in 61 seconds, so right around a minute was a truly excellent time. My final score for the exam yesterday: I passed well under the required 90 second limit. Then, it was on to the test I was most dreading…..the First Quarter Practical Exam (see my blog entry for Day 13).

The First Quarter Practical had me worried. Again, there were critical steps that could not be missed, or an automatic failure would be the result. There were 18 other “points” possible on the exam, and passing required at least a 14. There was also that 7 minute time limit. On Day 13 I completed a practice session in 6:49. On Day 15, I practiced the exam again and got a 6:51. I definitely was worried about the 7 minute limit. That blasted Keiser sled was by big worry, but there were other “little” things that tripped me up for precious seconds at a time. As my classmates and I donned our gear and got ready for the exam, my anxiety must have been apparent: one of my classmates said, “You look worried!” I was….I hate to fail, and I knew I didn’t have a wide margin of extra time to correct any minor mistakes.

It was 17 degrees outside where the test was conducted. Light snow was blowing in from the south. It was a grey day….a day that seemed to echo the impending doom awaiting me…I wiped my dripping nose for about the fourth time with the back of my glove, and focused on Captain Deno’s advice: “focus on taking deliberate steps well and quickly, then move on to the next deliberate step….” I reviewed the 7 activities in my mind and thought through the criteria for each one….I prayed that I would do my best…..whatever that might be. And then – all too quickly – it was my turn to go!

I reached up and grapped the steamer adapter and 4 inch supply hose off the back of the fire engine and started by back lay of 100 feet of hose to the hydrant (so far so good!)….connect to the hydrant (no cross-threading this time – excellent!)…turn on the hydrant (man, was that thing stiff today…..10 turns until the hydrant was fully open…I turned on my air bottle as I quickly walked to the ladder raise station….raise the ladder (good so far)….donn mask and pick up the hose bundle….climb to the fifth floor (legs feel much better today….remembering to breath without hyperventilating)….back down to the 3rd floor and make the standpipe connection (again no fumbling with threads this time – the practice has paid off)…pick up the hose bundle again (on my left shoulder this time, so I’ll have my right hand free for the handrail)…down to the ground floor and out the building (bundle dropped with a satisfying WHACK on the cold, hard concrete ground)….over to the ax raise and quickly tie a figure eight on a bight, safety knot, and half hitch and hoist it up for instructor approval….than on to the last and most dreadful station: the Keiser. I pound….I breath…I tire…The cold weather must have helped, because the sled moves easier today – much easier, (and I know it wasn't me making all the difference). The instructor yells, “STOP” and shows me the stopwatch: 5:31!! I am elated!

After that mega worry is over, the other exams feel easy. The practical exam on ropes, knots, and tool hoisting went off without a hitch (get it…without a “hitch”?). The hose appliance recognition test also posed no problem for me. I looked at my watch when I had completed all 5 exams, and it was past noon, and time for lunch.

Lunch was a feast of pizza and pie! The pizza came from the restaurant owned by one of my classmates, and it was DELICIOUS! The pies were my treat to my classmates and the instructors as a payback for getting my picture in the paper (old firehouse tradition: you get in the paper, you buy the treats). As ate, we relaxed and watched some videos from Mr. Vrona’s extensive collection, and then listened to a lecture on Salvage and Overhaul. Physical Training was canceled today in order to give us time to get some hands on practice with salvage cover throws, and making water chutes and collection basins using salvage tarps.

The afternoon was relaxed and felt almost festive. My classmates were issued their first pay checks. We also were issued a “Res-Q-Rench” – a multi-tool for firefighters that can serve as a door wedge, a spanner wrench, a gas-valve shut off wrench, a seat belt cutter, and a spike for breaking tempered glass. We were the first class to be issued these tools, and we cannot wait to use them in the field.

We were warned, however, before we were dismissed from class that we should not relax too much. Although I personally felt I had gotten over a big hump today, Training Chief Morehead told us that we’d have another 10 weeks of “humps” to get over – that the tension and pressure would continue unabated. Glancing ahead in the syllabus I saw that next week’s written test will cover SEVEN chapters from the book (plus department SOPs). And the other day we were already introduced to our next challenging timed practical test: the “Flat Chop.” I’ll be discussing that activity in a future blog entry….

I left the drill site yesterday cold, tired, and happy. I checked out with my turn out gear, SCBA, and a fire ax (we’re allowed to take home equipment, provided we sign it out and bring it back for the next class). I knew the Keiser was good to me today, but would not always be that way. I also knew that the Flat Chop was an exercise in strength, arm endurance, timing, and accuracy. The ax and my gear will be the heart of my weekend workouts.

For my brothers and sisters in the service, you might find the Res-Q-Rench a useful tool. Check out

I’d love to hear your feedback on how it performs “in the field.”

Thanks for coming “On Scene” with me, and take care until next time!


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

DAY 13 - Fire Academy - First Quarter Practical Exam

Lungs burning….legs like lead weights….arms completely limp….I cannot remember the last time I was this out of breath….I am guided off the Keiser Sled by Captain Deno, and barely manage to respond, “Yes, I’m all right!” to his question. He had warned us that if we didn’t answer him promptly, he’d be radioing “Dispatch” and requesting a medic rig response. (I had joking asked him to have one standing by in advance for me….it wasn’t so funny now!). He announces my time, and it’s less than 7 minutes! YES - SUCCESS!!

I’ve just completed a “practice” run through of the First Quarter Practical Exam that we’ll take “for real” this coming Friday. The exam tests our speed and proficiency conducting 7 basic fireground activities while fully dressed in our bunker gear and SCBAs. It is a physically demanding test – one that demands strength, endurance, and some fine motor skills. (That is the last time I’ll use the term “fine” to describe anything about this exam!  ). Recruits are required to complete all 7 activities correctly in less than 7 minutes.

The practical exam begins with the recruit dressed in bunker coat and pants, helmet, Nomex hood, boots, gloves, and SCBA. The SCBA mask is attached to our chest strap, and not on our face. The clock starts when we first touch a 4 inch supply line from the fire engine parked near the Drill Tower. In 7 minutes, the recruits must:

• “Back lay” a 4 inch diameter supply line (i.e. drag a supply hose to a hydrant) to a hydrant 100 feet away

• Connect the 4 inch hose to the hydrant, and open the hydrant (10 complete turns with a hydrant wrench)

• Walk 75 feet to the Drill Tower, turning on the air valve of the SCBA on the way, to a 35 foot extension ladder mounted to the side of the Drill Tower.

• Raise the extension sections of the ladder by pulling “hand over hand” on the rope halyard (by now I’m starting to sweat in the heavy turnout gear, and breathing is becoming heavier)

• Don air mask and “go on air,” then enter the Drill Tower stairwell. Take a 70 pound hose bundle to the 5th floor of the drill tower (under the watchful eye of that goofy looking fluorescent orange smiley face! I was doing OK until the 3rd floor, but my legs were really feeling heavy and limp by the time I got to the 5th floor)

• Carry the bundle back down to the 3rd floor. Drop the bundle and connect a gated “Y” valve to a simulated standpipe connection on the 3rd floor landing. (By now I am breathing very hard, and feel a bit claustrophobic in the mask – like I can’t quite get enough air. My legs are like rubber, and the standpipe connection takes a bit of finesse to complete).

• Pick up the 70 pound hose bundle and carry it down to the ground floor and exit the Drill Tower. Tie a Figure 8 and Safety knot into a rope, then hoist an ax waist high using those knots and a half hitch (not easy when you’re chest is heaving and your legs are shaking)

• Step over the Keiser Sled and drive a 150 pound (?) weighted sled 5 feet along a horizontal track using repeated blows from an 8 pound shot mallet. (This is a forcible entry prop designed to simulate the repeated ax blows needed to ventilate a roof or the repeated mallet blows needed to force open a door. It requires some technique, but also some incredible arm and wrist strength. I could barely lift my arms when done, and was really sucking down the air from my SCBA! Big, deep, lung-searing breaths. I was glad when my classmates helped me get my mask off and I was able to catch my breath again!).

If you are preparing to take the Saint Paul Firefighter entrance test in 2010, I urge you to prepare for the Keiser Sled! Check out the Firefighter recruiting page for more details about the testing process, how you can prepare for the physical testing process (which includes the Keiser!), and important timelines for application and testing success: Firefighter Recruiting Page

The practical exam “practice session” was just one of the many highlights on this – the 13th day – of the Recruit Academy. In the morning classroom sessions, we discussed SOPs relating to job-related injuries and uniforms. We also reviewed the textbook chapter on Building Construction. Our Hennepin Technical College instructor, Mr. Bernie Vrona, excels at presenting material in a manner that provokes thought and provides a thorough review of the material we are reading about away from the classroom. Last week we played, “Tell me something I don’t know about ladders” – every student in the class had to provide Bernie with something “Bernie didn’t know” repeatedly until we had covered most of the salient points regarding nomenclature, care and maintenance, safety rules, and operational use of ladders. It was a unique “game” atmosphere that really did a very thorough job of covering the material and engaging our brains and our interest!

Today, Bernie challenged teams of 3 in completing a 20-point quiz on building construction. The quiz was so challenging that it took the groups a long time to complete the assignment. Bernie supplied both the questions and the answers, and we had to “simply” match them up. The choices were not, however, clear cut, and an understanding of the nuances between different building types and construction materials was vitally important to success on the quiz. The result was a very detailed review of the chapter on Building Construction from our textbooks. The “quiz approach” was an excellent way to challenge adult learners, hold their interest, and cover a lot of material in a short amount of time.

The class gained some hands on experience in rolling up and storing fire supply and attack hoses, and we practiced tying knots and hoisting equipment on the fireground. We also were interviewed by Training Officer Hawkins, Mr. Vrona, and Training Chief Morehead. The interviews provided recruits with some direct and personal feedback from the instructors, and allowed the recruits to provide input on the process and progress of the academy so far. I was glad to hear the instructor’s feedback on my progress in class so far.

We finished the day with an intense hour of Physical Training. The practical exam session today gave all of us the motivation to “kick it up a notch” in the physical training hour. I worked a lot on the Keiser and the arm-building exercises (ladder raise, log chopping, etc), and the log pulling (which simulates back laying a supply line). The final “event” of the PT session was to don full turn out gear again, go “on air,” and climb to the 6th floor of the Drill Tower and practice moving an unconscious firefighter using carries and drags.

I was sore and drained by the end of the session, and did not do my typical evening workout after class tonight. I’d been in the habit of supplementing our daily PT with additional workouts after hours at home – mostly light workouts to stretch out muscles and brisk walks to keep limber and burn calories. Not tonight….I was simply too wiped out. Instead, I spent the evening meeting with various fire department employees on a variety of topics, gathering input and recommendations, and listening to their ideas and frustrations. Every firefighter I’ve spoken to has been supportive of my participation in the academy, and I share with them my every-increasing admiration for their physical toughness. Firefighting is a demanding job, and I am continually amazed by how heavy and cumbersome the equipment is and what incredible stamina and strength it takes to be successful at this job. I have gained a new level of perspective on this job and this career, and so I’m reaching some of the objectives I set for my participation in the academy already. I’m sure the next 10 weeks will enrich my perspective even more!

Everything we did during the PT hour today has direct application on the fireground, and can be easily replicated inexpensively “at home.” I highly recommend a similar approach if you want a great “full body” workout, you are preparing for a firefighter test, or you want to stay proficient at firefighting physical conditioning.

Thanks again for joining me “On Scene” at the Saint Paul Fire Department Recruit Academy! I hope you’ll continue to follow along as my classmates and I work towards certification and graduation!


Monday, November 30, 2009


It's early Monday, and I'm looking forward to academy classes resuming this morning after a 4 day Thanksgiving break. Classes this week will focus on Ventilation (getting the smoke and heat out of the interior of a burning building so fire crews can work more safely inside), and Building Construction. The afternoon practical sessions will focus on donning all Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) in less than 90 seconds and our "First Quarter Practical Exam" (a combination of physical skills like hoisting equipment from ropes, climbing stairs with full PPE/SCBA donned while carrying a 60 pound hose bundle, connecting supply hose to hydrants, etc). The Practical Exam is also a timed event. These timed practical tests are designed to ensure we can conduct basic fireground operations quickly and proficiently.

Knowing that these practical exams were in the curriculum, I didn’t want to take 4 days off from physical and practical training. So, after enjoying a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with family (thank you, Mike and Mary!), I went to the Fire Training Center on Friday and Saturday morning for a 90 minute workout. I was joined by about half a dozen of my academy classmates for these voluntary sessions. We set up a variety of practical skill “stations” around the base of the training center’s 6-story “Drill Tower.” These stations included such activities as: chopping with an ax, chopping with an ax on a slanted roof, opening and closing a fire hydrant, raising a 35 foot extension ladder, stair stepping, water supply hose pulling (“back laying” a supply line in the vernacular of the fire service), sit ups/push ups, and lifting weights with a pike pole (simulating using this fireground tool to access hidden spaces above a ceiling or inside a wall).

The Drill Tower itself is a great facility at our training center. It is 6 stories tall and made of reinforced concrete. There is an interior stairwell on one side of the tower, a room on each level, balconies on several levels, and a flat roof. A wide variety of training activities are preformed in and on the tower, including search and recue, rappelling and rope rescue, ventilation, ground and aerial ladder work, and lots and lots of physical training.

“Running the stairs” is a great workout and a favorite (and central) theme of all practical conditioning and testing. The stairway has been adorned with several spray painted smiley faces and slogans (“Just do it!”) as added encouragement to firefighters and recruits needing an extra boost of support from the training staff! I must say, I never take much notice of the smiley faces, because I’m too busy ensuring I don’t miss a step while trying to see through steamed up bifocals and running at full tilt!

I do have to chuckle though at the thought of our training staff grinning sadistically and wielding their fluorescent orange spray just to “encourage” us to work harder – their evil laughter seems to echo in the stairwells as we climb, climb, climb…then run back down at full speed – barely in control over gravity.

The workouts on Friday and Saturday were voluntary sessions, and each recruit performed whatever activity or activities they most wanted to work on. My workouts mirrored the physical training hour we typically complete at the end of each academy day. I started with a 1 mile warm up run, then sprinted to the 6th floor of the tower….30 pushups….sprint down the stairs to the ground level….20 chops with the ax with both left and right hands….raise a 35 foot ladder twice…..10 turns of they hydrant wrench to the left and 20 to the right….run a lap around the training center (about a quarter mile), and then repeat the process over again, except sprint to the 5th floor of the tower this time and mix in 4 different activities before running the lap.

I worked my way on subsequent “circuits” down the tower from the 6th floor to the 3rd floor, and then worked back up to the 6th floor a floor at a time until I finished 90 minutes later. During the complete session I ran several miles round the facility, ran the stairs repeatedly, and conducted dozens of practical exercises at the “stations” around the base of the tower. By the end of 90 minutes, I was ready for a break! My legs and lungs felt really pretty good, but my arms and shoulders were aching. I rounded out the weekend workouts by adding in grip-strengthening exercises and a walk around Lake Phalen on Sunday night with Sue, pumping arm weights the whole way. This morning I feel a satisfying ache in my arms….I cannot wait to see how they feel this afternoon in the physical training period!

One of the great things about our academy training program is that the recruits are constantly being exposed to the firefighting crews (“companies”) from Saint Paul Fire! Every day we have a crew assisting with the practical sessions, and their expertise, insights, and encouraging words are a great addition to the curriculum! And we ran into several this weekend as well – crews and individuals using the exceptional facilities at our Training Center and putting in the extra effort to be successful on the fireground! I admire their willingness to go the extra mile to stay in shape, train for their practical exams (part of a 3-year apprenticeship program after graduating from the fire academy), and practice fireground activities with their company personnel.

This weekend, we ran into Doug and Pat practicing their apprenticeship tests. We helped the crew of Ladder 10 shift equipment from their regular apparatus into a reserve rig on Friday morning. Ladder 20’s crew came to the Drill Tower on Saturday to practice aerial ladder operations as a crew. The interaction with these great men and women is like the icing on the cake, all of them are enthused about their job and the impact they make in citizen lives everyday!

Thanks for reading this morning….I hope you all enjoyed a safe and blessed holiday weekend. Have a safe and enjoyable day!


Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The Thanksgiving holiday is a wonderful time to reflect on the bountiful goodness in our lives. It’s a time to celebrate those blessings with family and friends, and the day provides – for many of us – the fellowship of gathering around a table for a feast of our favorite foods.

Turkey is the traditional centerpiece of that feast, and many people choose to cook their turkey using a deep fat fryer. This method can be very dangerous if not done correctly.

The turkey should NEVER be frozen, and it should ALWAYS be dried off before putting it into the fryer. If the turkey has water in or on it, or if you put it in the fryer while it is still frozen, you could accidently start a deadly fire!

Please watch the video below to see what can happen if you fry a turkey that is frozen or that contains water inside or outside the bird. The video was shot at a “controlled burn” of a home in Prior Lake, MN. KSTP-TV5 and the fire departments of Prior Lake, the Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and the City of Saint Paul teamed up to make a video showing tips on preventing fires in the home. The turkey cooking demonstration graphically shows the dangers of frying a frozen or wet turkey.

Why does the fire start, and why is the reaction so violent? The reason is simple: the water on the turkey or frozen into the bird boils when it hits the hot fat in the fryer. The water turns to steam. Steam expands to a volume 1,700 times greater than the volume of water (1 cup of water expands to 1,700 cups of steam when it boils). The expanding steam pushes the oil out of the fryer pot, and the oil runs down to the burner assembly where the oil bursts into flames.

So, if you choose to cook a turkey in a deep fat fryer this year, please follow some simple guidelines:
• Set the fryer up outside away from any combustible materials
• Do not set the fryer up in the garage or carport
• Do not use the fryer on a combustible deck or patio
• Keep the propane tank away from the fryer tank
• Make sure the turkey is completely thawed
• Make sure the turkey is completely dry inside and out

I hope you all enjoy a safe and happy Thanksgiving weekend. To my brothers and sisters in the fire, EMS, and military service – especially the men and women of the Saint Paul Fire Department: THANK YOU for the extraordinary work you do to ensure that the blessings and bounty of the citizens we serve are protected and secured! I continue to be blessed and humbled on a daily basis by my association with such an exceptional team of people! May your families and friends enjoy the blessings of your presence when your shift is over and you return home safely!


Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Up at 0300 to study for class, check email, and prepare comments for a press conference and a staffing discussion today.

The academic portion of the fire academy is extensive. We are preparing for the state certification test for Firefighter I and II, and using the “Fundamentals of Fire Fighting Skills, 2nd Edition” textbook and workbook published by Jones and Bartlett. The book was authored by a panel of experts from the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Fire Protection Association. In class, we cover a chapter from the book each day during the morning lecture periods. Some of the chapters are quite extensive; the chapter I studied last night and this morning (hoses, nozzles, streams and foam) is 60 pages long. That’s a lot of material to cover, and my classmates and I were well advised to devote the necessary off-duty time to keeping up with the academic rigors of the academy.

The morning lecture session today also included SOPs, rope and knot practice, and a hands-on practical session on water supplies and hydrants. I had to skip out on the practical session to attend a Fire Chief function across town, which turned out to be a heart-warming experience in itself.

The function involved a young mother, Natasha, who had suffered a heart attack 8 years ago. She was 33 at the time, and had 2 very young sons to care for. Bystanders performed CPR on Natasha, until Saint Paul Fire Department paramedic personnel arrived on scene. The crew of Medic 10, B-shift, brought her to the hospital, defibrillating her heart numerous times on the scene and en route to the hospital. Natasha recovered fully, with no neurological deficit. Today she met her “rescuers” from Medic 10 for the first time since the incident, and she donated an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) to her local church community – Saint Peter Claver Church.

Seeing Natasha and her family hugging the crew from Medic 10 was heartwarming, and hearing her story made everyone feel thankful for life, family, and the exceptional pre-hospital medical services in this City! The B-shift crew from Engine 15 was also at the event, and the crew gave a short fire engine ride to Natasha’s 2 sons, ages 11 and 14.

Here’s a picture of Natasha and the Medic 10 crew.

Natasha is now a very active member of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association. Check out their AWESOME website at:

The site has great information on cardiac arrest, survivor support, AED and treatment technologies, and even how you can donate an AED to your local school, church, or organization.

I returned to the academy just in time for the lunch break, which I spent discussing deployment of medical assets citywide with senior staff.

During the afternoon’s practical sessions, my academy classmates and I met the exceptional crew from Medic 22, B-shift, and discussed medical equipment and operations. Medical work comprises roughly 85% of the firefighter’s work in Saint Paul, so being well-versed on medical operations is paramount to success on the job. All Saint Paul firefighters are certified as Emergency Medical Technicians, and roughly 1/3 of our 434 firefighters have attained Paramedic certification as well.

We finished the day with an hour of PT – Physical Training (Torture?). Today “Mr. Deno” (Captain Jerry Deno, of the Training Division staff) found a new way to torture our legs and lungs: running up the 6 flights of the drill tower stairs wearing SCBAs! We ran up and down the tower 10 times today: 5 with the SCBAs and 5 without. Later (he warned us) we’d be running the stairs in full PPE ensemble and SCBAs. Last week my lungs burned from the stair running, but today my legs felt like lead running with the air pack on.

As I sat at the kitchen table and studied the other morning, listening to Ladder 10, Ladder 8, and the other companies working that fire on Grand avenue, I marveled at the physical strength and endurance of those firefighters working on the roof. Knowing how tired I was just running stairs with an air pack on made me admire the physical strength and courage of the firefighters on this great department! If my classmates and I are to be worthy of living up to the legacy set by the fire crews here in Saint Paul, we’ll have to run a lot more stairs during the next 11 weeks. I’m sure “Mr. Deno” will be arranging just that – and beaming at us with that sadistic smile of his the whole time!

I’ll have a special edition of this blog discussing the 6-story drill tower in the near future. The building is a very unique training facility, and worth a closer look….I hope you can join me “On Scene” for that “tour” in the near future.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

DAY NINE – FIRE ACADEMY (November 20, 2009)

The basement room was just 25 feet long and maybe 10 feet wide. Concrete floor…..pitch black darkness….At the far end of the room lays a crumpled manikin, and the PASS device it is wearing blares out an announcement: “FIREFIGHTER DOWN!!!” I’m crouched in the doorway in full turn out gear and SCBA, ready to “make entry” to look for the “fallen firefighter,” which the manikin represents. There is no rope tag line or a hose line to follow…I connect up my SCBA regulator to “go on air,” and enter the dark basement room. Groping my way along the right hand wall, I keep in constant contact with the gym lockers that line the right hand wall. My left hand and leg are sweeping towards the middle of the room, searching in the blackness for the “victim.”

CRASH!! My head hits an open locker door (helmet is working well!). It’s only 25 feet to the manikin, but it feels much, much farther. I see the flashing red light on the manikin’s PASS device (PASS is a motion detection and alarm device worn by firefighters to detect when they are disabled, trapped, or not moving. It sounds a loud audio alarm to alert other firefighters to the location of the disabled firefighter). The PASS device warning is shrieking in the darkness. I reach the manikin, silence the alarm, and check the air supply to the manikin’s SCBA. It is low….

I connect a 4 foot, hi-pressure hose – called a Universal Rescue Connection to my SCBA (reaching way around my back and finding the connection to my air tank entirely by feel), then connect my air tank to the manikin’s using the URC hose. I hear the hiss of air rushing from my tank to “his,” and in a matter of seconds I’ve given “the firefighter” additional survival time. The main exercise is over, and I crawl back out through the darkness to the doorway I came in. It is nice to be outside in the sunshine again!

This “URC practice” is just many of the practical evolutions we’ve conducted this week to get us familiar with the equipment we wear and carry, and help build our confidence in ourselves, our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and our SCBA (air packs). In addition to the awesome experience in the Fire Behavior Simulator, we have:
• crawled through the tunnels, scuttles, and doorways of the Hennepin Technical College “Mask Maze” trailer (like a gerbil “habitrail” for firefighers!) in full PPE and breathing from our SCBAs
• Practiced corrective actions for SCBA malfunctions in an exercise entitled “Malfunction Junction”
• Practiced tying the 8 essential firefighter knots with rope, and practiced hoisting equipment (ladders, axes, hose lines, and exhaust fans) using ropes
• Extinguished a variety of fires using portable fire extinguishers
• Taken a practical exam on SCBA maintenance and daily checks
• Taken a timed, practical test on donning PPE in less than 60 seconds.

Today’s weekly test covered 5 chapters in the Firefighter textbook, a half-dozen department SOPs, and the practical tests on SCBA maintenance and the timed PPE donning in less than 60 seconds. I was a bit worried about the tests to be quite honest. There was a lot of material to cover, and my week was already packed with activities, so I didn’t get as much time to study as I would have liked. I ended up studying most mornings for an hour or so at 4:00 AM, and again from 10:00 to 11:30 PM most nights. Makes for a short week! I was up at 3:00 AM this morning for a large fire in Saint Paul, but rather than go to the scene, I elected to stay at home at the kitchen table with my textbook and notes open studying while I listened to the radio as fire companies worked at the 3-story apartment fire on Grand Avenue in Saint Paul. I tried to imagine myself working alongside the crews from Ladder 10, Ladder 8, and Squad 2 in full turnout gear and SCBA.....

In the end, I passed all of today’s exams with flying colors. I’m holding up well (although as of this morning I’ve lost 48 pounds since August 4th), and I’m having a blast with my Academy classmates! All 20 of them are enthusiastic, hard-working, and eager to learn. I’ve enjoyed sharing my insights about our department and answering their questions about how we do things on Saint Paul Fire. The class bonding has been a very good experience!

If you’re looking for a good website for tying knots and using rope for firefighting, scouting, fishing, boating, etc., check out “Animated Knots by Grog” ( The information at that website shows how to tie over 120 knots, advantages/disadvantages of each particular knot, and great information about the history, use, and care of knots and ropes. We briefly looked at this website during class this week, and a more detailed investigation of the website revealed a wealth of great information!

Thanks again for going “On Scene” with me on Day 9 of the Saint Paul Fire Academy!


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

DAY FIVE – FIRE ACADEMY (November 16, 2009)

Darkness. Hot darkness. Smoke so thick I could not see our instructor, Bernie Vrona, who was 2 feet to my left. Suddenly, tongues of flame light up the smoky darkness 3 feet over my head....long, flowing tongues of flame. Rivers of liquid flame eagerly seeking a way towards more oxygen.....seeking more fuel....seeking any little chink in the protective clothing that I’m wearing in the searing heat. It is eerie.....and fascinating....and well, just really, REALLY cool!

There are 10 of us huddled inside a giant steel box: 7 feet wide, 8 feet tall, and 20 feet long. There’s a fire burning on one end of the box, and my classmates and I – along with Fire Training Officer Jerry Deno and Instructor Vrona – are huddled on the floor watching the fascinating display of flames flowing above our heads. We’re inside the Fire Behavior Simulator. It is a training prop designed to demonstrate how a fire grows, spreads, and behaves inside the closed confines of a room. It is hot and smoky, and we watch the smoke above our heads light up with those long, flowing tongues of flame. It looks a little like lightning flashing inside a roiling black cloud, except that lighting is sharp and sudden and stark....the flames here are long and flowing and “liquid” looking.

The smoke above our heads is really unburned fuel – it contains vapors, gases, and solids that can ignite and burn if it gets hot enough and if there is enough oxygen to sustain combustion. The flowing rivers of flame are signs of an impending flashover – a deadly explosion of flames created when all the contents of a room flash to flame at about 1000 degrees. It was near that temperature at the ceiling, but we were huddled on the floor of the box about 2 feet below the fire, and about 6 feet below the rivers of flame. It was several hundred degrees down on the floor. It was hot, but we were relatively comfortable. We were learning to trust our gear, and learning the dangers of being in a burning confined space.

The Fire Behavior Simulator is one of the most unique training props at the Saint Paul Fire Training Facility. We spent less than an hour inside the simulator, but it was a great learning opportunity and an unforgettable experience. I have been in the simulator twice before, but I am fascinated each time I’m in it. The simulator was built by department members, and it’s used for both the Firefighter Recruit Academy and for our citizen academy. Trainees are dressed in full protective gear and SCBAs, and can spend almost an hour being “up close and personal” with the dancing rivers of flame!

Monday was “Day 5” of the academy. The day started, for me, at 4:00 AM reading and responding to email and studying the Firefighter textbook. Class began at 7:30 AM with “station duties” – daily routine cleaning chores done by all recruits in the academy, and by all Firefighters at fire stations throughout the city. Floors swept and vacuumed, toilets cleaned, trash dumped, tables disinfected, and kitchen area cleaned. 20 guys can do a lot of cleaning in 15 minutes, and that’s what we are allotted every morning before class lectures start at 7:45 AM.

Today’s morning classes covered department SOPs, radios and radio procedures, fire chemistry, and fire behavior. The afternoon practical sessions provided hands on practice for quickly donning our Personal Protective Equipment and SCBAs and the Fire Behavior Simulator. We must be able to completely don our PPE and SCBAs in less than 90 seconds. After several attempts, I was able to meet that goal.

The afternoon sessions ran until 4:00 PM, and we didn’t have time to complete our daily Physical Training hour. So, when I got home in the evening, my wife, Sue, and I went for a 5+ mile walk. I took some free weights along to work my upper body while we walked.

I finished the night with an hour of studying the Firefighter’s textbook. This Friday’s test covers more than 5 chapters in the book, so I need to do a lot of reading and studying before class and after hours.

A final note on our Fire Behavior Simulator: if you live in Saint Paul and you’d like to go “inside the box” with me, please join one of our Citizen Academy classes. During the 30 hour academy, you’ll get a chance to fight fires, go inside the Fire Behavior Simulator, earn CPR certification, get a chance to tour our vehicles and stations, use some of our specialized equipment, and meet some of our exceptional firefighters and paramedics! To learn more, contact the Saint Paul Fire Department’s Fire Marshal, Steve Zaccard, at 651-228-6201.

Thanks for joining me “On Scene” inside the Fire Behavior Simulator on Day 5 of the Fire Academy!


Saturday, November 14, 2009

DAY FOUR – FIRE ACADEMY (November 13, 2009)

Again, I began the day at 4:00 AM. I studied for this morning’s weekly test, read and responded to email, and went into the office for an hour to talk with Assistant Chief of Operations, Jim Smith, about staffing issues.

Today’s academy class started with a 40 question weekly test, covering the history and organization of the fire service, PPE and SCBAs, and the Department’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) we had discussed in class so far. Passing score is 75%, and if a recruit scores too low on several tests, they can be dismissed from the academy. I don’t think anyone had any problems with today’s test…

I had to duck out of class for several hours in the morning to meet with a City Councilmember on several “Fire Chief” issues, but I returned to class in the late morning. I missed a presentation by the City Credit Union, but I am already familiar with their services. I also missed a lecture by Don Smiley, a supervisor from the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center – the “dispatch center” that takes 9-1-1 calls for Saint Paul, delivers life-saving/life-sustaining instructions over the phone to callers, dispatches Saint Paul Fire and EMS units, and maintains radio contact with fire units working at emergency scenes. Being the former director of that center, I already knew most of the material, but I would have liked to hear Don make his presentation. Don is a very talented dispatcher, and an Assistant Fire Chief in Little Canada, MN. He’s a good friend, and a very professional fire officer and communicator.

After lunch, we ordered uniforms from our uniform vendor, listened to a presentation about the International Association of Firefighters and Local 21 (the bargaining unit for firefighters in Saint Paul), and were fit-tested for N-95 respirator masks and SCBA face masks.

PT hour finished off the day.

The first week of the academy was over, and we had accomplished quit a bit: indoctrination into the department, taken care of many “routine” administrative chores associated with new employee orientation, been fitted for and issued PPE and SCBAs, and been tested on our academic coursework. In the process, we were introduced to some great instructors, and the wonderful crews of on-duty firefighters who brought their vehicles (“rigs”) and their equipment out to the training facility for us to look at, crawl around in, and ask questions about. Having the crews there gave all of us a great opportunity to hear words of advice, encouragement, and experience! Their presence at our academy is a great benefit to the new recruits.

Sore…..tired….happy. It’s been GREAT so far!


DAY THREE – FIRE ACADEMY (November 12, 2009)

There was no academy class yesterday in honor of Veteran’s Day, and I’m glad for the day of “rest”…..arms, shoulders, and chest were sore. I had prepared well for the “running” aspects of the academy, but the “lifting/pulling/pushing” aspects the first two days were – for me – a challenge. In spite of the “day off,” I put in almost 10 miles of roadwork running and walking, but I took it easy on the upper body.


I began the day today at 4:00 AM (typical for me). I studied for the upcoming weekly firefighter test (held each Friday morning), read and responded to email, and went into the Fire Chief’s office for an hour before class to talk with my senior officers and take care of the “inbox.” Things at the office are in great hands – I have some exceptionally talented people on my staff!

Today’s classroom work centered on the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) – the “air pack” used by firefighters. It enables us to work in hot, hazardous, and oxygen-deficient environments. It is the firefighter’s lifeline! After an extensive lecture about the components of the SCBA, the proper inspection and use of it, and the firefighting hazards an SCBA protects us against, we practiced donning (putting on) and doffing (taking off) the gear.

The SCBA weighs about 22 pounds. Saint Paul Fire uses SCBAs made by MSA. The bottles hold compressed air at 4500 psi, and can provide breathable air for anywhere between 10 and 60 minutes depending on the physical/mental condition of the user and the amount of work a firefighter is doing.

The afternoon was filled with a variety of “hands on” SCBA-related activities. The “mask maze” was my personal favorite. Dressed in full PPE (bunker coat and pants, boots, helmet, hood, gloves, and SCBA), we donned our air masks – suitably “blacked out” so we could not see out of them – and crawled through a maze of doorways, furnishings, culverts, and other obstacles while following a hose line along the floor. Using only our hearing and sense of touch, we eventually found our way through the maze and out the exit door. The exercise was designed to get us comfortable using the SCBA and working in blacked out conditions. The exercise also taught us some valuable techniques for maneuvering in tight spaces – like how to fit between the studs of an interior wall (16” on center) with full PPE and an SCBA on – without taking anything off! Much to my surprise, I found it relatively easy to do! Stick your air pack into the opening (back to the wall), then “swim” your arms through behind you one at a time….

We also got an excellent “tour” of Ladder 8 and the air trailer. The air trailer is brought to the scene of large incidents or those that extend for a long period of time. It is used to refill the air tanks of the SCBAs. We learned how to refill the tanks from the EXCEPTIONAL crew of Ladder 8 “B-shift.”

We finished the day – as always – with PT hour. More running today, and less upper body work, but tiring for this old body. I took a short nap when I got home, and continued my “workout” later in the evening, when my wife and I took a 9.4 mile walk around Lake Phalen (3 circuits of the lake). I studied for Friday’s firefighter test until 11:30 PM, and fell asleep instantly. (I chuckle as I write this, because as a kid, it took me a long, LONG time to fall asleep. Now, I think I can do it in less than a minute!)


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Day Two - Fire Academy (November 10)

Day Two….We began class with all 21 recruits present!

The academy schedule has been roughly organized into: classroom sessions in the morning; a 30 minute brown bag lunch on site; afternoon practical training; and the one hour of physical training at the end of the day.

The morning classes today focused on the history of the fire service, Saint Paul Fire Department organization and operations, and firefighter safety. Instructors from Hennepin Technical College, led by Mr. Bernie Vrona, provided the core training required for firefighter certification, while Saint Paul Fire Training Division personnel provided the details on department operations and procedures.

Today we also got a detailed “tour” of our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – the bunker pants and coat, helmet, boots and gloves that will protect us from heat, cold, and injuries on the fireground. Each part of the ensemble was examined and inspected, and then we practiced putting on the entire ensemble. Firefighter certification requires that a firefighter don the entire ensemble within 60 seconds. I was pretty consistently completing that task in about 45 seconds by the end of the practice session. The entire process looks like this: kick off your shoes; put on the hood, step into the boots and pull the pants up, pull the suspenders over your shoulders, put the coat on, pull the hood over your head, put the helmet on, and finally put the gloves on. 45 seconds. Eventually, we will add “put on your air pack and face mask” to the routine…..we’ll have to continue to build proficiency and speed! We watched a film of a firefighter donning everything – including air pack and face mask – in 47 seconds today! Incredible that he could do that, yet I’m sure we have firefighters in Saint Paul that could beat that! None, however, in today’s class ! :)

We finished the day with the Physical Training hour. More intense today….shoulders and arms were burning by the end of the session. We finished the hour at the top of the 6-floor drill tower, and I got a chance to talk to the recruits about the department and our partnerships with the Saint Paul Police and Minneapolis Fire. It was a good chance to bond, and a good chance to set the tone with them on mutual cooperation and good relations with those key partners. As we caught our breath and talked for a few minutes, a fire broke out on the East Side of Saint Paul. We watched the smoke column and listened to the radio calls from the firefighters on scene at that fire. All of us wanted to be there!

My training didn’t really “finish” for the day until after midnight. In the evening, I continued my physical training by running an additional 5 ½ miles, then finished the night with a 5 mile walk with my wife.

Tomorrow (Veteran’s Day) is a holiday, so there is no class for the Fire Academy. The holiday will give me some additional time with family, and provide a chance to catch up on the reading assignments for the academy. I’m sure that I’ll also be doing some extra physical training, and probably going into the Fire Chief’s office to catch up on work there as well.
Thanks for joining me “On Scene” at the Fire Academy, and I look forward to continuing the journey together!


Fire Academy - Day One (November 9, 2009)

We began class with all recruits present – 21 of us, raring to go! The addition of these firefighters makes St. Paul the largest fire department in the state! Our uniformed personnel now total 434; Minneapolis Fire has, I believe, 427. These firefighters will enable our department to implement strategic changes in how we staff stations and operate fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in St. Paul. In many ways, they represent a strategic shift for us – a shift towards a brighter future and more effective and efficient service delivery. They looked ready to meet that challenge!

Today was focused primarily on orientation to the academy and the routine administration associated with bringing 20 new city employees into the workforce. Classroom activities in the morning and early afternoon covered:
• Housekeeping rules and an orientation to the academy
• A tour of the training facilities
• Introductions
• Personnel/payroll administration
• Orientation to the Fire Department and our general organization
• Distribution of Personnel Protective Equipment (PPE) to each recruit: firefighting boots, gloves, helmet, hoods, and bunker pants and jackets.

In the afternoon, on-duty fire companies arrived to provide us an overview some of the department’s fire and medical apparatus: Ladder 18, Squad 1, and Engine/Medic 14. These units represent the typical “rigs” used in Saint Paul. The on-duty crews displayed the equipment carried by each vehicle type, and answered our questions about how each vehicle/company was typically used for fire and medic operations.

Then, the moment I personally was dreading: the one hour period of Physical Training (PT)! (I was a bit worried when the instructors provided the rules for “where to puke/where not to puke”)! Fire Training Officer, J. Deno, made it clear that the goal of the PT period was to work non-stop for 45 minutes, and that various firefighting-related activities would be injected into our continuous running and aerobic exercises. We ran….we ran to the 6th floor of the training facility’s drill tower….we ran around the block….we ran back up the tower….and down and around again. Injected into the non-stop run were various exercises designed to boost our heart rates to new and dizzying heights: chopping logs with fire axes, pulling large diameter hoses across the parking lot, doing pushup, opening and closing fire hydrants, lifting ladders, and using sledge hammers to move weighed sleds (the Kaiser machine – a chopping simulator).

I had done extensive walking and running over the last 3 months, so the running didn’t hurt too badly, and even running the stairs didn’t kill me, but the arms and shoulders were aching by the end of the physical training period! I survived, and it looked like everyone else did also. Of course, it was only Day One, and the work was bound to increase in intensity. We were told that eventually, we would be doing the physical training dressed in our full firefighting PPE ensemble AND with air packs on our backs – an extra 50-60 pounds to carry up and down those stairs! I cannot wait!!


Monday, November 9, 2009


I start class at the Fire Academy in less than 2 hours! I’m excited and eager to begin!

As I record my impressions and experiences throughout the academy on this web log, keep in mind a couple of caveats:

First, my postings about the Academy are intended to journal my experiences and impressions. Out of respect to my classmates and my instructors, I will not be writing about other people’s experiences, nor will I be making observations or comments about their actions and performances. I am not in this academy to critique or to report about other people, but to be one of the recruits. Therefore – to a certain extent – “what happens at the academy....stays at the academy.” I’ll be focused on my thoughts and impressions, and I do not intend to embarrass others by reporting on their work.

Second, I don’t want my comments to be misinterpreted by fellow firefighters or instructors as policy directives or grounds for changing operational or training practices. Consider my role to be “recruit” – not “Fire Chief” in regards to the comments I make on these web log posts. Again, I’m trying to write from the perspective of an individual attending the academy, not from my perspective as Fire Chief. Official policy directions will still come through the chain of command.

I think that’s it. LET’S GO!


Sunday, November 8, 2009


The Firefighter Recruit Orientation Manual has this to say about the academy: “In addition to the academic curriculum, there is an extensive and strenuous physical fitness component. The combined activities require complete dedication of time, energy, and attention to ensure success.”

Being 50 years old, I was primarily concerned about that phrase “extensive and strenuous physical fitness component!” To prepare for the physical aspects of the academy, I focused on three priorities: losing some weight, doing lots of walking/running to build cardiovascular endurance, and lifting weights and running stairs to build strength. When I asked firefighters about how best to prepare for the physical aspect of the academy, I frequently heard the answer, “Run stairs!”

Since August 4, I have clocked over 400 miles walking and running on the treadmill, in stairwells, and on Saint Paul city park paths. I’ve taken extensive bicycling tours of Saint Paul (what a great park system of bike paths!); and I’ve spent dozens of hours lifting weights. In the process, I've lost 35 pounds.

People have asked about my weight loss program. I combined the exercises above with a diet program that really seemed to work well for me: Weight Watchers. Several years ago, a co-worker introduced me to system, and I used that pretty extensively since August 1st this year. The system is pretty simple to follow, and essentially taught me about portion control and how to eat a balanced diet. I highly recommend it if you want to lose weight sensibly. There are a variety of websites with additional information, and I found this site be a very useful:

Weight Watchers worked for the first 25 - 30 pounds, but then I hit a wall. I switched to simply counting calories after that: calculating my caloric intake and calories burned through exercise and my base metabolic rate. I found an excellent website that made all that easy. Check out this link if you really want to lose weight "scientifically:"

In the process of getting in shape, I brought my blood pressure back to normal, dropped 80 points off my cholesterol, and increased my endurance and strength significantly. I still don’t feel completely ready for the physical challenge of the academy, but I am ready to see what “Day One” brings. I know I should have run more stairs!

The academy starts tomorrow, and I am eager to begin! Please feel free to join me here on the web log as we go “On Scene” for Day 1 of the Saint Paul Fire Academy!


Thursday, November 5, 2009


On November 9, Saint Paul Fire will commence a 13-week firefighting academy for 20 new firefighter recruits hired under a federal grant called SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response). I will join those 20 men in that academy as a rookie firefighter and one of their classmates.

When I was appointed to the Fire Chief's job 2 years ago, I made my intentions know: at some point I wanted to attend and complete the academy "as a recruit." Although not a requirement of the Fire Chief's job, I felt - and still do - that certification as a Saint Paul firefighter is an essential part of my job. I served as a volunteer firefighter in the Grand Lake Volunteer Fire Department (Twig, MN) and the Forest Bend VFD (Webster, TX) over 20 years ago, but the training, staffing, and equipment in those departments - and the operational work in those communities - is vastly different than in Saint Paul. I want to upgrade my experience and skills, and I want to do it "the Saint Paul way."

Fundamentally, I believe that all members of the Saint Paul Fire Department's uniformed division must share a common bond - a common culture - and a shared base of experience and perspective. We all must be confident in each member's ability to operate safely and effectively on an incident scene or when representing our department to the public. It shouldn’t matter if we’re assigned to a hazardous materials team, an Advanced Life Support medic rig, or the Chief’s office – all of us should share the core competency and the shared experience of being first – and foremost – a firefighter.

The US Marines sum up a similar philosophy in a simple concept: "everyone's a rifleman." Simply put: no matter what an individual Marine's specialty might be, or where an individual Marine is assigned, they must be skilled in certain core competencies that all other Marines possess. It makes for a far stronger team when all other Marines can base their actions and beliefs on the shared experience of being - first and foremost - a rifleman.

So too in our organization. We collectively are "stronger" and "closer" if all of us share the unique bonding and indoctrination experience obtained by surviving the 13-week Fire Academy. All of us have been there...except for me. It is time to remedy is time for all of us to be - first and foremost - firefighters.

While attending the Fire Academy, I will also continue my responsibilities as Fire Chief. Doing both jobs will involve long hours and weekend work, but that is nothing new for me or previous Fire Chiefs. I am looking forward to the physical and academic challenge and the chance to bond with a group of new, enthused, strong recruits!

I will be recording some of my impressions about the academy on this web log. Perhaps my experience will help future firefighter candidates prepare for and succeed in their academy. I also want to give citizens a "behind the scenes" look at the demanding work involved in becoming a firefighter. Finally, for the firefighters who might be following my progress through the academy, this blog will – I hope – inject some humor into your day and bring a smile of recollection to your face as you see my challenges mirrored in the experiences you’ve faced and overcome to become Saint Paul Firefighters. So, please join me for future postings "on scene" from the Saint Paul Fire Academy!