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!

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!