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!

Thursday, December 10, 2009


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!


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